This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is possibly the Manic Street Preachers' most important album to date. On the eve of its release, James Bradfield and Nicky Wire talk to Total Guitar.
When James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore last emerged from the recording studio in 1996 there was much to prove. Just over a year earlier rhythm guitarist, lyricist and band icon Richey James had disappeared. Not knowing whether their best friend was alive or dead, there was much deliberation before the remaining three decided to carry on.
Inevitably there were those who questioned and criticised the move, but Everything Must Go silenced the doubters. A soaring, heartfelt, anthemic album, it conclusively proved there was life after Richey, and ultimately became the soundtrack for the year. Propelled into the big league, the band were finally tasting the sort of success they'd yearned for since their days as invective-fuelled, punk-inspired boys from Blackwood in Wales.
And yet Everything Must Go bore Richey's influence with several tracks, including single Kevin Carter, written around his lyrics. Which is just one reason why the fifth album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is so crucial to the Manics. It's the first truly put together as a trio. And given the massive success of that last outing, expectations are running fantastically high. Already some are talking it up as the most important album of the year.
"We wanted to make a beautiful album for a change," explains singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield. "All of our other albums have been confrontational and perhaps sometimes even a little violent. Basically we wanted the music to be a spiritual representation of the lyrics." "We wanted to make it less triumphant, more refined and with more elements," adds bassist Nicky Wire. "I think this is more of an album whereas Everything Must Go was more a collection of singles. I think this is the first album that sounds like an album, somehow it seems like there's more grace to it."
ONCE MORE INTO THE BREACH
The first single to be lifted from the album is If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next. At its heart the song is a rallying cry, about standing up for what's right. But with the role of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War as the lyrical focus and that downbeat verse swathed in washes of fuzzy guitar, it once again puts the Manics at odds with the current, largely hedonistic, music scene.
Nicky explains the subject matter: "Politics used to be really important for young people and that doesn't seem to be so anymore, and I include myself here. In Yugoslavia it took the UN five years before anything was done. People weren't demonstrating in the streets and there was no International Brigade. People from Wales, Scotland and everywhere joined the International Brigade to fight against fascism in Spain, but that sort of thing wouldn't happen today. It's as critical of me as anybody else, it's just about laziness, really."
With an acoustically flavoured, less spikey approach the single is a good indication of what's to come. The Manic Street Preachers' sound has definitely moved on, though there's still an obvious love of 'Wall Of Sound'-tinged orchestration.
"I love a lot of the Tamla music, Phil Spector productions and that kind of stuff," says James. "We're a band that seems to be addicted to melancholia, which goes well with that type of sound." It's an approach that somehow infused even the darkest moments of Everything Must Go with a sense of hope. As James himself says, it's "strangely uplifting".
There are 13 tracks on the album - including You Stole The Sun, Tsunami, I'm Not Working, Born A Girl, Ready For Drowning (played at Reading last year) and South Yorkshire Mass Murderer, written about the Hillsborough football disaster. Written over the last 12 months, it was recorded at the Big Noise Studio in Wales and producer Mike Hedges' own studio in France. Also at the controls were Greg Haver (who worked with Hedges on Everything Must Go), Dave Eringa (who produced Gold Against The Soul) and Howard Gray of dance outfit Apollo 440.
"We had an initial burst of about 10 songs, then we had a bit of a break and the last song was written within the very last days of the studio recording" says James. "We just write songs when they are sort of ready to happen, rather than writing as many as possible at once."
CLASH OF THE TITANS
Bradfield's guitar playing has always been at the heart of the Manics' sound, and yet with every album it's changed considerably. Listen carefully and you'll hear a link between the Clash-influenced riffing of debut Generation Terrorists and the big American rock of Gold Against The Soul, but on The Holy Bible the playing and songwriting style changed radically. To compliment some of the bleakest lyrics ever committed to tape, the sound was stripped right back exposing every jagged edge of the awkward, angular guitar lines. Almost as surprising was the return to more
melodic listener-friendly, though no less inventive territory on Everything Must Go. Few bands evolve and mutate as fast as the Manic Street Preachers.
"Well, I think we've made the same journey like the Clash, really," says James. "The first Clash album is quintessentially punk and then if you listen to London Calling or Sandinista, they're very much like an almanac of all their influences. I think that every band that stays the same basically just dies."
