How’s the weather treating you?
It’s OK. We come from cold and wet. I used to be terrible with the heat, but I enjoy it a bit more now. Soothes my aching bones! [Laughs] Is it similar to Indonesia or is it slightly different?
Right now it is. It’s raining as well. So you’re in the middle of recording and haven’t actually toured in a while. So what brings you here now, apart from marking new territory?
It is quite strange. It’s not something we usually do, but kind of felt the duty, you know? We were asked, and we were going to come to Singapore about five years ago with the Greatest Hits and it never happened. And this offer came in, and we haven’t been to Thailand for 15 years, maybe? Hong Kong, “Your Love Alone” was a big radio hit there. The last year we spent going places we’ve never been before, like Russia and Latvia, Croatia. Just felt like the last thing to do, you know? We start recording again in January, so we had a bit of spare time as well.
It was a hit in Indonesia as well, actually.
Oh, right? I didn’t know! I mean, like I said, we talked earlier about, I guess perhaps we should’ve tried harder to make it happen.
That was a last-minute thing, actually.
Yeah. There’s a lot of logistics involved I won’t bore you with, but you know. [Laughs]
So you’re going to Bangkok again, site of the infamous chest-slashing episode. Is this like an exorcism of sorts?
The real strange thing is to think it’s 14 years ago. That seems unreal to me. I can’t believe it’s just gone by in a flash. I mean, for all the madness of that trip and the insanity, the gigs were absolutely stunning. I remember turning up and there was like 3,000 people waiting at the record shop to sign stuff. In some ways it was really memorable. It was very unsettling as well [laughs], but I don’t know what to think of it ’til we get there, really. I don’t know if we’ve still got the same fans we had then, ’cause they were extremely passionate. Who knows?
The band’s post-Richey career has been longer than when he was actually in it, but his shadow still looms large. Obviously you’ve come to terms with his mythical stature, but do you ever feel constrained by it?
I don’t think we did. ‘Cause we were friends before we were in a band. I kind of celebrate it because I just love his words, I love his style. I love the way he looked. There’s just so much about him that I really admire. There’s much more a kind of sadness that he didn’t enjoy when we became really, really popular, that he wasn’t around. I never feel constrained or angry, really. I just feel, especially sitting down and writing words together, was such a joyful thing. An intensely joyful thing to do.
You’re referring to him in the past tense.
Well, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I don’t think of him anything other than the vision I have of him, really. Whether that’s past or future, there’s no point having any preconceptions about it because we just don’t know.
Do you think he’d approve of what you’ve done since then? Would it matter if he did or not?
Yeah, I don’t think it matters, really. There’s always a certain amount of friction when you’re in a band. I don’t know if he approved of some of Gold Against the Soul, or I approved of...personally, I don’t think “She Is Suffering” is very good. [Laughs] But that doesn’t matter. I mean, he thought some of my lyrics were rubbish as well. It’s hard to tell, because he never saw the scale of the size of it, really. Like I said, that’s the big frustration. If he had been around when “A Design for Life” broke then, it would’ve been fabulous to see. I can’t think of anything better.
Send Away the Tigers was sort of a back-to-basics album for you. As was Know Your Enemy, but it seems like Tigers worked better than Enemy. Why do you think that was?
I think Know Your Enemy was a different sort of back to basics. I think it was much more uneven, I don’t think it was so coherent. You had stuff like “Miss Europa Disco Dancer” next to “So Why So Sad”. You know, I really enjoy bits of the album: “Let Robeson Sing”, “The Year of Purification”. “Found That Soul”, which was more like Stooges or something. Whereas I think Send Away the Tigers, we were much more disciplined, was much more akin to feeling young again. That Generation Terrorists spirit: quite naive, more idealistic. More fun, dare I say it?
I actually like “Miss Europa”.
I love it! Know Your Enemy is patchy, but there’s so many songs on it we all love. I just think if we’d gone a bit further and been a bit better prepared, then it could’ve been a truly great record. But then...you know?
So what do you think has been the band’s biggest musical misstep to date? One you thought you might never recover from?
Well, I think Lifeblood‘s got some of our best songs. I genuinely do. “I Live to Fall Asleep” is in my Top 5 Ever Manic Songs. “Empty Souls” is great, I think “A Song for Departure” is like Fleetwood Mac or something, you know? [Laughs] But I think the style of the record was just...I wouldn’t call it a mistake. It was just...
