You either loathe them or love them, but either way, the past decade of mega-hits and Fidel Castro has established them as one of the most important bands in the UK today. In an exclusive Student Direct interview, Daniel Martin catches up with Nicky Wire to talk about the legend that is the Manic Street Preachers.
Towards the end of the new Manic Street Preachers album Know Your Enemy‚ is Nicky Wire's favourite lyric he has ever written. It's on a track called Epicentre‚ one of a handful of acoustic-leaning moments, one of a few songs that picks up the dejected air of their recent past. The line that makes the oblong bassist and lyricist well up goes like this: "like a stunned fox with memory loss/a sad, numb creature, I worship a painkiller / it is my epicentre."
"Towards the end you're just playing to 10,000 people in Helsinki, meeting 20 people you don't know. You're just living in that bubble really and that's how I kind of felt. I was taking paracetomol every day because I just felt so ill... headaches and everything," Wire shudders at the memory. "It's the only kind of moaning song on the album."
There, in action is the danger of getting what you wish for. Eleven years ago, in their self-declared "mess of eyeliner and spraypaint," and accompanying mess of reactionary literature, power chords and occasional killer way with a melody, the young Manic Street Preachers declared their intention to be the biggest band in the country. When Fran Healy talks about how the people that matter to Travis don't read the NME but The Mirror, he's only paraphrasing what Wire said ten years earlier. The Manics were among the first to show up the inherent idiocy in all things indie; proving that anything genuinely revolutionary and alternative could - had to - aim straight for the masses.
"The Manics are always about too much of everything," says Wire. "And perhaps on the last album we were about too little."
As is usually the case, at their commercial zenith with 1998's This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours‚ Nicky, singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore felt at their most creatively spent. Whatever they did next, they reasoned, it had to be urgent again. The results can be heard from the outset of Know Your Enemy; take the celebratory vitriol of Found That Soul‚ as Nick explains. "It's just a reformation really. Almost the idea that we have found our voice again. Almost like an orgy of guitars and happiness that we've got rid of the shackles."
Away with the shackles has gone much of the politeness. Along with knowing their enemies, they're prepared to name them. Royalist teenagers, apathy, the Aiya Napa massive, American cultural imperialism and, perhaps oddly, the Beastie Boys. "We[`d] love to kiss the Dalai Lama's arse, because he is such a holy man," spits James on Wire's ideological centre of Know Your Enemy, "but freedom of speech won't feed my children, just brings heart disease and bootleg clothing." And while it might be a natural reaction to mistrust any sanctimonious political action from an American musical act, are the Beastie Boys‚ who've made successive calls to free Tibet, really any different from the Manics' much trumpeted meeting with Fidel Castro earlier this year?
"The only difference is," he asserts, "I just think that American bands get away, just like America does, they're never questioned. I mean, in the UK as a band, we're interrogated and abused, which is healthy, you know. But I think with someone like the Beastie Boys... I've nothing against the Dalai Lama at all, it's just the way that, I actually think that sometimes he doesn't realise that he's being used as a kind of celebrity charitable cause. If you're talking about human rights, Tibet is a theocracy, there is no vote, it's all based on divinity. I'm not saying the Dalai Lama's bad, but if you actually intellectually look at it, there are really no human rights in Tibet anyway because no-one has a vote. It's just those kind of things, it's just the way America promotes its own view of human rights.
"America destroyed its indigenous population less than 200 years ago. You don't really hear a band singing about that. The fact is that they're now sat on reservations drinking themselves into oblivion. It's all about just offering a different side, you know, not everything I say is true, half of it's bullshit.
But it's really important to offer a different perspective I think. For instance, in South Wales four weeks ago, a multinational company came in and
6000 people lost their jobs in the steel industry, they just closed it down. So where's their human rights?"
This eagerness to "name names"‚ as he puts it, perhaps provides final proof that the Manic Street Preachers are back on form. Hilariously, during March's Apollo dates, Wire berated journalists "who think I'm trying too hard with my lyrics." "It's because I'm more fucking intelligent than you, that's all," he leered, looking prim as ever in a tennis dress. "You just want to fuck me, well you can't!"
