It's Not a Question of Compromise; It's Just a Question of Clarity - PopMatters, 5th July 2005
In the first part of my discussion with Nicky Wire, we discussed the circumstances behind the recording of 1994’s The Holy Bible, as well as some general political observations. The second half of the conversation returns to the subject of music, with a discussion of the Manic Street Preachers’ career as well as other artists who have influenced or impacted them. From Nirvana to the Goldie Lookin’ Chain, Wire offers an intimate view of his eclectic musical perspective.
PopMatters: As unique as The Holy Bible is, it’s interesting for me to contrast it with the large number of metal and punk groups that have always used that kind of stark and depressing political and social imagery in their music. Why do you think your album caused such critical clamor and garnered so much attention when similarly bleak efforts from bands like Slayer and the Dead Kennedys—to name just a couple—are pretty much accepted for what they are?
Nicky Wire: That’s a fair point. I think the music we were listening to at the time [was] heavy stuff—lots of Joy Division, lots of Magazine, bands like that. But I think [that in reference to] the press in the UK, the difference was [that] it was the album they’d always wanted us to make. You know, when we first started, I guess they’d been—not disappointed, but you know ... Generation Terrorist was so cosmetic and glam, and Gold Against the Soul was this cavernous, empty stadium rock—miserable stadium rock. And I think the fact [was] that the band that they’d wanted to love, all of a sudden they could love. We’d always been a band to cherish critically, but I don’t think we’d ever made the record—maybe with the exception of “Motorcycle Emptiness”—that people wanted. That year in particular, obviously, was the year of [Nirvana’s] In Utero and everything else—it was a pretty bleak year. And it just seemed all to come together at the same time.
PM: It’s odd how in all the stuff I’ve read, those two albums—The Holy Bible and In Utero—they seem to be connected in a lot of journalists’ and critics’ minds.
NW: Obviously we’re huge fans as well. We were aware of every move within Nirvana that year, the constant breakdowns and the fuck-ups and everything. I’m not saying it had an effect, but just as fans you do get sucked into wanting to find out everything you can. I remember we were in Brittania Row, which was where Joy Division recorded Closer ... we were there when we heard that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. We were mixing “The Intense Humming of Evil”, or some other really bleak track. It was a pretty bleak moment—it actually felt like a lot of connections were falling into place.
PM: I had absolutely no associations with that song, other than the fact that it was extremely bleak, but knowing that ... if it’s even possible, that song seems even more heavy now.
NW: I find that song quite unlistenable. It reminds me of our days off [from recording] Gold Against the Soul, when we visited Belsen and Dachau, the death camps, which was in typical Manic Street Preacher fashion. Most bands, on their day off, would look for a pile of drugs or drink or whatever—we decided to visit the death camps on our days off. We didn’t go there for a laugh. We were driving and we felt we should see this. It’s our idea of forcing humanity to face itself. They were pretty startling days.
PM: Well, that concept pretty much sums up the whole album—the whole project—forcing humanity to face the worst part of itself.
NW: That was definitely one of the seeds for it, really. We were touring Gold Against the Soul, which ... in Germany wasn’t selling many copies, and we were traveling around thinking, we’ve got to regain our soul. We were all on the same wavelength. We knew that regaining control was the main priority. Going back to Cardiff and a crappy little studio was the essence of that, really.
PM: So, do you regret the first two albums? It seems, just talking to you about them, that you have an ambiguous attitude towards them—especially the second one.
NW: Yeah, I think the second album is a weird album. I actually quite like it because it’s so empty and cavernous ... it’s just a band so lost amongst the corporate ideas of selling records. I’m not embarrassed about them at all. The only slight [reservation I have] ... with Generation Terrorist, I think we could have perhaps made an album of ten “Motown Junks” first, some kind of indie record on Heavenly, maybe if we’d have been really quick and bashed an album out. Sometimes I think we were perhaps too ambitious with Generation Terrorist. We couldn’t actually reach the places we wanted to go ... but naiveté kind of works as well.
PM: Hindsight is always 20/20 with these things.
NW: I wish we’d stuck out America more with Generation Terrorist. We were slogging our way around, and it was getting an odd sort of cult following. Tommy Lee from Motley Crue really liked it.
