The Manics aim to maintain their rage and relevance
After their tepid 2004 album, Lifeblood, Manic Street Preachers were faced with the fact that they had become a comfort-zone band - something their polemical younger selves would have despised. They had long since turned 30, got married and lost touch with the inner rage that fired the first part of their career. They were on the verge of what was, in their eyes, the worst fate that could befall them - irrelevance.
"Lifeblood was unique because you can hear our brains trying to make sense of it," admits singer James Dean Bradfield. "At one point we weren't even playing in the sameroom. We thought detachment might help [the recording process]."
Bassist Nicky Wire, with the eyeliner and maroon hair, agrees. "Yeah, we tried to get rid of passion and humanity - and we then realised that was part of what made us work. We are relics and we know we have to stick to what we do best."
Bradfield, Wire and drummer Sean Moore - guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared in 1995 - have spent the past three years reconnecting with their passion for punk rock and for pronouncements on culture and politics - the same unwieldy ingredients that inspired them as 20-year-olds from the Welsh town of Blackwood.
Fifteen years of rock stardom haven't eroded what Wire calls their "socialist existentialist" principles but touring the world has forced them to tweak their manifesto a bit. Playing in Cuba in 2001 opened their eyes. "I've seen the failure of communism first-hand," Wire says.
Last year, Bradfield and Wire got solo albums out of their systems (The Great Western and I Killed the Zeitgeist respectively). Send Away the Tigers (the title is a Tony Hancock phrase pertaining to the comedian's battle with alcohol) is the concise, punch-in-the-gut result and there is a growing consensus that the band is worth listening to again. Tickets for a 23-date British tour, for example, sold out more quickly than previous tours.
"We were scared putting the tickets on sale and we're still fragile in confidence," Bradfield admits.
Loss of confidence is the downside of being outsiders who have never really been insiders, even at the height of their Brit-winning, million-selling success in the late '90s. They can't call on a big mainstream fan base to go out and buy Send Away the Tigers - they've almost reverted to relying on viral marketing.
Not that they would call it that. Moore is familiar with technology but the other two decidedly are not. Bradfield has never sent an email, handwrites his blog entries for the band's website and confesses to "shaking like a pensioner" when confronted by self-checkouts at the supermarket. Wire is "depressed by the whole internet culture, where seeing someone fall over on YouTube is supposed to be interesting".
It's a brave stance and - given their fascination with popular culture, which saturates the new album - a contrary one. As a young band in the early '90s, their urge to be heard beyond the borders of Blackwood led them to bombard music journalists with earnest, handwritten letters.
Fifteen years later, with communication now a matter of clicking a mouse, they still prefer pen and paper. Intellectually of the 21st century but spiritually of the typewriter age (Wire even writes lyrics on one), they're the odd ones out in British rock.
"Discourse is still the centre of Manics culture," says Wire, who deplores the dearth of politically motivated younger bands. Franz Ferdinand?
"They committed the worst ever lyrical crime [on Do You Want To]: " 'Here we are at the Transmission party/I love your friends, they're all so arty.' Crap!" My Chemical Romance? "I'd rather my daughter got into them than some of these British bands."
So why does pop still need the Manics? "Because we're the only pissing-blood rock'n'roll experience on stage," Bradfield says. In Wire's view, they occupy "a unique space" in British rock'n'roll. "There's the Who, the Stones, the Clash, maybe Blur and Radiohead and us. It's a unique club."
Bradfield nods. "And we don't reduce things to kitsch and irony. We're a ghost-like presence, hovering over people's consciousness."