A Friday afternoon, early June. Nicky Wire is sat half watching the World Cup opening ceremony. Since the last time I was here, Faster Studios has undergone a radical overhaul. Walls of iconic images – everyone from Van Halen to Vanessa Paradis – and a proper kitchen make the studio feel like home from home. Wire is looking scarily healthy, the result of months of clean living forced on him by a series of ailments. He’s also fiercely positive about the new record which is in the final hurdle stages of recording.
There seems to have been an amazingly quick turn around on this record...
I think the key to that was the fact that I didn’t write any lyrics on the last record. I’ve been stockpiling a lot of words and quite a few tunes since Send Away The Tigers. It’s made the record more doable. With the record, we’re currently down to the last few tracks. Tom Elmhirst is mixing a few tracks, he did Amy Winehouse...and Lifeblood! We ended up writing quite a few tracks on the American and Canadian tour, that was an incredibly productive time for us as a band. The Descent Pages 1 & 2 was written on the bus. We were playing the track acoustically on the bus, James fitted the words in and it was done. There was another one in Toronto called Hazleton Avenue which was written on the bus. Must have been sharing the space with John Niven. Recording wise, James is cutting in New York at the start of July and that’s it done.
Did the fact that there was such a gap for you writing between SATT and this record mean that there was a backlog that gave you more to choose from?
There’s been a lot of editing. There’s 24 songs on the board and we’ve been very rigorous in what we’ve chosen. Lyric wise it’s been pretty fast. Postcards From A Young Man came quite late. That song was one we felt we needed to dig out of ourselves, so to speak. Otherwise it feels like a very natural record, the natural progression from SATT. We always said that JFPP was us stepping off the treadmill. James likes to make an analogy with Aerosmith, that SATT was Permanent Vacation and this record is like Pump. Bigger and better. I most point out that is absolutely not a musical analogy! It’s just us ramping everything up. There’s strings everywhere, gospel choirs, John Cale is on a track, Duff McKagan is on a track...we’ve even got Ian McCulloch doing a duet with James.
Looking back, was the end of the JFPL period a tension valve being released?
Only the touring was a strain. Making the record was magical. Rediscovering Richey’s lyrics, being in the studio with Steve Albini. When we toured it, it got a little tougher. Much like the Bible when you’re singing those words every night, or hearing them in my case. Then my back going was really depressing. It was a very short, very intense period. It was James’ idea and it was definitely the right one for us as a band. If we’d have done this straight after SATT it probably would have been too hard to pull off.
Did you use any of the Albini approach?
The essence of recording, the engineering skills of Dave and Loz, us playing much more carefree, looser. It’s like a ’70s engineered record released in the ’90s! It’s unashamedly ’90s at times.
You’d said previously about trying to make a record that sat somewhere between ABBA and Queen...
From the get go, we conceived it as our last chance to attempt to communicate on a mass level. We felt it was our last shot at rock immortality. Not saying we’re splitting up or anything but ten albums is a massive milestone. Ten albums on the same label, with the same manager, with the same people in the band. Not many bands manage that in eighteen years these days.
Most bands have got at least three members in rehab and a load of pending divorce cases by then. I always wonder whether there’s some kind of Welsh work ethic that kicks in too...
Generation Terrorists was ’92, so that makes this our tenth studio album in eighteen years. There’s a couple of double album length records, a greatest hits, a B-sides best of...solo albums. When we resigned with Columbia, there was something to be genuinely proud of. Apart from Sade we’re their longest serving ‘artist’. That, in this day and age of the end of the music industry, was something heart-warming. You know us, we hate using words like ‘proud’. Really, it’s a feeling that’s transferred onto the record. There’s a famous quote from an author that says “You only write two kinds of novels and all the rest you repeat yourself.” I think with the Manics there’s the Holy Bible/Journal For Plague Lovers novel, that’s one entity when we’re at our best and then there’s Everything Must Go/Send Away The Tigers at the other end of our spectrum. I think the two versions of the band that we’re really comfortable with, this record fits into the latter one. But then I theorize a lot more than I should.
It seemed like the record came together incredibly quickly, down here in Cardiff...
I think we demoed seriously when we got back from America. James couldn’t be here for some of it so he’d record acoustic tracks and me and Sean would put down bass and drums together, Beatles style. It’s been utterly joyful, we’ve really trusted each other more than ever on the record. But as we came to the end of recording, the intensity and concentration almost overwhelmed us because we felt the stakes are so high. The main pressure we’ve felt with the record is to think whether we could still get on the radio.
What’s been the motivation with the record?
There are loads of strings on this record. I think the best strings that have ever been recorded are on Ocean Rain. Everything Must Go has been a big influence on us – we always look inwards to our own records when we record. The idea that melancholia and rage can be harnessed into something euphoric – that’s the key to some of our best records. They’re angry but they lift you up. The Beatles have been a big influence, it’s the first time we’ve given in to them, Magical Mystery Tour and Abbey Road have been a huge influence. Primal Scream’s Dixie Narco period – the idea of adding a slight modernity to a classic sound. Paul Weller’s Wake Up The Nation. Sometimes it feels like he’s the only one able to have a critical eye. The lack of new bands with anything to say makes it feel more and more like he’s the only eye surveying the universe.
He’s also the only person with a similar work ethic...
I’ve grown to love him and respect him more and more. 22 Dreams and this one. You’re not going to get better records from a fifty year old are you? The fact that he’s so full of rage. That’s one thing I haven’t denied on this record. Injustice and anger are in our DNA, there’s no point suppressing it. It’s not a Richey-esque Nihilist rage, that clinical, genius dissection of things. With me it’s almost a petty rage at times. The Dennis Wilson Pacific Ocean Blue reissue. Biffy Clyro believe it or not. Out Of Time by REM has been there in the background.
