Interview - Lithium, 4th October 2009
The Manic Street Preachers have a wonderful song called ‘There By The Grace Of God’. It seemed a poignant title as I sat down with the band a week ago for two reasons – the obvious first being that it has been ten years since the Manics were in Canada, and it was a small miracle they were in Toronto playing a live show to a Canadian audience again. The second simply being me allowed to sit down with both James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire and chat for twenty minutes was utterly stupefying to me. It was a small miracle I didn’t open my mouth to introduce myself and have nothing but a bubbly little bit of reflux emit from my larynx.
All of my fan-boy awe aside – The Manic Street Preachers SHOULD be a band that require no introduction. They have a collection of twenty singles called Forever Delayed that plays like a near perfect showcase of the bands better material. They are a band en par with the likes of Oasis in England, and are prone to selling out twenty and thirty thousand seat venues multiple times over when they tour. Most importantly, at their core they are a band that is worthy of the accolades they so often receive. The Manics write well crafted songs of epic proportions – and are able to change their approach to writing one album after another. While they always carry a signature manics sound (Bradfield’s vocals are pretty distinct) it’s been nice to follow a band that’s not afraid to chuck out their formulae and go for broke every time they hit the studio.
After spending twenty minutes with Alan Cross, James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire plopped themselves in front of me and we got right to it.
Mike: I’ve never met a band before that’s received a God-like Geniuses Award. That’s pretty awesome.
Nicky: It was a pretty awesome day to be honest because it’s different than most awards because it doesn’t have to do with sales and albums and stuff. We were children of the NME and we won our award, which was pretty special.
Mike: There was a big NME issue with you guys about two months ago, I picked it up off the racks and it was talking about Journal (Manic Street Preachers 2009 album is entitled Journal for Plague Lovers) and it was about you going back to Richey’s (the band’s original rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards mysteriously disappeared in early 1995) lyrics and what that was like for you. It was almost the whole magazine.
James: There was a brilliant picture of Richey on the cover. Yeah, it was great.
Mike: I really enjoyed reading that issue.
Nicky: I was really pleased with the results (of the publication) because you can never tell with editorial control and stuff. But I thought it was really sympathetic and kind of beautiful tribute to Richey really.
James: (about the NME) We kind of grew up very detached from any kind of record industry and very detached from places to go and see concerts that we liked. So you’d read about the record about two months before you could actually hear it, so we had no access to some of this music back then. Sometimes you spend so long reading about this music it made the record better because it’s in this context that the NME builds it up.
Mike: In Canada we’d often have to wait an extra year typically for something like your first couple albums to come out over here. Or that three cd compilation (Ruby Trax) that had “Suicide is Painless” on it. I paid a whack-load of money to have that flown over back then. I love that compilation and I love that song and now it’s available on Forever Delayed (the greatest hits album Manic Street Preachers released in 2002 on Virgin Records) and anybody can pick it up.
James: You’ve still got to have that physical hard copy though.
Mike: You bet. It used to be quite hard to find. I would host parties at my house and that cover version would come up and people would ask me, “Who is this?” It’s a really clever cover and I'm sure it got people asking questions about your band.
Nicky: It was pretty much the first proper hit we’d ever had. We worried because our first hit was a cover, but it didn’t work negatively so in retrospect it’s good that the first hit was “Suicide is Painless”.
Mike: I mean no disrespect to Richey, but I find that when I go to play my favourite Manics albums it’s usually Everything Must Go (released in 1996 on Sony Records) or This is My Truth (the MSP album entitled This is my Truth/Tell Me Yours released in 1998 on Epic/Virgin records). I feel like that there are so many songs on those albums that have a lot of majesty and are very epic, very introspective. To me, that’s the material I like the most from your band.
Nicky: The next record will be our tenth studio album and it’s a fact that we have a mixed reaction to our music. We have so many fans that like different aspects of our work, there are some people that like nothing else but The Holy Bible (released in 1994 on Epic records), some really hardcore fans. There are some that prefer the more fun, glam-tastic and obviously more popular records like Everything Must Go and This is My Truth. I think that’s why we’ve had such a loyal fan base for such a long time because not many bands get that. Certainly in the UK, most of our contemporaries have split up, reformed and split up again while we’ve been around.
Mike: True. You guys have been around for almost twenty-five years now if I’ve got my math right.
