Having initially insisted that their career was going to consist of a double album debut with sales to match 'Appetite For Destruction', a sold-out Wembley Stadium then instant oblivion, the Manic Street Preachers' imminent second album means that they've failed on all three counts. But no sweat, they tell Mark Day, it was simply "the right thing to say at the time"
"America thinks it's laid down the law, the ground rules for rock'n'roll at the moment," says Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield.
"From Nirvana to Soundgarden to Rage Against The Machine, they're good musicians and everything. They can achieve some deft touches of subtlety, but in American terms everything's based on pure aggression. They think every answer lies in the mosh pit. Then look at certain bands - our same old references: the Stones, the Clash... The Stones were really ramshackle, never really in-your-face like a sledgehammer. 'London Calling' (by the Clash) wasn't really an in-your-face album either. To be powerful, sometimes it's best to just harness the lyrics and let the song move. We're never going to be like Soundgarden or Nirvana - that's not where our power lies."
Arguably the last great British rock'n'roll band, the Manic Street Preachers have arrived at that difficult second album, 'Gold Against The Soul', with their sense of self intact and a whole new set of irritants to fire pot-shots at. In the wake of the glossy, pop-metal sheen of their Steve Brown-produced debut, they've returned to the looser, scruffier sound of their earlier, indie singles for a record that aspires to be both more diverse and more concise. The rhetoric's still there, but this time the music's less of an afterthought.
Richie James (whose rarely utilised guitar playing is, as anyone who really understands the Manics know, irrelevant) says: "I think early on, people weren't worried about the performance or the songs, they just liked the idea of liking us."
Yup, growing up is hard to do - especially when you started out promising you weren't going to. When the Manics (Bradfield, James, drummer Sean Moore and bassist Nicky Wire) insisted their career was going to consist of a double album debut with sales to match 'Appetite For Destruction', a sold-out Wembley Stadium then instant oblivion, it was a conceptual declaration of intent, designed to distance themselves from the indie mentality they found themselves surrounded by. Not to be taken too seriously, it was, as they say, "the right thing to say at the time."
After their 18-track, throw-every-song-we've-got-against-the-wall sprawl of Generation Terrorists, every one of Gold Against The Soul's mere 10 tracks has to stand up to sharper scrutiny. And they do, once you get your head around the idea that this isn't Gen-Terrorists II. That increased confidence results in a less desperate rush to impress.
"This time we can follow our muse a bit more, draw the line and show a bit of restraint," says Bradfield. "I think we show more reverence to songs than perhaps other bands do. We let each other breath a bit more on this album."
Bradfield compares it to the Clash's 'London Calling', which was the sound of a band with enough confidence to branch out and move on from early rat-tat-tat punk broadsides, captured just before self indulgence set in. After fighting shy of similar comparisons in the past, it seems strange to hear the Manics bring up the subject unprompted.
"We play the game of hypocrisy right up to the hilt," Bradfield reminds anyone who's forgotten. "When we got a lot of Clash comparisons levelled at us, we knew at the time it could be the death knell of the band, to be written off as second-division Clash iconoclasts. So we had to stave it off a bit, but it got to us in the end. Bands like the Black Crowes were using references that were much more retrogressive than ours and getting away with it. In the end, every band's got its reference points and it's nothing to be ashamed of. Originality is not our aim."
One thing that isn't on 'Gold Against The Soul' it 'Patrick Bateman'. Inspired by Brett Easton Ellis's graphically violent consumer culture satire, American Psycho, it debuted on the band's '92 Winter tour, and stood as the Manics' heaviest work to date, both musically and lyrically. Richie once threatened that, once everyone thought they had the band pinned down, '...Bateman' would be the comeback no one could anticipate. So what happened?
"I still think it's a really great song, but James is really unhappy with it," sighs Richie, a little wearily. "It's finished, and on the shelf somewhere. We might release it with the next single...or not use it at all. There was just no point putting it on the LP, because it sounded too different, and I like the idea of records being recorded in one go, as a whole. It wasn't like anything else on the LP, it just exists on its own. It was recorded as too much of a dense malaise, like Black Sabbath's 'Hole In The Sky' - just mush."
