The summer festival season is very much about the adventure of youth, as teenagers escape from parents and home comforts for a few days to develop a little independence. For those of us in our 30s, however, it comes as something of a shock to realize that one of this year's Fuji Rock Festival headliners, the Manic Street Preachers, have now been doing the rounds for more than a decade. Was it really that long ago that four belligerent, sloganeering, raw young Welshmen blazed a trail of teenage rebellion through the London music/media circus, with their debut album, the punk-fueled Generation Terrorists, in tow?
Since then, of course, plenty has happened: five more albums, the mysterious and tragic disappearance of the band's angst-ridden figurehead, Richey Edwards, which, oddly enough, seemed to act as a catalyst for the band's commercial success, culminating in their triumphant homecoming gig in front of 80,000 fans at Cardiff's Millennium stadium, on the eve of the millennium. And then the wheels came loose...
I hooked up with Manics' front man/ guitarist, James Dean Bradfield, in Cologne en route to an appearance at the Pink Pop Festival in Holland. Soft-spoken and unassuming, Bradfield explains the burnout on the back of success.
"Well, after This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, we were exhausted and on the edge of falling apart. We had become too smug, too happy with ourselves. Despite the success, we felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere. We came unstuck when we started to find it difficult to write new songs."
So, that album became a kind of albatross around your neck?
"Not so much that. I am proud of what we did with that album. We wanted, at the time, to write songs that were maybe melancholic but also anthemic. But I think we went too far with some of the songs, like The Everlasting. We were uncomfortable with that song, it had too much empathy."
Like U2 circa Rattle and Hum?
"Yeah, you could say we didn't want to venture down that road. As people, as a generation, we've got short attention spans. We were itching to break the mold we were creating for ourselves, so I suppose we took stock of the situation and decided, 'Time to move on, boys.' The keyword for us was 'enjoyment.' We wanted to enjoy making this last record, and once we got ourselves in the right frame of mind, the songs came out more naturally."
To these ears, Know Your Enemy is a more uneven effort than their preceding two albums; rawer and less epic-sounding. That's not to dismiss it, however, as the Manics break some interesting new ground, a la Miss Europa Disco Dancer.
"It's about TV, vicarious TV," explains Bradfield, "where there's no need for scripts and actors; it's where the scum entertain the scum."
Elsewhere, the band deploy Spanish trumpets to great effect on the moving Ocean Spray, a tribute to the singer's late mother, and the only lyric on the album written by Bradfield. When I ask him if he wants to get more involved in the lyric-writing side of things, his response is typically downplayed and self-effacing.
"They're simple lyrics, really. If the song succeeds it's because the lyrics were on a personal level. Some people might want to pay their tribute to someone close to them by erecting a monument, by writing a book, whatever. I chose to pay tribute to my mother by writing a song. I wasn't even sure about including the song on the album; it was something I did in my own time, but the other two came across it and sort of persuaded me that we should do it."
Perhaps Bradfield should persuade himself to write more of the band's lyrics, as Ocean Spray might just prove to be a glimpse of a promising future direction for the band.
Even those with only a casual interest in the Manics will probably be aware of their recent visit to Cuba, which included a live performance attended by President Fidel Castro. There were some mutterings in the media about the Cuban trip being a bit of a publicity stunt, but Bradfield is at pains to point out that it was just "a simple gesture." He takes up the story:
"The album only has about three references to Cuba. Anyway, it was more about America than Cuba," he says, possibly referring to the song Baby Elian, about the Cuban child who became a political pawn last year, which includes the line, "America, the devil's playground."
"We were invited by the Cubans to go there. We thought it would be like the impossible dream playing in Havana and to be adrift from the attention and trappings that come with being a big act on the Sony label. In fact, once the trip was confirmed, it became scary for us in a way. Y'know, would anybody turn up to the show? Anyway, the whole trip evolved naturally; it's just a shame that we didn't do it when we were younger!"
Was there anything that either disturbed or inspired you about Cuba?
"We were disturbed and inspired in equal measures: There was the ever-present symbol of the gun and all this overbearing civic symbolism. The TV channels were very corny and tightly controlled, but on the other hand the people were not disenfranchised from their own culture, they were eager to point out their own culture. They are very sociable, hospitable people. We ate with ordinary families. When we bought clothes, they would discuss with us where the material came from, the labor costs, etc. It wasn't just a case of sanitized McDonald's-style transactions and consumerism."
What Bradfield seems to be getting at is the difference in spirit and identity between ordinary Cubans and the materially pampered people of the West. He mentions the Cuban synchronized-swimming team, who put in a brave performance at last year's Olympics, as an example of this spirit – contrasting them with their British counterparts who partly excused their own failure by saying they hadn't received enough public funds for proper training facilities.
That argument doesn't hold much water with Bradfield. "We saw these Cubans practicing in a tiny pool, half the size of one of the ordinary public pools back home."
Switching from Cuba to Japan, and from the recent past to the near future, how does Bradfield feel about the Manics' forthcoming trip to play at the Fuji Rock Festival?
"I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited on a simple level. Our photographer is Japanese, and after we play the festival I'll be spending an extra three days in Japan, and me and the photographer plan to walk up Mount Fuji."
You'll need to be pretty fit for that.
"Well, with all this touring, I've been losing a few pounds, and I've got the cigarettes down to five a day in preparation!"