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Know YOUR Enemy - Sydney Morning Herald, 1st April 2001

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Title: Know YOUR Enemy
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Date: Sunday 1st April 2001
Writer: Mike Gee

They are, arguably, the best UK rock band of their time: far superior to Oasis, as innovative as Blur and matched only for incandescence by Ash and for songwriting skills by The Verve. And they're loners who don't play the music biz game. Yet they have become the people's band. They are the Manic Street Preachers. Drummer and co-music writer Sean Moore and Mike Gee talk about political belief, intellect, surviving, rock journalists, what it is to be a Manic, and Richey Edwards.

The creation continues incessantly through the media of man. But man does not create he discovers.
Those who look for the laws of nature as a support for their new works collaborate with their creator.
Copiers do not collaborate. Because of this, originality consists in returning to the origin.
- Antoni Gaudi

It is typical of the Manic Street Preachers that the back cover of their brilliant, Ivor Novello award-winning song, A Design For Life, should be lined with the quotes from Gaudi, the 19th Century architect and leading exponent of Catalan Modernism, a branch of the Art Nouveau movement in architecture.

Gaudi's most celebrated work, the ornate church of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, occupied him from 1884 until his death in 1926. It is still under construction. Same with the Manics. Their most celebrated work is still under construction and it, too, will probably occupy them for as long as they construct music in this life.

What I'm getting at is two-fold: the Manic Street Preachers don't regard intelligence or intellect as a crime; and every album - while a work in itself - is part of a greater work, an overall work-in-progress.

Their latest and sixth album, Know Your Enemy, sports a cover equally as confrontational as Gaudi's philosophising: a painting of text on a blood-splattered white wall by Welsh artist Neale Howells. It announces a record that finds the Welsh trio back on form after the rather uncomfortable and patchy This My Truth Tell Me Yours. It's raw, ready, heady stuff with passion at the front and perfection a distant thought: they set a limit of five takes for each song ... most were recorded in one or two. Frontman and guitarist, James Bradfield - the only vaguely social member of the band - wrote his first song, Ocean Spray, inspired by the death of his mother from cancer; lyricist and bassist, Nicky Wire, takes his first lead vocal on Wattsville Blues, and drummer and co-writer of all the band's music with Bradfield (his cousin), Sean Moore, continues to avoid people if he can.

Lyrically, they charge like a wounded bull: post-communist Eastern Europe, Ibiza Uncovered, and Elian Gonzalez all get the treatment as the Manics deliver a broad picture of a sick and tired world where capitalism - triumphantly - rules unchallenged ... at a massive cost. Dig around a bit and you'll also find that the album was going to be titled Solidarity as an expression of support for Cuban leader Fidel Castro's communist regime. They decided, eventually, that it sounded too earnest. But they made their point by launching the new record at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, Cuba, in front of 5,000 fans who paid only 25 cents for the privilege. The first Western band ever to play that country.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with rock music: after all, the Manic Street Preachers are a rock band. Everything, folks. Rock has become used to the lowest common denominator syndrome: chicks (tits, bums, oral sex, and a quickie in the back seat), booze, male hormonal posturing; even when women play it, the end result is often the same. As fun as The Donnas are, the subject matter is pretty much shagging and hormonally-related matters. Even Hole, and the supercharged sex-goddess of the grunge-generation, Courtney Love, are driven by the same injection of attitude pumped up by hormones, lust and the good time/bad time sway.

It wasn't always that way: a long, long, long time ago, rock songsmiths used to write about all sorts of mangy, flea-bitten, bed-sit philosopher topics: politics, the polemics and mysteries of life, the infinitely large - or small, depending on your perspective - questions that dog everyman's existence. Of course, a good shagging was still an essential ingredient as was a steady supply of drugs'n'booze but something a little more substantial sometimes would arise other than a prelude to pubic discourse. Like The Clash.

The Manic Street Preachers arrived in a blaze of correct namechecking - Rimbaud, The Clash, et al - and soft-cock attitude. They wore t-shirts bearing situationist slogans and espoused a philosophy that could be roughly summed up as 'kill your idols, then burn out'. And, of course, they had Richey Edwards who - in response to the accusation that the Manics might just be poseurs - upped the ante in 1991 by carving 4 REAL into his arm with a razor during an interview with journalist Steve Lamacq. Richey made things even worse for his fellow bandmates - and family - by disappearing off the face of the planet on February 1, 1995, never to be heard of again. His body hasn't been found either. That date has been celebrated yearly by the Brit press, much to the discomfort of band, family and friends.

