Ambitious, bloody-minded and enjoying "an odd island of pleasure" in Japan, Manic Street Preachers refuse to grow old, give up or go quietly. "We won't become a living museum," they tell John Niven.
Driving across Tokyo is like taking the Westway from London to Brighton, surrounded the whole time by concrete and high-rises. There are 35 million people in the Tokyo urban area; London and Los Angeles are non-cities in comparison. Kids' models, Bucolic-idylls. The cityscape is endless, a hundred spaghetti junctions bleeding in every direction: expressways, elevated flyovers, traffic above you, below you, beside you.
Manic Street Preachers bassist, Nicky Wire, Miu Miu shades, tired from the red-eye in from Australia, sighs musically and says to guitarist/singer James Dean Bradfield, "Remember the first time we drove in here? You and Richey hanging out the sunroof? Joy Division blaring out the stereo?"
"The Eternal," Bradfield nods.
We're here for five days, where the bands will play two shows and do two days of press interviews. Japan has a unique place in Manics lore. Perhaps it's that video for Motorcycle Emptiness all those years ago...Here were the young men, forever celluloid-fixed among the rain and bustle of Shibuya, soundtracked by their first real anthem, Bradfield in aviators with glass-cutter cheekbones, Wire kohl-smeared and preening, drummer Sean Moore with shoulder-length hair, Richey in leopard skin; all suffused in Tokyo's neon loneliness, all gorgeous and 22 forever. On that first Japanese trip the Manics came straight from America, virtually on the run from a country that did not answer - and has never - taken the Manics to its breast. They got off the plane to find Beatlemania awaiting them.
Bradfield is walking the same streets again, half a lifetime later, shaking off the jet-lag, looking for lunch. At the famous intersection at Shibuya Station - just people, neon, shops, consumerism as far as the eye can see, like three Oxford Streets - you're reminded of Richey Edwards lyric from All Is Vanity on 2009's Journal For Plague Lovers: "I would prefer no Choice, one bread, one milk, one food that's all..." appropriately, we find a tiny noodle bar, the kind of place with only one dish on the menu. Today's dish? "Stomach" of some kind. Happily hunched over a plate of beef intestine and rice Bradfield talks Japanese fiction and cinema, subjects about which he's both knowledgeable and passionate. "It never fails to amaze me, Japan," he says, "You know, we drop two fucking atom bombs on you. We firebomb this place, We force your Emperor to admit he's not immortal on fucking TV, we just decimate you and they say, Right, you know what, watch this, and become an economic powerhouse. I mean, I know The MacArthur Pact helped and all but still..."
The MacArthur Pact (a secret "treaty of mutual security and co-operation" struck in 1958 between the then US ambassador to Japan, Douglas MacArthur and the Japanese government) is not, needless to say, a regular topic of conversation for mast touring rock bands. Then again, this is the Manic Street Preachers. The following afternoon Angus Jenner, the band's unflappable tour manger, frowns over an unusual request with the words: "Hmmm. Four legs good, two legs bad" (This is a band whose crew quote George Orwell).
So what attracts Bradfield to Japanese literature? "Just the themes, I suppose. Honour. Betrayal. Retribution..."
Retribtuion indeed. It's been a chequered history for the band over here. The Manics' debut, 1992's Generation Terrorists, sold more than 100,000 copies but by the time of their career nadir, 2004's Lifeblood, they were selling a good deal less and struggling to pull a crowd in Japan. Apart from a couple of festival dates in 2007 they haven't toured the country properly since then (their last visit around the release of Journal Plague was cancelled due to illness). So nobody is quite sure what to expect when we pull up for the first gig at Studio Coast, a 3000-capacity warehouse with a state-of-the-art sound system on an industrial estate in Tokyo Bay. Bradfield is distracted and twitchy, pre-show. Hasn't this got easier after all this time? "Fuck, no; I go through the same shit every single gig: Why am I doing this to myself? I fucking hate it, It never gets easier."
He needn't have worried. The gig is sold out and the crowd go absolutely tonto from the moment the house lights go down and the band arrive onstage to the strains of Silver by Echo & The Bunnymen: Bradfield and Moore in military black; Wire resplendent in full-length leopard-skin coat. Pandemonium reigns from the opening chords of You Love Us all the way to Moore's last snare rattle on A Design Life. They cheer every star-jump from Wire, punch the air during the guitar solos and scream whenever Bradfield makes a run along the front of the stage, a forest of arms reaching towards him. Even sideman Sean Read's trumpet solo on Ocean Spray gets an ovation. It's a 21-song headlong charge; pretty much one number for every year of their career as recording artists. Highlights include a rare outing for Gold Against The Soul's Roses In The Hospital, a powerhouse Everything Must Go, with blinding white light washing out on the choruses, and Bradfield and Wire's duet on latest single Some Kind Of Nothingness.