Of course, in the aftermath of Richey Edwards' disappearance, the main charge was that Wire was not trying hard enough. The evidence? The Manics' One Great Fuck Up - South Yorkshire Mass Murderer. To write a song about one of the single greatest British atrocities of recent memory, the Hillsborough disaster, was never a task that should have been taken lightly. But if anyone was capable, Nicky Wire certainly had the form. You still can't call that particular PC a murderer, but the actions that led to the caging of the Liverpool fans who were crushed to death that day, and The Sun's false allegations that other Liverpool fans robbed and pissed on their own dead obviously horrified Wire as much as anybody else.
The eventual track however, merely asked whether the individual could sleep at night, namechecked Jimmy McGovern for writing a TV drama and lamented how unfashionable principles are these days. Even down to abbreviating the title to SYMM, the Wire had wimped out. "Yes, well, I think it's still good that we made an attempt to make a point about something, and I think abroad it certainly has more impact than in the UK," he says in half-hearted defence. "I can understand a UK audience really wanting us to name names and everything else. I completely understand that. I don't think it was a sense of censorship, but there's almost a little sense of fear in me that, did I really want that sort of controversy? That was it, because the title itself I thought was pretty harsh." So it was shortened. "The title was always SYMM. It's always been called South Yorkshire Mass Murderer, but I always wanted a title like Black Sabbath's NIB. That's actually a little petty I think. I know the lyrics didn't perhaps hit home but then I did have a very nice letter off Jimmy McGovern about it, which kind of meant a lot to me. But I am - we're - all open. I think the best thing about my favourite bands is that they go through bad phases. Not bad phases, average phases. But all my favourite bands came out of it, so I just hope that we have."
Few would argue that Know Your Enemy‚ makes the same mistakes. While it pulls no punches in the issues it does address, there are also moments unusual to the Manics' moments of genuine tenderness. The warmest of which does not even come from Wire's pen. New single Ocean Spray‚ a scratchy ballad with an acoustic signature, is the first time that James Dean Bradfield has written lyrics. It deals with the emotional paralysis he felt when he watched his mother die of cancer - the title coming from the brand of Cranberry Juice (a health drink) she favoured in hospital.
"That sums up the album as much as anything really," enthuses Nick, "because James wrote half of it, I finished the lyrics off, Sean did the trumpet solo and it just summed up a bit of freedom again. We felt confidence in each other to do those things. James wanted to write a song about his mum's battle with cancer. Sean could do his little tribute to James' mum with the trumpet, I wrote a few words and obviously James did as well. It's a lovely moment."
Not that the subject matter could ever support such an allegation, but did Nick ever feel threatened that the band's traditional songwriting roles were becoming blurred?
"I was happy," he confirms. "I could hear him in the corner strumming away this brilliant song and he was mumbling. `James, have you written something?' I'd ask, to which he mumbled yes. Him and Sean just went in and started messing about. Then he just went `oh Wire, can you finish them off, I don't want to be involved with it.'"
This new freedom is perhaps further evidence that, artistically at least, the band are free of the memory of departed guitarist Richey Edwards. "There was a conscious decision when Richey went missing not to try and copy him, it would be pathetic. I could never have written a song like Yes or 4st7lb, but then again I don't think Richey could have written a lyric like Design For Life. I think we needed to go through that phase of perhaps being more concise just to get over the bumps. But the monkey off our back has gone."
Of course, art's imitation of life can never be quite as preposterous as the real thing. The Manic's championing of Cuba might have brought pop and politics briefly back together, but since we met, a certain Geri Halliwell has pushed the whole thing to ridiculous levels. Yellow Spice, the premier celebrity Thatcherite has just appeared in an election broadcast for the Labour Party.
"As much as I'm disillusioned with Labour, I obviously still want them to win," said Wire at the prospect of an election. Yet surely, after all the gestures, he should but his money where his mouth is and do a Paul Heaton, voting Socialist Labour.
"I don't know if there's a candidate where I live - I‚ve just got such horrific memories from Thatcherism, living in Wales, that as soon as the election comes around I am always going to vote Labour, at least Labour's five per cent better. It's not like I'm gonna do political rallies or anything." That, on balance, must be a good thing.