Not really you?
It didn’t really connect with a lot of our sensibilities and a lot of our fans. I’m still proud of it, and I like the fact we took a massive risk. But there was a point where I thought, where we all thought this is over, you know? It’s fucked! [Laughs]
You’re quite self-referential in your lyrics. You quote past songs.
So where’s the line between self-referential and self-parody?
I just think it’s age. I think the references come much more the last two or three years than they did before. I think sometimes the only way you can explain yourself is by referencing the past. Same with history, you can learn so much from it. I just see it as more of a technique, really. I think it’s literally technique for when people get old. Depressed me saying that. And it is; I don’t think people quite understand sometimes the amount we’ve written, just because of all the b-sides to 33 singles. That’s all the albums, two double albums. We’ve written so many songs that it’s hard just to...I never pretend to be original all the time.
Must be hard! Tell me about the upcoming album. How long have you had those lyrics lying around and what made this the right time to put them out?
it’s just because they’re so brilliant. There’s no conscious decision, it’s just they’re brilliant, brilliant words. And I don’t know why, I don’t know how it’s happened. But we put music to them and they sound like we want them to sound, like we think they should sound. Kind of halfway through it, got to finish it in January ’cause Steve Albini, who’s recording it, is not available to finish it ’til then. I don’t know why, there is no rhyme or reason. It’s just that the words, all of a sudden, you realise the power of them. And there is – I hate the word surreal – but in the current climate, they seem to fit really well.
Even though they were written a decade ago?
Exactly, yeah. Probably 15 years ago.
Are those all that’s left or is there still more?
No, they’re all that’s left from this particular...there’s a few left within this booklet, but the ones we use are the only ones that could be songs, if you know what I mean. There’s a lot of prose and stuff.
How does James get into the proper mindset of writing and singing the lyrics without having Richey’s input?
Because I think he just followed the ethos of The Holy Bible, really, ’cause it was the same thing. James totally zoned into, he didn’t really need any direction. We could all tell this is what we’re going to do, the references listen to Magazine and Pere Ubu and Alice In Chains and In Utero. There’s a lot of In Utero on this record. There is a gentler side. I’d say there is a difference in that there’s a couple of acoustic tracks which are kind of more romantic in a dark way.
So Steve Albini was the logical choice to produce?
For us, yeah. I mean, Richey loved In Utero, we loved In Utero. We just loved the rawness of it, the passion, the intensity. He just seemed like the right person to do that.
Was he familiar with your previous work?
I don’t think in huge way. I think Steve sees himself as very much a working producer. Not even a producer, recorder! And I think he just treats bands...
Yeah. And we like that. That’s another reason we did it, we didn’t want anyone...
Too attached to it.
Yeah, the baggage that comes with it. I’m kind of refreshed by that.
Announcing it as a sequel of sorts to The Holy Bible is like a double-edged sword, right?
Oh, it is. I don’t think it’s completely accurate to say that, because it’s almost...it’s hard to say. There are similarities, but I think the lyrics are slightly different. There’s more of a worldview, I think. But then, I don’t know.
Did you write anything, lyric-wise? Did you add anything?
No. There’s a couple that need editing, but obviously on The Holy Bible I did chip in. I did about 25 percent. You know, bits of “Faster”, “This Is Yesterday” is quite a lot of mine. A lot of the titles were mine, but this time, obviously ’cause Richey’s not here, it just didn’t feel right.
Have you decided what you’re going to call it yet?
There’s a couple of titles. There’s a track called “Journal for Plague Lovers”, there’s I Know I Believe In Nothing and there’s a track called “Peeled Apples”, and maybe Stare which is just something hanging around as well. Just the word “stare”, because he seemed like a person devouring everything with his gaze.
But nothing concrete yet?
Nothing concrete. Obviously something might come up. It needs to be from the body of work, I guess, really.
How many songs are there going to be?
I’d say between 12 and 14. Either 12, 13 or 14! [Laughs]
No room for b-sides?
I don’t think we’ll release conventional singles, perhaps. It’s not going to be that sort of album, it’s not going to be trying to get hit singles. Maybe we’ll do one track with a video. Maybe an instrumental as well or something.
