Manic Street Preachers are back with a new album full of special guests, brass, and a stinging critique of Thatcherism - but no electric guitars. Ben Hewitt finds out why.
Manic Street Preachers' original manifesto was `culture, alienation, boredom and despair. You can now add rugby to that. The three-piece have spent the last two months touring Australia and New Zealand purely so they can cheer on the Welsh contingent of the British Lions on their egg-chasing tour (one of whom pops up onstage with them after rugby training— see picture, right). Oddly, they found time for a turn on New Zealand's version of The X Factor, too, performing 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next': a timely reminder that, with their new, largely acoustic album 'Rewind The Film' due out on September 16 and a more jagged,"European"-sounding record to follow next March, national treasures seldom come as subversive or bonkers as the Manics.
"It's not particularly rock'n'roll or fashionable, I know," laughs Nicky. "We've got this really sad, tender and delicate record, but at the same time we're on a rugby tour in Australia doing Andy Williams covers." And The X Factor? "We've done Strictly Come Dancing in the UK," says James. "The bottom line is that, except for 'Later...', music is completely marginalised on TV now And they were nice people. We don't have to fight that fight. If some fuckwit said, 'What are they doing on there?' - well, we've fought all our battles. We don't feel as if we have to answer to people on that level."
Nicky agrees. "We've never been snobbish about that side of things. And 'Tolerate...' has gone back in the Top 20 in New Zealand! Wahey! Melanie Blatt from All Saints was on the panel. It felt like the '90s again."
'Rewind The Film' isn't an attempt to bottle the past, though. Last time folk in the UK saw the Manics, they were bringing the curtain down on singles collection 'National Treasures' with a heroes' send-off at London's O2 Arena and announcing a two-year hiatus. Since then, they've been working, not just on a new album, but on creating a new era. Initially, there were plans to release a sprawling double LP (as James says: "We toyed with the idea of releasing our 'Sandinista!' (The Clash's triple album)", but noticing the disparity between the more soulful, melancholy material and another clutch of spikier songs, they split them down in the middle to create two albums. It's all part of being a veteran band - where do you go next?
"We're just stepping into the unknown now, like all old bands," laughs Nicky. "We get itchy. We're like a stadium version of The Fall. We just can't stop. We've got to keep ploughing on. It would be easy for us to just trundle round the world playing greatest hits sets, but we can't give ourselves in yet. There's bound to be a time when we play the whole of 'The Holy Bible' five nights in a row at Brixton Academy. But until we're in the depths of despair, we still feel like we've got a lot to say, and a lot left to do.
"I think 'Rewind The Film' is a really raw, honest album," he adds. "It really does a face-to-face with mortality. We're all 44 this year. There's a lot of cruel self-examination, some intense self-critiques about how you sustain the fantasy of still being a rock'n'roll band trying to keep our ideology and intent, while realising you're getting old and changing as well. It's so intimate, fragile, and delicate."
All of which might sound a little Manics Go Unplugged', but of the two tracks NME has heard, the first is a blooming, parp-heavy belter called 'Show Me The Wonder', featuring Sean on trumpet (according to James, his trumpet work drove the album to a "beautiful, bucolic, soulful place...but don't worry, it's not going to be a brass band opus"), while the second is the brooding, melancholic six-minute title track featuring Richard Hawley's molasses-rich baritone. We wanted to do something that was more acoustic-based," explains James. "But we weren't sitting with wood-fried beans by the campfire. We just took my electric guitar out of the equation."
Other tracks will include (I Miss The) Tokyo Skyline', which James describes as having a "fragility, but it's not mournful or dampened"; and '30 Year War', which, says Nicky, is an anti-Thatcherism song written long before she died.
"It starts with the miners' strike and moves through Hillsborough, and it's a critique of the attack on the working classes over the last 30 years. It's the most spiteful, angry track on the album, and it's almost the link to the other record - it sounds like 'Lodger'-era Bowie."
Hawley isn't the only star turn on 'Rewind The Film'. 'Four Lonely Roads' is completely sung by Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon, and 'This Sullen Welsh Heart' (which, along with 'Running Out Of Fantasy' is as "bare as you can get", Nicky says) features backing vocals from solo star and Bombay Bicycle Club collaborator Lucy Rose. The guests were included not as gimmicky head-turners, but to give the LP some extra pep.
"I wrote the music and the lyrics to 'Four Lonely Roads, and I just didn't want to hear my voice on there," says Nick. "I saved the public from that! Cate added such a pure vocal to it, in almost unnerving. And Lucy Rose has a really beautiful, cracked vocal. It's like a Leonard Cohen duet from the '70s."
"I've got a sneaking feeling that I've been singing our songs for so long it's hard to find something new as a vocalist," adds James. "It's easier as a drummer or bassist or guitarist to find a different direction, but if you try to change the sound of your voice, you end up sounding like a dick. And I felt my voice, at this point, was underselling some of the songs. There's no point in having an ego about it. I don't care if someone else is going to sing it. I've had enough props and glory."
In December 2011, the Manics pledged to stay away for at least two years, but their UK live hiatus ends before that: they headlinine Festival No 6 in Portmeirion the weekend before the record is released (September 13-15), and have just announced a string of UK tour dates, too. "I've got to get my head around performing more acoustic-based songs in alive sense. I'm a bit scared about it," admits James. "In the past we've always relied on power to connect with people, but we can't rely on bludgeoning them on the head and dragging them along with us."
Good to see the rugger boys' attitude hasn't rubbed off on them too much...