On a blustery, slate grey Friday in March, Manic Street Preachers are working flat out in a dingy rehearsal room in Cardiff. The mood in the city is pensive as flailing Welsh rugby team are playing England in the 6 Nations the following day. This is pretty much to be the only thing bothering the band - a 40 song set list and two untested musicians doesn't seem to be a cause for concern. A new album, a single that is about to go to radio, an impending tour that sold out in three hours...all in a days work.
PS. They needn't have worried in the rugby, Wales hammered them. Happy times.
Send Away The Tigers was a phrase used by the late great Tony Hancock. What's the significance to the Manics in 2007?
Nicky Wire: "I was always a massive fan. Richey used to love him too. This was obviously very pre-Pete Doherty. I like the tragedy of his life more than his comedy. That's the real dichotomy of it, the way he ended up washed up and washed out in Australia. There's a line "there's no hope in the colonies" which is basically Hancock going there to try to save his career, then ending up killing himself. His big decision was to sack his writers, that's what would haunt him forever, just like Blair's bad decision was Iraq and that will haunt him forever. That's the parallel in that particular song, lyrically."
What music was inspirational during the recording?
James Dean Bradfield: "To me it was two old Jeff Beck albums. The first time I went to Japan (1991) I came back with Beckola & Truth, I've loved them ever since. Early Skids stuff is in there too. I just realised that Jeff Beck and Stuart Adamson were, and I know this sounds quite trite, they were guitarists who were always very expressive, almost like a backing vocal the way they played. I wouldn't say it's going back to my guitar roots, but I definitely looked back to early Jeff Beck records, when he was playing with Rod Stewart and Stuart Adamson with The Skids, I just thought 'fuck it', those were the kind of records I always used to practise to. They were the kind of people who were never ashamed to play a solo."
NW: "Give 'Em Enough Rope, just the way The Clash finally became a proper rock band. Alice Cooper. Smashing Pumpkins. Quadrophinia was a big lyrical influence, the way Pete Townshend reconnected with his audience, he was convinced he had completely bamboozled Who fans to the point that people didn't understand what the band were about, which is, I think, what Lifeblood did with our fans. We don't slag Lifeblood off because we achieved what we wanted and the songs were great, but what we achieved was an amoeba...a barely living organism that functions within it's own little bubble. Aerosmith Pandora's Box. Mott The Hoople I think James was listening to..."
JDB: "Their album Mott, it's really slightly pompous, which I kind of like really. Going back to a lot of guitarists from the 70s and 80s, their playing really was pretty bombastic, they weren't afraid to shred it up a little bit, I just looked back at the early Manics stuff and that always seemed what we were naturally best at. Our natural state was being aggressive and sometimes overblown. When we started playing these songs, that's kind of how it felt, it felt full frontal. A lot of those records reminded me of our past in a funny way."
Sean Moore: "Drumming wise, I was just thinking about what I'd have done when we were first in the band, just keeping it really simple. I never try to get too inspirational about these things. I just tried to be me when I was 21 again."
JDB: "I think you went back to your Topper roots a tiny bit as well. Really controlled aggression. Whereas 'Lifeblood' was more mechanical, I think you went back to the Topper Headon style of controlled aggression."
SM: "Yeah, pre-Generation Terrorists, Motown Junk, You Love Us, that kind of thing."
NW: "Actually, I have to say Hole's Celebrity Skin was a massive influence. Sonically that was a good litmus test of what we were after."
With all the talk of returning to earlier sounds/roots, is this not a record that could only have been made by a band at this point in their career?
SM: "It's not going back to the naive past, it's definitely drawn from the experience of the time since. Obviously we're playing better and we know the studio a bit better."
JDB: "It's just inevitable that when you find your natural state you're always trying to find something that compliments that, a hidden part of yourself. That's what Lifeblood was. You're discarding your 'method'...it's almost like being an actor, it's like saying I need to go to the theatre to try something else, then you just come to some realisation that you're a film actor and maybe that's enough."
SM: "I think in a funny way, back then we were trying to achieve then what we've achieved now."
NW: "Always go back to Richey, when he used to wear a guitar strap that had 'I Am A Cliché' written on it in big letters. It was half ironic but it was half saying 'we're just a fuck off rock band'. There's nothing to be ashamed of. If the songs hadn't have been so natural then it wouldn't have worked but within three or four demos we knew exactly where we were going. Also, James has had a hard time. For five years we've told him not to do any solos. This time round we were saying, 'Wank your arse off.'"
