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Manics Cuba 17/02/01 - FRONT, May 2001

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Title: Manics Cuba 17/02/01
Publication: FRONT
Date: May 2001
Writer: Andy Barding
Photos: Tom Sheehan


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History was made when the first chords were struck by the Manics in Cuba. FRONT, plus one, was on Fidel's guest list.

This was the day that the land of song met the island of salsa - and, boy, was It a runaway success. Manic Street Preachers, three impossible dreamers from Blackwood, threw the traditional record-company marketing strategy in the bin by launching their newest album with an extraordinary concert in communist Cuba. As a means of introducing Know Your Enemy to the world, the Manics' show at the Karl Marx Theatre in downtown Havana certainly beats a sell-out gig in Kettering. FRONT was there to witness the once-in-a-lifetime event, and before the gig we were invited into the hotel room of outspoken bass player Nicky Wire, for a chat...

So, Nicky. Having a good time, then?
The people here are really welcoming - bending over backwards to be so nice to us. It's hard to adjust to people being so nice, coming from the hard school that we do in terms of media and everything else. We've done the touristy things, the Che and the revolutionary square and stuff like that. We've been around old Havana.

What are your first impressions of the place?
Quite a surprise, actually. Compared with America, you'd think Cuba was a shanty town With no electricity or anything. It's not like that. There are pockets of poverty, like anywhere, but I think generally the overall impression is of a country that's moving forward in a good way.

You've planned this for some time, haven't you?
In my head, yeah. I never thought it'd come true though. It was an idea I had back in July last year, just to do something different and also to make a political gesture.

What was the reaction of your management company and the record label when you said you wanted to go to Cuba?
Surprisingly enough, I have to say everyone thought it was brilliant. Even Sony, who don't really want anything to do with it, can see the reason behind it. I'm not going to sit here and deny that it is going to help us in terms of publicity as well, but that's only because we've got the balls to do it. Let's face it, we could have played a stadium in the UK to start everything off, made loads of money, and everything would have been hunky dory.

How much is this costing you?
A lot.

Ballpark figure?
[Laughs] A lot!

And you're bringing over your own lights and PA, aren't you?

They're stuck in a ship somewhere at the moment. So there is a huge element of chaos to this. But that's what we wanted.

Have you been for a ride in one of the old American taxis yet?
I did, yeah. We went for a drive through the old town. It was absolutely boiling, my ass was stuck to the seat.

Are you normally good in hot weather?
Terrible. Typical Welsh person.

You've been to Bangkok with the Manics...
Yeah, and never recovered. I found that really difficult. The best thing about it is it's nowhere I've ever been before. It's like the first time we went to Japan as a group. It's exactly the same in that you know you are entering a different culture. I think that's really refreshing because it opens your eyes up.

Have you had a chance to mix with the locals?
We did some mad radio interviews and that was probably the most feedback we've had with people. They were so nice. It was very gratifying, it makes you humble.

Had any Of them heard of you as a band?
No. Some people on the radio station had and had been playing some of our records. But no-one's coming to see us because they're huge fans. That's part Of the reason we're here.

The Minister Of Culture for Cuba is a big Beatles fan and I hear he was impressed with you playing a version of Rock'n'roll Music on the Manic Millennium video.
Yeah, he was. He met us at the airport and he's a lovely chap. More than anything else, they're really impressed with James' guitar playing. They really love guitars. Have you noticed all the musicians who come round the bars serenading you with guitars? James keeps picking up the guitar and plays along with them. If I did that there would be an almighty racket!

Did you encounter any problems with the authorities before coming over?

Er, I'm thinking about Nicky Wire in a dress...
Maybe then, years ago. They're more chilled out about stuff like that now. They have a Mardi Gras, but I'm not intending to do that on this campaign, so it was never really an issue.

Did you know much about Cuba before coming?
Only in the political sense. I was lucky enough to do politics at university. Some people expect us to be experts on Cuba, but we're just trying to take as much in as we can. Whatever we do here we can never say we know the country. There are none of our records on sale here and there probably never will be, so it's not like some sort of evil organisation trying to get its foot in the new world economy, That's never going to happen.

