Manic Street Preachers, appearing in Moscow this week, are back on track. Sergey Chernov, Staff Writer of The St Petersburg Times talks to Nicky Wire.
The Manic Street Preachers, the seminal British rock band formed in Blackwood, Wales, in 1991, always aimed to bring rock music and revolution together. With its most recent album, “Send Away the Tigers,” reviving the band’s early enthusiasm and energy, the trio will make its Russian debut by performing in Moscow on Wednesday. Bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire spoke to The St. Petersburg Times by phone from his home in Wales last week.
Your most recent album, “Send Away the Tigers,” has been described as a return to form.
Yeah, I know. I think we looked back to our youth. We’ve been going eighteen years now as a band, and we looked back to what made us want to be in a band in the first place — the enthusiasm and idealism and anger, just a genuine love of being in a band.
Perhaps we’d lost our way a bit, because, like you said, our previous maybe three or four albums — they’re still very good records, but maybe we’d lost something of our spirit. So we looked back to the early start, when it was just the three or four of us in our bedrooms writing songs together. That’s what we wanted to recapture. We wanted to make a really exciting rock and roll album, and I think that’s what we achieved!
So it did work this way?
Yeah, I think it did. What we did was the three of us went back to a little rehearsal place in Cardiff in South Wales, and there was no management, there was no record company, there was no one. It was just us three. We just wrote songs together again just like we had done nearly twenty years ago. And it just made us excited. To be honest, during the whole year since it was released, it’s just been a great year. We’ve played places we’ve never been, from Turkey to Croatia to Romania, and now we’re coming to Russia. It kind of gives us a new lease of life.
As for the two albums before this one, you said in an interview that you had a “theory that we should sound like New Order or The Pet Shop Boys.” Was it kind of a joke?
No, it’s true. Around the time of 1998 ("This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours") was probably the biggest we’ll ever be as a band: we sold 3 million albums and we played concerts everywhere. After that you just don’t know what to do. You’re still young men, and your thought process becomes quite confused. And then you try and reinvent yourself as something. It’s not the essence of what you are, really. But I’m glad we’ve done that. I think all the best bands have had phases where they make quite interesting and confused records. And that gives you a chance to go back to the start.
Looking back to the career, as I watched the “Greatest Hits (Forever Delayed)” DVD, I noticed there were loud guitar songs and then soft pop songs. Is that because they’re from different periods, or are they somehow mixed together in your work?
Yeah, I think it is different… You can’t deny change as you grow up, and all our favorite bands [did this]. The Clash went from the first album to “London Calling,” which is like a very mature rock record with all different styles. They did that within three years.
I think all the best bands move on and change. As long as you keep the main essence, you’re all right. I’ve known [frontman] James [Dean Bradfield] since school. We’ve been in the same school together, the same band together. I guess you get bored with each other sometimes. (Laughs.)
On the new album, there's a duet with Nina Persson (“Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”) that comes as a bit of a surprise. How did it happen?
We are big fans, me in particular. I write the lyrics for the band. I’m a big fan of Nina’s lyrics, especially as, obviously, her first language is Swedish, but her command of the English language is just amazing. And we’re big fans of The Cardigans, we just love her voice. The song was written as a duet and she was always the first choice. We were a bit scared to ask, we thought she might say no, but she loved the track. James went to New York, and recorded it in a little studio in New York, and then she did some concerts with us, and Glastonbury and TV. She’s just a really, really lovely person, a really intelligent person with a great voice.
Is the cover of John Lennon's “Working Class Hero” on the album sending a message?
We just used to use it as a warm-up song. We were in the studio, and every day we’d go in and that would be the song we played just to kind of get us into the feeling, because the lyrics are some of the greatest lyrics ever written. One day, we didn’t even know about it, but we were in the studio and the engineer recorded it, so it’s totally live. It just felt like a nice little thing to put on at the end, because we are very working-class people, we grew up in a very working-class area in South Wales, and it just felt like a nice little tribute, really, to John Lennon’s song. It’s very much a tribute to what we think is a brilliant song.