JDB: "There's a great Samuel L. Jackson quote I think of. He started his career as an actor, then he became a massive addict, took lots and lots of drugs until the start of the 90s. They asked him 'how did you get your career back on track' and he said 'Simple. Greed.' He'd gone back to the original inspiration of why he wanted to become an actor, he'd wanted to be recognised, it was his ego. The only way he could get his life back on track was to reactivate that greed in himself. It's the same kind of thing with the way I played guitar on this record; I'd spent a long time subjugating the need to fire off a solo. When we started doing the demos for this record, Nick and Sean would be saying, 'put a solo there' and it felt great again. It is egotistical, it feels great and that satisfies my needs if I'm being honest."
NW: "James was starting to become known more as a singer. I'm not saying he's a bad singer but I'd rather hear his guitar than his voice sometimes. It's not his fault - all the reviews of Lifeblood were talking about how James was singing like an angel, the words scan so simply...if you listen back to ...Tolerate it's just a million words with a lot of emotion and passion."
What did your respective solo albums teach you?
NW: "That it's just much more fun being in a band. Making a racket together. To me, vanity projects are great fun, but they're not really the main business of life."
SM: "It taught me not to do one."
JDB: "The thing it taught me was that it was much easier playing that music on stage and being the centre of attention. I thought it was going to be more difficult. When I stepped back on stage to do the XFM Winter Wonderland gig (Manchester Apollo, Dec 06) I just realised that playing in the Manics is just about three people going at it with such a full force, it's like a physical fight."
NW: "It's a serious thing, there is actually a concept behind Manic Street Preachers, which is why we are different, why there's not many bands like us. Maybe Blur, maybe Radiohead. Manic Street Preachers is still a concept. When you get onstage you have a duty to fulfil that social contract between you and the fans."
The Manics seem to work best when backed into a corner and fighting their way out, reacting against prevailing trends - as this record is up there with your very best, what is it a reaction to?
NW: "It's a reaction against ourselves, primarily, in terms of re-connection. Sometimes you've just got to do what you do best. We came to the conclusion that there was one really good thing that we could do as a band..."
SM: "We reacted against ourselves, against politics, music...all those things really."
NW: "I think it had to come from within really... that said, I do think there is a culture of decadence in this country at the moment. There are loads of good young bands in this country, but the most social commentary you're getting these days is how bad the bouncers are in Sheffield. That's the nadir of it really. Actually the nadir was when Arena had Theo Walcott's girlfriend on the cover and you just think, 'What the fuck has happened to this country?' Fair play to Damon - The Good, The Bad & The Queen, I think the lyrics on there put a lot of young bands to shame."
Did it feel like, for want of a better term, you were elder statesmen and you had a duty to deliver this record?
NW: "There is something inside...even something as awful as Neil Young's"Living With War, he still felt like 'I'm the only fucker who is going to actually do this.' It's not the greatest record he's ever made but at least he had the balls to try to articulate what he was feeling. There's a 'brilliant' new band every week at the moment, but there's no one who really seems to be stepping up to the plate. The Gossip are brilliant, mind, they stand for something. Even if they're not quite there yet with the records. That's what I love about bands, that's what we did, we showed ambition. The Klaxons is a good example. First time I heard them I thought 'I love everything about this but they don't sound very good.' But they've realized their potential, I think they're the one band who stand way above everyone else, they've got so many ideas, the lyrics about Greek mythology, the videos are just fucking fantastic. There is something brilliant about them. They stand out to me as a band who've just gone on their own. Bands who are fully realised when they come along tend not to work. Look at The Strokes, much as I still love them, it's been 'downhill skier' ever since the first album. Our peers, especially the great '90s bands Radiohead and Blur, none of us sold any records early on. None of us made a 'masterpiece' until our third albums. Blur nearly got dropped, Radiohead nearly got dropped and we nearly got dropped. There must be something in that."
The cover shot for the record is by the photographer Valerie Phillips (from her book 'Monika Monster, Future First Woman On Mars'). What made you chose that imagery?
