Only We Can Do This - Gigwise, 15th July 2014
"That particular incident was about four or five years ago around the time of Send Away The Tigers - I was just exhausted," shrugs Nicky Wire, adjusting his sunglasses as he recalls the moment that he nearly quit Manic Street Preachers after 20 years.
The band were travelling from Norway to Denmark amidst a gruelling tour campaign - enjoying a peak in their comeback popularity that few bands with their legacy and years ever could. Then something in his movement and surroundings caused a stir within him, and Wire realised that the Manics exist for one reason and one reason alone: no other band does what they do.
"Getting up early and driving across the Öresund Bridge with a scrap of paper, the power of the architecture and the motion itself just triggered some kind of adrenaline and happiness," he beams. "By the time we played the gig in Copenhagen, everything was alright."
The ‘out of body’ experience would go on to inspire the lead single ‘Walk Me To The Bridge’ from their staggeringly inventive new album, Futurology - a record packed with the conviction of a band with still so much to prove. So much so, that some may be surprised that the Manics could even consider no longer existing.
"It becomes an everyday occurrence in the band, once you reach 40 you could split up every day," says Wire with a sighing chuckle. "There are so many other factors, besides the pressures of being in the band. It’s all mundane, normal stuff, but the kind of fragility that exists every time you’re on tour - it’s not the kind of ‘I hate you’ shouting match inter-band argument, it’s just life catching up with you where you can’t create the delusion of rock and roll when you hit a certain age all the time."
But for the Manics, rock and roll is not a delusion - it’s in their DNA, wrapped in strand upon strand of clear vision, political drive and fighting against that ‘culture of alienation, boredom and despair’. Futurology is just the Manics turned up to 11.
The Manics have had ample opportunities to implode and fade into obscurity, but unlike other bands who just roll around the treadmill of the album cycle, James, Nicky and Sean only make a record that they can find a true reason to.
"Or that we can fool ourselves into making," laughs frontman James Dean Bradfield, before Nicky smirks and interjects: "It is true. There is that thing that forces us to make an album in that particular vein or direction, and that could be something cold and detached like Lifeblood or a lazy proto-Communist sprawling mess like Know Your Enemy."
"I’ve never heard it described like that before!" smiles Bradfield. 'We wouldn't do this if it we weren't still totally convinced of the romantic notion of music transporting us into a better place as human beings' - Nicky Wire
Nick is quick to correct: “It doesn’t mean that we always make the right decision, but we are always driven to make a particular type of record, which stems from our absolute obsession and desire for music and lyrics. We wouldn’t do it if we still weren’t totally convinced of the romantic notion of music transporting us into a better place as human beings. Music has made us much better people than we ever could have been.”
That passion is what finds the Manics sitting at No.2 in the albums chart with Futurology, after receiving some of the most universally glowing critical acclaim of their career and re-igniting a fire in the hearts of the fans. But for a band who have covered so much ground, sonically and topically, smashing the boundaries of what a rock song is supposed to do, what can they still have left to prove?
"That we could still trade in a language that is still exclusively ours, that we could still want to write songs that other people are just never going to go near," replies Bradfield. "Whether it be ‘Between The Clock And The Bed’, ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’, ‘Dreaming A City’ or ‘Mayakovsky’ - I just don’t think that anyone else would go near that subject matter. We never laid claim to being the most ‘original’ band, but I think we’re unique in that sense."
'We still trade in a language that is exclusively ours. No one else goes near this subject matter - I think we're unique in that sense' - James Dean Bradfield
He rubs his hands together and shoots Wire a gleeful sideways glance. “I wouldn’t be excited if Nick gave me a lyric that was plainly a love song. I just wouldn’t, but I do get excited if I get a lyric like ‘Between The Clock And The Bed’ which is obviously about death! I like the idea of trying to create something that has uplift in that, or just trying to place that moment of the painting in music. He gave me ‘Dreaming A City’ about five Christmases back, I always knew there was an instrumental just based around that story. I just get excited about those plotlines, and love the idea that if no one else is going to do it, we still are.”
As vibrant and ambitious as the album may be, the band don’t consider it ‘brave’. On the contrary, this is the sound of the Manics at their most comfortable, making the album they were born to make. If they sound more passionate about this one, it’s simply because it’s the sum of all of their passions.
"I would say that musically it came easier," admits Wire. "For James and Sean in particular, the music on Futurology is really ingrained in their DNA. I think Rewind The Film is harder in many ways because it was just so quiet." James nods: “There was nowhere to hide. I find it hard to not let go, and just reach a note that’s too high. Rewind The Film was hard in that sense of just trying to switch off the aggressive side of yourself as a musician.”
