Stirring, Beautifully - Clash Music, 5th July 2014
To borrow a phrase from Taxi Driver – itself half-inched from a Johnny Cash song – Manic Street Preachers are truly a walking contradiction.
Capable of producing songs as different as ‘Faster’ and ‘Ocean Spray’, ‘Stay Beautiful’ and ‘Show Me The Wonder’, the Welsh group seems to thrive through refusing to accept any definition of who they are. Last year’s ‘Rewind The Film’ album (review) was an introverted gasp at mass acceptance, but alongside this the trio was stockpiling material for a rather different release.
A release that is now upon us. ‘Futurology’ (review) is outward looking, an ambitious pan-European document which somehow manages to make the band seem more Welsh than ever. It finds the Manics indulging their Simple Minds fetish, pouring forth some New Pop and sounding, well, more riveting than ever.
“The lyrics, more than anything, were completely different on both albums,” explains vocalist and guitarist James Dean Bradfield, marking the distinction between his band’s newest record and its immediate predecessor. “[‘Rewind The Film’] is much more inward looking, while the other just looks outward and is slightly more optimistic looking. It takes some joy in life. Whenever I think about it, it was seamless, really.”
Locked away in their own Cardiff studio, Manic Street Preachers are now able to flit between genres, styles, modes of expression with an intense sense of ease. “We’ve created such an environment...” says bassist Nicky Wire, “such an environment where we all trust each other. We work at different times, we work together, we’ve got producers we trust, engineers... That’s the least problematic part of it.”
“I think if you’re on your 12th album you should be able to divide that up in your brain,” argues James. “If you look at (1994’s) ‘The Holy Bible’, the first single is ‘Faster’ and the first single off (1996’s) ‘Everything Must Go’ is ‘A Design For Life’. I never had any confusion in my mind, even back in those days. Because I kind of know that confused morass does exist within our personal inter-relationships within the band – in terms of what we talk about, what we argue about. It’s there in our relationships.”
Composed partly in Berlin and partly in Cardiff, ‘Futurology’ is littered with references to the former Eastern Bloc, to the enormous cultural shifts that have occurred in Europe across the past three decades.
“There was one particular tour supporting ‘National Treasures’, the greatest hits we had out (in 2011),” Nicky reminisces. “We went through the heart of Europe, and all the things I’d fallen in love with seemed to come to life right in front of me – just the idea that culture and language could be disregarded through art. Art could unify more than any political statement or any language, or anything – all these connections are there for you, you just have to discover them. That particular tour certainly reinforced that, and in terms of the lyrics had a big influence (on the new album).”
In part prompted by this plethora of reference points, the band began looking to the post-punk era’s aural geography as a counterpoint.
“The music was always in our DNA,” states Nicky. “Especially with James and Sean (Moore, drummer), the whole early Simple Minds, the post punk jaggedness, the new pop of Scritti Politti, I think that was just something to re-emerge.”
For James, the Simple Minds reference is not to be taken ironically; a keen student of their music, he immediately barrels into an impassioned defence of their output, with particular emphasis on the Scottish rock act’s first four albums, those that came before their breakthrough with ‘New Gold Dream’.
“It’s part of certain cathedrals of knowledge in my life, early Simple Minds,” says the vocalist. “I don’t think anyone has ever topped that. The implausibility of working-class Glasgow lads taking in all these European influences – it’s just f*cking amazing! It captured me as soon as I heard it. I just love the idea of this over-arching ambition of working-class kids in Glasgow knowing that they were connected to Europe.”
The issue of class occurs arises several times throughout our conversation, with these musicians conscious that a class divide still exists in British music. Wire freely admits that he has fallen out of love with rock music, preferring instead to focus on visual arts. Indeed, ‘Futurology’ contains tracks such as ‘Black Square’, named after a 1923 painting by Kasimir Malevich, and ‘Between The Clock And The Bed’, also the title of an Edvard Munch self-portrait.