PM: That’s an odd connection.
NW: There were quite a few odd [glam rock] people who just loved James’ guitar sound.
PM: Well, definitely, if you’re talking about glam, that album had it. Pretty much all the first three albums, even The Holy Bible, had heavy glam elements to them.
NW: Definitely. Obviously there was the Traci Lords thing as well [Former porn-star Lords sang backup vocals on Generation Terrorist‘s “Little Baby Nothing”]. It was a weird time, but we caved in—we were just too young. We were 19 years old, traveling through America, and we just said “Fuck this.”
PM: Since you bring up America, that brings me to another question: when you’re talking on the DVD interview [included with the 10th Anniversary edition of The Holy Bible], you almost sound wistful when you’re discussing how The Holy Bible could have been the key to eventual big-time success in America, had circumstances been different and the album actually been released and you had been able to support it. Unfortunately, as you said, you’ve had these pockets of really powerful cult fandom, but you’ve never really had the success that some of your contemporaries have had. Oasis was big for a while, but even Blur, they only had the one hit—
NW: We’d settle for that, to be honest. The Holy Bible was definitely the album that could have done it. Because it actually was so stylized, and it was an emotionally bleak post-punk record, the record companies felt they could really do something with it. Because it fit into one genre, whereas all our other records just didn’t fit into anything. I’m not saying we could have been massive or anything, but I think we could have been kind of ... [on a par with] Jane’s Addiction. I remember I used to look at Billboard magazine, and you’d see Jane’s Addiction crawling up the charts week after week, and getting to 500,000 (copies) sold.
PM: That’s actually a really good comparison that has never occured to me before. Certainly, they were never really that political, but in terms of the sound and in terms of the ambience, they’re very similar.
NW: Yeah, the ambience especially. I thought with The Holy Bible we had a chance of doing something like that, of just building and building ... which is what was happening in the UK, really. All of a sudden we had become a genuine cult, and sometimes that’s the best thing that can happen to a band. I think it can give you real longevity. Because people buy into the ... not just into a record but the whole ethos. But it just wasn’t to be. It would have been great just to have six months of playing to a couple of thousand people a night in America—it would have been fantastic.
PM: On the DVD you talk about how you were set to open for Sponge—which is a band I vaguely recall having existed at some point in time…
NW: Yeah, we had quite a few ... we had three months of touring lined up. We were getting to support bands like Corrosion of Conformity. Death metal bands were saying what a great record The Holy Bible was.
PM: That makes a lot of sense.
NW: Yeah. I think it was all heading for a cult thing where I just really felt we could ... we’d do it the old fashioned way. It wasn’t going to be a massive thing but ... we were really good live at that point in time. We were really tight and taut and we looked our best. “Wistful” is the right word to describe it.
PM: Certainly when you look at the live clips that are on the DVD, you guys are just insane. You guys look like four chimpanzees let loose with a bottle of Ritalin on stage.
NW: It’s true. And I think the thing about America which we always found was that if you do actually play to your strengths and you are completely extreme, then you do make a success. It might be marginalized, but America is so big that that can actually work in your favor. The American remix is really good—a bit more “rock”, a bit beefed-up.
PM: That was something that surprised me. Usually when they do album re-releases like this and they say, “Oh, we got another mix,” usually it’s just the stereo and the mono mixes, something totally useless like that. But I sat down and listened to the American mix of The Holy Bible and I was surprised, because [while] it doesn’t supplant the other mix, it is a really compelling bookend to the British release of the album.
NW: Like you said, most things like that really pass you by, as a rule, but we felt there was a genuine justification that people should hear it, because Tom Lord-Alge did a brilliant job on it. We just sent the tapes over, we didn’t have any input on it. James spoke to him. But when he came back we did think, “Fuckin’ hell, a couple of these could have made it on the album”.
PM: Certainly from your point of view I can imagine that the American mix is flattering, because it definitely beefs-up the rhythm section, the drumming especially is just—
NW: Yeah, me and Sean were well pleased with it.
PM: It’s a lot cleaner. Certainly on some tracks that isn’t necessarily to it’s benefit, but on other tracks, like the aforementioned “PCP”, it works so well.
NW: Yeah, it does. “Faster” doesn’t work actually, surprisingly.
