Back with their most vital album in years, Manic Street Preachers tell Dan Martin why there's still plenty to be angry about.
Seven years ago, when Manic Street Preachers were touring Europe, they drove over the Øresund Bridge that connects Sweden and Denmark: the same one where that body was strategically placed in Scandi-noir thriller The Bridge.
Bassist/lyricist Nicky Wire remembers the moment. "As a band, we spend so much time going across bridges," he says. "Constantly going over the Severn Bridge, constantly going back to London, and I had this idea that you cross a bridge and you arrive somewhere else and everything is completely different."
But this crossing holds a particular significance. "I just remember thinking, 'I can't fucking do this any more'. It was the weight of the band. Now can we look as good as we did at the beginning? How can we have that lyrical intent?"
Twenty-five years in and being in the Manic Street Preachers is clearly still one hell of a responsibility.
"We'd just done [eighth album] 'Send Away The Tigers'. it was fucking everywhere - It was selling all over Europe - and there was this nagging feeling that we've done all this; that people are still convinced we can't be the band we were. It's a fucking powerful entity, this band, it's a joy, but it's a weight. It feels like something you can never escape from sometimes. That's my own neurosis; I'm not blaming everyone else. I spend way too much time thinking about this band."
Nicky Wire is, of course, rock's last great drama queen. There's no way he would have actually quit - he wouldn't know what to do with himself - and what a difference seven years makes. Since 2007, the band hasn't released a duff record, but what they did this month was remarkable. Twelfth album 'Futurology' ranks easily in their top five (possibly their top three), breaks genuinely new ground and secured some of the best reviews of their career. In the game of rock, that really isn't how things are supposed to happen. Yet for music's most contrary buggers, it really wasn't going to happen any other way.
This remarkable turn of events began at the O2 Arena, Christmas 2011, soon after the band had released their 10th album, 'Postcards From A Young Man', which Wire had dubbed 'one last shot at mass communication". Onstage, Wire threw a spectacular hissy fit, declared the age of the rock single dead, and the band topped off this last great imperial phase by playing every single they'd ever released In an epic three-hour kiss off. They vowed to go away for two years and only return if they could figure out a viable motive in this scary new world. In reality, they sat still for all of five minutes and spent their downtime touring Australia with the British & Irish Lions rugby team. When they did return, six months before their self-imposed exile was due to end, things did indeed look rather different. Last years 'Rewind The Film' was a gentle, elegiac, all-but-acoustic reflection on middle age and Welsh identity. Punk rock it was certainly not.
The plan had been to record one sprawling opus, dubbed 70 Songs Of Hatred And Failure, until they realised what they were plotting made no sense. "We looked at it and we thought, 'No, the tracks will harm each other; it'll turn into an even more incoherent version of [2001's messy] 'Know Your Enemy,'" says singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield. "And no-one wants that."
They decided to separate the records at birth, and the flipside to 'Rewind The Film' is the gleaming 'Futurology'. And here's where things really start to get interesting...
We join the band at their Faster Studios HQ in Cardiff. Just a stone's throw from the red light district where they recorded 1994's totemic 'The Holy Bible. It's one part demo studio to three parts boys' clubhouse, adorned with pictures of Nirvana, 70s football players and Ingmar Bergman. Married men who aren't in Manic Street Preachers tend to have sheds for this sort of thing. Three days ago, they triumphed at Glastonbury, second-headlining Saturday night on The Other Stage; Wire is exhausted - all that scissor kicking takes it out of a man - but that isn't stopping him tracking Amazon pre-orders for the new record in real time. For a man who not so long ago threw his computer out of a window in frustration, he's a late convert to the online world. At one point, I swear he even has Facebook open. Bradfield, the band's stoic, charming musical director, is feigning indignation at an NME review of 'Rewind The Film'. "You lot thought we'd turned into some kind of existential Val Doonicans," he deadpans. For 45-year-olds, they still take a borderline unhealthy interest in their public image, and this fidgety period after releasing a record out into the wild never gets easier.