Pity, cos the one thing 'Gold...' lacks is the hot-wired confrontational fury personified by the band's earliest gigs, when the audience consisted mainly of curious, often antagonistic onlookers, there to check out whether these mouthy Welsh upstarts could walk it like they talked it. It's never been quite the same since most of their crowds actually started liking them!
"The gigs were getting a bit fan-based - I think that's the word," says Bradfield, contemplating an issue to which most bands don't have to give a second thought. "But I think the only band that ever sustained a general air of antagonism and a terminal aura of malignancy about them were the Sex Pistols. In the end the Clash didn't; I think Guns N' Roses certainly don't now. Any band that starts out with a confrontational basis ends up being diluted. And that's not an excuse, it's a valid criticism."
A considered appreciation of G N' R's incendiary 'Appetite...' album (and a much watched video of Guns at the New York's Ritz, way before Axl went into a personal development therapy) gave the embryonic Manics much of the metal energy that ensured that a crossover from the NME and Melody Maker into the rock press was inevitable. But the Manics use, abuse and recycle their influences like no other band. What's not required is discarded, such as the Gunners' descent into the mire of self-reverential stadium rock - even if Richie couldn't resist sneaking out to see them at Milton Keynes Bowl.
"I'd never been to one of those big rock things before," he confesses. "It was like a family day out. I went to see the new Cult as much as anything. It was very strange. Just the comments between the songs - "have a good motherfuckin' time all the motherfuckin' time". They said motherfucker quite a lot, which was to be expected, I suppose."
So did the Gunners let you down?
"Everybody lets you down," he tuts dismissively. "But it was good to see Slash and Izzy back on stage."
Is Richie frustrated that the Manics aren't headlining their own Milton Keynes-style extravaganza?
"I think any band would like to get to that level. But something like that is beyond all fashion. Those sort of bands reach an audience very naturally; the music papers could never create a band to be that big. Every band would like to make one of those moments that reaches out to people who don't otherwise really buy records. It doesn't happen very often."
'Gold Against The Soul' was produced by Dave Eringa, who was assistant engineer/keyboard player on their early, endearingly tinny recordings for the Heavenly label. It's an unexpected choice after the MTV-friendly work of Steve Brown, best known for the Cult's break-through 'Love' album.
"He's a bit younger, he likes a lot of the same kind of music we do," says Bradfield. "We just wanted somebody our own age who could concentrate on capturing an essence rather than worrying about what microphones to use."
Eringa will also be playing with the band on their upcoming tour - the first step towards a G N' R-style ensemble of backing singers and sidemen?
"Definitely not!" Richie squirms. "Every song we've done, really, has had a bit of keyboard on it. So he's going to do Hammond and piano, but that's it - no more people!"
Don't expect to hear the band snub 'Generation Terrorists' in standard forget-the-old-one, buy-the-new-one style. It has its share of superfluous tracks, as any 18-song debut would, but running it down isn't part of the Manics' sales pitch.
"Personally, I don't really care to celebrate the fans," says Bradfield. "But you've got to take into account that they're just people who buy records, like I used to. For all those people to go out and buy a record, then for you to go around saying it's shit, that's the ultimate snobbery, the ultimate abuse of power, and I would never do that. The first album sounds yound and naive, which we were. Being young and naive is a privilege a lot of bands can't afford, because a lot of bands are old before they have any success. So to have a testament to how young we were and felt is good. I won't denounce that."
"None of us are naive enough to think that it's going to last forever," admits Richie. "These days most bands are lucky if they get to make a second LP."
So, having got past that hurdle, will they bow out gracefully when the time is right?
"Well, if everything started going wrong, we wouldn't be bothered to carry on," he laughs. "I don't know why bands can be bothered to do that."