They're listening to Dido, easing up on the rants, talking to ad agencies - and saying goodbye to Richey. Have the Manic Street Preachers finally relaxed? Dorian Lynskey finds out
Top of the Pops audience members are nothing if not versatile. Five minutes ago, on the last Friday evening in September, they were directing their considerable enthusiasm towards the gym-clad dancers representing Eric Prydz's Call on Me: picture a Jane Fonda workout video reimagined by the staff of Razzle. Now they whoop just as enthusiastically as three thirtysomething men in black perform a song called The Love of Richard Nixon. They clap along as the screen above the Manic Street Preachers' heads shows bombs raining down on Vietnam. Two teenage girls dance together while James Dean Bradfield sings the line: "People forget China and your war on cancer." Of such gratifyingly surreal pop moments is the Manic Street Preachers' career made.
"To release that as a single obviously gives us a bit of glee," says bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire. "I'm attracted by egotistical, megalomaniac, paranoid people. There's a sample on the record where Nixon says, 'I have never been a quitter.' I feel a bit of empathy with that. It's the idea of the ugly duckling. Radiohead are Kennedy, Manic Street Preachers are Nixon." He laughs, unfurling his mile-wide grin.
Wire is obsessed with history - both the political variety, and that of his own band. His lyrics reveal as much, whether defiant (Masses Against the Classes: "We're tired of giving a reason why we're the only thing left to believe in"), or defeated (The Everlasting: "In the beginning, when we were winning, when our smiles were genuine").
It is the curse of the Manics that they will always be held up against their younger, thinner, more fearless selves. Four working-class intellectuals plotted the perfect band in their bedrooms in Blackwood, Gwent, and launched it, in a blaze of spray-paint, mascara and outrage, with the precision of a military campaign.
Then, on February 1 1995, Richey Edwards, their chief lyricist and strategist, left his London hotel and never came back. His still unsolved disappearance is the central tragedy of the Manics' career, and it casts a shadow over every Brit award they've won, every arena they've filled. "We are haunted by ghosts," says Wire. "We're haunted by the way we looked - the symmetry - the four of us - everything was perfect."
It's two days before Top of the Pops and the Manics are rehearsing in a studio in an insalubrious corner of central Cardiff. While working late at night, says Bradfield, he has spotted prostitutes plying their trade outside. "We work better when it's grim," says Wire. On the sofa, gnomic drummer Sean Moore is tapping away at a wireless laptop. "He gets everything in the world before anyone else," Wire says admiringly. "He could have been the Welsh Bill Gates." Famously averse to interviews, Moore's off the hook today. "There's no point," he says cheerfully. "I always say the same thing."
They run through five songs from their seventh album, Lifeblood. The record's guiding principle was "elegiac pop", and the mood is uptempo melancholy: sleek and sad.
"I don't mind if people think this album is quite coffee-table," says Wire, folding his 6ft 3in frame on to the upstairs sofa. "I see that as a compliment. I think White Flag by Dido is a brilliant record."
Such sentiments sound odd coming from the man so hostile to consensus opinion that he once told a New York audience that the only good thing about their city was that it killed John Lennon, and declared, on stage at Glastonbury in 1994, that someone should "build a bypass over this shithole". ("That's not rational, well-thought-out behaviour," he concedes now.) The last time the Manics were palatable to the mainstream, with 1998's This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, they responded with the messy, contorted Know Your Enemy, an internal psychodrama set to music. "I think at the end of This Is My Truth we went off ourselves a bit," says Wire. "You know when your favourite band gets liked by someone you really hate? Well the Manic Street Preachers were always my favourite band."
Whatever Know Your Enemy was designed to achieve - it certainly solved the problem of fair-weather fans - Lifeblood is quite the opposite. The quotation on the sleeve is from Descartes: "Conquer yourself, not the world." "That's where we are now," says Wire. "Twelve years ago we'd have said, conquer the world and fuck yourself."
The Manics have always been a band apart. At the height of baggy and shoegazing, they presented a bold, if somewhat cackhanded, collision of Guy Debord and Guns N' Roses. In the year of Parklife and Definitely Maybe, they released an apocalyptically extreme screed called The Holy Bible. So, now that even mild-mannered Travis have discovered protest, it is characteristic that the Manics have recorded their least political album yet.
"I didn't feel under any pressure to talk about Iraq," says Wire, who has never worn his politics degree lightly. "It's a fucking relief, to be honest. Nobody agrees with anything I say anyway."
Are you driven to go against the mainstream at any cost? "There's a fatal flaw in us all when it comes to toeing a certain line. I admire Bono, deep down. I'd love to do what he did but I could never be that nice." The word hisses out of him. Diplomacy is not his forte. "If you're an American president you're a cunt. It makes no difference. Bill Clinton is a lovely guy. He has cigars with Bono and Kofi Annan. Does anyone remember Rwanda? Perhaps George Bush would have intervened."
