At least according to the British music press, it seems that Nicky Wire has gone a bit haywire as of late and that the Manic Street Preachers have become the rock dinosaurs they once sought to destroy.
And depending on your level of cynicism, you might say the band's U.S. tour of 11 dates in nine cities - with at least one last-minute cancellation - isn't exactly the sign of a young-and-hungry act who'll do anything to make in the States.
Regardless, when I spoke to Nicky Wire from his home in Wales on the eve of the tour, he was affable and relaxed and seemed anxious to laugh off the criticism that's been leveled at his band.
Ross: Does success in the United States matter to you?
Nicky: Oh yeah, I think everywhere matters. Things are different between mattering and kind of selling yourselves to it. I think when we started, we had high hopes. But within three weeks of going to America, we realized how difficult it would be. And from then on, really, it's been an uphill struggle. And, you know, that has to do with us as much as it has to do with everything else.
We're finally off Sony, which is a big relief because we had such a terrible relationship with them in America. This record has done better than any of our previous records already, which isn't saying much. (laughs) But we're on the right track so we're looking forward to coming this time.
Ross: I've always thought some of your songs, particularly the singles from "Generation Terrorists," really belong on U.S. radio.
Nicky: That's what we thought. (laughs) But even going back to a song like "Motorcycle Emptiness," Sony America just wouldn't release it. That was our one track we thought, you know, would be our worldwide smash, so to speak. So it has been really difficult.
Ross: So you're pretty happy to be free from Sony?
Nicky: Oh yeah. Massively. It's something we've been trying to do for a few years. And the opportunity finally came along. Everywhere else, this is our most successful record by a long way. We sold as many records in Europe as we have in the U.K. Everywhere else we've gone, we've done well. We're hoping this time in America - you know, I'm not saying we'll sell millions of records in America, but I think we'll establish quite a strong fanbase this time. Because I think quite a lot of people like us anyway, but in a cult sort of way.
Ross: Is it weird to still be playing a record that's now a year old?
Nicky: (laughs) Yeah, it is odd. The album has been in the charts in the U.K. for 52 weeks, next week. It hasn't moved.
We've had an awful lot of touring in Europe as well, and in the Far East and Australia. We mixed the sets up, of course. But it is kind of an odd situation that we're coming to America to play an album that is very old. But we've had about five weeks off, so we're quite refreshed.
Ross: How much older stuff are you playing?
Nicky: It depends on the audience, really, it's hard to gauge. Until we get to America we can't tell. But generally we played a third of new stuff, two-thirds old stuff. It'll be half and half on this tour, I reckon.
Ross: Do you have a real grasp on who your audience is in America?
Nicky: No, and that's a difficult thing because we've done so few gigs. Even the kind of hardcore fans we have got - and we have got a few, you know - we've never actually seen them, because we've never done that many gigs. So it is really hard to grasp what it's going to be like. But that's all right. It's stepping into the unknown.
Ross: These will be the smallest audiences you've had for a while.
Nicky: Yeah, yeah. We played to 60,000 people headlining a festival in the U.K. two weeks ago. So it's going to be a culture shock. But it's just as enjoyable, I think. It'll be like starting again, in America. It just keeps us on our toes, really.
Ross: When "This Is My Truth" came out, you said in several interviews that it was the album you were most proud of. After playing the songs for a year now, do you still feel that way?
Nicky: I think a band will always say that when they've just finished a record. A year on, there's still loads I love. Perhaps because we've played the songs every night we've got a bit weary of them. I do think it's the best collection of songs we've written. But I don't think that necessarily makes it the best album we've done. Perhaps there's something missing, a thread missing to it. I think individually it's the best songs we've written. But I think "Everything Must Go" was probably our best record.
Ross: For the first time, you wrote 100 percent of the lyrics on the album. Did that make you nervous?
Nicky: Not really, because I wrote three-quarters of "Everything Must Go." And I had always written half-and-half, except for "The Holy Bible." It's not something I thought about. Had I thought about it, I probably would have been a bit weary of it. But because we were writing songs so quickly, we wrote about 20 songs for the record, it's probably good that I didn't think too hard about it.
It's a very natural record, a very relaxed record. It's probably just about the happiest we'll ever get, I think. It was just an easy record to make. I can't pretend that there was loads of melancholy in the studio because, you know, it was a really easy record to make.
Ross: I suppose it was pretty comfortable, as you were working with producers you're familiar with.
Nicky: Yeah, comfortable is the word. Perhaps in retrospect it was too comfortable. Mike Hedges had done "Everything Must Go" and Dave Eringa was someone we had known, he was 18 when he first worked with us. He did "Gold Against the Soul." And he's always done b-sides, and he's played keyboards with us as well. We wanted people we knew and we got on with, really. And Mike's place in France, where we recorded a lot of it, is an old chateau and it's just such a nice place to record. No one bothers you. There's no press. There's no fans or anything. It's just a really quiet, lovely place. I think that sort of tranquillity is what we wanted to get across on the record.
Ross: But, as you said, perhaps it was a bad thing to be so comfortable?
Nicky: Not a bad thing as such. But, yeah I guess in retrospect, perhaps we might have been too comfortable. I think it was our state of mind as well. When we did the record, we reached a place we hadn't been before. We were just quite content. We'd always been pretty angry and depressive type people and I think that the record just felt some inner peace, really, without being hippie-ish or anything. (laughs) Maybe individually, but as a band, everything was so natural.