NW: "We were just sitting around in Stir Studios one day. I'd been fishing around in my library the night before, someone at the record company had said that we needed something iconic, something like Primal Scream would use, which has never really fitted us - it fits them but not us. I found the book and the imagery seemed iconic in a much more modern way. We've had a connection with Valerie for years, she shot the cover of Motorcycle Emptiness. Her first ever photo session was us, in James & Sean's bedroom back home. They were some of the best shots ever of us, Richey up at Pen-y-fan Pond. I'm really into fate, into serendipity at the moment, and I seemed to be guided towards her book in my house. I took it into Stir the next day and everyone just seemed to think it was the right choice. James spotted the cover picture straight away. As soon as Martin, our manager, called her up she was on board. She's been offered loads of money from big corporations to use this particular book and she's always refused."
JDB: "I think one of the valid comparisons we've always thought of for ourselves with The Clash is that we've always wanted to work with a very small collection of people, be it a producer or a photographer. We just hadn't seen Valerie for a long time. The fact that Nick was looking at an individual piece of work of hers that fitted the sentiment of the record, as he said, it's just serendipity."
SM: "We hadn't seen her within that time and within minutes of meeting up again we'd re-connected."
Talking about re-connections, you're back working with Dave Eringa again here, although the record is mixed by Chris Lord-Alge, in much the same way that 'The Holy Bible' was overhauled by his brother (Tom Lord-Alge).
JDB: "Dave really wanted to do the same things that we did. Dave is the person who has produced our only two number 1 singles (Tolerate and Masses Against The Classes). In a strange way, the ambition that we had matched the one that he had. He wants us to be a marquee band again. It was like we'd independently arrived at the same point."
NW: "I don't want to be disingenuous to Dave but for the first time in a long time were well rehearsed, we knew what we wanted, we weren't looking for a producer with ideas. That's nothing against Dave, he added loads, but we were fully realised as a band, we had a real deep focus."
JDB: "Dave wasn't being quite so egotistical, he wanted us to sound a bit like Mike Hedges era Manics. He didn't mind following that type of inspiration."
NW: "We were well played, well rehearsed. We always had the idea of someone else to mix it as well. Chris Lord-Alge was always this dream choice for us, a mixer who would give us this final sheen of FM rock that the record needed. Now, Dave wants all his records mixed by Chris Lord-Alge and Dave is very precious about mixing, he hates people getting their greasy paws on his records."
JDB: "It's a strange bit of serendipity again, we've always had the template of Malibu, the song by Hole. Most of the album (Celebrity Skin) is mixed by Tom Lord-Alge, but just that track, which has always been all of our favourite, is mixed by Chris. We didn't realise until the other day. It's kind of weird because that kind of power, that kind of crunch, that molten quality to the sound, that was what we were trying to achieve. You could never call Chris a subtle mixer. He didn't once try to make things more subtle.
The album couldn't really sustain much more at that level of intensity, at around 35 minutes, it's the perfect length.
NW: "We did scratch around trying to find the mythical Small Black Flowers moment. We really went round the houses and in the end it didn't need it. We also edited as we went along. We dumped songs before we even got into the process. We knew which were the best songs so we thought 'Let's not fanny about'. Lifeblood we had about 27 fucking songs. It was ridiculous."
JDB: "I think sometimes you convince yourself that if you've done something before that it's easy to achieve again. It's not. There is a lot more dark science involved. We assume that just because we came up with Small Black Flowers before that we could do it again and that's just not the case. Dark forces guide you sometimes. There's a tiny bit of voodoo there. If it's not happening, just because you've done it before doesn't always mean you can do it again. We just made a decision that we couldn't force that 'tender' moment. There isn't much tenderness on the record, I must say..."
NW: "There's a bit of mournful melancholia..."
Underdogs seems like it's written with the fans in mind, in the same way You Love Us and Masses Against The Classes could be said to. How important is it to project specifically with the fans, to make a connection, which very few other bands seem to do?
NW: "It is really important. You never stick with a band unless you make a real, deep connection. I think those two had it with Echo & The Bunnymen for a while. I probably had it with Whitesnake, then the Smiths. It leaves an indelible scar."
JDB: "Also it's a connection with our past. A lyric like Underdogs has a strange symmetry, it connects with what we were when we were very young. We realise that the song is kind of written about how we were when we started out as well."
NW: "Coming from Wales, you're just naturally an underdog."
Talking about looking to the past, your 20th anniversary as a band must be coming up soon?
JDB: "We should take that from when we wrote our first song really."
NW: "I always consider 'Motown Junk' as when we started."
SM: "June 88 - Suicide Alley. We should re-release it."