"I think that from White Riot to Lost In The Supermarket, that's just a massive change and it's the same with us," continues Nicky. "The Clash are probably our biggest influence of all. We were all too young when punk happened but when we saw The Clash on television, we thought it was fantastic and got really inspired. They were really the catalyst for us. I wanted to be Paul Simonon, James wanted to be Joe Strummer, and Richey wanted to be Mick Jones."
There's still a strong guitar element to the brand new album, but now it seems to be a means to an end. There's less of the incisive riffing and piercing solos, in favour of a style that could almost be described as gentle. Nicky describes it as an album more concerned with textures. "The songs are just more complicated," reasons James. "As you grow older you change and just get better. Well some people may say worse, but in my opinion we've become better at what we do. And then it's a reflection of the lyrics too. For me, Nicky's lyrics are such a realisation of soul
searching and contemplation of his environment. Musically you have to reflect those depths and sometimes that requires more than bass, drums and guitar riffs. It's as simple as that."
James also points out that the arrangements naturally spring from the songs themselves. "They make themselves apparent as soon as the songs are written. We always pretty much know what we want to be happening in the songs. We're very much in control of our songs, lyrically and musically." "Obviously we feel this is the best album that we've ever made, the most touching and the most gentle album," adds Nicky. "But that's a statement for the future or whatever, at the position we are in now we don't think about that. If we think more than a day ahead there's usually disaster around the corner. This is where we are at the moment and this record sums up the time for us. There's a certain serenity in it. Maybe it's the way we've been living, hard to say."
The album is also definitely coloured by a desire to experiment a little more, with Bradfield playing a sitar on some tracks, melodica, Wurlitzer and Omnichords further fleshing out the sound. As on the last album there's still that distinct sense of euphoria, something Nicky describes as 'that real Manics rush'. But the approach is undoubtedly more subtle.
FRIEND MEETS FRIEND
Friends since childhood (James and drummer Sean are also cousins), the Manic Street Preachers have so far managed to survive the strains that pull so many similarly composed bands apart. It can't have been easy. "I think that bands have got to grow apart a tiny bit just because they spend so much time together. Nick sometimes spends more time with me than his wife and dog," laughs James.
"We've known each other since we were ten years old or so and we spend seven months a year touring or recording. You've got to grow apart a little bit to stay sane."
Nicky doesn't believe that changing from a four to a three piece has really altered the symmetry of the band. "It has changed us as people but not as a group. It has changed us mentally, but not the way we work or the way we write and compose. That's still the way we've always done it. It's exactly the same now, minus Richey."
"The only way it may have changed a tiny bit, is the fact that it was harder to put music to Richey's lyrics," says James. "Perhaps it's easier for us to be more musically diverse now."
"Richey's songs were just so intellectual that sometimes I didn't know what the fuck they were all about," confesses Nicky. "I think it was good, and it was exciting. But sometimes it was pretty hard to write a song to them."
And when it comes to the actual process of playing the songs, things remain exactly the same as before. "That's one thing that's well documented," says James. "Richey never played much guitar, live we just put up a rack which he...he could play guitar but he didn't really want to."
Nicky: "His pen was his instrument."
THE PEN IS MIGHTIER...
Whereas both Richey and Nicky previously handled the lyric writing process, the new record's themes are solely the work of Nicky. As a writer he proves just as articulate and drawn to weighty issues as Richey, though rather less oblique. Somewhat unusually for a lead singer, James concentrates solely on the music, along with drummer Sean. It must sometimes feel rather odd, particularly given that the Manics' lyrics (for Richey's and Nicky's) have always expressed such personal thoughts and emotions.
"Yes, sometimes it's odd, definitely. But that's what makes being in this band so good!" James admits jokingly. "For instance, there's this song on the new album called Born A Girl, which includes the line 'I wish that I was born a girl instead of this mess of a man.' I wouldn't say that it's preposterous coming out of my mouth, but it takes a lot of getting used to."
"It's about me, sometimes I wish I was born a woman," says Nicky. "There's just a certain side of me which longs for the gentleness and the sensitivity, the female side. I spent a lot of time with my mom when I was growing up, she was sort of a 'God-like' woman. It's probably a payback from there. I'm not saying it's easier being a girl. But sometimes I think that I might be better suited as a woman."