James: It’s kind of strange for us because back when The Holy Bible came out it served a different purpose back in the day. You could still kind of be an underground band if you sold 40,000 albums in Britain. I’m grateful to do that today and still survive. Some people knew who you were but we were still a bit of a secret. These days it’s kind of hard to do that, it’s hard to release an album like The Holy Bible, sell 40,000 records, which is quite difficult to do and what would happen now is you would get dropped from the label.
Nicky: I agree with you, if I was forced to listen to one of our records today I would either listen to Everything Must Go or Send Away the Tigers (released in 2007 on Columbia Records). But you know there are certain days we’ll put The Holy Bible on and you do get a sense that you don’t quite understand it on some days, which is quite rewarding when you go to back to other days.
Mike: Why was there a US mix of The Holy Bible? Was there a thought process behind that? Were you involved in that?
James: Well to be honest it was because when we delivered The Holy Bible the record company (Epic Records) in the US they really for once jumped on it. They said, “Well look, we think we can really make a go of this record because we can go straight to college radio with this etc.” Whereas in the past with “Motorcycle Emptiness”, (on Generation Terrorists released in 1992) they didn’t know where to pitch us with middle of the road (radio) stations or whatever. But with this they were like, “Hey, we can go straight to college radio with this, get you good support, we’re really going to get behind it”, but as usual with American record companies, they usually want to remix something that a British band has done. We thought, “Ok, just go for it”, because up until that point we were quite confused and inexperienced, we didn’t understand what we were. At least they knew and they were being enthusiastic; it was mixed by Chris Lord-Agle.
Nicky: We did a bit of research and knew who he was and we knew it was a pretty brilliant mix. We used him for Send Away the Tigers, the results were fantastic. That mix of The Holy Bible was only ever released in Canada, never released in the UK, never released in the US because we didn’t go there in the end because of Richey going missing. But it was released in Canada.
Mike: What kept you away from Canada for ten years? Is there a logistic to bringing your band over and doing a tour here that makes it challenging?
James: One of the biggest things is that if you don’t really know if people are going to turn up to see you, you can lose an incredible amount of money coming to play over here. That’s just the harsh reality of it these days.
Nicky: You can apply that to the US, but we should have come.
James: We should have come definitely, but what happens is when we start selling lots of records in Britain and Australia and back in Japan again. We were all just at that age, about twenty-seven years old and you’ve just gone past that point where when you’re in a young band and you’re twenty, twenty-one you’re like, “I want to conquer America, I want to go off to Canada, we want our JFK moment” etc. But that moment when we were all about twenty-seven and breaking big I just think we realized that if we tried to tackle America again, it could break your marriage up or break your band up.
Nicky: We had this thing going on with the rest of the world, we were selling records all over the globe but we weren’t selling records in America.
Mike: I import a lot of your stuff. My wife has also become a big fan of Manic Street Preachers. I imported one your 1999 performances (the Cardiff New Years eve DVD), it was on the TV and she walks in and is like, “Who is this?” and she saw this massive crowd and was like, “Oh my god! How can this band not be popular over here when they’re playing to 20 or 30,000 abroad?”
Nicky: I know it just happens though; we’ve kind of lost any bitterness about it. There’s a source of regret so it’s just we can go to Romania or Hungary and play 15,000 people. It’s just like Jim said, the world is a small place now, and at the start the prerequisite was just North America in general and we wanted to conquer like all British bands do, but we were clever and we didn’t burn ourselves out. It could’ve been the end of the band really, but it’s no excuse, Canada’s always been good to us and we should have come back.
James: Especially in like Vancouver which is the second gig of this tour and we kind of felt bad straight away.
Mike: I almost flew there for that show gentlemen.
(Everyone laughs for a moment)
James: We kind of felt bad straight away and were like, “Fuck, we’ve been missing out on this for ten years” and we did feel that we let people down a tiny bit. But reversely to that we’re all older and do the hardest thing to do in a band, come tour America and it was the least success we’ve ever had.
Mike: I’m so glad you’re here again; I’ve seriously costed out travelling around the UK trying to see you. If I lived in England and I knew I could see you in a venue this size (the Phoenix holds 1300 people), I’d fly HERE to see the show, because I’d not get to get this close to you in the UK. Unless you did a special club show through your website or something.