What Sort of legacy do you think you'll leave here? You know there's a John Lennon statue. Any chance of a Nicky Wire statue?
When someone asked Fidel why he built the Statue of Lennon, he said it was because he's a revolutionary [laughs] which is cool as fuck! There are a lot of people who feel quite a lot of respect for what Cuba has done. Every country has its rights and wrongs, there's no two ways about it. Human rights are sacrificed in varying forms all around the world, whether fucking Llanwern steelworks in Newport losing 3,000 jobs, not being able to wear a dress, or whatever. Cuba has got such a strong culture musically, and in terms of sport they're fucking fantastic, Everyone knows how much I love sport. On the album, Alberto Juantorena is mentioned, who is the only athlete to ever win the 400m and 800m in the Olympics. They've got good boxers - Theophilo Stephenson, Felix Sevon, Kid Gavan...I'm a huge boxing fan, You know Antoni Garcia who beat Colin Jackson in the Olympics? Cuban 110m hurdler. Amazing.

Have you arranged to meet any of these guys?
Were meeting Felix Sevon, who is three times Olympics heavyweight champion.

That'll be a big trip for you.
It'll awkward because I don't like meeting my heroes. but it'll be nice, The fact that we met the Cuban Minister Of Culture is quite exciting. A bit different from meeting Chris Smith.

Have you had much reaction to having the Cuban flag On the cover of the Masses Against The Classes single?
Yeah, of course. When our manager came over he brought copies of that with him. I don't think it did any harm.

You think the Cubans appreciated the gesture?
Yes, and its all we can do - a gesture. If people expect were going to start a revolution in Wales by coming to Cuba, we're not. It's not about that. It is about a gesture. People can be very cynical about gestures these days. But that's why they don't occur any more because people can't be bothered. We can.

Which is why you're doing things like releasing two singles on the same day...

That's more to do with just trying to mix things up and be different from the last record.

Have you got anything else up your sleeve?
Yeah, through the summer there'll be lots. We might even be busking on the streets of Swansea or something. That's the sort of thing we want to do to be honest. Just turn up with a guitar somewhere, all those kinds of things. Don't tell anyone, just do it.

You sing on the new album. How was that?
I attempt to sing. Everyone knows I'm an exhibitionist. I sound like a cross between Mark E. Smith and Katharine Hepburn - that's James' description. The song's meant to be a mix between The Fall and Red Hot Chili peppers.

It's called Wattsville Blues, which is where you live in Wales.
I think it's a really glamorous title. It sounds like the Wattsville town riots, Or something. But it's just a street with 24 terraced houses. It's just somewhere. It's kind of about dealing with the tabloid nature of papers snooping. But it's not a nasty song, its kind of an ode to youth - having nothing to lose. That's the main phrase in the song, 'I've got nothing to lose now'. When we were young and bulletproof we didn't care about anything. It's a metaphor for the idea of feeling so strong when you're young.

And there's a song about Elian, that Cuban kid.
That's a metaphor for the way the media is so controlled by America. The truth is distorted by the news organisations. The perfect example is the American election. NBC called the election wrong before it was announced, then said something different, then Bush announced he had won, then everything changed. The idea the American media always think they're right is a false perception of anything. If someone had been kidnapped in America and gone to Cuba, we'd nave known about it, wouldn't we? You have to use lawyers to find out the truth.

You've hinted recently that the band is on the brink of - dare I say - self-destruction?

I wouldn't go that far! (Laughs)

But it's back to sink or swim.

This Is My Truth was the most successful record we've ever had. And when we walked off stage at the Millennium gig, 62,000 people in your own country on Millennium eve, it's pointless trying to recreate that. We knew that when we walked off the stage it was the best night ever. There's no point trying to kid ourselves that doing three nights at Cardiff International Arena will be as good as that. It'll be great and we'll do those things again, but we've got to change and push ourselves in different directions. So yeah, self-destruct, I understand what you're saying. It's about getting the hunger back - it's hard. because you have to sort of artificially create it.