At least two songs on the album deal with war in Iraq and maybe Afghanistan. Why was it important to you to write about that?
Well, it’s just something that’s always been with us. I went to university, you know; I got a degree in politics, which just stayed with me. I’m not really, say, a campaigner; I’m not like Bono or something like that. I just find politics really interesting — the way it works, and the implications of war. [I’m interested] almost more in a journalistic way, if you know what I mean. It’s just something right from the start I generally find interesting. I think it’s important to write about what you really care about, what you feel. I’d be lying if I were writing about going to nightclubs or doing drugs, because I don’t do that! (Laughs.) I stay home and read and watch TV and stuff, so I think it’s just important to write about what you feel, really.
What about the other songs on the album? Are they more abstract?
I don’t know if you know the band’s history, but one of our founding members, Richey Edwards, disappeared. He was in the band up until “The Holy Bible,” and he just disappeared, in 1995, and he’s never returned. So obviously that had a big effect on us, because I went to university with him. He was not just in the band, but he was one of our best friends as well, so that’s obviously something … “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough” is very much concerned with him. We used to sit down and write lyrics together. He’s very much still in our thoughts, so there’s always that kind of influence on the record as well. Just the idea of loss, closure, and trying to come to terms with stuff.
How would you describe your political views? Are they socialist or what?
(Laughs.) Oh, it’s difficult. I mean I grew up, like I said to you earlier, [in a working-class area]. I guess socialism in Britain was different to socialism in other places in the world, but a lot of the ideals of fairness that came with that I still agree with, but obviously my life has changed and Britain has changed so dramatically over the last twenty to thirty years. Deep down I do believe in socialism, I believe in a lot of what it stood for, but the world has changed so much. It’s hard to keep those beliefs sometimes.
George Orwell was socialist, but then became disillusioned and became a critic. What do you think of him?
He’s one of my heroes, George Orwell, just as a writer. He’s just unbelievably brilliant, whether it’s “Animal Farm” or “1984” or “Homage to Catalonia.” “Homage to Catalonia” in particular, because he went to fight in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists, and that book had a massive influence on me because a lot of people from my area went to fight in that war, and the song “If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next” was directly influenced by George Orwell. I really admire the man: I think he’s one of the last great British heroes. He not only wrote about it, he kind of did it as well. And yes, he did get disenchanted, like we all do, because that’s the nature of politics. You’ll always be disappointed by political systems, but right to the end he was so intelligent. He was always kind of wrestling with the dilemma of a political thought. So I definitely do admire him.
When I think about political bands, the first thing I think of is Chambawamba. What do you think about them?
Yeah, I think that’s a different area. With our politics we looked to stuff like Public Enemy, coming from America, or The Clash or The Sex Pistols. It’s still very much based in rock and roll entertainment: we’re not campaigning. I think Chumbawamba are much more political: their lifestyle is dictated by their politics. I admire that but it’s not for me.
Was your concert in Cuba in 2001 a separate event or was it part of a national festival?
No, it was just us wanting to do something really different. We wanted to go on an adventure, to go to one of the last places where bands just didn’t play. It was all financed by us. (Laughs.) It cost us a huge amount of money, which I’m not bothered by. But it’s not like we could sell records there, because you just can’t sell records there anyway.
But it was a real experience, good and bad: there was a lot about it we really enjoyed and some which was also difficult. I’m glad that maybe when I’m retired and I’m looking back at our career, I can at least say that we did something pretty unique. There are not many other bands that took the risk to do what we did.
The concert itself was amazing. And the fact that Fidel Castro was there, and after the gig he came back and chatted to us for about an hour. That was just weird, and it was hard to take it all in. But I am glad we did it.
But they’re very good at using people for propaganda purposes.
