As local heroes Regurgitator leave the Orange Stage in the main arena at Sydney's Big Day Out, the Manic Street Preachers assume the position 500 metres away on the adjacent Blue Stage. It's 5 o'clock in the evening and there's not a massive crowd gathered to see the English three piece - that is, compared to the tens of thousands of fans who will witness Korn and Marilyn Manson later that night - but no Manics fan could have gone home disappointed. The band launched full-scale into a 'greatest hits' set, that included a grandiose version of Motorcycle Emptiness, Nicky Wire downing his bass and picking up a skipping rope for half the duration of "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will be Next", and an impossibly huge run through Design For Life to close. Before departing, frontman and guitarist James Dean Bradfield stepped to the mic and announced, "Thanks for having us Sydney, it's great to be back."
Five days previously Bradfield flew to New Zealand from New York, for a day of media interviews prior to joining up with Wire and drummer Sean Moore in Sydney. Settled in at the Auckland office of the band's record label, Sony Music, Bradfield is explaining why the Manics, one of the first bands to be booked, failed to play the NZ leg of the Big Day Out three days earlier. Their cancellation was due to business commitments in the USA, he says, namely "schmooze" meetings with representatives of Virgin America, with whom the band recently signed a three album deal.
"If we hadn't of gone to America it would have put the release of [This is My Truth Tell Me Yours] in jeopardy. As a consequence we missed two live dates and unfortunately one of those was in Auckland. It's nothing personal."
Given the option of playing a gig or "shakin' the bacon" as Bradfield refers to it, of course he'd rather be on stage, he says, "but doing the round with the record company - unless you've got some absolute clear-cut arsehole in front of you - it's no bother."
In 11 years, the Manics have released five albums and are currently selling more records now than at any point in their history. America, however, has been resistant to the band's charms since day one. Does Bradfield see this new label deal as the band's 'big' chance?
"No, we're not that fussed to be honest. One of they myths about our band is that we've based our career on, and been totally desperate to, break into America. But after the first album [1992's Generation Terrorists], when we got rejected in such a unanimous matter by America, since then we've never thought about cracking the place. We've seen so many bands go there and piss away everything they've created, so we've seen what a destructive force that country can be. It's all pervading, it's the devil itself. We're very happy to have a record deal in America, but we're not going to split up if it doesn't work out."
After releasing five albums through Sony, you must have a decent grasp of the way major labels operate. Can the 'corporate rules' still get in the way?
"I have a fairly good understanding of the political inner workings at our label. I think once you sign to Sony or EMI or whatever, you have to be reconciled with the fact that you're working within a corporate structure, and as long as you don't succumb to any kind of censorship you should just get on with it."
It's worked for you guys.
"Yeah, we've always done our own thing and done it our way, without getting too silly. Sometimes I find bands are their own worst enemies, they really don't know how to have a career. You see bands with their first album out and they're doing their drug of choice and they're getting pissed all the time, their little indie girlfriend is on their arm and it's all really impressive. Then after their first album they take their foot off the pedal and completely lose sight of everything they took five years to do. Some bands get a head rush after that first album and think that all the hard work is over."
In the UK at least, last year was a good time for the bands who have done their fair share of hard graft.
"Exactly. In the last two years you've had the ultimate achievements in British music - you've had Radiohead's OK Computer and Mezzanine from Massive Attack. There's two bands who've existed in their own world who don't play the game and adhere to their own rules, and they had massive commercial success. What they've done is achieve what every band wants to achieve, success on their own terms."
Speaking of success, what did you make of the Q magazine accolade - 'The Greatest Band in the World.'?
"[Smiles] It was gratifying but it felt a bit misplaced really. still it gave us a good laugh at the time."
Something the Manic Street Preachers have never been accused of is having a sense of humour.
"Well, it's there. especially since the Richey [James, who disappeared in 1995] thing, we've definitely become much more self-effacing. Amongst the four of us, dare I say it, we had a good time all of the time, but we were very serious about what we were doing at the time, we didn't care to make light of the music. And that's the same now, the only part we take seriously is when we're writing songs. Outside of that you can't be too precious about anything."
For some reason, there's been a rash of 'Richey-sightings' in the past few months.
"Yeah, there wasn't any for a time and all of a sudden there was five or six in a row. There were sightings in Brazil, the Canary Islands and in India, all in the space of two weeks. We're very numb to it now. We feel that if Richey is out there, he obviously doesn't want to talk to us, so the last thing we should do is go out and chase him. Richey disappearing has made us much closer. We can't get any closer to each other than we actually are without going to bed with each other."
That would make for good headlines.
"It would be interesting at least. The thing is, none of us are that interesting as individuals, I know for sure that I'm only interesting as part of a group. As an individual I'm very boring and I like very boring things."
What don't you like?
"I turned on the telly the other day and Boyzone were being interviewed. They all had leather trousers, the health drinks and a personal assistant each. Those boy groups just wipe me out."