There are loads of motivating things in there that don’t come through but that’s ok. I’ve been listening to loads of Sparklehorse and Stockhausen but those influences don’t necessarily come through on the record. I’m sick of bands becoming ‘the artist’ and mutating into something they’re not supposed to be. The dramatic nature of the landscape change out there is so phenomenal, who knows. There’s a certain nostalgia to the record too. I’m not sitting here saying, “The past was fantastic!” but I do think the present – music wise – is utterly mediocre. It’s undeniable that this generation is utterly devoid of any from of political or critical analysis of it's own environment. It's totally disconnected from it. If you think that's important then I think there’s still a relevance to us existing. I really believe this record will either connect or it’ll be a huge stiff. That’s not me being overly dramatic or arrogance, there’s a genuine belief that’s divisive like that. Either massive radio hits or completely fucked. I don’t think this is so much of a press record. It’s very different to Journal, that record was a press dream...
It was a record with a story attached to it - a perfect press story.
And this one is different. We’re not wilfully rejecting the credibility that we got with the last album – with the record, the gigs, the remixes. I think we just feel that this is our only option at this point.
That’s a brilliant thing to still have that drive.
The thing with Oasis splitting, you think what is there left? All those people who moan on about the ’90s fucking everything because all the bands became too big, I just keep thinking, what are we left with? An eternity of absolute fucking indie shit that’s not connecting with anyone. There are some truly desperate people out there. They’re lower than tedium. There are bands and they’re aping Ian Curtis but they’re not taking inspiration from the deepness and the true poetry of his lyrics, they’re just doing his fucking kooky dance. They’ve made the whole thing into a cabaret act. For us, Ian Curtis is one of the great writers in any field of the 20th century.
So many bands seem to have picked an outfit off the rails at American Apparel – the ‘indie’ look and thought that’s enough...
That’s why I love the xx. At least they’re for real you know they’re a genuine band who are doing it whatever the prevailing wind. I don’t need to listen to their record every day but I thank fuck they’re doing it. I love the fact that they’ve managed to rewrite the blueprint of one of Wales’ greatest, most underrated bands, Young Marble Giants. I mean that as a massive compliment, by the way. They look like they should be in a band together.
You’re going out on the road with British Sea Power, another band a total aesthetic.
We’re really thrilled, they’re doing the whole tour with us. I think it’s a perfect match for us. They did a brilliant remix of Me and Stephen Hawking for us, there’s a mutual appreciation I think. Tickets have done remarkably well – we never take anything for granted, we’re just so thrilled about it all.
We’re also doing the Millennium Stadium with Paul McCartney. We’ve played there twice before – on Millennium Eve and when Wales beat Italy in the football, we played on the pitch before the match. It’s a good triptych I think. I was genuinely thrilled to be asked – I was supposed to interview him for a newspaper at this office in Soho. Then, after a shit year health wise, I was in the doctors the night before we were supposed to do it, crawling on my fucking knees feeling like utter shit. I had to cancel. Probably the only person in the world who’s blown him out. He really is a hero, he’s written some fantastically bleak songs. People see him as this chirpy happy bloke but listen to Eleanor Rigby to Yesterday to For No One which is one of my favourite Beatles songs ever. I really wanted to plunder that side of things. To have the chance to go up and apologise about blowing him out, that’s something I’m really happy about.
What have you been enjoying during the recording?
The poetry of Anne Sexton. I don’t know why I haven’t discovered it before, it’s pretty bleak. But then the best poetry is. One of the cardinal sins of life is funny poetry. Like funny music, it should be banned. Sarah Kane’s plays I’ve been reading. I think she was an admirer of Richey’s. I’ve been going back to Dylan Thomas. I know it sounds like a cliché but that line, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”, it feels so applicable to the music industry at the moment, where we’re stood at the moment. It’s not a negative thing to say, it’s just true. There’s one track on the album called All We Make Is Entertainment which is very much about here, now. The selling off of Cadbury’s was the final death knell for Britain, there’s genuinely nothing left that we make here that we own. The crime of New Labour was to believe that only good could come out of surrendering to the city. If you’d have said ten years ago that the only nationalised industry in this country would be banking people would have had heart attacks. It makes you despair, why didn’t we prop up the car industry years ago, where people had proper jobs? Steel, coal, engineering, gas, water, electricity, the trains...why didn’t we keep them going, why don’t we own our own utilities? Industries based on jobs that involved men and women going to work and actually making something. New Labour pissed on its own class, it really did.
On a completely different tip, I’ve been trying to write a script for Doctor Who called Do Not Go Gently. The idea is centred around Dylan Thomas’ last days in New York. Of course it’s going to have a massive fucking monster in it too.
Politics wise, John Gray’s Straw Dogs has been a massive influence. The track on the album A Million Balconies Under The Sun is very influenced by JG Ballard. The idea he posited back in the ’60s that everyone would be their own movie star is horribly prophetic. The bad sides of the internet – the reliance on numbers and being popular, the selfishness of it. The Mark Lawson interview with Martin Amis was fucking amazing. It was proper Cracked Actor stuff, he looked like a man utterly broken. And he had a fucking awful leather jacket on. Him and Will Self, I can’t read either of their fiction works now but I love seeing them in discussion on TV. As a raconteur, Martin Amis has more command of the English language than anyone. He just talked so much about growing up in Swansea with Kingsley. Just brilliant. He looked like I’ve felt this year, properly poorly. Lastly, the Pixar film Up. That’s such a beautiful piece of melancholy, that’s been a constant inspiration on the new record. The first ten minutes are the bravest bit of cinema I’ve seen in years.