You’re an example of lifelong friends who are still friends and making music together. Would you still be together if you weren’t friends but could still make great music together?
Yeah, I think that’s the key, because we were friends before the band. It’s just made a massive difference in terms of egos and vanity. It just can’t exist, because we know each other so well. I’m sure you’ve heard me say this before, but it just messes up so many bands that they’re thrown together because they don’t know each other. They make music and they think everything’s great, and then they spend six months together and hate each other. I’m just very thankful that we knew each other so well before.
Conversely, if you were still friends but the music you were making wasn’t up to par, would you still go on either way?
Still be friends? Yeah.
Still be in a band?
I don’t know if we’d still be in a band. I think Send Away the Tigers was key to our existence. Some people might think we went almost too far in terms of being commercial again and sort of glam and rock and bright and colourful. But for us, if you look back to all our interviews, it’s always been about communicating to as many people as we could. So I don’t think there’s any kind of betrayal. We just wanted to make an obvious, uplifting rock record, and hopefully keep some of the Manics traits in there.
So the next one is your last album with Sony?
I’m not a hundred percent sure. I don’t know if there’s one more. You could be right, to be honest. It’s not something that we kind of consider.
I think I looked it up on Wikipedia.
Yeah, you might be right.
What next after this album? If you were to end things, this would probably be a good time, right?
There’s been a few good times, yeah! [Laughs] I think the best time, if we did ever, was after the Millennium [Stadium] gig and when we released “The Masses Against the Classes”, I think. It was just the peak, sort of post-peak, second peak of everything, really, of the scale. And then having “Masses” as such a statement as well. If there was a time to go out, it was then. But you know, then we would never have gone to Cuba, we would never have done a duet with Nina [Persson] which is one of our most treasured moments now, I think, “Your Love Alone”. So...
Yeah. I mean, I’ve got to be honest, we’re not one of those bands that...we kind of belong on a major record company. We’re not going to do a website and ask the fans to pay for an album. It’s not our style.
You’re not going to put it out for free.
No, that doesn’t tickle my...it’s because we come from such a different generation. I just really value music, it’s one of the most precious...you know, as soon as we came to Singapore yesterday and went into town and found an absolutely brilliant huge bookshop and good record shop, bought Guns n’ Roses, bought some DVDs. I know it’s a bit sad, but it still really matters to us. Is that wrong? [To Sony Music Singapore rep signalling time’s up] Come on, two more minutes? Please. Hardcore fan! [To me] If you want?
Are you done? Nice notepad, I like your notepad.
So what do you think has been the high point of your career?
I just think it’s different phases, you know? I think we’ve probably had three or four, the first of which was definitely “Motown Junk”. Coming from the same school and everything and releasing a record like that when I was still in university. I don’t know, something’s sort of precious about it. And then something like “Faster” I think, which sounds like it was from a different universe. And then the Millennium gig, “A Design for Life”, and “Tolerate” being Number One. And then I think “Your Love Alone”, there’s something about that record that is just joyful. I mean, it’s a really depressing lyric: “your love alone is not enough.” A lot of people think it’s a love song, but obviously it’s the exact opposite.
Did you ever think you could have so many comebacks? After The Holy Bible it was a low point...
No, I didn’t. I always had faith in of writing something like “Design for Life” bizarrely, because James, in his head, James and Sean, the whole strings, the [Ennio] Morricone, sort of [Phil] Spector thing. But I didn’t think we could sustain it. I didn’t think I could write that many words. I didn’t really want to write that many words. It was always much more enjoyable having mixed the darkness and lightness of me and Richey. I can’t pretend to have that kind of depth of knowledge or intensity that he has. Mine is a different kind of politics, shall we say.
Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on the U.S. election?
I just think like everyone else. In symbolic terms, just couldn’t have asked for anything greater. But when the symbolism fades away, we just got to hope that [laughs] he’s still great. Because you just don’t know, do you? I just mean the actual...it’s hard for any president to be anything other than an American president. [Laughs] But symbolically, it’s just absolutely...I love elections, I love watching. The last year has been brilliant for me, just watching the primaries and everything. I just love it. How did it go down, the election, in Indonesia? Celebration?
Yeah, especially because he used to live there.
So I think a lot of Americans are aware about Indonesia because of where he came from.