PM: I was listening to that this morning I was thinking that myself—for some reason it just seems to sap a little bit of the energy out of it.
NW: It does—it’s just a bit flat. But it was a rewarding experience overall. We were rehersing in a little place in Surrey, demoing some songs, and we were about to embark on this adventure ... and that’s when Richey disappeared, so it was never going to be. We were on our way to Japan as well if I remember rightly, and the record was doing really well there—just because, once again, the cult thing. But that’s just what makes great bands, I think, is the colorful history, shall we say.
PM: Well, there are few bands that have as colorful a history. I told myself before the interview that I was going to try not to mention that because I figure that, first of all, it’s an unpleasant thing, and you’ve had reporters putting microphones in your face and talking about it for ten years, and I didn’t want to do that because that’s not the kind of person I am. But hearing you talk about it so freely and openly—it’s kind of, I don’t know what the word is ... it’s not what I expected.
NW: It’s not a problem, to be honest, after all this time. One of the main reasons we wanted to release this version, at my inception, really—it just felt like a tribute to Richey as well. It felt like it was deserved, I guess, to keep him on the old critical radar. Ten years is a long time in rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t have any problem with talking about someone I grew up with and played football with and played rugby and cricket and went to university with. So it’s not a particular problem, really, not at the moment anyway. I guess it swings in roundabouts. It doesn’t feel like a problem at the moment.
PM: One of the other things that I keyed on while watching the interview was when you were talking about the decision to continue after the disappearance. It seemed as if you had two different impulses: on the one hand you’re talking about how you will never again be able to play as completely and as solidly and as good as you once did, but then at the same time you’re talking about the first major shows that you did as a trio—I think it was the Reading festival—and you talk about how you did it because you felt an overwhelming responsibility to do that even before the disappearance. You get the feeling that that sense of loyalty to each other and solidarity to the idea of the band was what kept you going.
NW: Yeah, I think that’s the actual idea of the band, really. That’s actually perhaps a lot stronger than even we realized—the actual inception, the idea. We were an idea before we were a band, and that put us in good stead, really, because I think that’s what kept it together through everything. The idea of Manic Street Preachers being a lifestyle rather than just four blokes who made music. Especially when we wrote “Design For Life”, obviously, everything clicked then, and we realized that it would be a crime if we didn’t actually play this music [for] the public. It was so startlingly different, and vaguely optimistic as well, for us. It would have just been wrong to bury the chemistry that was obviously still there. We didn’t know it would be, but it was still there. Different kind of chemistry, but still a good one.
PM: I think the reaction and the evolution here are comparable to what—and I have no idea what your opinion is on R.E.M.—
NW: Oh, I’m a fan. I’ve always been.
PM: Well, it seems that what you guys went through, in terms of the reaction of your fanbase, the reaction of your critics, is very much similar to what they went through. It seems like they’ve had a lot more trouble finding their feet, whereas you guys, after The Holy Bible, the first album you put out was a stone classic.
NW: I know what you’re saying. I still think that R.E.M. have made the odd absolute gem of a record, but they seem to be soul-searching, thinking whether or not they’re doing the right thing. I think we were lucky that we had been a cult band that had the opportunity to get big, if you know what I mean, whereas they had just become the biggest band in the world, R.E.M., and just lost one of their vital ingredients. I think with us, everything seemed shiny and new because we were making loads of money and playing to loads of people. We hadn’t made any money until then, to be brutally honest with you. I couldn’t even get a mortgage, I was living with my in-laws around the release of The Holy Bible. [laughter] I wasn’t poor—I’m not pleading poverty—
PM: Oh, I know what you’re saying. Most people don’t understand that for young musicians who are just getting started, even if they have a hit record, they don’t see any of that money. They don’t see any money until way down the line, and that’s assuming that they do a huge amount of touring.
