The Manic Street Preachers talk to Sylvia Patterson about making music, taking stock, turning to...and why rock 'n' roll is dead.
There’s a word in Welsh which doesn’t translatable into English, which every Welsh person knows: Hireath (pronounced Ee-a-reith). “It means a longing for your homeland,” says Welshman Kieran Evans, the Manic Street Preachers long-term video and film director. “It’s a pull, and I hear that pull in their music – that widescreen, Manics Melancholia.” It’s something he often visualises in their Welsh location videos, including latest single, the haunting, beautiful, terrace-chanting Hold Me Like A Heaven. “I think all Welsh men have that melancholy… cloud that hangs over us the whole time. Glass half empty.”
Such melancholy, he adds, is a Celtic phenomenon generally and posits a plausible theory.
“It’s the weather,” he laughs. “Scotland, Wales and Ireland get battered by the Atlantic. And the Manics are like the weather. Track one, misty and foggy. Track two fucking hail. Track three massive rain storm. Track four, sun. And a rainbow.”
Three misty rainbows arc over the sloping valleys on the drive towards Newport, south Wales, home of the Manic Street Preachers new countryside studio, Door To The River. Inside the red-bricked cottage living room, vocalist/songwriter James Dean Bradfield, 49, sticks the kettle on while Nicky Wire, 49, has a practise on the dartboard, his lifelong sporting passion (hero: Jocky Wilson). “I get a real zen feeling playing darts,” he notes, scoring an impressive double 20. “I’m not bad. Celebrity Darts, I’d do well.” Bradfield adds that his mum, who died in 1999 aged just 50, was once a darting contender, sometime secretary of Gwent Ladies Darts Team who played against the late Eric Bristow’s then-champion girlfriend Maureen Flowers. “She took a game off her, too!” he beams. After 32 years of dramatic existence, the Manic Street Preachers remain profoundly regional iconoclasts, their worldview, politics and independence still informed by their working-class Blackwood mining town roots, a mindset they’ve described forever as “heroic isolation”. The Welsh post-war Minister for Health, NHS founder Aneurin Bevan, remains a central inspirational figure, honoured in Manics videos (this year’s Distant Colours), whose words gave them the album title This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours (1998), while a 1960 Bevan quote adorns official Manics Mugs: “I read the newspapers avidly. It is my only form of continuous fiction.” Drummer Sean Moore (Bradfield’s cousin), the first Manic to turn 50, laments the loss in culture of singular spirits like theirs.
“The internet has globalised and homogenised everything to the point where identity is lost, regional identity has been lost,” he muses, over a Manic Mug of tea. “You can come from New Zealand and sound like someone from Alaska. The influences are the same. And the marketing guys are selling the same. They want a bland, broad canvas. Yeah, it’s good to be inclusive, but you need individuals, you need sparks.”
The Manics remain a crackling individual spark, this year’s dynamic, euphoric No.2 album Resistance Is Futile made all the more impressive because it almost never happened. Through 2017, chief lyricist Nicky Wire was adrift for months in a creative void, significantly more concerned by events at home: his 80-year-old mum was diagnosed with leukaemia, was given weeks to live. She sadly passed away last week. No wonder he’s been “slightly … detached”. It’s partly the reason this is the Manics’ least politicised album, in these culturally chaotic times, of all times, Wire’s lyrical concerns today more with the everyday (time speeding by, memory, loss) and positive inspiration, the album featuring “mini tributes” to cultural heroes: 60s French art nouveau maverick Yves Klein (International Blue), David Bowie (In Eternity), the people of Liverpool post-Hillsborough court-case triumph (Liverpool Revisited).
In the upstairs living room the lofty Wire selects a digital channel on the flat-screen TV, showing a stream of classic post-punk videos: Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, Siouxsie, Psychedelic Furs, Killing Joke, Magazine, Gary Numan. Today’s preposterous jacket is a kaleidoscopic riot of patches bearing the words Whitesnake, Rush, München, Polksa and Top Cat as he contemplates his place in rock ‘n’ roll today, which is to say, he is comprehensibly displaced. Music’s best days, he’s convinced, are over. On album track Sequel To Forgotten Wars his lyrics say it all: “Nowhere to go, for rock ‘n’ roll.”
“There’s never gonna be anything that rivals the past,” he announces, in his incongruously cheerful, sing-song Welsh way. “I don’t think there’ll ever be anything as good as Day In The Life. Or Bowie, that perfection. It’s not nostalgia, it’s about knowing what can’t come back. Technology just has changed everything. I’m not a Luddite, I just can’t keep up!”
The landscape, to him, is now unrecognisable, the era of free streaming, followers, Spotify playlists, live Facebooking and toxic social media leaving him “wracked with anxiety and self-doubt”, a culture of identikit, beats-driven pop where arena-sized bands like the Manics never make the national singles charts.
“There more chance of me flying to the sun,” he scoffs. “Well, unless you die. Everything I grew up with and believed in, in terms of being in a band, is just totally irrelevant.”
Worse, he says he feels “ill equipped” to be a rock star in 2018.
“I used to think I was the greatest bass playing rock star ever,” he hoots. “I’m not gonna pretend I didn’t have a gigantic amount of delusion and arrogance.”
Suddenly, he brightens.
“But I like my hair. Hair is a dying art. For men. In their 50s. We’re a really good hair band.”
