It's Never Taken a War to Make Manic Street Preachers Aware - PopMatters, 19th May 2005
In all honesty, I didn’t have a clue what I was getting into when I signed up to interview the Manic Street Preachers’ Nicky Wire. I knew that all the Preachers had reputations for being opinionated, combative, and verbose, but whatever misgivings I may have had were instantly erased by Wire’s pleasant, effacing manner and incisive wit.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that this was not going to be your average Q&A style interview. Wire is, above all else, an engrossing conversationalist, and I must confess that any vestiges of impartial interviewing technique soon fell away in the course of our extremely long conversation.
But the results speak for themselves. This interview was initially conceived to honor the recent 10th Anniversary American release of the Manics’ seminal The Holy Bible, but the conversation soon grew to encompass everything from the recording of the Bible to the state of international politics to the Manics’ mysteriously departed songwrite/guitarist Richey Edwards. The first part of the conversation, however, focuses on politics—in particular the effects of politics on the Manics’ sound as well as a general discussion of the past 30 years of trans-Atlantic relations. The conversation touches on everything from the recent American Presidential election to the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike—if you’ve an intolerance for political ideas expressed freely by educated citizens, best read no further…
PopMatters: Well, first of all, thank you for agreeing to do this interview.
Nicky Wire: That’s okay.
PM: Thank you very much, I take it you’re feeling better from your Eastern trip.
NW:Yeah, it took a long time, really, but it’s just that I was absolutely wiped out and pretty much spent two weeks in bed, so it was probably just jet lag and just a ... certainly a virus of some sort ... I’m just now recovering
PM: I’m absolutely sure that was more than I’ve ever had to deal with. (laughs) ... Allrighty. I will apologize in advance—I have really gone out of my way to try to think of some (good) questions because you’ve been doing this rock ‘n’ roll thing for fifteen years now.
NW: I know…
PM: I realize you’ve probably been asked every question in the book. I tried to do my best to think up some questions that you might at least find somewhat interesting.
NW: Probably won’t be able to answer them then. (both laugh)
PM: It seems to me that you can look at an album like The Holy Bible in two ways. Either the album was written from a cynical and hopelessly nihilistic perspective, or it was conceived as a positive, a purgative, born out of a hopeful impulse to try and lay a foundation for a better future by trying to come to terms with a horrible past. In hindsight, which impulse do you think was more influential in the creation of the album?
NW: I actually think that the overriding sense of anger and regaining control and (forcing) humanity to face itself is actually a much more positive aspect of it. I—we—really felt we were regaining control and we were doing something completely truthful, you know, musically and lyrically. So, you know, I’ve said it many times, “Oh it’s a grim sounding record,” but the actual recording was one of the best times we’ve ever had as a band together. We were very, you know, not “happy happy”. We’re never “happy happy”, but you know, we were just very comfortable with each other, so…
PM: Well, there’s a bit in the DVD where you’re talking about that, how you recorded it in the space of pretty much seven weeks solid of non-stop work.
NW: Yeah, and it was very much—you know, everyone knew their space. I think that’s the thing we took from Public Enemy, the idea that everyone had their own - the division of labor. You know, people were in charge of certain things. I just meant that James would stay up all hours, you know pushing himself musically; Richey would be there with his typewriter, John bombing away to do bits of artwork, me and Sean could actually concentrate on being a rhythm section for the first time in a kind of New Wave sense and, it was just, I definitely—I think perhaps it’s become, in mythical terms, too negative, really, because I think that the anger is really very much a positive thing on there.
PM: Well, on the other hand, in terms of what came after, it’s easy to look at the negative side. But it also seems to me that it sort of sells it short to separate it from the rest of your catalogue like that because ... you know, in fact, we’re sort of going toward my later questions here. It seems like the similarities between The Holy Bible and the stuff that came after are probably as great as the, you know, as the differences ... But the differences are what people focus on. The negativity, you know, the anger like that, and of course all the surrounding drama.
NW: Yeah, I mean, I can understand it because coming from a background of just growing up and being completely in love with rock, and rock ‘n’ roll myths and everything, obviously the disappearance of Richey and seeing it as his last testament and will, it’s obviously going to have ... on the surface, you know, if you don’t scratch any deeper than this you’re going to put two and two together and obviously it adds up to his situation. But first making it ... I think it was the first time we felt truly that we were creating a piece of art. You know, I think about ... every bit of music, every bit of artwork, everything on that record, every bass note, every guitar line, we were considering ... you know and I know it’s a pretentious thing to say, but for the previous two albums we were, you know trying to make music that would sell to the world, but with this record we were trying to make a piece of art.