Yes, that’s true. But I think with us it was different, because we were known as a political band already, if you know what I mean. We weren’t expecting some kind of nirvana; we knew the good points and the bad points of Cuba. It was much more an event, really, for the both of us. They used us and we used them as well, because it was also a launch pad for our own record as well. It was a pretty exciting way for journalists, for the media to come and see us. It was the first gig we did on the new record “Know Your Enemy,” so I guess it worked both ways.
But in such situations, they usually try to isolate you from ordinary people, or it was not the case with you?
No, I don’t think it was like that. I think they knew what we were [there for]. We were talking with every newspaper in Britain, [with media] from all around Europe. It wasn’t like we were there promoting Cuba. They were asking us a lot of hard questions of us, anyway, why we were doing it and all the rest of it, because it was quite a difficult thing to pull off. It goes both ways to be honest. Like I understand why people think we were being used for propaganda, but like I said, I think I didn’t feel that way; when we came home, I thought, “Well, we’ve done it now and we can move on.”
When I watched “Greatest Hits (Forever Delayed)” DVD, in one video the drummer was wearing a Soviet naval officer’s fur hat and in the other video somebody was wearing Soviet medals. I wonder where you got those.
Well, around the time of “The Holy Bible,” our third record, we went kind of military mad. (Laughs.) We had loads of Soviet stuff. We’d obviously grown up reading a lot of Marx and Engels at the university, all that kind of stuff. We just went round second-hand shops in the U.K. and antique fairs (there’s a lot in Cardiff and in South Wales), and we bought lots of medals, loads of uniforms. From all around the world, really, but the Soviet stuff always looked the best! (Laughs.)
The Clash used red stars, and The Sex Pistols wore a Karl Marx portrait.
Exactly. There’s quite a long tradition of it in the U.K. Echo and the Bunnymen, in particular, were one of our favorite bands and they went through what they called an “Apocalypse Now” phase when they dressed in military uniform all the time, and we just copied them, really.
When you speak to politically-minded Western musicians, the conversation is usually about President Bush or something, but they usually seem to have no interest in what’s happening in Russia...
No, I think what it is, is that George Bush is just such an easy target, isn’t he? I think a lot of the people you’re talking about, they’re just not really interested in politics. Perhaps it’s the obvious target to choose, just to say, “George Bush is terrible,” and blah, blah, blah. A lot of British bands will say that: that’s their kind of political statement that. Let’s face it: Politics is much more complex and influential in different ways than that. I’m no fan of George Bush but I don’t spend my life looking at him. There’s much more excitement and interesting things in other parts of the world.
What do you feel about current Russian-British relations - the poisoning scandal and the fact that the main suspect was elected to the Russian parliament?
It’s in the news all the time. It just seems so complicated and complex and almost kind of old-fashioned, if you know what I mean - like something from the Cold War! It’s hard for me to judge. You meet lots of people in London from Russia, and they all seem to be getting on with their lives and enjoying their lives. I can’t wait to come. I’ve never been, and it’s always been bit of a dream of mine to play in Moscow. I know the band are really looking forward to it. And we’re coming in a day before, so we hopefully will get a chance to get a good walk around and experience a bit of it as well.
Is there any interesting happening in today’s music?
I’m a huge fan of music and I love music, so I’m always buying records. The band called The Enemy is really good, and they have a good social kind of standpoint. I think the Paul Weller album this year—“22 Dreams”—is really brilliant, and then, [the album by] a singer-songwriter from America, Bon Iver, which is a gorgeous kind of isolation record. There’s always good music, but I think we’re all waiting for that moment when an amazing band just comes from nowhere and sort of conquers the world.
Are you planning a new album?
Yeah, we are planning: we’re writing in the studio, we got eight or nine songs. I think it’ll be kind of a development, slightly different again from “Send Away the Tigers,” but still very much a rock record, maybe slightly darker. We hope to get it out maybe March or April next year. You know, we’re feeling at a good place at the moment, so we want to keep working as hard as we can.