NW: That’s right. It was brilliant being in the band, but for all of a sudden to be playing arenas and winning Brit awards and getting these funny things called royalty checks—it was a kind of blissful period. For once we just went with it, we didn’t question ourselves, we didn’t tie ourselves up in knots, we just said “Oh, fuck this.” We just enjoyed the moment, which is unlike us. I’m really glad we did, because probably around the time of This Is My Truth…, which was an even bigger record, we’d started getting back to those old questioning-of-our-existence kind of things…
PM: It’s interesting that you said that, because I realize I might be in the minority here, but that is my favorite album of yours. Even after listening to The Holy Bible and all the rest, that is the album that I come back to the most. It’s almost weird hearing you say that, because that album does seem almost more tentative in places than the one before it. It seems like the one before it [Everything Must Go], you were presenting a unified front almost because you felt that you just had to go out and make that statement. And then the doubts came in, and that’s what fueled This Is My Truth…
NW: It did. We’re really proud of This Is My Truth…—it’s a record we knew we had to make, it would have been wrong to go and make a terrible Metal Machine Music or something. We knew we had to make a record to take the next step. We were completely racked with doubt. It’s not a question of compromise, it’s just a question of clarity. We slowed the music down. We were very doubtful, but then, I think “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” is one of the true magic moments we’ve ever made. When you talk about the alchemy of politics and rock ‘n’ roll, that’s probably our greatest alchemy, [talking about] the Spanish Civil War like that. That record was just so huge—so many people singing along to it was a bit of magic for us, actually.
PM: Certainly, when you’re talking about that album, it’s so emotionally rich, with all the different things going on, and that extra bit like you said. I was looking at the liner notes of your Greatest Hits, and it’s really, from and American point of view, totally mind-blowing, the fact that you’ve had two number-one hits—I don’t know if you’ve had any more since then—
NW: No. We’ve had two number two’s since then, but just two number ones.
PM: You’ve had two number one hits, and both of them have been explicitly political songs, which is something that is totally inconceivable in America. “The Masses Against the Classes” and “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”—it doesn’t get much more left than that.
NW: No, it doesn’t. “Tolerate…” was especially brilliant, because on all the chart programs and radio programs, people would say, “This is ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ by Manic Street Preachers, off their new album, This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours”—just so many words. In the end, people would just say, “Oh, this is the Manics with ‘Tolerate.’”
PM: I’ll bet the BBC people must have just hated you.
NW: It was the second-longest number-one ever, in terms of the title.
PM: What was the first?
NW: Ooooh. I can’t remember. I am a bit of a pop trivia buff, a bit of a chart freak.
PM: Well, it’s not the biggest [length-wise] chart hit they ever had, because that’s the Orb’s “Blue Room” [the unedited version of which clocks in at just under forty minutes].
NW: Ah, that’s right.
PM: This brings me, in a roundabout way, to another question: I’ve always been a fan of remixes—I’m a fan of electronic music in general—and I love it when rock groups, more traditional groups, stick their toes into the water and commission fun remixes. You guys are one of the very best groups in all the world, in terms of the consistent quality of the remixers you’ve worked with. There were lots of people who wanted to deride your Greatest Hits, but there was enough great stuff on that second disc alone for it to be a total classic in my book.
NW: We’ve been really lucky in that, actually. I gotta say it’s actually a joy for us, just to give total control. Not once have we ever given a remixer any instructions. It’s just a massive relief to get this transformation.
(Note: Due to an unforeseen technical mishap, approximately two or three minutes of conversation was wiped from the tape at this point. From our notes, the conversation on remixes continued, with NW making the analogy that it was like “giving up control of your baby”, and having it come back to you as “something totally different and sometimes even better” than the original—for instance, he mentions that he actually prefers the Avalanches mix of “Why So Sad” to the original. Also, he explains that he is always pleasantly surprised that so many remixers opt to include the vocals in their lyrics—considering that much of electronic music is entirely instrumental, the fact that many remixers feel the need ot keep the lyrics intact is somewhat flattering.)
PM: You’ve got a history of being extremely outspoken in regards to talking about other bands in the press. I don’t want to cultivate any negativity or anything like that—I want you to tell me what you’re listening to right now that you really love.
NW: Well, there’s a lot of music I’m listening to. Today I’ve just been listening to Big Star, which I haven’t listened to for ages, just because it’s a lovely, sunny Spring day in Wales. I really like the Killers, I think the Killers are really good.
NW: Yeah. I think they kind of fused New Order with some American bollocks—there’s something humane about them that doesn’t always come across. I’m a big fan of Goldie Lookin’ Chain, who are a Welsh rap group…
PM: I’ve read about them, but I haven’t actually heard any.