"It's about longing for the essence of feminism," sums up Bradfield. "In general it's just easier for me to sing Nick's lyrics rather than somebody else's just because we all grew up with each other. We've got a lot of shared experiences, even if sometimes we have different ways of getting to the same solution, we have the same history to a certain degree."
The success bestowed upon them after the release of Everything Must Go may have alienated a few, but it posed no contradiction for the band members. This was a group who'd started out proclaiming a desire to be "the biggest rock 'n' roll nightmare ever," after all. While other bands tried to look cool by sticking with indie labels, the young Manics knew that to find an audience they'd have to sign to a major record label, and had told journalists how their debut album would sell 20 million copies. Granted, they had also promised to split up afterwards, but then they'd also
threatened suicide and self-immolation on Top Of The Pops - they were always masters of the attention-grabbing soundbite. And even at this early stage they stood out from the rest of the British music scene, provoking extreme adulation in some.
"I think we meant an awful lot for some people," says Nicky retrospectively. "When we started out, things like the Manchester scene, Stone Roses and Happy Mondays were happening. All good music, but what we were about was something completely different. Our ideology were totally different, it was based on politics, sex and glamour. A lot of people felt unloved and unsatisfied and I think we reached a lot of those people."
Some have suggested the Manic Street Preachers did for Britain what Nirvana did for America. James laughs. "I think that's true but to a smaller extent. I think that we touched the same kinds of people but there weren't so many of them."
When real success did finally arrive with Everything Must Go, they had no qualms about embracing the newly converted.
"It was fine, we have no prejudices against our fans," agrees James with a nod. "We are happy about all the fans that we have, whether it's the nutters or the football lads or the ordinary office clerks or whatever. For me I think that they can all understand the music on their own level." But is the mainstream success at the expense of the original hardcore fanbase?
"No, the actual hardcore fans are still there. There are still these 20 fanzines which write about us, and there are about 80,000 hits on our website every week," says Nicky.
The pair are even relaxed about the inevitable media interest that's accompanied the last two years of success. James: "It's been pretty easy. The press were trying to find stuff about us when we won the Brit Awards, but they couldn't really find anything, we were too boring. Seeing the maelstrom on Liam Gallagher in the papers about whatever moves he makes...we never get that kind of media attention, which is cool."
Some quarters of the press did give the band a hard time about carrying on without Richey, though, perceiving it as an act of betrayal. What would they have done if Everything Must Go wasn't a success. Would that have been the end of the Manics? "If the album sales were poor, we probably would have," says Nicky.
The hardcore fans, especially those who felt an affinity with Richey would send letters written in blood. Does this still happen?
"Not so much anymore," says James. "The Richey fanatics are only really visible when we play live and we haven't played for a long time. When we played gigs for the last album we were aware of those people that believed a certain betrayal had taken place, or that we were a pale imitation of the band we once were. I think that we dealt with that quite easily." Nevertheless, the band has been through a number of traumatic changes over the last few years, it must have changed you as people.
"I think that it has made us more superstitious people," replies James. "Obviously we never dwell on something good for too long, there's always that fear that something is gonna be taken away. I think we have just become more exaggerated in the way we live our lives, and in this period even more so. I've refined my choice of alcohol in most periods, but essentially we haven't changed at all."
While their attitude to the new-found success is healthy, there have been times in the past when they played the media game to such an extent that they felt cheapened and prostituted, something that prompted the track Yes on The Holy Bible. And some might argue they have a habit of wearing their hearts on their sleeves, revealing too much of themselves in their work. Few bands write such personal songs.
"Sometimes we have given too much of ourselves away," agrees Nicky. "When you write about things you share them."
"It's definitely easier for me and Sean," says James. "We don't have that much to say, whereas Nicky and Richey have definitely stripped themselves bare."
Nicky: "That's why I never write about happiness. I want to keep it for myself. That's my privacy." But is there a line between being honest and truthful and descending into self-pity?
"With the Holy Bible we probably crossed that line," admits Nicky. "We were feeling much too sorry for ourselves. Whereas this album says 'this is my truth tell me yours', which means, this is just how I feel, it doesn't mean that I'm right."
"No preaching at all."
THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE
While This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours (taken from a speech by Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS) shows the band to have evolved musically, tracks such as South Yorkshire Mass Murderer show them to be as politically minded as ever.
"It was a very strong socialistic left wing area we grew up in," explains Nicky. "Somehow I feel a duty to write a song about something like Hillsborough. I feel like someone should write about it. Most people just write about themselves, which gets a bit boring. Also, a lot of previous problems are over now. There's not so much to fight for in Britain, it's harder to get angry about things."
That sense of melancholia also looms large on the album. Where did this dissatisfaction and self-doubt come from?
Nicky: "Well there's a couple of things. We weren't well off but we did have very good childhoods, although Sean's was a bit more disrupted. But then it pisses down with rain a lot in Wales for a start, and when we were growing up, being Welsh was pretty difficult. There were no bands and sports were absolutely crap. You kind of got used to losing a lot, and nobody seemed to have much confidence. We started being sarcastic about it, took the piss out of ourselves a lot, drank a lot..."
A typically Welsh reaction?
"I think the Welsh are the best drinkers in the world, we could win the World Cup for drinking, and I think that all of this had some effect upon us, it just made us so determined. Without us realising it, it just made us so determined to wanna be the biggest band in the world, we really wanted to prove ourselves. The melancholia just came from the things we liked, like watching the film Rumblefish a hundred times. There were books and films that we liked and all four of us felt it the same way. Richey just felt it a lot more extreme."
"Politically Wales was quite a bleak landscape for a while and economically it was just about shut down when we were growing up," adds James. "Mines were closed down and the steel workers lost their jobs and all of that," adds Nicky. "The country just went through 10-15 years of complete disaster. I believe something has changed now, but it affected the way we grew up very much."
Is there an affinity, a creative bond with Welsh icons such as Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins?
James: "And Dylan Thomas, all alcoholics."
People you can relate to? "All of those definitely," says James. "They're probably the three most famous Welsh people in this century."
"Then there's Tom Jones," adds Nicky. "He didn't drink, he just shagged everything that came close to him. He became sexually addicted instead. But our all-time hero is Richard Burton."
James: "The way he dealt with and didn't deal with a lot of his demons, are kind of an associated part of our history."
"It kind of sums up everything really," says Nicky. "One of the most talented actors in his generation who ended up going more or less mad and getting fucked up."
James: "And buying the biggest diamond in the world."
Nicky: "It just sums up that lack of self confidence."
Thankfully, things have certainly changed for the new generation growing up there. "Most definitely," agrees Nicky. "There are better jobs, better bands..."
"It's the first time really," says James. "There was always a bit of a stigma to being Welsh, in relation to being from either Scotland or Ireland, there was never any Romanticism attached to us. And now it's cool to be Welsh all of a sudden."
In the early days, the Manic Street Preachers were driven by a desire to be the ultimate band. After the tragedies, knockbacks and successes, is that still a driving ambition? "Definitely, and unfortunately, it gets quite tiring after a while," says James.
Take a quick look back at each album, and there are definite themes being expressed. Their first, Generation Terrorists is all youthful rebellion, Gold Against The Soul bombastic and yet disillusioned, The Holy Bible a painful document of the band (particularly Richey) in a state of near breakdown, and Everything Must Go a declaration of a new start. Just what is that that the new album is trying to express?
"Truth, and that's undoubtedly the best thing about our music at the moment," says James. "That's why we want to make the music beautiful. The lyrics are about our truths, but yet they are very hard to talk about and hard to relate to. But music is a great instrument, because you actually manage to take the lid off somehow."
And how is the band's current state of mind?
Nicky: "I think we're just waiting for the record to come out really, it's pretty odd now we're just waiting, and then it's all work again. But that's the way it always is after finishing a record."
THIS IS THEIR TRUTH
Bearing in mind all the furore and anticipation of the band's new record,
is it possible that things are more relaxed this time round?
"More nervous," replies James with a wry smile. "We're probably more nervous because I've never felt that we have ever put so much into a record. We have just tried to be very focused, and I feel like we've matured so much. We always feel like that, but this time it just feels a little more heightened for some reason. Perhaps it's because this is the first time it's just completely the three of us."
So what's next on the agenda for the conquering Welsh heroes? James' answer comes after a brief pause. "Now I just want to go out and be the best live band in the world," he laughs.