New Testament - The Quietus, 20th April 2009
New Testament: Manic Street Preachers On Journal For Plague Lovers
John Doran, April 30th, 2009
John Doran talks to Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield about Richey, Jenny Saville's artwork, and working with Steve Albini
In 1994 Manic Street Preachers released The Holy Bible, an album that through its intensity, lack of compromise and tunnel vision joined a select group that now includes such works of art as Low, Unknown Pleasures, In Utero, Metal Box amongst (few) others. It was, as their biographer Simon Price pointed out, the sound of intolerance. The themes of anorexia, self-loathing, the Holocaust, collapse of the self, misogyny, totalitarianism et al were accompanied by the kind of clangorous and serrated post punk tones last heard gracing albums by the likes of PiL, Wire and Gang of Four. It was fractured message and dissonant soul in perfect (dis)harmony. The radicalism of the message being in total balance with the radical force of the noise put you in mind of Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. (And, for what it's worth, it's my favourite rock album of the 90s.)
As has been well documented, the band's chief lyricist and (for many) focal point Richey Edwards went missing six months later. One parting gift he left to his friends, James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore, was masses of lyrics, poetry and prose.
Some of these words have now been used by the band as the backbone of their ninth album Journal For Plague Lovers, recorded in Rockfield Studios in Wales last winter. This album is a follow up of sorts to The Holy Bible; to re-enforce the point, the same Cyrillic style typeface (that they originally half-inched from the cover of Simple Minds' Empires And Dance) and another piece of stunning art by Jenny Saville adorn the sleeve.
We caught up with Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield to discuss the album. Due to your correspondent's perma-jittery hands a cup of tea was knocked over the recording device and a section of conversation was lost. This, for the curious, included James talking at length (with my full encouragement) about prog rock group Rush and Nicky being gracious about my over extended metaphor for the album. (Which concerned a gnarly and deranged Keith Levene and a foppish and fey Elliott Smith having a boxing match.)
So: the lyric "Oh mummy what's a Sex Pistol" from a song called 'Jackie Collins Existential Question Time'; the lyric "We missed the sex revolution when we failed the physical" from a song called 'Me And Stephen Hawking'. Are we seeing some hitherto hidden surrealist comic aspect to Manic Street Preachers?
Nicky Wire: "I think there is that element to this record. There is pathos there. The Holy Bible is revengeful, it's full of disgust with humanity. With this record there does seem more recognition of flaws or the fact that he's been through this process of utterly doubting everything and it does seem there is more serenity, more calmness and, dare I say it, even some sense of humour from Richey and his lyrics."
So it wouldn't be too facile to draw an Old Testament/New Testament comparison to the two albums then?
NW: "I like it!"
James Dean Bradfield: "Facile was one of those words that Richey used all the time... I don't know though, really. I think it's more the fact that he's dealing with the fall-out from all the things that are expressed on The Holy Bible. It's the natural conclusion to dealing with all the fall-out."
NW: "I think once you've realised that with The Holy Bible it seems like he has lost faith with humanity and maybe with this it feels like he is hovering over humanity. It's how it feels to me anyway."
How did the lyrics originally come into your possession?
NW:"Basically there was a big old binder with a picture of Bugs Bunny on the front and it's just got 'opulence' scrawled on it and within that there are a lot of lyrics, pieces of prose, there are bits of JG Ballard, extracts from Kerouac, there are collages. It's a very tactile piece of art. He gave that to me and he gave copies to James and Sean, facsimile copies, probably between three and five weeks before he disappeared. I'm not sure of the exact date but it was between those two dates. At the time we didn't think there was anything unusual about this because he was so prolific at this point, y'know? All he was doing was reading, painting, writing, typing... watching... consuming culture. He was always handing us lyrics but looking back obviously it was obviously a serious body of work that he was leaving us."
JDB: "I thought he was handing us something which was saying 'There's a double album on the way.' A concept album, maybe our version of the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs."
When did you first read them?
JDB: "I think we all read them lots about two weeks after he went missing. I think after about two weeks after his initial disappearance we all started delving into our copies to see if there was anything in there..."
NW: "I dipped in there but I definitely didn't read them properly. I went through them like in a crappy detective movie kind of way initially."
