Did the Manic Street Preachers really say that travellers are parasites and express the hope that Michael Stipe dies of AIDS? Stuart Clark hears the band's side of the story.
If alienating half the western world with one fucking stupid comment was an Olympic event, Manic Street Preachers would spend the greater part of their lives perched on a podium singing along to 'God Save The Queen'. Seriously, these guys are to tact and diplomacy what Robert Maxwell was to weight-watching and pension schemes.
"The trouble with us," sighs Manics guitarist and professional cheekbone owner Richey James, "is that we're not suspicious enough of journalists. Most bands set aside a day or two for interviews and plan in advance what they're going to say but that's so contrived. We'd rather sit down at the bar, get pissed with someone and talk properly. The danger, though, is that you start spouting all sorts of drunken shit which gets taken out of context, twisted around and turned into a big deal.
"You can become paranoid and only talk to people that you know are going to write nice things about you but that's not the way I want to live my life."
Point taken but you can hardly dismiss the branding of travellers as parasites and announcing on stage that you hope Michael Stipe dies of AIDS, as mere slips of the tongue. Well, not unless you're a highly paid politician who makes u-turns for a living.
"That whole traveller controversy," explains Richey, "stems from one throwaway remark in a conversation that lasted thirty minutes. The journalist obviously rushed back to his editor going, 'we've got a great story here', but neglected to mention the other stuff we'd said which balanced the argument out. Often, it's what they don't print which hangs you."
And Michael Stipe?
"That's more a case of too much vodka and too much adrenaline, I'm afraid."
Mm, this interview isn't following my gameplan. I'd psyched myself up for the mother of all slanging matches and here's Richey, the swine, doing his Mr. Reasonable bit. It's not necessarily what you'd expect from a man who carved '4 Real' into his arm with a razor blade because a tabloid hack accused him and his colleagues of being fakes.
"Being in a band," he reflects, "doesn't give you licence to act like a complete wanker. We've stayed in hotels where, because of our reputation, the manager has almost invited us to smash up our rooms - as long as we don't disturb the other guests. It's pathetic but a lot of groups do still behave that way. I'd get bloody upset if someone came round to my house and crapped on the bed, so why should I do it to them?"
This reminds me of the time the Manics played in Limerick and decided to scoff a pre-gig pizza in a restaurant where a friend of mine was waitressing. While the Dublin support band - who are now happily defunct - staged a food fight and generally perfected their lobotomised Rotweiller impressions, Richey and the lads were full of 'pleases', 'thank yous' and 'if it's not too much troubles.'
"I don't remember that particular occasion but, yeah, the girl was doing her job and deserved to be treated with respect. If I'd seen what was going on, I'd probably have gone over and told them to 'fuck off and get a life!'"
Actually, the words "support" and "band" are not ones that Manic Street Preachers bandy around with much relish these days. This follows an ugly incident on the opening night of their UK tour when a member of Blaggers ITA allegedly assaulted a journalist for revealing his equally alleged past involvement with the right-wing British Movement. Blaggers vehemently deny the version of events that's been splashed across the papers but Richey is unequivocal in his condemnation of the fight which definitely didn't conform to Marquis of Queensbury rules.
"I was so shocked when that guy from the Melody Maker was attacked," he stresses. "Morally, it was indefensible. We've had more than our fair share of bad press and stitch-up jobs but no matter what was printed about us, we'd never resort to smacking someone in the face. Blaggers say they want to put the Nazis out of business but I can't think of anything more fascist than using physical violence to intimidate people whose viewpoint differs from your's.
"We could have gone on the road with a couple of nice, safe middle-class indie bands but we wanted a bill that would challenge both ourselves and the audiences. That's why we picked Credit To The Nation, who are a multi-racial rap outfit, and Blaggers who, whatever else, are very exciting and uncompromising live."
Bearing in mind the way you feel, how come they haven't been ditched from the tour?
"Well," reasons Richey, "we gave it a lot of thought and decided that sacking them would in itself be a fascist action. We don't agree with Blaggers, we don't particularly like Blaggers but we'd be hypocrites if we censored them.
"What we have done, though, is stopped their entourage coming to the gigs. I'm not sure whether they're minders or friends but they hang around with a gang of huge great big blokes who are extremely intimidating."
With their off-stage and out-of-studio activities bearing an uncanny resemblance to an episode of The Bill, it's easy to forget that the Manics are engaged in the serious business of promoting their two month old Gold Against The Soul album.
The LP certainly has public opinion divided - some fans and critics reckon it's a natural progression and a sign of the band's growing musical maturity while others mumble "sell-out" and point to a growing infatuation with American rock as a sign that their original manifesto has been torn up and tossed into the bin.
"Generation Terrorists" he reflects, "was more or less a homage to the groups we grew up with and worshipped as kids. We needed to make that record to get to the next logical step in our development which is Gold Against The Soul. Our lives have changed so radically over the past two years that it'd be unrealistic to expect the music to stay the same. I sympathise with those fans who feel betrayed but the fact of the matter is that we're not the same group we were when we first came up to London from Wales. Pretending otherwise would be dishonest."
Does the criticism ever hurt?
"I wouldn't say 'hurt' because we've gotten pretty thick skinned but, yeah, it pisses me off when it's unwarranted. I'll give you an example - the so-called 'serious' music press have sniped at us for being in Smash Hits and on Top Of The Pops. The attitude is, 'oh, Manic Street Preachers shouldn't have anything to do with 13-year-old girls,' but what if you were to replace the '13-year-old girl' part with 'Asians' or 'blacks' or 'Irish'? Basically, you'd be staring at a racist statement and that wouldn't be acceptable."
Loathe as I am to indulge in amateur psychology, there are moments on Gold Against The Soul when the Manics appear to be letting the feminine side of their character run riot. "Childbirth tears upon her muscle/Very first second a screaming icon/Babies in time barely even recognise/Words that once stroke now bruising tired lips", from 'Life Becoming A Landslide', is just one of the occasions where the lads abandon the cock rock posturing of old and demonstrate that wearing leather trousers doesn't automatically diminish your I.Q.
"I get quite upset," says Richey indignantly, "when people say that we've turned into a 'stadium rock band' and then compare us to Motley Crue. We do listen to quite a few American guitar bands and they are an influence but Motley Crue? Fuck, I'd expect to be shot if I wrote a song like 'Girls Girls Girls' and I don't think you're ever going to see Manic Street Preachers with big hair and spray-on spandex trousers."
Boots eyeliner and a hint of blusher, maybe, but spray-on spandex, never!
What would Richey's idea of a credible American guitar band be?
"Alice In Chains, I suppose. They're incredibly heavy and powerful but when you listen to the lyrics, they're actually saying something worthwhile. We haven't received the credit we deserve for that with Gold Against The Soul - the words aren't just there to rhyme, they're from the heart."
Normally, that sort of statement would lead to the swift reappearance of my breakfast but Richey says his piece with such conviction and sincerity that my egg, bacon and hash browns stay where God intended.
While we're examining Manic Street Preachers' supposed stadium rock credentials, what's this I hear about you opening for Bon Jovi and their poodle-permed chums at the Milton Keynes Bowl in September?
"It's not the most obvious support in rock 'n' roll history, is it?," he laughs. "No, we always enjoy a challenge and playing a gig where 95% of the crowd probably hate your guts has a perverse appeal."
So, if the Manics come on stage at Feile flashing devil-horn finger salutes and evoking the spirit of Beelzebub, you'll know that they're only practising for their big day out with Jon.
Either that or they really are Motley Crue!