This time, however, they know they've come up with something special. 'Futurology' is big and brash. but also thoughtful and artsy; brimming with propulsive riffs, Goldfrapp-y disco flourishes, krautrock and the feeling of early Simple Minds, but, like all the most Manicsy of Manics albums, aflame with righteous and broad influences - Russian poetry, minimalist art, Edvard Munch, Russian Constructivism. It's pretentious and proud.
"'Futurology' for us is a really positive record bursting with inspiration and ideas, and the fucking love of ideas, music, art, movements and motion," Wire says, 'Whereas 'Rewind..,' was a particularly morose, internalised affair."
With its retro-futurist histrionics, vampy German backing singers and a song called 'Sex, Power, Love And Money' it is. in the best possible way, completely daft.
"It's ludicrous in its ambition," Wire says. "We're trying to talk about abstract art movements in a fucking three minute pop song, and there's so much eastern Russian stuff in there on songs like 'Black Square' and 'Mayakovsky'. It's got the same ridiculous ambition as [their 1992 debut] 'Generation Terrorists', but it's more cultured. It has that intent though; it's got the post-punk jaggedness of 'The Holy Bible', but it merges that with the retro-futurism we've always been obsesses with."
"It has an overreaching ambition, which is a quite Manics-esque thing to do," Bradfield says. "But the only way to speak your own language and understand what's inside you is to reach too far. [1996 single] 'A Design For Life' was like that. I remember Nick, once we'd edited the lyric down, was like, 'Er, how can I try and talk about where working class culture sits at given moment in history?' But it worked. We got our neck to the finishing line with this one, and when we dipped, we won the medal. That doesn't always happen; we've fucked up before."
For a band forged in bile, 'Futurology' isn't an explicitly political record. It is topical, though - almost by accident. Like when he had that moment of clarity on the Øresund Bridge, Wire took inspiration from travelling across Europe. 'This motion begs a modern love song', barks 'Europa Geht Dutch Mich' ('Europe Passes Through Me') and 'Dreaming A City (Hughesovska)' concerns, because of course it does. John Hughes. the Welsh industrialist who built a steel plant and several coal mines in the Ukraine in 1869 and had the surrounding town named after him. Russian symbolism appears across the record, as does Europhilia. It's an album of bangers, but its deeper occupation is with borders and conflicts of nationhood across Europe. Sound familiar?
"Bizarrely. it became relevant without us even intending," Wire says, adding that he was not surprised by UKIP's success at the recent European elections. "This always happens when the left leaves a massive gap, which it has done for the last 10 years. It doesn't represent the people it should. Labour's become a think tank that prevaricates over all this shiny boring policy. They've cut ties with the trade unions, have a fixation with legacies, and so on. When a vacuum like that is created, its usually filled by the right wing - any kind of right wing; it doesn't have to be severe. I put a lot of blame on the left for letting it happen. They abandoned a swathe of the population and didn't consider the implications. And when you feel abandoned, it turns you into a nastier person. There are a lot of people in this country who feel let down right now."
What doesn't help is that nobody - least of all UKIP themselves - seems to be sure whether this is a blip or a trend, or whether the success of the party in Europe signals a new kind of straight-talking politics, or a worrying rise of crypto-fascism.
"When you strip it down, they're not anti-establishment," Wire says of UKIP. "They've just found themselves to be an alternative to the eternal status quo of the three main political parties. In my dreams, I'd like to think an extreme left-wing political party fronted by me could do similar, but they just flicking got in there!"
Wire has been asked his entire career if he could ever be a political leader. It's not going to happen. But what if the left had a figure as charismatic as Nigel Farage?
"Who knows? There's no equivalent! We need something basic, like John Prescott hitting someone on an election campaign! Can you imagine anyone doing that in the current crop!?" He's close to hysterics now, "Can you? He was the fucking deputy prime minister at the time and he tries to chin someone 'cos he's fucked off! The spirit of that generation of Blunkett and Prescott, it's gone. I can't bring myself to vote fucking Labour anymore. It makes me feel really bad about myself because I used to have days off school to watch the Trades Union Congress when I was about fucking 10! I don't want to be disillusioned with politics because it diminishes me as a person."