Towards the end Wire takes the mic and says, "When I play this next song I think of us in Club Chitta all those years ago. I think of the neon loneliness and think of the genius of Mr Richey James Edwards." Then they crash into a gloriously unhinged Motown Junk.
"By Lifeblood, our arses were so on the floor," says Wire after the show. "We came here and could hardly get anyone to come and see us. I don't blame them - I mean, I wouldn't have gone to see us then either! We looked like shit then, we had worse leather jackets than fucking Westlife - Now this..."
Back at the hotel, it's straight to bed for Bradfield, while the rest of the band and crew gather in the 36th-floor bar, with Wire sipping a non-alcoholic cocktail and only Moore allowing himself a single post-show brandy. For Bradfield, touring has effectively been dry since Lifeblood in 2004. His voice simply couldn't cope with a two-hour set on top of drinking and smoking, so the drinking and smoking had to go. Wire's been six months off the booze, too, following on from gastro-intestinal problems and "Something to do With my liver". Christ, you were hardly Shane MacGowan.
"I know! Seems unfair, but there we are. I miss my bottle of wine in front of The Culture Show, Question Time." Shouting at the TV?
"Exactly. It's just...really fucking boring not drinking," he laughs. "You could see James tonight with this massive sadness in his heart. You could see him thinking, I'd have been in absolute heaven if this had been 10 years ago. Drinking myself to oblivion! Everything was adding up to a cocktail of joy and then...Off to bed. Shopping. That's about all we've got left now." He laughs.
There is something else of course. The work. When the Manics' 10th studio album, Postcards From A Young Man, went in at Number 3 this year, it cemented a three-album hot streak, a late-career return to commercial and critical form that began with 2007's Send Away The Tigers. '"We really are all about the work now," says Moore, "You get a sense that, for a lot of bands who've been together for a while, making the record is just an excuse to get out on the road and have laugh, make same money from playing festivals. With us, making the record as good as it can be - fresh, exciting and, hopefully, commercial - is all there is. All this stuff," he gestures around at the hotel bar, meaning Tokyo, the tour, "is just a distraction really." He hefts a wrist up and squints at a serious chunk of Rolex. "Ah, bed I think." It has just gone midnight.
The ANA InterContinental, Akasaka, Tokyo. The lobby of the hotel is a vast expanse of stone, glass and dark wood, easily the size of a couple of football fields. There are twin 40 feet-high waterfalls in the centre, giant sheets of glass with streams of water permanently flowing down them, like the windscreen of a giant's car in a rainstorm. A constellation of sparking chandeliers hang 100 feet overhead. Groups of Japanese businessmen chat quietly over pots of coffee. At six-and-a-half-feet tall, Nicky Wire floats through this, literally head and shoulders above the world. For someone who has done so very well in life Wire has the air of someone failing, or who is on the verge of failure. Or rather, who expects to fail: like Archie Rice, from his beloved Laurence Olivier film The Entertainer.
"I just find that, as I get older, I expect less," he says. "You can't expect to be happy all the time. You get snatches of it - playing with the kids, swimming, just looking out the hotel window. A few minutes everyday is all expect."
George Orwell said that, after the age of 30, a man's life becomes "the odd island of pleasure in a sea of ennui". "Oh, that's good," Wire says. "That's fucking brilliant."
Later on, the band are interviewed by the Japanese press. Bradfield fields lots of questions about Journal For Plague Lovers, mostly regarding Richey Edwards, whose posthumous lyrics were used on the album. One interviewer says how "passionate" the lyrics on Journal...were and is gently corrected by Bradfield: "I think it was the opposite of passion really. Total...disassociation. A rejection of everything."
After a bit of confusion, the translator asks, "What age is this young man you're addressing in Postcards From A young Man?" It's a simple and stunningly effective question. Also, postcards have a specific resonance in the Manics lexicon: as kids, they would send them to each other emblazoned with motivational haikus, Bradfield stops for a minute and thinks. "That's a good one. What age is youth perfectly crystallised at? I dunno..." he tails off, his soft brown gaze fixed somewhere in the middle distance as the last couple of decades spool away behind his eyes. "About 19, I guess."
"What were you doing then?" the translator asks, "Were you already on the road?"
"Yeah. Just starting out..." In the beginning, when they were winning. It seems to strike Bradfield how very long he has been doing this.