Despite all this the Manics are revered as the people's band. Intelligence is not an anethma to identification. In the UK they've been called a national treasure several times. And why not. There is no other band like the Manic Street Preachers, right now. And Know Your Enemy is a brilliant tear in the perfect silicon-filled breast of rock. A slap in the face for the supermodel it's become.

Moore is in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm doing the promotional rounds. Moaning quietly about the schedule he's on, Moore explains that on this leg alone he's been to Brussels, Cologne, Prague, Helsinki, and Stockholm. In two days he's off to Oslo, goes home, then heads off on a six-date mini-tour of the UK and "I don't even know what happens after that."

Sometimes it's wise to be honest, so I tell him I only got Know Your Enemy the night before and was so blown away I listened to it three times in a row. "Fantastic," he says, "that's probably more than the NME journalist and the Q journalist back home did. But there you go." Go on. "Well the NME journalist was a young woman called Victoria who had mixed views and then over the page she did reviews of the singles [they released two simultaneously, So Why So Sad and Found That Soul] as well, and I think she gave her single of the week to Nick Cave so I think she's more obsessed with neo-Gothic rockers from the early to mid-'80s."

The Q interview is very positive. "Yeah, but the reviewer of the album was on one hand slagging us off and on the other was praising us. It's annoying then. We'd rather it be all out hate or all out admiration." So what offends these reviewers? I can't think of anything. Moore says Nicky's vocal debut amongst other nitpicking. That's just stupid. He agrees.

Know Your Enemy isn't offensive; confrontational, certainly. Then what do you expect. It is the Manics. "Thank you," Moore says, "I think a lot of people who don't like us or don't understand us, anyway, can't see the angle we're coming from. We've always thought of ourselves as being very confrontational - but in an intellectual way not an extremely obvious way.

"The trouble in the UK is that all the old-school journalists who grew up when we did have been very appreciative and understand what we are trying to get across but to a lot of the youngsters who have been force fed all the boy band concoctions and have got their 'PCFCMVQ' in music journalism, it's perhaps a little too much study time for them. I think they're more interested in getting the article out to the editor as quick as and then heading off down the nearest student union bar to get as blasted as possible."

And so at least one constant is honoured: the tenuous and fragile relationship between this band and the press. It's also begs a timely poke in the ribs for that most peculiar concept: courses in music journalism. Now I've lectured or workshopped at a few of them and it still seems downright weird: music is an art which is appreciated individually and subjectively. Other than imploring that the basic tenants of decent journalism be followed, there are no real rules.

"It's bizarre," Moore says, with emphasis. "It's like how to be the Beatles: study two years and, all of a sudden, you're the greatest rock band in history. That just seems what most kids in the UK are like at the moment, especially with bands like the Popstars, Hear'Say, now. In the UK it went in at No 1 and I think it's in the Guinness Book Of Records as the largest selling debut act in the history of the UK pop chart." Ouch. Sore point. Okay, so we took this concept on after New Zealand. "Yep, that's why I thought I'd better mention it," gurgles Moore. Well, personally, I think that whole concept is an insult to every original musician and songwriter in the world. "Yep. It's like an interactive TV program. You too can be part of Popstars by participating and buying the record. Then there'll be Popstars the board game, Popstars doll figures and there'll probably be a Popstars computer game at the end of it. What worries me the most is the effect all of this has on people's attitude to music and say the way they'll look at the best 100 albums of all time in a decade's time. I can't see a lot of credible, creative music coming out of the UK in the next 10 years."

The conversation slips across various bands including Ash ("they're great"), rests on Limp Bizkit who the Manics share a similar loathing for, idles on to the topic of outdoor concert and moshpit-related disasters mostly involving US bands. He's heard of the Big Day Out tragedy in Sydney: "The same thing happened to us the last time we played Glastonbury," Moore says, "when we headlined the mainstage on a Saturday night. The actual field the people were standing in sloped down to the front of the stage and there were 60,000 to 70,000 people all pushing towards the front. In the end our tour manager came on stage stopped us from playing and said 'Okay all move back and the band won't come back on for 20 or 25 minutes until everybody can calm down.' With the Americans it seems part of the show and the more violence and aggression they can create the better for them. It's an incredible indictment of what American culture has become and the way we see it infecting the rest of the world now. That machismo, jingoistic society."

Now we're into the guts of the Manics. Here's a bunch of virtual loners. They've pretty much practised what they preached and refused to play up to the industry, to the degree that not so long ago they thought about releasing a compilation of B-sides and naming it No Encores, No Adverts, No Fanclubs. And to those three clear notions they have always been true - from the very beginning. As they promised, they have never performed an encore in Britain, never licensed a song to a TV advert and never had a fanclub.

