The Manic Street Preachers are no longer living on the edge and their new album reflects the sound of a band trying to get on with life. Bassist Nick Wire talks to Kevin Courtney.
It has been three-and-a-half years since the disappearance of Richey Edwards, and the Manic Street Preachers are back on the frontline with a new album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, and a single, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next. Things aren't so manic around the Preachers' camp in these post-apocalyptic times - in fact, says Manic's bassist Nick Wire, life is positively quiet and uneventful, which is just the way he likes it.
When the Manic Street Preachers released Everything Must Go in 1996 they were regrouping their ragged creative forces following the loss of their lyricist and chief protagonist. Edwards had led the Manics through every rock 'n' roll cliche, from wearing eyeliner to experimenting with drugs, to carving "4-Real" into his arm; one day, on the eve of the Manic's US tour, Richey went where no-one could follow, disappearing some-where near the Severn Bridge in Wales, missing and presumed dead.
The remaining members of the band, James Dean Bradfield, Nick Wire and Sean Moore, were dazed and confused, but decided to carry on, and Everything Must Go was released in an atmosphere of posttraumatic shock, the songs displaying the hyper-real urgency and skintingling brilliance of a band which has survived the cataclysm. Now that things have calmed down, the Manic Street Preachers are no longer living on the edge of their nerves, and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is a more measured, thoughtful foray into the politics of pop.
"When we started the record," says Nick Wire, "We didn't have any complete vision or anything, but after two or three songs the thing we all kind of felt was that we wanted a lot more purity than on our previous records. Perhaps in the past, James would have put loud guitar on the song, but this time we wanted to put different instruments and different sounds in the songs. The more we went along, the more we realised it's probably the most serene album we've ever made."
So, The Manic Street Preachers play Tranquil Welsh Moods then? Not likely. This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is a tight, tempered explosion of hooks and sounds, challenging, uncomfortable and utterly compelling. Ready For Drowning and You Stole The Sun From My Heart are steel-rivetted pop tunes with a rocksolid centre, while The Everlasting is a fleeting, panoramic glimpse into a faded and glorious past. The heavy, almost euphoric string arrangements prevalent on Everything Must Go have been reined in, and experimental keyboards and guitar f/x have been pushed to the fore, giving each song a metallic, skeletal sheen to protect its raw, vulnerable heart. It's the sound of a band trying to get on with life, moving on briskly from despair to God-knows-where.
"Everything Must Go was almost like we've come out of something, and are so excited and happy that we could still be a band, could still matter and write brilliant songs," says Wire. "So for us it's an incredibly happy album. It may not sound like that to everyone, but there was a certain sense of euphoria to it. Now it's like we're the same people, and we've just got to get on with it.
'We didn't want to recreate Everything Must Go, because if you try and recreate a successful album, you always come off second best. All we wanted to do was just develop. It's not a gigantic departure, but it's a genuine development. And we kept thinking back to The Clash: they had White Riot back in 1977, and then they had Lost In The Supermarket in 1980. So there's nothing wrong with change."
Old Manics fans mightn't agree, especially those who still cling tenaciously to the punk ideals which the band espoused during the Richey years. In recent times, the Manics have replaced their erstwhile wasted chic with a crisp, clean-cut sporty look, a sartorial reflection of their current getting-on-with-the-job ethos, and they've replaced the splatter-gun venom of earlier records with a clearer, more sharply-focused invective. The Cult of Richey would probably not approve.
"Oh, I think you'll always get that," laughs Wire. "I don't understand it, because all my favourite bands have changed. There's a world of difference between I Want To Hold Your Hand and A Day In The Life. All the great bands have changed and I've never wanted to be frozen in a particular time. Whether it's image changes or musical changes, I always think it's positive."
Imagine if The Manic Street Preachers had stayed the same, and were now middle-aged punks in mascara, still spouting the same old slogans and still trying to act like generation terrorists. They'd be laughed off the chicken-in-a-basket circuit.
"That's right," agrees Wire. "You can't stop the tides of time. I mean, we were 19, 20 back then, and we're 29, 30 now. You've got to be comfortable with what you're doing, otherwise you're just faking it. I think the biggest change that happened to us, post-Richey, is that our Stalinesque, five-year plan for world domination, all that kind of thing has gone. We don't even try to plan past the next day, because you never know, something disastrous could happen tomorrow. "We just try to appreciate the moment. I think the other change is that the anger is a little bit more constructive, whereas before it was ultimately nihilistic. But we feel exactly the same emotions, and when we've finished writing a song, we feel kind of cleansed, really. I think we worry more about offending people - when you're 21 you don't really care, you feel a lot stronger and you don't care who you piss off. But the core elements of the band are still pretty much the same. When we started it was 'let's abolish the House Of Lords and abolish the Monarchy, and we still feel exactly the same.' "
When Edwards went missing he left some lyrics behind which the band used on Everything Must Go. This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours will be the first Manic's album not to feature any of Edwards's words, and Wire has now taken over the lyricist's slot left vacant by Edwards. Unlike other pop polemicists however, Nick writes about issues closer to home, and the subject matter of songs like Ready For Drowning and Tsunami invariably washes up on the shores of the Welsh political landscape. Even the album's title comes from a speech made by Labour activist Aneurin Bevan, who started the National Health Service. Not quite The Clash's Sandinista, eh?
"It's more about Welsh people and their own problems than about any anti-English attitude," insists Wire. "We're like completely insecure and completely f***ed up!"
Are you concerned that the rest of the world mightn't care about the minor gripes of a small, peace-torn country in Western Britain?
"Well, where I come from is basically the type of industrial community that you come across everywhere in the world, where there's been exploitation, and there's been incredible amounts of hardship, and socialist movements and stuff. But I know what you mean. Ready For Drowning, especially, kind of deals with the fact that every relatively famous Welsh icon seems to end up drinking themselves to death, from Dylan Thomas to Richard Burton, and even to Richey in a funny kind of way. It's just some kind of mass insecurity, I think.
"I think we deal with celebrity a lot worse than other nationalities. Even Anthony Hopkins came back from the brink of virtually killing himself with drink. We like a drink, us Celts!"
Where the album really finds its edge is in its unrelenting attack on middle-class complacency, which allows fascism and oppression to breed behind a civilised facade. The current single, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, is a stern warning that fascism is not dead and gone just yet. It was inspired, says Wire, by the International Brigade, a volunteer force who fought the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.
"I think complacency is the word. People today would never volunteer to do anything like that. But I'm just talking about people's minds, really. It's not just that we physically wouldn't do it, it's almost that we don't even think about it anymore. I mean, there has been a civil war in central Europe and Yugoslavia. It's kind of accusing myself as well - we're all more interested in the World Cup or getting new trainers. It's pretty scary really."