The most fearless political agitator in rock ‘n’ roll, sometime kohl-eyed, sloganeering Marxist insurrectionary, makes no apology for his political retreat, wilfully unplugging himself from these biliously polarising times, dismayed to see “friendships and families actually break down over Brexit, the Scottish referendum, all the rest of it”. Wire has always lived in Wales, which voted for Brexit. He didn’t, and nonetheless retains solidarity with the socialist manufacturing masses who did, for whom the EU “has done nothing, so I see both sides”. He has very little political idealism left, “because I’ve no faith in humanity”, though adheres, still, to the values of his youth.
“I’m from the Clement Attlee socialist tradition,” he muses, of the post-war PM. “Much more classic Labour than militant. And that’s still where my heart and my brain is. 1948. 70 years ago. I’m there.”
With politics no longer the foil for his merciless pen, he’s turned, instead, to the tech giants, new song Broken Algorithms announcing, gravely, “we now know society is truly dead”.
“I’m much more afraid of the giant tech companies than I am of any politician,” he notes. “The reducing of human beings to habits, numbers and algorithms, for sale. It’s like the guy who invented nuclear power realising it’s gonna be turned into a fucking nuclear bomb.”
Wire finds solace from his existential crisis not in music, which he barely listens to, but the visual arts, “the last haven left”, forever in galleries contemplating the 19th-century masters, today a painter of landscapes and polaroid artwork, imagining he could become, one day, The Welsh Paul Simenon (ex-Clash bass player turned successful impressionist painter). His retreat from both music and politics marks worrying times for the future of the Manics: he can’t see himself making music forever, “I just won’t”, not sure he’ll even write forever, “maybe some poems”. On the nearby TV, rolling 24-hour news flickers silently as a dumper truck shunts into view, spewing plastic debris into a colossal mountain of landfill. He finally explodes into his once-signature indignation.
“For the last five years, Newport Council has been the leading recycler in Wales,” he roars. “I love recycling, brilliant, now I’m told recycling is shit. That the plastic I’m recycling is not good enough, China is sending it back. That’s what I mean. You’re constantly thinking maybe I’m doing the right thing, for once, turns out you’re a fucking wanker!”
James Dean Bradfield, in acute contrast to the ennui of his lifelong friend, is brimful of positivity, still a music fanatic, forever tuned to the radio, even if he, too, is politically disillusioned, dismayed by his once-beloved Labour party’s infinite infighting today, “eating our own, terrible”. He doesn’t mind approaching 50.
“Not if I can still be in a band,” he smiles. “Even if the mirror gaze is very uncomfortable, fuuuck, is that a bald spot? And falling asleep watching Match of the Day, with my crossword. I’ve turned into my dad!”
Like all the Manics, Bradfield is a family man, with traditional family values, who lives in Cardiff with his wife and two kids, for whom friendships have formed the supporting ballast of his life, one reason he’s also, like Wire, appalled by our divisive political atmosphere, fuelled by “the digital hiss of hysteria; people need to let go of their emotions, relationships are more important”. He remembers, vividly, the foundations of his school friendships with the adolescent Nick and Richey Edwards, their tragically lost talismanic force-field who disappeared forever in 1995.
“At school, I was the shortest, I had a massive turn in my eye, beyond Marty Feldman, ‘dunno which eye I’m looking at’,” he laughs. “Then a patch on my eye, for six months, Trevor McDonut specs, big ears and chronically shy. And Nick did take pity on me. And Richey was just really cool and soft, even if you knew there was something there he needed to control.”
He understands Wire’s retreat into art, his disengagement from music, but as someone “riddled with optimism” he never contemplates the end of the Manics.
“Not many bands get to 13 albums,” he points out. “You’ll get bruises and fragility along the way. You just hope you put it off. And we were always awkward cuckoos, weren’t we? So, to get that chemistry anywhere else, it’s just never gonna happen for me ever again. To countenance that being taken away is terrible. But it just will happen one day.”
This year a new, one-off festival is happening in August 2018, The Cool Britannia Festival at Knebworth, where the Manic Street Preachers played to 125,000 people as support to Oasis in 1996. I show Bradfield the running order, featuring the Britpop chancers of the day, imagining he might be mortified. “The Farm’s Peter Hooten,” he reads, “Republica’s Saffron, forgot about Space …looks nice!” He’s having this hopeless nostalgia?
“I’m not so judgmental,” he scolds. “I remember seeing The Police at Twickenham, people were saying, ‘they’re just doing it for the money’. Well, Stuart Copeland, the only thing I could see on that bloke’s face was (flails arms, batters imaginary drums) ‘bam! I’ve got my band back! I can fucking do this every night! Yes! Yes! I got my band back!’ Perhaps I just realise it might be me one day.”
Nicky Wire presents some Manics memorabilia, his handwritten, illustrated “lyric progress” boards for Resistance Is Futile, swathed in cream and orange gaffa tape. For Hold Me Like A Heaven, he’s arrowed in an accidentally missing “hate”. Should an algorithm ever work out which words appear most frequently in Manics lyrics, they would be, he decides, “hate, truth, future. And a bit of love”. That the Manics still exist at 50 leaves him “bewildered and relieved, managing to squeeze out a real sense of vitality, there’s still a sense of glory”. In uncertain times for them, men inherently defined by melancholy, Hireath and glass half empty, the Manics are perhaps our last, great, gigantic regional band, still our most potent freedom fighters for truth, integrity and the Celtic spirit of defiance. “We’ve weathered the storms,” notes Moore, happily. For Nicky Wire, his current storms will surely pass too. Maybe blue skies to come, definitely the odd rainbow. He leaves us with a quote, from 60s protest folk singer Phil Ochs, which embodies his mind-set today. “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.”