“The democratisation of music may be a wonderful thing in theory, but in practice it’s just f*cking so much noise, isn’t it?” laughs Nicky, before James interjects. “Some people call it gap-year music. Perhaps they’ll have a chance of a major label album release before taking an internship with their daddy. That sounds like a particularly jaded and vicious thing to say, but there is some of that around.”
For Manic Street Preachers, the greats are still there to be sought after. James explains: “I always love that Slash quote where he says, ‘I don’t think it’s important to be the best in the world, it’s important to be the most distinct, the most recognisable musician in the world.’ If you take any musician... if it’s Joe Strummer or Slash or Howard Devoto, it was more important, more comforting for me to know that this was a voice I had tapped into a long time ago. It switched something on in me, and I wanted to keep hearing different things from that voice.”
Remaining an utterly distinct, idiosyncratic force, even the band’s choice of collaborators is revealing. For a pan-European discourse, ‘Futurology’ is a decidedly Welsh affair, something they insist they weren’t conscious of at the time. Super Furry Animals’ Cian Ciaran makes a guest appearance, while Scritti Politti’s own Green Gartside, a native of Cardiff, duets with James on ‘Between The Clock And The Bed’.
Asked if travel explodes or enforces their notion of nationality, the two seem split. Says James: “It’s a hard one. Sometimes I feel like I’m Welsh when I’m in Britain, and I feel like I’m British when I’m abroad, but that changes around sometimes. I think, undoubtedly, I feel more European just by having experienced it, and seeing how the landscapes can change beyond belief. I’ve experienced all those things and seen them change along the way... I can’t help but feel a part of it now.”
For Nicky, though, it’s more a question of current locality. “I do feel a citizen of place, really – not of the world, but a place. Wherever you are, I feel almost a duty to explore that place a bit, and not necessarily understand it but at least come to terms with certain facts of its importance, something that’s gone wrong, something that’s gone right.”
It’s a belief that comes to poetic fruition on album standout ‘The View From Stow Hill’. On the surface a blissful New Pop vignette set in the Welsh countryside, Wire picks out the hidden Chartist history of this quiet, unassuming location.
“The hidden history, I guess, of towns really fascinates me,” he states. “From the smallest place to the biggest place. You kinda get saturated with an omnipresent view that basically London is the history of Britain, which I find incredibly frustrating because I could be in York, I could be in Greenock Bay, I could be in Dundee, I could be in Tenby, and there’s always something really interesting to find. ‘...Stow Hill’ is definitely about that. Unfashionable places get squeezed and caricatured, but real political movements exist in the most weird places.”
Bound together in their studio, Manic Street Preachers are a stubborn, almost unstoppably wilful force, even so long after their formation, back in 1986. “People talk about the Westminster bubble, the political village,” jokes James. “I think we have this pretty impenetrable bubble in the studio, down in Cardiff. Sometimes I think it is dangerous that it’s impenetrable, and we don’t let people into it, really. But it definitely worked for these songs.”
One of the album’s most impassioned tracks, ‘Let’s Go To War’ finds the band yet again erupting out of the trenches, but seemingly anticipating defeat. Nicky explains: “There’s still something about the band – not even us as three individuals – that kind of stands for this kind of misguided resistance. It’s not always well placed, but it’s certainly there.”
“At the moment I feel like I’m at war with my own cynicism, definitely,” says James. “I know I used to hate what the Tory party stood for, and I know I kind of detest what the coalition stands for, but now I detest New Labour as well. I’m kind of at war with my own cynicism, because I’ve become one of these people who says: they’re all the same.”
“I despair, myself, at not being as engaged as I once was,” adds Nicky. “So, how can I expect everyone else to be? When the culture is that empty, all you get is emptiness.”
Speaking to the band, it seems that the simple act of being in Manic Street Preachers almost acts as its own form of inspiration.
“If we don’t look at each other and say that the music we’re making gives us goose bumps, then we know it’s f*cking all over,” Nicky bites. “You can’t expect anyone else to be excited by you if you’re not excited by yourself. I mean, I always despair at mixing, I think it ruins everything – but getting this record back, it was such a seamless flow. That sense of movement that we were trying to get across – you just feel you’re on some kind of journey. As long as we keep doing that, we’ll be alright.”