Nicky: Yeah. That’s right, and I don’t think we would do that unless we were forced to - to be honest. We wouldn’t have this experience anywhere else, and that is thoroughly interesting. To be forced into a situation where we’d have to play off the ground like a club rock and roll band again, it sounds corny but it’s a good feeling. Once you’ve kind of got that, it’s cool.
James: We were in Detroit the other night and there was only 300 people there and it’s kind of like you rise to the challenge. We have had it slightly easy in Europe over the last few years turning up and you’ve got a crowd with you. But you’ve got to prove yourself with these kids (in North America).
Mike: Is it more challenging to select your set lists for a North American show? Do you feel like you have to cater to releases that were put out over here?
Nicky: I think the challenge is not just plugging a new record out here, it’s been a long time so we want to give a breadth of our history because the fans pick and choose from all different eras. We’re doing a song off every one of our albums except Lifeblood (released in 2004 on Epic records). We’re also doing “Motown Junk”, our first ever single, there’s 21 songs and we’re trying to please everyone basically.
Mike: I’m totally looking forward to tonight’s show. So when you sat down to put Plague Lovers together, you knew you were going to go back and revisit some of Richey’s writings, did that change the way you went into the studio to try and perform the album?
James: Yeah, I think it did in the respect that we had the idea that we want to play it live without many overdubs. We wanted to the tracks as bass, guitar and drums together and not do many takes. I think we were buying some kind of notion of purity, and it was obvious that Richey couldn’t be in the studio with us and it was obvious we couldn’t get clarification sometimes. We were trying to decide if we liked what we did and just doing him justice was one of the main ethos. I think when we were deciding to do that we had to know how to play it and we didn’t want there to be any trickery, we didn’t want to pro-tools the record to death. We wanted it to be what Steve Albini (who produced the band’s latest album) was urging and to make it pure in that sense. We definitely arrived in the studio with that in our heads, I think that was the main thing. There’s not many guitar tracks, not many solos, not as many as usual anyway.
Mike: It’s a very different album than Send Away the Tigers, if you listen to that album and then Plague Lovers it’s like, “Wow, I know this is the same band but there’s some really different stuff going on there.”
Nicky: That’s the beauty of the band that we’re different entities at times, you can step back and say Holy Bible and this record (Journal for Plague Lovers)… is they do sound like a different band. It’s a joy to do that and to be able to do it again.
Mike: Now if you were asked to pick a favorite song off Plague Lovers what would it be and why?
James: I think it’s between the first and last for me, I can’t choose between “Peeled Apples” and “William’s Last Words”.
Nicky: I think “Marlon J.D.” to be honest because live it’s so vicious and it’s a kind of healthy mixture of this kind of jagged pill but slightly disco-ish as well and a really amazing guitar solo.
Mike: Lastly, will it be another ten years before we see you back here?
Nicky: I really hope not.
James: I think we’ve kind of committed ourselves to coming back after the next record, but God knows…
Nicky: I think there’s also much more festivals in North America now in general, as long we’re kind of not losing as much money as we are on this trip then that’s fine.
(Nicky laughs to himself)
Nicky: To be honest we can subsidize these trips in a way.
Mike: I can’t tell you how amazing it is to finally see you play in a club this small compared to what it would be in Europe. It’s going to be an awesome evening.
James: We’ll try to do it justice.
The interviewer after me was a bit late and I totally went fanboy after we were done our chat and passed a bottle of wine to them both that is from a nice region in British Columbia. They both headed out of the room, and James popped back in and invited me to stay for their soundcheck and shoot some pictures. All of the pictures with this interview are from soundcheck.
While James was at the catering table, I asked him about contributing to 'Inertia Creeps' with Massive attack, and how it came about. He said He’d done an interview where he mentioned that he really liked Massive Attack back in the day.
So out of the blue, 3D got a hold of him before Mezzanine was recorded and gave him his choice of any song to play on.
3D is from Bristol, and James if from Wales. And James mentioned that there is a big football rivalry between the two regions. They joked together about the song as being a 'peace offering' between the regions.
James said he always heard a lot of Joy Divison in Massive Attack’s music. And that he wanted to explore that a bit.
The concert at the Phoenix was nothing shy of amazing. The Manic Street Preachers new album Journal For Plague Lovers is available now from Sony Music. The band will (fingers crossed) be back around to tour on their next album – and you can be sure Toronto will be one of the cities they perform in based on the response shown from the audience as they playeddpuf