JDB: "Yeah. And after that there were periods where I would just get mine out of the drawer, about once or twice a year and read them. But I'd always return them neatly to the drawer because it just didn't feel like the time was right to tackle them. I just didn't want to do them the disservice of not paying them the right amount of attention. Over the years I got to read them more and more; I got more familiar with the titles and the lyrics themselves and then I got my copy out two years ago and for some reason I just couldn't stop turning pages. And that's just the way that it was. It did coincide with me feeling that I didn't want to do a follow-up to Send Away The Tigers. Perhaps that's convenient in my mind but I did say to Nicky that I felt there was a lot of pressure to come up with another Send Away The Tigers or another This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours even. I didn't feel ready and I didn't feel like I wanted to do it. And at that time I was reading Richey's lyrics and the way my simple mind throws stuff together I just went 'Hmmm! Let's do this instead...' And I didn't feel scared any more at all. I felt like we could do it justice. I started having ideas as I went through it and it just felt comfortable."
Were there any other factors that you had to consider, like the feelings of the Edwards family or anything of that nature?
NW: "I think the fact that it had been so long, from a very simple tactful way it made sense, in terms of the family situation. And he left the lyrics so he obviously wanted them to be used. It was just a nagging sense of responsibility really. We either had to publish them in a book or we had to turn them into songs. And they are lyrics. Yes, there are some poems and some prose but as a rule he was obsessed with the art form of writing lyrics."
And lyrics should be heard as part of a song shouldn't they, rather than just written down
NW: "Yes they should. You know, they're so staccato at times, you can hear those rhythms and stuff. They don't make brilliant poetry sometimes but they make fucking brilliant lyrics. When I looked at them in detail it made me realise how much I missed him as a lyricist and how much I envied him and his ability to cram and to compound so much detail into one line. I think it's phenomenal. With these lyrics in particular, it seems like he really has reached a peak of confidence in his art I think. It's something special."
JDB: "Just rising to the bloody minded challenge of looking at some of the lyrics... the words in 'Pretension//Repulsion', in the verse... it is just a list of words! Purposefully after each word there is a full stop though. 'Explored' — full stop. 'Enclosed' — full stop. And just seeing somebody laying down the gauntlet, the challenge. It did remind me of some of my experiences on The Holy Bible. 'Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit'sworldwouldfallapart' — it was nice to revisit that kind of challenge."
Was there a sense in that you were being kept on your toes?
NW: There was a bit of that yeah. I can't write lyrics like this. And I wouldn't want to, you know? I think the lyrics have driven us to different places musically."
When you think of Manic Street Preachers you don't think of ill-educated chaps in leisure wear who wouldn't know which way up to hold a book, but this said it still must have been hard to choose which lyrics would make the final cut, as some of them are bordering on Joycean in their complexity.
NW: "There are obviously some we haven't used, some of them are just haikus, you know, just three lines long. Generally, I don't think James had much in the way of a problem with them."
JDB: "The one I had a problem with was 'William's Last Words' because it was setting music to prose. That was the one I had a complete block on and Nick did it instead. But the rest of it was easy to be honest. And also, I've got to say, it was kind of nice to sing some stuff that I didn't have a grasp on."
NW: "I think we all enjoyed that, we decided not to try and interpret everything that he wrote and to understand it all because we never did anyway. There's stuff on The Holy Bible. I kind of know what 'Yes' is about but I can't relate to it. Not really."
JDB: "And he was notoriously opaque when you asked him a question about lyrics. You would ask him about 'Yes' and say 'Is it voyeuristic, is it vicarious, is it observational, is it personal?' He wouldn't really clear it up sometimes. He was never very vociferous in explaining these things."
There are very few albums that came out in the 1990s where I'll still catch myself thinking, "what does it mean to juxtapose these stages of sexual development with all these Communist leaders?"
NW: "'Revol' is a mad song."
JDB: "Talking about 'Revol' I said to him 'You're just making a load of despots get together aren't you?' And he said that was pretty much it."