NW: It’s really worth listening to. It’s quite funny and ironic, but it’s from where I live and I can relate to it. It’s not like the Beastie Boys going on about the Five Boroughs [of New York], there’s nothing glamorous about where we come from.
PM: I don’t know, I think the Super Furry Animals would disagree with you about that.
NW: Yeah, but Goldie Lookin’ Chain is just even more hyper-reality. The best drug you can get is sniffing glue.
PM: I’m going to have to find these guys.
NW: It’s really worthwhile. They’re brilliant rappers as well.
PM: I’ll be honest with you—I read about them and they seemed kind of like a novelty act.
NW: They are a bit—there is an element of novelty about them. But I don’t know. There’s just something about them that puts a smile on my face. What else have I been listening to? I’ve been listening to The Best of Sly and the Family Stone... been listening to Captain Beefheart. LCD Soundsystem I really like.
PM: We have that CD right here, sitting on our table looking at us right now.
NW: I really like that. It is really nice, just being able to listen to my music, actually.
PM: It’s a wonderful feeling. I’ve been working so much lately I’ve forgotten what it’s like.
NW: Yeah, you do forget. You forget the joy of it.
PM: Speaking of music, I got one more question that I have to ask you. Your last album and the Lipstick Traces [b-sides compilation] haven’t even been released in America yet. What is the situation with that?
NW: It’s just confusion. Bizarrely, with The Holy Bible, the American record company have taken 20,000 of them. Which, I know doesn’t sound huge, but is actually a lot.
PM: But it’s a $30 set, that’s actually significant.
NW: That’s just bizarre. We’re getting plenty of requests for interviews. That’s strange in itself. As far as Lifeblood goes, the latest album ... I don’t know. It’s sad, in a way. It’s not like an antagonistic thing. We gave it a real shot with This Is My Truth…, actually. We did a really enjoyable tour. We did a four-week tour, east coast, west coast ... we drove right from Chicago to Seattle, and through the Oregon Trail. It was a great tour but it just didn’t happen. One funny thing is that the producer of Bowling for Columbine and his wife—
PM: Michael Moore.
NW: No, the producer. His wife is a huge Manics fan. Bizarre. They are coming over in April to start filming a documentary on us, which is startling, really. I don’t know if you’ve watched any of them, but to me, anyway, documentaries are the best things around at the moment, from Capturing the Friedmans ... obviously Michael Moore’s stuff, there’s a brilliant one on the Ramones [End of the Century], at the moment which is fantastic. They just want to do a proper job on it, go to the Sundance festival and all that kind of thing.
PM: That’s really cool. I was just talking a while back about how the DVD format seems to have taken the wind out of the concert film—no one wants to do them for the big screen anymore.
NW: No, exactly. And there is so much good stuff out there. There’s so many documentaries I’ve watched. There’s one, Touching the Void, about these climbers which is an amazing story. They sell really well and they’re seen as an artistic form again.
PM: They really seem to be coming back with a vengeance after not having really done anything for quite a while.
NW: There’s one called The Fog of War, which is on Robert McNamara, which is absolutely amazing. One of my favorite things I’ve ever seen. So ... they’re coming over in April. She’s a brilliant, absolutely mental, neurotic New York scraggly-haired ... she’s a lovely woman. I don’t know. Something may come from it. Sometimes it’s always the fluke [type-things]. It’ll only ever happen in America if we just get lucky, with a soundtrack or a film or an advert. That’s the only way anything will ever happen.
PM: Well, speaking for all us American fans, we’ve been out in the wilderness for quite some time, keeping the faith ... I really hope that we can see an American release of these albums soon. I know there’s a lot of people who’d want to hear them who just wouldn’t get the chance otherwise.
NW: There is talk of doing a few gigs in New York, Holy Bible shows, doing three or four nights of something. We’re looking into that at the moment. When we do come to America we do sell a fair amount of tickets, not huge, but people do want to see us. We’re kind of always thinking about it at the moment.
PM: That would be awesome. Well, thank you for your time ... we definitely appreciate you being so generous.
NW: It’s good to get a different perspective sometimes. I probably do more interviews with Romania than I do America.