PM: I’ve been listening to the album quite a bit in the last—pretty much the couple of weeks since we’ve been putting this interview together. And looking at it, coming back and listening to it a lot, it seems like there are obviously moments on that album which will never ever be mistaken for you know, for happy songs.
NW: No. (chuckles)
PM: But also there are a few tracks like, I mean, I have to tell you, for pretty much the past two days, I’ve had “PCP” stuck in my head.
NW: Right. (chuckles)
PM: And that is just, the lyrics, the lyrics are kind of angry, but it’s such an overwhelmingly, powerfully evocative song and ...
NW: You know, I think (a) track like “PCP” is very ... there’s almost a sense of ... not of fun, but you know, you can hear a band enjoying themselves so much, playing the music and also the lyric is ... almost is a sense of casualness to it in the sense that, you know the idea PCP and the idea of writing a song very much to go against the grain if you know what I mean, which is something we’ve always enjoyed. (laughs)
PM: Well, definitely, and certainly given the last ten years that that prophetic, because PC, that sense of PC has sort of become a joke. You know, pretty much everyone on all sides of the spectrum has seen through that.
NW<: Yeah, exactly.
PM: Not, unfortunately, all of the things on the album turned out to be so ... prophetic (laughs)
NW: No. (laughs)
PM: Yes, listening to “If White America…” in particular with (all that about) the canonization of dead Republicans, it just ... I live in America—I have to live with this on a daily basis [and] it’s kind of depressing.
NW: I think (it’s also) one of the greatest titles of all time, you know—“Ifwhiteamericacouldtellthetruthforonedayit’scountrywouldfallapart” it’s just…
PM: And I’m certainly not the first rock critic to point out that the apostrophe is positioned wrong.
NW: (laughs) That’s okay, it actually doesn’t fit on iTunes. On the iPod the title is actually too long, it’s just a blank because it can’t take that many letters in, so that’s quite cool.
PM: Well, you know, even ten years later it’s still causing havoc. All right, on to our second question: There will always be a contingent who believes that pop music of any kind, and especially rock ‘n’ roll, isn’t an appropriate vehicle for these kinds of weighty themes and ideas. Obviously, you have never felt any trepidation at using the medium for this kind of potent angry political expression at all.
PM: Why do you think it is, though, that as opposed to other groups, your politics have never really served as an obstruction to your commercial success?
NW: I think it was pretty easy with us because it literally was what we were interested in. You know ... we were political people, we weren’t just a political band. You know, we grew up in an environment, obviously, I did a degree in politics which is ... just something I was interested in and I was really lucky. Richey did history which specialized in the politics of the Second World War to a large extent and the four of us, you know, our great inspirations, whether it be the Clash or Public Enemy, it seemed like all our favorite things had a side to them that was just much more interesting than anyone else. And we’ve always been ... very candid about our influences and the way we use quotes and samples to show [that] a lot of people have said it better than we ever did as well. So for us it truly was perfectly natural. I think a lot of bands get ... I think the worst thing about the post 9/11 Bush kind of thing is [that] a lot of bands that feel like they’ve been forced into becoming kind of political, writing political songs and it just comes across as really, I don’t know, there’s just no honesty there. It just feels like “oh I’ve become ... ”—I just wonder where they’ve been half the time for the last ten years or the last fifty years. They live in such a bubble and it takes a war—it’s never taken a war to make Manic Street Preachers aware.
PM: You know, it’s interesting that you say that actually, because that just brings to mind all sorts of things. Like, I remember—I have no idea what your opinion is on Bruce Springsteen, but I remember that first album that he did after 9/11—everyone and their mother was just going off on how great it was…
PM: ... simply because he talking about 9/11. And I just didn’t see how ... well first of all, I mean he’s never been one to shy away from politics, but I didn’t see how him doing this album now was in any way ... just because it was talking about 9/11 like we have to make excuses for it even though it’s not that great of an album.