So you've got yet more amazing artwork from Jenny Saville that shows a young, androgynous girl who does look like Richey as a boy just seconds after some form of violent incident or accident. To me it seems to capture the moment that a child realises its own mortality. Well, that's how I read it anyway. How did your involvement with Jenny Saville come about?
NW: "It's one of the benefits of being in a band I guess. Me and Richey were reading a Sunday supplement feature on art and she was featured in the piece. We got in touch with her and after Richey talked to her she gave us the use of one of her pieces of art for free. We were lucky, I guess. Apparently it's next to impossible to get permission to use art like that normally because there are so many hoops you have to jump through first. We were lucky this time as well as she let us use another piece of art for the sleeve. We had a wish list of stuff that we wanted for this album: lyrics by Richey, Albini to record it, artwork by Jenny. I guess you could say she's a beautiful person."
Isn't Rockfield a bit leather trousers enhanced in the groin area, with a cucumber down the front, one foot on the monitors, screaming 'Come on Knebworth'?
JDB: "I guess so, a little bit but it's also [lists every single brilliant band who have ever played there — his argument is overwhelmingly valid]. On a technical point, Rockfield uses tape and Albini records on tape and doesn't use computers or anything and there are not actually that many studios left that do that anymore. They've got really great tape machines. It's just a great studio."
NW: "Also, The Holy Bible was written in Wales, these songs were written and rehearsed in Wales, and we wanted to record it there as well."
So Steve Albini ruins a lot of records. He ruined the last ever Stooges album, surely he's the last person you should have called.
[Both whistle in mild indignation]
JDB: "You can't say that. I'd debate that actually."
NW: "I know what you're getting at with the first part of what you said."
Actually I'm being facaetious. I'm a big fan of Albini's and of Big Black and Shellac in particular but many bands have stood or fallen by the way he records stuff. I understand what his process is and that he's just creating an audio document of what a band were like at a particular point in time.
JDB: "His process is that he doesn't process the band. What's there is there. He doesn't try and improve on what's going into the microphones. He doesn't try and change the sound. He doesn't add arrangements. But it is true that if you're not well rehearsed and you haven't got good songs, he can't make you sound much better. You can't go into the studio and fucking jam with him there. [laughs] It's really, really, really muso shit like if the drummer doesn't know how to tune his kit and he doesn't know how he wants his kit to sound then it will sound shit. But if he is optimised as a musician in his own sensibilities then it will sound great. But I think Steve has done some... not so good jobs on his own records and some amazing work on his own stuff. 1,000 Hurts is incomparable."
NW: "I'd say it's a 50/50 thing with him. Bands want too much from him and all we wanted was a recording and that's what he does: he records."
JDB: "He was really upfront with us from the start, which put me on alert and made realise that I had to realign my sense a little bit. I said to him 'I know you've been told this before Steve but I'm in awe of some of the drum sounds on In Utero.' Straight away he was like 'That's how Nirvana sounded. I've stood in a room with you and you don't sound like that all the time.' And it's true because on 'Peeled Apples' that's perhaps akin to the violence on parts of In Utero and that's how Sean was playing it like that. Then I realised that he was going to make us sound like we did in the room. He said 'I don't have this magic button where I can press it and... ta da! In Utero!'"
NW: "Sean loved it because of the drum thing. He was done in a week. And I loved it because I've never come across anyone before with as much hatred and spite towards other musicians. At the end of the day me and him would sit down and watch the music channels and take the piss out of every band that came on until we could find one that we could agree on. I really connected to him in that sense. And that includes bands he's worked with! We'll be one of those bands in the future! I don't think he's ever going to give us a glowing report but I think he enjoyed the session."
He doesn't think much of vocals does he?
JDB: "You know I never picked that up myself. [laughs] Well, he wasn't in dereliction of his duty, but if I went beyond three takes on something he'd be like [looks at watch and puts on Chicagoan drawl] 'I don't know why you're doing this, I mean, you've already got it.' I mean sometimes to ask for a fourth take on the vocals is not unreasonable."
NW: "It was almost like he was relieved when he was recording me singing 'William's Last Words' because it was done so quickly. With James — he's a singer, a really good singer. With me it was like 'It's done. I'm stoked.'"
