Last Year it was Radiohead, but this year Manic Street Preachers have taken the ultimate accolade: The Maker Readers' Best Band. We speak to a squeaky voiced Nicky Wire and break the news to him.
Nicky Wire is on top form. Considering this was only planned as a brief 10-minute phone interview to break the news of The Maker's Readers' Poll results, he's chatty and accommodating.
More than that, for a man who, for me, used to be synonymous with the sneering soundbite back in 1991, he's upbeat and modest - a definite indicator of the current mood in the Manics' camp. While the passion and the dissent is still there, you get the feeling that they're stronger and more relaxed as people. Despite the relatively lukewarm reaction to 'This is My Truth Tell Me Yours', it's been a good year, culminating with a big UK tour. Wire's voice rings with enthusiasm: "Playing to 11,000 people in places like Sheffield, it feels like where we belong. When I get onstage, I still feel like it's everything I've ever wanted. Pete Townshend used to say it took him to another planet and I feel like that live. It gives me such an energy boost. And I'm not usually the most energetic of people."
BAND OF THE YEAR
In what was a confusing year for pop, the Manics were a strangely stabilising influence. And how mad is that? The band who've so often threatened to blow the music industry apart returning in the role of saviours, come to stem the decline of British rock'n'roll: a reliably big presence in an otherwise vaguely characterless year. The Manics, only slightly oblivious to the demands and expectations put upon them, scored their first Number One single - and then followed it with "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours", a record which split people's opinions like nothing they'd done since their very early days. Had they gone soft? Was this the bravest record of their career? Should they, as some Manics Internet sites implored, "split up now"? "We knew there was going to be something of a critical backlash with this album. We're not naive enough not to realise that," admits Wire. "I think because all our albums have had an angle - you know, the angle of destruction
or an angle of comeback - and this one was more of a collection of songs, we knew it would take a few months for it to sink in.
"But I genuinely think that, for perhaps the first time ever, the songs have come across more than all the other stuff. I can understand critics finding it a bit more difficult to deal with, because we've always been such a good story. But I think there's a lot of - ordinary's not the right word - but normal people who've picked up the album and loved it."
And your first Number One.
"Yeah, for us '...Tolerate' is the perfect crystallisation of a lot of things we've always wanted to do. It's organic, it's slightly futuristic and it's got a lyric that creeps up on people who might not know what it's about, but probably will eventually."
And Best Band, too. Who was the competition this year?
"Oh, I think Massive Attack. And our compadres the Stereophonics and Catatonia. I think the Stereophonics are such an old-fashioned sort of hard-working band that they caught people by surprise by working their arses of and writing good songs. And Massive Attack - 'Mezzanine' was a fantastic album. I have just an immense amount of respect for them. It's by far my favourite album from the dance scene. I can listen to their albums, and you don't have to be in a club or on drugs to get the point."
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Wire sounds almost stumped for a second. I've never noticed before, but his voice goes up a pitch when he expresses shock.
"Album Of The Year? That surprises me a bit, actually. I mean, I love the record, but sometimes when you read The Maker's letters page these days, you think that no f***er likes us."
It seemed to grow on people, though.
"Well, that's what I mean about it being more song-based; stuff like 'My Little Empire' or 'You're Tender And You're Tired'. In Europe, people say it reminds them of The Beatles, but when we're in Britain, because of our history, they'll say it's AOR or Bryan Adams. But that's just down to preconceptions of what we are. And I think the more you listen to it, the more you get the grace of it."
Did James sulk while you were making it? He told me the other day he's prone to occasionally sulking in the studio.
Wire gurgles with laughter: "Yeah, he did sulk a little bit, it has to be said. If he sulks, I'll just say, 'Well, why don't you play the bass while you're at it and give me the day off. But recording was a joy. We always have a good time. Even when we were recording 'The Holy Bible', it was a fantastic time - it was only when we released it, that it went downhill. We have a ball in the studio. There's not an immense amount of friction, we just watch a lot of telly, read a lot and record."
How did you envisage the record sounding, initially?
"Well, it was our fifth album and I always think of fifth albums as being quite defining. I think as we were going along, we almost felt this was an end to a certain phase of the Manic Street Preachers. It's like a sister album to 'Everything Must Go' in a lot of ways. The next album won't be anything like this. But we put much more effort into the songwriting than we'd ever done before."
How? Do you mean, attention to detail?
"Yeah, details. James getting different instruments in, instead of just a blast on a guitar. And I don't think we'll ever do anything like that again, but with this one, we just went the whole way. A song like 'Tsunami' was pretty much a good old-fashioned Manics power rock song. But by the time we got in the studio, with James' sitar, it kind of changed the complexion of the song."
Was there ever a point where you thought, 'No, we've none too far'?
"I think 'The Everlasting' was the song that for us was our version of The Beatles' theory about writing a 'swimming pool'. Y'know, even when they did a weird album, they'd always say, 'Let's write a "swimming pool", to keep the money coming in.' With 'The Everlasting', we were thinking, 'Is this too much?Is this too stadium?', and maybe it is a bit too overblown, but we wanted to do it."
Other albums you liked this year?
"Massive Attack. I love the Mercury Rev album. In the past, they've always been pretty amateur, to be honest.
But this is gorgeous. And the Air album, which is nice tywilight music."
MAN OF THE YEAR
If the album award came as a surprise, that's nothing compared to this one. Wire's voice reaches a key not unlike a helium-sucking Mickey Mouse.
So, Nicky, Man Of The Year...