Ross: Did the tremendous success of the album take you by surprise?
Nicky: It did in Europe, especially. Places like Finland and Sweden where we were playing in front of 10,000 people. I never thought we'd do that, really. I don't know why, I just think we were quite a difficult band in translation, lyrically. And you know, going to Japan and selling 100,000 records over there and stuff.
I don't think the U.K. surprised us so much, because we worked so hard. We worked non-stop for 10 years and if you aren't going to do it by then, you never will. Definitely in Europe it was a big surprise. Even the Germans liked us this time. (laughs)
Ross: Were you expecting any of the critical backlash?
Nicky: I think so, yeah. It doesn't take a genius. The British media loves knocking you down when you get successful. It was something we were prepared for, to be honest. When we were growing up, we read the NME and Melody Maker. It was kind of a lifeline to the music scene in general. We understood it. And I think Blur have experienced it just the same as we have. If you hang around long enough and get successful enough, people tend to give you a critical going over.
Ross: Your band is famous - infamous - for having fans who are almost beyond obsessive.
Nicky: You know, I have to say 99 percent of our fans are lovely people. But there are certain fans over the years who've written letters to us in their own blood. When Richey was anorexic, a lot of anorexic people kind of latched onto us as well. There were some pretty heavy things sometimes.
There's a fan convention being held in Wales in two weeks time, a Manics convention.
Ross: Is it the first?
Nicky: It's the second one, actually. I think about 2,000 people go in. There's a band called Generation Preachers who are a Manic Street Preachers cover band, and they actually look like us as well. (laughs) So they're pretty scary. They look more like us than we do. (laughs) We have an incredibly passionate following. I'd say probably there's no other band, definitely not in the U.K., that attracts the sort of fans we do.
Ross: Why is that?
Nicky: I think that from the start it was like a lifestyle thing. It's not just about the music, it's about the books and the lyrical references and the way we've looked in the past and the image changes. I think that's why fans have stayed with us. I think every 15 year old who's starting to get into music and get a bit more daring, they always tend to look at us and think we're the first point of something to get into.
It's like when I was young, it was the Smiths or Echo and the Bunnymen. I think young kids look at us and think, that's who I'm going to like. It's a bit of alienation, something deeper that gives you a little bit of confidence that you're not so alone and you want something a bit more out of music.
Ross: Do you ever wonder what would have happened if Richey hadn't disappeared? Like you wouldn't have got to the point you are now?
Nicky: I don't wonder about it, but it would be different. There's no two ways about it. I don't think we could have made the record that we did. (pause) Not because there would've been huge arguments, but just having someone else's input would've made it different. It always seemed that Richey's lyrics were so much darker than mine. It just wouldn't have been the same. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. It's just the way it is, really. You've just got to face up to the reality, and we tried to do that pretty quickly.
Ross: Do you think you've lost some of the fire from the early days?
Nicky: I don't think we have as people. Now, I think a year on from "This Is My Truth," we've kind of regained that anyway. I think there's a natural backlash to being successful and all that, you do feel like you want to replay part of your past. We have recorded a record that's going to be a one-off single just in the U.K., which is very much a pure punk song.
I think, honestly, the last record is completely different from our early days. But I think all the best bands are like that. There's a massive difference between the first Clash album and "Combat Rock." They don't really bear any relation.
The next record we do will definitely be a complete change from the last two. I think if you look at "Generation Terrorists" and "Gold Against the Soul," you kind of group them together. And then "The Holy Bible" came. And I think "Everything Must Go" and "This Is My Truth" are quite similar. And the next one will be completely different.
It's funny to be talking about something new when the record's just only out in America, anyway. (laughs)
Ross: Have you been recording yet?
Nicky: We've been in the studio and we've messed around. We've got five or six songs written. I don't think we'll actually record anything properly until the new year. You know, there's still places that want us and we haven't got much recording time.
Ross: Tell me about the whole private toilet incident at Glastonbury.
Nicky: (laughs) It made me feel quite good, actually. It was a typical sort of old-style Manics thing that showed how easily people are still wound up. So I just thought it was hilarious. If you'd seen the toilets at Glastonbury, you'd know what I mean. (laughs) I just found it amusing. If we'd done that in 1992, I think the press would've probably loved it. I'd said and done a lot worse things than that. (laughs) Because now you kind of feel like it's a bourgeoisie, giant rock band thing. But, you know, it's all good fun.
'Ross: What bands in England, if any, interest you these days?
Nicky: I really like the Travis record. There's a band called Travis, I don't know that ...
Ross: No, it didn't come out here. But I've heard nothing but good things about it.
Nicky: It is good. It reminds me of "Everything Must Go" in a lot of ways. It's just really natural. Brilliant songs.
I really like an artist called Badly Drawn Boy, who's a Mancunian version of Beck, in layman's terms. That's really good. I've been listening to a lot of Captain Beefheart at the moment as well. I just saw a documentary on him the other night. Lots of "Trout Mask Replica."
Ross: Great. Anything else you'd like to tell me?
Nicky: No, not really. I just hope our American fans enjoy us for what we are, really. I'm nervous. Like I say, it's hard to picture who our audience are. It's probably the most nervous we've been. Like I've said, we've played in front of 60,000 people, but this will be more nerve-wracking for us.