With all that in mind, it wasn't hard to understand why Russell Brand's you-shouldn't-vote-cos-they're-all-the-same-and-we-should-have-a-revolution-and-stuff outburst last year was considered so newsworthy it got him face to-face with Jeremy Paxman and a full-page op-ed in The Guardian.
"There's a bit of me that just loves people being dickheads and being absolutely contrary," continues Wire. "But then I spent most of my life thinking that democracy is one of the great things about living in this country. So there's the ying and yang of the great Situationist spectacle, and reality. I think reality won in the end. I think voting should be compulsory under the law, anyway. The bottom line was he didn't seem to have any policy apart from 'drug rehabilitation for all!"
Yet, on the subject of 'more borders not less' isolationism, Wire says he isn't going to be lobbying for an independent Wales any time soon. "I think the Welsh are comfortable In themselves," he says. "We don't bother with romance or confidence, actually; we're just really realistic as people. That's why there's a lot of melancholia in Welsh art, from Richard Burton through to us. The Scottish question I find hard to comment on, because I can't stand it when people in America start saying what Scotland should do, it drives me fucking insane."
Many people have taken the dense, vaguely voodoo grunge of 'Let's Go To War' from 'Futurology' as a Brand-style call to revolution, but it isn't. In fact, it's the third song in a loose trilogy - one that started with 'You Love Us' from 'Generation Terrorists' and continued through 2000's 'The Masses Against The Classes' - as much as a renewal of the band's manifesto. So, in 2014, what are Manic Street Preachers going to war with?
"With our own cynicism, to a certain degree," Bradfield says. "It's strange to get the age of 45 and not feel like I have a natural home for my vote. You're at war with your own cynicism because If you give into that, then perhaps you don't vote at all, and that feels a bit unacceptable to me."
One of the funniest jokes on Twitter the week of the European elections was, "Coldplay are Number One in the album charts. This is what happens when you don't vote!" But to Bradfield, it goes deeper than that. "I'm fighting against the co-opting of music as a standard loss-leader for brands," he says. "I used to criticise bands for taking endorsements, or taking a sync. Now I understand why they do it, because if they have a primal fucking urge to be in a band and make music, that's a real fucking urge, and soon they realise it's not a feasible thing, because money is less available. But it does compromise people, especially If you're doing it at the start of your career."
Would Bradfield take an endorsement or sync now if he was starting out? "I have no idea," he says. "Put It this way, if I was 18 and as desperate to be in a band as I was back then, there's a good chance I might have. We've turned down many gigs just on the basis that a single member of the royal family was going to be there. Some things stay the same. But I feel like I'm continually trying to not judge people, even though I sometimes feel beaten. Where is the next working-class band that's going to tap into the unknown zeitgeist and voice things that were dormant inside people and bring it to the forefront of the cultural headlock? When Is that going to happen again? But I can't get depressed about it; I just have to wait."
A week later, with the record out (and placing a midweek chart position of Number Two between Ed Sheeran and Example), the band are in London on the promotional trail. It's taken them to Rough Trade East, where the ageless, constantly renewing army of 16-year-old girls in feather boas have been queuing since morning. Invigorated, the band power through the prime cuts of 'Futurology' as well as four tracks from dark masterpiece 'The Holy Bible', which celebrates 20 years in August - if 'celebrates' is a word you can use about a record concerned with death camps, anorexia and orgies in the Politburo.
"I told you we should've done HMV," Wire snarls. "You said you were going to behave!" Bradfield says, aghast. "Oh, come on, I kept it all in at Glastonbury. You've got to let me get some of it out or else I'll end up kicking off on The One Show." Yes, incredibly, the following day the band are booked to appear on The One Show sofa, opposite former Tory prime minister John Major. This is what it's still like being a Manic Street Preacher in 2014. "Fucking hard work!" says Wire.
And having successfully reinvented themselves again, what is there left to do? "I think we all know deep in ourselves that there is only one record left to make, and that's the biggest fucking rock record ever. It's Zeppelin, it's the Pistols, it's 'Generation Terrorists', but bigger. That's a long way off. But I think we know that's what's left; to raise the scales to an enormous level."
It sounds a lot like a suicide note. Good job that the one thing we can be sure about with Manic Street Preachers is never to believe a word they ever say.