NW: No ... like where Travis kind of tried to make a political album, and it just seemed bizarre after writing three albums worth of love songs—all good songwriting and all that, but I don’t—I just can’t understand that idea. Being away from Korea to Granada to well, the whole of South America through to Vietnam there—American foreign policy has never changed. There isn’t anything special about Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s just American foreign policy whether you like it or not. That’s just the nature of the beast. And even Green Day starts getting political, which I kind of find utterly bamboozling.
PM: Well, I wrote a very positive review of that album and I have to admit it was pretty much the last thing I was expecting from them.
NW: No, it’s a good record—don’t get me wrong, I just can’t put myself in this position where I’ve kind of ignored everything for all this time. [They needed] something so utterly obvious to change [their] view, I guess.
PM: Well, you’ve mentioned two acts which—I mean, this is just off the top of my head—but you’ve mentioned the Clash and Public Enemy. And just off the top of my head those are the only other two groups that I can think of that have used politics as ... well, they didn’t use politics, they were politics, they lived and breathed politics. You couldn’t separate the message from the form from the function.
NW: Yeah, and it’s the most difficult thing, because I know even for us we fail a lot—you know there’s no way I’m kind of preaching. It’s an unbelievably difficult thing to marry, and you’re gonna make mistakes if you talk a lot about it in public because ... politics is ever-changing and ever morphing and situations always ... put you on the spot, but you know I think it’s the same with us. There’s an indie band called McCarthy—[they’re an] English indie band and they’re probably up there for us with influences in terms of their politics as well, they were a huge influence on us. I Am a Wallet is probably their best record. It’s very twee and kind of Smiths-like but the lyrics had a huge influence on us.
PM: Well, the Smiths always do good. They were another group that was able to use politics—although maybe not as pervasively but it was always a constant presence in their music.
NW: Yeah, I think you had the MC5, you had Phil Ochs ... a lot of Phil Ochs I like but (he’s more a) protest singer I guess. We never ruled out influences. We love Joy Division we just didn’t want ... coming where we came from at the time ... They were a massive influence on us at the start because it was that idea of escaping from your crappy little town, the acts all moved to the big city thing.
PM: Well, that’s the whole point of rock ‘n’ roll!
NW: Yeah, exactly. We’ve always tried to avoid being kind of po’ faced about it. [It’s always] riddled with mistakes and contradictions but I think that adds up to—when it’s great—that adds up to the best rock ‘n’ roll, really.
PM: You know, I think you’d really have a hard time disputing that. But that leads to my next question ... Why is it that a certain segment of the general public—and this stands for America, Britain, pretty much any country I know of—always insist that famous people have no right to express political opinions?
NW: I know, it’s just bizarre. I’ve never understood it and I’ve never agreed with it and, uh, you know ‘cause that’s all we do is complain about politicians anyway. You know, that’s a national pastime in our country.
PM: Well, in our country, too.
NW: And then if all you do, there needs to be some kind of alternative provided. I think as long as it’s a difficult—it’s a balancing act. All you can do is express an opinion, I don’t think you can express an idea that you can solve anything. I think that’s the only ... which we’ve done at times and it just fucks you up, really. That’s the difference—I think you’re there to provide questions perhaps, rather than the answers. But the idea [that] if you’re signed to Sony and you’re on a major corporation that ... straightaway it means you’ve sold out and you can’t express an opinion, you know we never ... that’s why we admired the Clash because the first thing they did was sign to CBS. You know, we wanted to sign to the same label. Artistic control is always the main thing—as long as you can get as much as you can on the label, nothing else matters, really.
PM: Well, certainly, I can’t speak for Britain, but certainly in America you get the thing where you have artists like, say, the aforementioned Bruce Springsteen or R.E.M., all these people who really came out during our last electoral season, and it was more like it didn’t have anything to do with their fan base rejecting them, it was the vast percentages of the general public saying these famous people have no right to intrude their ideas onto the public sphere.
NW: The scary thing about the last American election is that there seems to be a pattern forming ... in the purely analytical sense where you think, the Democrats can never win because you’ve got this polarized thing. You’ve got the East Coast and the West Coast and in the middle you’ve just got nothing but Republicans. And if the Republicans can motivate the evangelical right, it just seems impossible, just mathematically, that the Democrats can ever win, and that’s just a really scary kind of scenario. It’s almost what happened a bit with Thatcher and the Conservatives. Labor had become so left wing at the time that they were never gonna win and you know obviously they had to move so far to the center to win that they kind of negated the idea of doing the service. But it’s really kind of hard mathematically to see that Democratic breakthrough again. It’s just—look at the map and it’s that huge swath of red in the middle.