Nicky Wire's favourite words are future, beautiful and forever, and he now tries to strike them from his lyrics. He likes hotels, sports, TV, reading (poetry, history), writing his potential book ("It might read like one idiot's rant against everything, but there's room for that"), the new shed in his Newport garden, and being alone. How many people does he need in his life? He counts them off on his fingers. "About seven. My wife, my daughter [two-year-old Clara], my mum and dad, brother [playwright Patrick Jones], James, Sean, Martin [Hall, their manager]."
Does he actually like people? "Most people, when you make the effort to meet them, are a lot nicer than you think." He laughs, slightly sadly. "I never get the impression they think that about me." We talk about the television show Curb Your Enthusiasm, which he loves. "All the comedy I like is imbued with failure, whether it's Basil Fawlty or Larry Sanders. James likes stuff like Cheers."
During the second half of the 1990s, James Dean Bradfield lived a Cheers-like existence in London: as sociable as his bandmates were remote, he would be out drinking most nights. Back then, Wire and Moore joked about living vicariously through their singer. "It finished about three years ago," says Bradfield, sitting amid amps and instruments in the studio, his fingers rarely without a lit cigarette. "Even prior to that, if they were living through me, all they'd have got was a bottle of Cutty Sark, some Jameson's, Coca-Cola, ice, cigarettes and pissing on about the same old things at the bar. I think they saw me as being a bit daft." Did you feel daft? "Eventually, yeah."
The change is due partly to his love life (he is newly married), and partly to a delayed reaction to his mother's death from cancer in 2000. At first, he just drank harder. "If you were brought up like I was, you try to show you're not scared of it. So you don't turn to tofu or meditation, you just think, fuck you, I won't change a thing."
It's unusual to see Bradfield so at ease with himself: he no longer screws up his face and fidgets with his lighter while answering questions. He feels happier about the band, too. Tony Visconti, who produced some of Lifeblood, taught them to trust themselves again, instead of second-guessing every move. "I've let go of people expecting things from us," says Bradfield. "Some people want you to be a cartoon version of yourself forever, and if you can't be that then you've got to split up." But the Manics' invigoratingly exact original manifesto was never destined to survive intact. "At least we broke our own rules," Bradfield says. "They were the most ludicrous rules that there was no way we could ever hold true to them."
One self-imposed law forbade licensing a song to an advert. Recently, they broke it by allowing the song Australia to promote the Australian tourist board, which Bradfield confesses was "a knee-jerk revenge" after years of people criticising their every move. He also regards their much-ballyhooed trip to Cuba in 2001 as "a failure", admitting they were naive not to expect a backlash.
But Bradfield will not apologise for what some still regard as the Manics' cardinal sin: not breaking up after Edwards vanished. "Why can't people accept that there was a massive loyalty between us?," he says forcefully. "You know, we weren't left with a goodbye card or a set of instructions."
Two years ago, the Daily Star reported that a pair of trainers containing bones, possibly those of Edwards, had been discovered in the Severn. "I think it hurts us a million times more than we would ever let on and even realise ourselves," says Wire. Bradfield is more emphatic about the Star's failure to forewarn Edwards' parents: "Cunts. Fucking cunts."
This was around the seventh anniversary of the disappearance, when Edwards' family declined to have him officially declared dead. Some commentators reacted with a distasteful mix of voyeurism and gleeful impatience. "You get that a lot if you're jumping in a cab round here," says Wire. "They say, 'How's that boy of yours, then? You know where he is, don't you?' It's the blankness that you have to deal with. Cardiff Afterlife deals with the feeling of being kept dangling. There's not a body, there's not a grave, but there's hope. You know in Superman, when the baddies expel people from Krypton and they're in bubbles, just floating around? It's felt like that sometimes."
Bradfield can't stand what he calls "the B-movie questions". "They want him to be stood in front of a TV shop window, with a beard, watching us on TV, saying, 'Good on ya, boys'. Then he walks away back to his fishmonger's job. End of film."
None the less, he acknowledges that producing a 10th anniversary edition of The Holy Bible, their last record with Edwards, has raised some painful questions. "Were there things we could have done differently?" he asks, his brow creasing. "Definitely. But we were taking all the decisions together at the time. And we were young. It's a cliche but, God, I wish I knew what I know now. I think closure's for people who want to wash their hands of the guilt they feel."
At the start, the Manics believed fervently in the idea of The Band: an entity that transcended its individual parts. Even with one of those parts missing, they still do. "Radiohead and Blur and Oasis are a group of individuals," says Bradfield. "Even to Middle England, Thom Yorke is recognisable. But I've heard so many times, 'There's that bloke from the Manic Street Preachers.' I never wanted to be anything else but the bloke from the Manic Street Preachers."
The Love Of Richard Nixon is out on Epic on October 18. Lifeblood is out on November 1st.