JDB: "Then people would realise that we stole the verse of Suicide Alley for the chorus of Little Baby Nothing."
NW: "It's recycling. It's ethical."
At the end of the Lifeblood tour you said that people wouldn't be seeing you for a couple of years. Solo records followed within 12 months, recording for SATT started almost immediately. What is it with the Manics work ethic?
SM: "Just not enough on the TV I suppose."
NW: "It's a kind of clichéd thing to say but it's creativity I suppose, a genuine urge...There's a line in Autumnsong which goes 'Born to destroy, born to create' which is very much us. Creation and destruction very much go hand in hand."
JDB: "I missed the conflict of being in a band. In a good way. Missed the conflict of disagreeing about certain ideas, then finding the consensus and writing a song, especially after doing the solo thing - I was like 'The Man With Two Brains', having arguments with myself. It's brilliant to argue and then be forced to do things, that kind of organic conflict gives rise to creativity."
NW: There's also a bit of a 'garden shed' complex. Recording and being in a band is the most luxurious escape for a bloke, the best garden shed experience that one can have. I think we all need it, it's our solace."
Live-wise, does Springsteen-esque epic sets mean you'll go on a voyage of discovery through Meic Stevens back catalogue ala BS's Pete Seeger sessions? What can people expect from the gigs this time round?
NW: "This is where Sean gets nervous..."
SM: "We'll play for an hour and a half then Nick will do the next hour, solo."
NW: "The idea behind that was that we are going to play loads off the new album but not one of those cunty bands who go 'We're not playing the hits.' It's just going to be a long trawl through the old stuff as well as the new stuff."
JDB: "Take the word trawl out..."
NW: "I hate it when you get bands going out and they just refuse to play any of their old songs, that's all."
JDB: "It's just admitting that we've always had a really strong rock'n'roll entertainment ethic. I know Springsteen is being mentioned in connection with a lot of people at the moment and he's always been a valid artist but he has always been a corny motherfucker too. He's always walked that line between incisive commentator and an entertainer."
NW: "We are talking a lot more Born In The USA than The Ghost Of Tom Joad."
What's each of your favourite Cardigans song?
NW: "Mine is Holy Love. One of my favourite songs ever written, the lyrics are amazing."
JDB: "Erase and Rewind. Between that and For What It's Worth."
SM: "Mine is Communication. I love the guitar solo in it, it's so simple."
Was Nina Persson the only choice of singer on Your Love Alone?
NW: "She was."
JDB: "Surprisingly, cos it was Nick's choice, from writing it. I don't know if you wrote it with her in mind?"
NW: "I did, yeah."
SM: "The question was never 'Is she the right person?' it was always 'Will she do it?' and if she doesn't what are we going to do?"
NW: "There were a couple of back up ideas. James worked out straight away it really suited her range
JDB: "Little Baby Nothing was a one shot as well. Martin Hall had the idea."
NW: "Funny Martin coming up with a porn star."
JDB: "It's very rare when that kind of thing happens."
NW: "We were used to people telling us that these ideas couldn't work. People were afraid to even ask Chris Lord-Alge. When we did the Greatest Hits (Forever Delayed), I really wanted Elton John to redo Little Baby Nothing. I just wanted to try something like that. You end up getting quite scared of asking people. The fact that she seemed keen really early on when we sent her the demo, her management came back saying she was a fan of the band..."
JDB: "At the end of the album sessions in Ireland, I got on the plane to New York from Shannon airport, met up with her and her husband, who used to be in Shudder To Think, I can't remember where their studio was, but he recorded her in five takes, then I was on the plane back home. One of the easiest things we've ever done."
The album features songs called Indian Summer, 'Autumnsong' & Winterlovers, which season is truest to the Manics?
NW: "It used to be winter for me but my body can't take it anymore..."
JDB: "He's fucking gone and deserted me, I'm the only winter lover left now."
NW: "It's autumn for me..."
JDB: "Summer for you, you fuck!"
NW: "September, its my favourite holiday time."
JDB: "Why were you so fucking miserable in September then?"
SM: "It's all the same fucking season nowadays anyway. I'm a constant throughout the year..."
NW: "A constant fucking misery."
Final question, a proper Myspace blog moment - the mood in the Manic Street Preachers camp at the moment is...
JDB: "Feels like the disconnection of the training camp."
NW: "Training camp is good. It feels like training at the moment. And it can only get worse."