There’s a lyric in the cinematic mournful lullaby of Futurology’s ‘Black Square’ in which Bradfield pines “Let us wipe the slate clean, let us dig our graves”. That, combined with the “Heroes”-esque Bowie Trilogy sounds and sense of scope, echoes the ‘Stunde Null’ mentality of the album and the city of Berlin where it was recorded. So is this ‘Berlin era’ of Manics at zero hour? The duo turn to each other and chuckle at the very notion of a ‘Berlin album’.
"We wanted to work with Alex Silva again, who worked on The Holy Bible," admits Wire. "He has a room in Hansa studios, his partner is the amazing actress Nina Hoss who sang on ‘Europa…’. There were a lot of connections, it wasn’t just ‘let’s go to Berlin and make a Berlin record’. We’ve spent a lot of time there over the years, I dragged my kids there a couple of years ago to avoid the Jubilee, and made them walk about ten miles to museums they had no interest in.
"The Die Brucke movement and German expressionism have a little museum there, which are all clues coming through these little European threads. On top of that, you’ve got the Achtung Baby, Low axis which certainly held a real romance. There’s pictures of Bowie and Iggy walking out with their Hyatt bags and we stayed in the Hyatt as well. So we still believe in the rock n’ roll folly."
'I dragged my kids to Berlin to avoid the Jubilee…on top of that you've got the romance of Achtung Baby and Low - we still believe in the rock n' roll folly' - Nicky Wire
James continues: “Initially, we did ask Alex Silva to see if he could find us a studio in Hamburg or Düsseldorf or Frankfurt because we perhaps, in the back of our minds, thought that we didn’t want to overdo the Berlin schtick. In the end he was just like ‘why are you being so fucking obtuse about it?’. I suppose we were just weary of people saying ‘oh, you’re just trying to do the Iggy thing’. In the end, he just forced us to go there.”
But go there they did, and inadvertantly made a ‘Berlin album’, with the art, the pace, the zero hour and ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ mentality bleeding into the sound. So now, in their near-30 years together as a band, they’ve been punk, hair metal, post-punk, mislabelled as Britpop, a ‘Proto-communist sprawling mess’, some sort of sanitised Depeche Mode, a Bunnymen-esque orchestral rock display, executors of ‘spiky post-punk disco rock’ and everything in between. Where on the sonic map have the Manics not explored? "I just get the feeling that maybe next time around, that if we do make another record that it might just be the three of us," says Wire. "Just making as many gigantic rock riffs as humanly possible, maybe with Jimmy Page."
James smiles: “Yeah, that would be nice.”
'If we make another record, it might just be the three of us, making as many gigantic rock riffs as possible, maybe with Jimmy Page' - Nicky Wire
We note the worrying use of the word ‘if’ in their plans for their next album. "It’s kind of hard to look beyond Rewind The Film and Futurology because we will have released two albums within the space of a year and I think we are pretty much aware that,"shrugs Bradfield, "let alone for our audience but for ourselves, that we’ve got to take another break after this. There might be a couple of small things that we do but it won’t be a mainline Manics’ release. We’ve got to try and find our own little make-believe world to try and conquer again before we can actually go fowards".
Which is what makes the Manics current forward propulsion so impressive. 2014 is the year that the Manics celebrate the 20th anniversary of their seminal Holy Bible - a record that would define, shadow and anchor most bands for the rest of their days, and a landmark that would consume them. However, that seems like a footnote to the Manics in 2014 - if a little irrelevant to the plot. Futurology howls defiance in the face of a culture of touring pantomime rock giants.
"God, I don’t know," stares back a wide-eyed Bradfield. "We actually feel the looming presence of 20th anniversary of The Holy Bible, I think we feel it quite a lot. We’re a bit scared of it really. If we were ever a band who felt like the past defined us too much, and that our past contained too much baggage for us to haul around, I think we’d be finished. We are constantly asked about our past because so much has happened, and naturally we’re on our 12th album. If you’re so scared of the past like that, it’s just game over."
'We feel the looming presence of The Holy Bible 20th anniversary, we're a bit scared of it…but if we do mark it then it will be with the confidence that the active part of the band is still there, and making records' - James Dean Bradfield
So they aren’t averse to the idea?
"If you say ‘that’s it, I’m never playing that song again’ and think there’s some kind of Brownie points to be won by making that stance, then that’s just sad," frowns Bradfield. "If you’re defined by something you’ve done that you think is awful, then you just end up making wrong decisions all over the place. There are obviously moments like ‘The Love Of Richard Nixon’ that are not hard to stand by, but hard to see why we released it as the first single for our album. More often than not, we still get some kind of power and rush because we were so obsessed and in the moment when we created it.
"We’ve never stopped making records so we don’t really need to do that Royal Festival Hall circuit. If we do it, I think we’ll do it with the confidence that the active part of the band is still there, and making records."
As a record that embraces the constant sense of movement and progress throughout Europe, Futurology establishes the band themselves as artists in constant revolution. They’re over the bridge, and beyond here lies only more bridges - and we can’t wait. As they say, only they can do this, so we need them. Future is the only objective.