PM: Well, but what you said about labor going so far to the left, and that is exactly what happened to the Democratic party in terms of ... we were pretty much content, I mean not content, but we were a minority party during Reagan and Bush 1, and certainly even all the way back to Carter—there was this four year Carter blip between Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush.
NW: And I think Carter did seem like the most left-wing sort of president there’d ever been just cause he was sandwiched, you know, in between right wing philosophy as well.
PM: But you have Clinton who came in and really was able to—he was a centrist, basically. He wasn’t a liberal by any stretch of the imagination, he was a centrist and the Democrats loved it because we’d been out of power for so long. But at the same time, [any kind of] authentic progressive agenda basically languished for eight years.
NW: No, it’s true—will it come back to haunt them? I don’t where the Democrats can go. They can’t go any farther to the center, and if they go back to the left, then it seems they’ll get even less votes. I know things can change dramatically, but the first election really frightened me. There’s no conspiracy theory, it’s just the fact that most of middle America believed George Bush was right. You know, even when economics are going bad, which they are in a lot of places, for the people to still vote for the party in power is just unheard of, really.
PM: Well, you know, living in America, it’s very scary to feel so isolated, so alienated from such a large percentage of my fellow countrymen. And there’s so much frustration on the left because there’s this feeling like we did absolutely everything we could…
NW: I know.
PM: It’s not like there is any way we can say, “Well, you know, we didn’t give it our all.” We feel like we did give it our all and somehow we were left wanting, still.
NW: I completely agree, I mean, I just couldn’t see—even a war veteran against a president who dodged the draft and they turned that against him. I mean, oh dear, I don’t know. It was amazing watching it from over here, you know, because we really had good coverage of it. It was absolutely compulsive to watch it all.
PM: I’m sure it was a lot better to watch when you weren’t right in the middle of it.
NW: Oh yeah, I mean, people always have opinions with that stuff, with the anti-Americanism and all these kind of things, and it’s never been like that. Most of the people I’ve ever encountered in my travels have been really decent, intelligent, thought-provoking people. But there’s obviously a swath of people you feel alienated from, so think if you come from a different country you’d feel [even] more alienated from them.
PM: You know, in all seriousness, the only reason my wife and I haven’t moved to Canada is that we have dogs and we don’t want to have to leave them in the kennel while they go through the six months [in quarantine].
NW: I always trust dog lovers.
PM: That’s good to hear. It’s weird that you said that because I’m actually a cat person—but I married a dog person.
NW: I don’t trust a cat person
PM: I shouldn’t have said that! (laughs) ... You know, since we’re on the subject of politics—I wasn’t going to ask this because it has nothing to do with music. But since I haven’t gotten a chance to ask anyone from Britain about this issue before, I’ll ask about the fox hunting debate—is this a real debate or is this just Labor making an issue to get back at the House of Lords?
NW: It’s really a—yeah, I mean I think that’s what it’s become. But, the basic premise was ... in the Manifesto of ‘97 when Labor first came back into power. It’s one of those things that just has to be done within the Manifesto for them to keep their face. As a youngster I had a trip to the House of Commons, oh, when I was about 12. Neil Kinnock was the Labor leader then. Back even then, me and my mum have always been quite for animal rights and I asked Neil Kinnock back then, will you bring fox hunting in and it was a bit of a row between me and him—even then I was argumentative. So, I think the labor party just built a rod to its back by putting it in. I mean, I happen to agree with it but it’s been distorted out of all proportion, really, to some kind of class war like you said.
PM: Well that’s how it’s perceived in pretty much everything I’ve read in the American press.
NW: Yeah, it’s become a sideshow really, almost a freakshow. You know, it’s become ... the countryside, the posh countryside and the House of Lords against ... but, you know, people did actually vote for the Manifesto to ban fox hunting. You know, we base our country on those kind of things. And I gotta say all the fox hunters, they never give a shit about the Miners’ Strike—they’re the first to break—in fact, they never striked in their life. They’re the most right wing Tory people [that have] ever been in this country so I don’t have any sympathy for them, to be honest. Because every great strike this country’s ever had they’ve always opposed. For them to talk about human rights and their right to hunt is a little bit rich, really.
PM: Hypocrisy is alive and well.
NW: In every country.