"My man of the year is...oh it's me! Oh f***ing hell, I thought you were asking me for mine. Apart from obviously being Sex On Legs to some of you, Wire has become a kind of "anti-star" star. Someone you won't find collapsed in the corner of the Met Bar when the lights go up, or exciting the groins of the tabloids with secret trysts with supermodels. I think my attributes are also my downfall in a lot of ways. Y'know, I'm a bit too clean. the non-drinking and the non-drug taking are positive, but they also get on everybody's tits sometimes. James has gone on the wagon this
week and he's realised what it's like being me on the orange juice and lemonade around people who are pissed. He says he just had to go to bed. My life's been like that for f***ing four years. And I get really narky when people smoke in front of me and all that sort of stuff."
Have you changed? Are you changing into your dad?
"No, my views have always been radical in their conservatism sometimes. I don't think I've changed that much, I really don't. The biggest danger when you get to this level is money. You get offered so much that you have to make sure that money's not the deciding factor. I do get scared by it all, but that's why I still live back home in Wales. And when I'm at home, that's it, the band's over. It's like a double life, but that's the way I cope with it. If I lived in London, I'd probably be in an asylum. I think I'm just a bit different to most pop stars, really. The life you are offered in a band can turn into such a decadent old mess. I try really hard to keep away from that."
But wasn't that what you wanted when you started?
"I did for six months, but then it f***ed my liver up. I'm just so weak. And the problem with a lot of bands who move to London is that their lyrics become really directionless. If you live a certain lifestyle, it's hard to get clarity of mind and still write about things that you think are important."
Who would be your alternative for Man Of The Year?
"It's Graham Henry, the Welsh rugby coach. He's turned the whole country around, put a smile on everyone's face. Even when we lose, you know we're playing the right way and being competitive. Also Iwan Thomas, the 400m runner. He had a fantastic year. Won the Commonwealth and European and World Cup. He's a top chap, as well."
MOST SADLY MISSED
AS a tribute, this speaks volumes about Manics' fans and their feeling toward Richey Edwards (it's the fourth consecutive year he's been voted Most Sadly Missed). I tell Nicky that I still feel uncomfortable talking about the"4 Real" night, which, incidentally, and rather scarily, was the last time I interviewed the Manics for a music paper.
So much has changed since then. The Manics were vindicated for their rock'n'roll and their rhetoric, were revered and reviled, made some great records, lost the plot, found it again with "The Holy Bible", and then exceeded everyone's expectations - apart from their own - by making "Everything Must Go". By then, we'd buried our differences, I think. These days we just occasionally agree to disagree... only now, we don't have the bright-eyed Edwards around to fuel the debate. There must be some moments when they miss him more than others.
"I think moments is the key thing," says Wire, quietly. "It just depends on what you're doing and where you are. There's certain places and cities, where you just know you did certain things with Richey. We were in Portugal, playing in Lisbon and there's a place I went with him and he was pissed out of his head, and he gave me a Mars Bar and stuff."
So it's like a snapshot picture?
"Yeah, it's places and records as well. I make so many tapes. All the old C86 stuff is totally entwined with when I was at university with Richey, writing lyrics together. It's just something we have to deal with. It's going to be four years in February since Richey went missing, and the worst thing about those times is that you're guaranteed to have a sighting. I was looking the other day and as well as being sighted in Tenerife and a mental hospital in Wales, he was sighted in Brazil a week later. And it does your f***ing head in because you can't believe any of it, really... which leads you into a spiral of depression. I think Richey would love to do what we're doing now in terms of playing the places we're playing now. I think he'd be pretty dismayed by the music situation today, though, like we are. I think there's such a lack of ambition in bands now. It's getting worrying the idea that the biggest thing in some bands' lives is moaning about chart regulations. It's f***ing unbelievably sad. I actually quite like Belle & Sebastian, but their lyrics aren't saying anything different to Billie, really. Just adolescent love songs. I think Richey would be coming up with amazing quotes... some Hitler-Slowdive quote."
What do you see happening next year?
"My favourite band at the moment is Mogwai. I mean, when they supported us, they sent us a little note at the end saying thanks for the opportunity to alienate 30,000 people in two weeks. A lot of bands have just said,'F*** off, we're not supporting the Manic Street Preachers, they've got no principles!' But they took the chance and I admire that, as well as liking the music."
Do you feel that people have put a certain responsibility on you to save pop?
"Yeah. I think the thing was with, say, 'The Holy Bible', Kurt had killed himself and everything was building up to a crescendo, but for us, we loved that record, but it felt like we were playing to the same people every night. And not that many of them, either. It gets to the point where you think, 'F***, I'm going to end up like The Cure or Siouxsie And The Banshees playing to the same 2,000 people every gig for the rest of my life. We've always been interested in reinvention and ambition, we could never have carried on like that. I think we'd have turned into Marilyn Manson and ended up trying to out-weird each other. Richey knew that as well. I think he'd reached a defining point in himself. I like to think he felt, 'This is it, I've done my bit, I can't say anything more for the time being.'"
So the 10 minutes becomes 30. It feels like talking to a mate. Wire says the Manics are already looking forward to the future. "The next album will be a lot smaller. I don't know how to describe it. We'll always have a trick up our sleeves. We always think about what we're doing next - not like a career move - but we've got to keep ourselves stimulated."
The New Year finds them off to Japan and Australia, while "This Is My Truth..." will finally get an American release on their new US label, Virgin. And as for the UK...
"We might do an odds and sods album and maybe do a new single for it. Everybody's doing B-sides albums so we might do a mixes, cover versions and B-sides album, just to out-do everybody. Even stuff like 'Raindrops...' and 'Theme From M*A*S*H', which people haven't been able to get for ages." You sound well up for it.
"We're always excited about what we do. We always think we've got something to prove to ourselves and everybody else. When that goes, it's all over."