Later, up in his room, Wire picks up the thread. "A lot of this record remembering what it was to be the kids who wrote those postcards, So full of energy and anger and ambition. Dreaming..." He gestures at the 30th-floor window Of the hotel, at the dusk coming down on the endless metropolis outside. "You know, dreaming of all of this,"
Why is it that while many of their peers are long split-up, marginalised or farmed out to pasture, the Manic Street Preachers are still entering the album charts at Number 3? Still making radio playlists?
"We've always had that combination of insane ambition and bloody mindedness," says Wire, I don't think many of our contemporaries had that. It's a working-class thing, too. You get all these middle-class bands going, Oooh, music isn't a competition, it's about expression. Fuck that. I'm the most insanely competitive person you'll ever meet. But more recently I mean, I'm so fucking insane I now think I'm competing with James for the title of main songwriter in the band! I've no chance of course, but I'm gonna have a go."
He's being - slightly and uncharacteristically - self-deprecating. Because you remember that Some Kind Of Nothingness is entirely Wire's musical composition, as was the massive European airplay hit Your Love Alone Is Not Enough, and you begin to get an idea of how Bradfield and Wire are now spurring each other on.
Could you see the Manics doing one of those classic album evenings? The Holy Bible, say?
"Fuck, no. You're just a living museum at that point, aren't you? I mean, no offence to bands who do, I guess it's good money, but I like Paul Weller's attitude: I will never be defined by my past."
The next day photographer and long-time Manics friend Mitch Ikeda takes us guitar shopping. In a basement filled with an incredible collection of vintage instruments and amps, Bradfield tries a Mosrite as favoured by Johnny Ramone, and then a Dan Armstrong Plexiglas guitar - a see-through slab of Lucite Chat's been used by the likes of Keith Richards and Tom Verlaine. He rips out fluid bursts of blues, jazz, rock'n'roll, the solo from The Stone Roses' I Am The Resurrection followed by, um, the theme from Pot Black. A few of the staff gather to watch. "Wanna shot?" he says holding the guitar towards me, innocently unaware that this is like Wayne Rooney doing keepy-up and then hoofing the ball towards you and saying "your turn" without realising that you are, in fact, in a wheelchair. Um, that'll be no. His hand hovers briefly over the credit card but in the end we leave guitarless.
I put the same question to Bradfield that I put to Wire the night before. Why does he think the Manics are still together and vital after all this time? 'Well, I think we're institutionalised to a certain degree. It's all I've really known since the age of 15. I think the other reason is, if we saw another band coming in and filling a cultural vacuum then we might think, Yeah, they do it better. But no one's ever been like us. Sometimes I'll hear a song on the radio and I hear all this drama, so many effects, and this big minor chord crashing in and I think, Fuck, this is gonna be good, and then I hear a song about a relationship. And you think, not another one."
There are enough heterosexual love songs, the subject's covered, as Joe Strummer once said, "Yeah. If you listen to All We Make Is Entertainment on the new album, it's a song about Britain inspired by the sale of Cadbury's. No one else is doing that, so it's easy for us to exist."
Later, Sean Moore is characteristically less inclined to over-analyse the question. "We probably just don't know when to give up," he says, deadpan.
The next gig is in Yokohama, a southern suburb of Tokyo, about an hour's drive out of town. It's a club date, about 1000 capacity and - again - sold out. Pre-show, tense, fidgety, Bradfield says flatly, "It won't be as good as last night" This piece of pre-jinxing reverse psychology works perfectly: it's even better, Wire beaming from start to finish he mouths the lyrics along with the crowd (who sing every word); Bradfield's sweat flying over the front rows, Moore's arms a blur during Faster and the Guns N' Roses-style coda to the Theme From MASH (Suicide Is Painless). There's even a crowd-surfer for Motown Junk; a rare sight in this rules-fixated land. A Design For Life sees Bradfield, Wire and rhythm guitarist Wayne Murray all leaping four feet in the air in unison. "And we thought it couldn't get better than last night," says as they leave the stage to fevered applause, a sea of waving arms. "Thank you," says Bradfield, "Each and every one of you. You've been fucking amazing. Goodnight, and may your Gods go with you."
There's a sweat-drenched girl - maybe 15 - stumbling away from the stage with the best homemade Manics T-shirt I've ever seen. In blotchy aerosol paint spray it reads: MOTLOV BOMB, MANICS, PETROL, FANTASTIC.
I think about asking her if I can photograph it, but decide there's no way this can happen without me looking like a paedophile. Instead I lift soundman Davy's setlist. The Wire quote-for-the-day on the bottom of the sheet of paper is very familiar: "After the age of 30 a man's life is the island of pleasure in a sea of ennui."
Tonight would certainly qualify.