Manic Street Preachers’ Nicky Wire tells Roisin O’Connor about the group’s new album, how social media has stunted political debate, and why he decided to stop reading for a year
Nicky Wire takes his sunglasses off for a moment, then puts them back on again. The Manic Street Preachers’ bassist and lyricist is finishing his last promo in London for their 13th album Resistance is Futile, before heading back home to Wales.
It’s a fantastic album, one of their most concise and versatile to date, with as much fervour as their debut, but also richly textured stories narrated from a view other than Wire’s - from the tumultuous relationship of Dylan Thomas and Caitlin Macnamara to the story of Vivian Maier, the Chicago nanny who left behind a trove of 150,000 photos that were only discovered after her death.
It’s an album inspired by people, and the human spirit, but it also hones in on the helplessness felt by many in the current political landscape - that outside of London, many have been forgotten amid the Brexit debate.
“It’s a problem in modern day politics,” Wire, 49, says, “if you forget someone, they get angry, and they’ll eventually tell you to f**k off. In the past there was a sense of self-determination through industry, and now… The idea of getting something out of life, of progression: Obviously with younger people it’s even harder because their identities are either secondhand or ridden with debt.
“I feel at the edge of bewilderment because you feel like you’ve seen so many failures of so many different ideologies. It is hard for us to be any kind of spokesperson.
“There’s a lot of finger pointing today - a clash of opinion. I look back and think I was lucky enough to live in a time where there was a genuine, drawn-out argument and debate. That didn’t always give the right decision, we grew up during Thatcher, in some of the most brutal times ever... but I’ve always felt that democracy could work. And at the moment it almost feels like democracy has been overtaken by digital hysteria. Trying to win, as a rule, doesn’t get you anywhere.”
There are many caricatures of the Manics, he notes, whether they’re shaking hands with Fidel Castro or writing a song with Kylie Minogue (“Some Kind of Bliss”). But in all of those strands, there remains at the heart a philosophy that you meet people without forming any preconceptions of them. “It sounds a bit hippy-ish,” Wire admits, with his ideas of a genuine empathy that he keeps regardless if he doesn’t always agree with someone - “it doesn’t mean they’re a terrible person”.
“Our judgement has always been on a one-to-one basis, but I can’t see how that idea fits into the modern landscape. It’s quite disturbing, really. I wish I had a more coherent policy of what can change things.”
Rappers are often the ones who deliver today’s “social poetry”, he observes: “Sometimes it can be a bit too nihilistic, but then I always like a bit of nihilism,” he adds with a self-aware grin. “And I can’t even judge our own music anymore. Me, James and Sean look at each other sometimes and think we’ve done something truly brilliant, and then we think: ‘Who’s gonna be interested?’”
“It feels pointless, sometimes - us as a band, trying to comment - and working out if it’s still relevant. With Stormzy on the Brits, I thought that was a brilliant moment. The ferocity! At our age, doing something similar would seem pretty shit,” he says. “And that’s where we find ourselves. So I was really happy to sit back and be part of a TV moment.” That uncertainty is why
Resistance is Futile is so melodic, he reveals, wryly suggesting the element of uncertainty is “soothing to people of a certain age”. Jumping up to fetch a bottle of water, he chides himself for referring to age again: “I don’t actually feel that old,” he admits. ”It gets embarrassing sometimes to feel as young as I do.”
You’d be hard-pushed to find music fans with a fiercer loyalty to their band than the Manics’. And the band will never stop being grateful, Wire says, because they come from what many would deem a “pretty unfashionable place”, in Blackwood, Wales.
“Four kids from the same comprehensive school in the middle of the miner’s strike - so much so that it sounds overromantic,” he says. “It’s in our DNA, that I never go to a place and think ‘this is a shithole’, because there’s something to be found - people, stories - everywhere.”
He wanted to capture that feeling on “Liverpool Revisited”, he says, one day when he got up early to wander around the city taking Polaroids: “As a songwriter that is a purely magical day. Realising the resilience and the defiance of those people… no one else would have helped them!”
“I think of the 96, as the tears fall down on me,” frontman James Dean Bradfield sings, and a little later: “Fight for justice, fight for life/there are angels in these skies.” The song honours not just the Hillsborough victims, but their families, who fought the establishment and seemed determined to come back stronger each time.
“To have the whole of the British establishment against you - it was such an amazing achievement,” Wire says. “Then all the culture that fed into me, hearing the Bunnymen, and The La’s in my head, The Beatles of course, and Roger McGough’s poetry.
“The greatest luxury of being in a band is that every place you go, it leaves a little imprint. I’ve always picked up bits of inspiration. Our approach of not judging people does come from living in the middle of nowhere.”
“Dylan and Caitlin” was one of the few songs Wire “designed” as a duet, he says, and it was written with Welsh singer The Anchoress in mind (“she is too talented”) - he generally avoids writing out of character as a rule because “it’s not my strongest suit”.
But on songs such as “Dylan and Caitlin”, and on their 2007 hit single “Your Love Alone”, it works. “It felt like a big relief,” Wire says, “especially after Rewind the Film which was pretty confessional, to write about all these inspirational characters. It felt good to stop bombarding people with my confessional misery,” he says with another laugh.
“There are some weird preconceptions of us, because our politics have always been socialistingrained, but there’s been a massive amount of existentialism, dare I say it... fun, involved in that. Because The Situationists are as big an influence on us as Nye Bevan. That was where the colour came from, otherwise we would have been a pretty drab band.”
Wire consumed less culture in 2017 than he had before: apart from Philip Larkin’s poetry, he virtually stopped reading. It was something of a conscious decision after the release of their 12th, 2014 album Futurology, which he loves, but was “overwrought” with references from Mayakovsky to Malevich, and he worried Bradfield, who is the one who has to sing the lyrics, “didn’t know what I was on about”.
“This year I’ve been massively turned around with St Vincent,” he says of the new music he’s come to after the record was finished, adding, “It’s just so powerful. When she picks up the guitar it’s so violent, in that controlled way. And I’m addicted to Sunflower Bean [Twentytwo in Blue], I love that record so much.”
“We were lucky,” he adds, of new bands breaking through. “For us, being in a band you got £30,000 to go on tour support. It was a massive mistake around Napster time when everyone thought record companies were the enemy. They weren’t, they were full of philanthropists and people who loved music... it was the tech guys who hated music. Making it as a band doesn’t seem like a reality any more. With us it was proper, old school hard work, and that’s what got you there. Now that doesn’t matter so much.”
With many of those bands, he suggests, they’re just waiting for the one song “to really make it” - the one which defines them.
“When Oasis released “Live Forever”, I remember me and James were crushed, because it topped everything we’d ever done. Then we went back and tried something else.”
Two years ago at the Royal Albert Hall, the Manics celebrated the release of their first big commercial success, Everything Must Go. It went down as one of those shows that lingers at the back of the audience’s mind long after they’ve left.
“Even I was surprised by those shows,” Wire smiles. “It was actually emotional being on stage. Me and James looked at each other after and were like, ‘what happened there?!’ It was spectacular. We’ve done every venue so many times, and when the night seems to spark off of something… it’s pretty amazing.”