"We've never felt part of it, even when we were growing up where we lived. We never felt part of the society we were living in and that we were very alienated from everything. That was half the reason we spent hours listening to music and eventually got a band together. We felt the same when we first started the band and the Manchester scene was happening, and then throughout the history of the band there have been trends like say the Brit pop scene [which tried to claim Everything Must Go as a crucial contribution] and it was 'Sorry, we're not part of that' and 'Don't get us involved in that'. That was half the reason we stuck a Welsh flag out at the Brit Awards. We were saying 'Don't try and market us as part of this Brit scene that everybody is having a great time with and making a load of money off.' " But that's all part of the money game the music industry has become. "Like The Clash said 'Complete Control'. It hasn't gone away. It's still there. The corporation has become more powerful than governments in the way it transcends borders and has a far more reaching influence on the way the world is run.

"It's incredibly worrying. Naively, when we started, we though that by being within the corporation we could change it from the inside. As time has gone by we've tried to be a little bit more subversive and intellectual about it, and it seems like we're becoming more and more isolated because very few bands still have those ideals. And those that did have them have since gone. Just thinking about Rage Against the Machine and how they were turned completely on their heads to such an extent that Zack De La Rocha spins around and says 'That's it. The band is over.'

"As far as no encores, adverts and fanclubs, those are things that in the beginning were put upon us and we said 'Sorry, but, no, we won't indulge in them.' We did have a fanclub in the early days but, happily, that fizzled out very quickly - mostly due to our non-participation. The same can be said of our website. We're probably the least interested band in our website. The record company is continually badgering us for information and input and we're like 'Sorry, but that's not about being in a band. Sorry.'"

Ironically, when the Manics disappeared for the whole of 1999 it ended up drawing more attention to them than if they had been more accessible. Nearly every little glimpse and sighting was reported and rumours flowed. "There is so much misinformation about us it's incredible," Moore says. "Most of that is due to the fact that we totally abstain from the whole rock'n'roll thing. James likes his drink and a cigarette and popping out to the odd party but for some people, it's a whole career. Everytime James would turn up there would be some story the next day that was totally exaggerated beyond belief."

Then there was the Richey drama which seemed - from an outsiders point of view - to be endless. "Absolutely, and completely insensitive to a lot of people. You could tell how some interviews would go. It was like 'Oh, and what about Richey ... ' You could tell that they had run out of questions and then they'd slip it in quick and you'd say 'Nothing's changed since the last time.' Why would it change? And if the situation did we'd be the first to say something. But it became a regular update situation. February 1 every year except for this year.. No doubt though, there'll be some story next year because it'll be seven years he's been gone and there will be all these legal things to be addressed. I'm sure it'll be a double page spread then.

"I think if people were sympathetic, perhaps we'd be a little more accomodating but people just want the gruesome and the grotesque. I don't know whether it's to make themselves feel better about their own lives but all they are after is the macabre side rather than the sensitive, torn soul side. It's complete torture for his family and friends, reviving it all the time."

Bottom line. The Manic Street Preachers have walked a tough path. What they've done hasn't made them too many friends. It has earned them a lot of respect and an adoring audience. But you get the feeling that each album could be the last. That sometimes, no matter how many options each record seems to be offer them musically and lyrically, that they might, one day, just say 'enough is enough'.

For Sean Moore it's obviously something he's thought about. "How strong are we? We're still strong as friends and individuals and people," he says. "We're so strong that, despite promising ourselves a year off, six weeks later we couldn't stop ourselves from going into the studio because we had so much we needed to put down. But this thing about how long are we going to survive has been haunting us since the first album. It intensified with Richey's disappearance and The Holy Bible [their third album]. It's been a weight round our necks since the time we said that if we sold as many records as the combined total sales of Appetite For Destruction and It Takes A Nation Of Millions then we'd give up. I still believe to this day that if we had sold that many records - which I think amounts to about 20 million - then we probably would have given it away. We wouldn't have had to carry on because financially we would have been secure. Then again we wouldn't have written all the albums since. That's what keeps us carrying on - the fact we've still got so many more things we need to say lyrically and musically. At the same time I don't think we could become U2 or the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith.

"When it's over it will be over for good. There's no way in a million years I would join another group or set up my own group because when you start a band as young teenagers in a bedroom dreaming about what might be you don't think about 'when the group's over I'm going to ...' It's inconceivable that I could work with anybody else. Even the two songs that James and I did with Kylie {for Impossible Princess] didn't feel right. I didn't feel true to myself. It didn't feel right to do something for somebody else. I felt like one of these faceless session players.

"Maybe, one day I'll have to find a career. I don't know what ... maybe I could become a music journalist. Maybe I could teach both - music and journalism." He laughs at the idea.