JDB: "He's massively into poker, he had three text books with him about advanced poker techniques, and every Saturday he'd jump in the back of a car to go to London to play poker all night. He'd be like 'It's a big game boys, I'm going to be playing all night, I can't wait." And I would be like 'Save a bit of that enthusiasm for doing my vocals.'"
NW: "It was great really. I'd do it again."
Is it a misconception that he's very misanthropic?
JDB: "He's got a very big soup kitchen ethic. He's very, very, very traditionally liberal but then he goes beyond that sometimes as well. You could say he's misanthropic but right at the very end he couldn't finish because he had to go back and he sent us a present. He sent us over a bunch of CDs and books by Studs Terkel, the Chicagoan social journalist and commentator. And Steve is very earnest in his politics so that balances out the misanthropy."
What's the hidden track called? I love that song.
NW:"It's called 'Bag Lady' and that could have fitted onto The Holy Bible easily. It was included for a very petty rock 'n' roll reason: we wanted symmetry. We wanted 13 tracks on this album. And we wanted a secret track like off In Utero. 'Bag Lady' was one of the last tracks we wrote and recorded."
Now, let's move onto 'William's Last Words' and your singing on it Nicky. Er, how do I put this... erm, what am I trying to say here...
[Both burst out laughing]
Some people might suggest — cruel and unreasonable people, perhaps, but people nonetheless — that you're not exactly a natural singer...
NW:"I'm not a singer, I'm a sigher. As in I sigh. I wrote the music for that so I gave the demo to James and I think he thought that if he sang it, it would have been too good. It would have been a ballad. It would have been..."
JDB: "I would have sung it like a mini-Tom Jones. [Does killer impression of Tom Jones singing the lyrics] It would have been fucking wrong."
So you just hit it with a bit of C86 feyness Nicky?
NW: "Oh yeah absolutely. I mean Lawrence from Felt is the singer I was aiming for. I think it ended up a bit more like Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' to be honest."
JDB: "With a tiny bit of Katherine Hepburn in there as well."
NW:"I enjoyed it but can I say that I have no pretensions to being a singer in a band or anything like that."
JDB: "Yes you fucking do."
NW: "No I don't! I've already said he can do it live. I've already had my panic over it. But I think it kind of works."
What have you sorted out for the Roundhouse shows?
NW: "We've not had much time to think about it yet. It was another of my ideas that I'll probably live to regret. We'll play the album in full then there'll be an interval. Time for oxygen and a massage and then back to do older material. There'll be some hits but there'll be some proper curios as well. One song we have worked on is a cover of 'Primitive Painters' by Felt, which is one of the best songs ever recorded. We had to do it for the Japanese version of the album because they need an extra track. Oh, and I should mention the remixes because we've had some amazing ones done. Andrew Weatherall has done an amazing version of 'Peeled Apples' which he described as being like Charlie Watts playing with PiL. The Horrors have done a remix of 'Doors Closing Slowly' which is even doomier, British Sea Power have done 'Me And Stephen Hawking' which is a Joe Meek kind of thing. Four Tet have really used and abused Albini's sounds."
What do you think of The Horrors album?
NW: "I love it, it's fucking great. It'll be my album of the year."
JDB: "Yeah, it's the gothic Screamadelica."
I love it but it seems to have split the vote. I know a lot of people who think they don't have the right haircuts to play Krautrock. Even though they're not really playing Krautrock.
NW: "Really?! They just follow their own path. I mean I liked them initially because they were a bit like us and portrayed as the cartoon band with spiky hair and eyeliner, which I always love anyway. Now they're a bit like us when we recorded The Holy Bible, they just locked themselves away, they haven't listened to anyone and they've come out with this album which is superb."
If any other band were to release an album like Journal For Plague Lovers it would signify the end of a period in their career. A change of pace or a move on to newer pastures. With Manic Street Preachers however you've already been through two or three definable periods since then, so will this album affect who you are and what you do as a band?
NW: "I don't think it will do. I think the joy of this album is that we got to feel almost like a four piece again but I think the next record will be about the smaller things in life. But [starts whispering and nods at James] don't tell him because he panics. But lyrically I want it to be about the tiny things in life that give joy because amongst all the debris all that is left are the tiny things