Street Life - Melody Maker, 4th January 1997
After Manic Street Preachers' most successful year to date, sweeping the board in your polls and ours, Nicky Wire reveals all about his transition from Twisted Wirestarter to Couch Potato, about winning awards, Welshness, class war, writers' block and... You Know Who.
'I just want to lie down in my bed...' - 'R P McMurphy' 'I write this alone in my bed' - 'From Despair To Where'
Nick Jones is in bed. (It's where he's happiest.) Nick Jones is fighting off the dregs of flu. (A few days later, I develop symptoms myself.) Nick Jones is watching the golf on Sky Sports.
"Go on Woosie! Good Welsh boy, he is..."
Nick Jones used to be Nicky Wire, 60ft lipstick-and-leopardskin superbitch, mouth almighty, professional troublemaker and occasional bassist with Manic Street Preachers. But nowadays, this is how he's living. Hibernation. On "Mr Carbohydrate", the B-side to "A Design For Life", he acknowledged his new domesticated, sedentary, anti-rock'n'roll lifestyle, unashamedly admitting that he'd rather watch Glamorgan cricketer Matthew Maynard than ever pick up his guitar.
A song of self-justification?
"Yeah, it was. My equivalent to Richey's 'Yes', in a totally different way. Mr Carbohydrate was a nickname the rest of the band gave me, because my obsession with chips and boiled potatoes and jacket potatoes and crisps. Whenever we go on tour, that's all I eat. When you go abroad, there's so much pressure for you to experience things, to go out for these fancy meals every night, and I find it really boring. I don't mind going to an art gallery, or looking at the odd bit of architecture, but... I don't think food is culture."
DESIGNER FOR LIFE
The Wire is sprawled out across the duvet in his Hilton hotel room, an elongated streak of casual clothing. Pale blue Diesel zip-top, shiny trackie bottoms, black Puma pumps... He's Sporty Manic, the Mel C of the valleys.
And everything he says now is reasonable, moderate, considered, qualified. His favourite phrase is "At the end of the day..." From Chairman Mouth to Trevor Booking in five short years.
I'm not dissing him. For reasons which go without saying (but which, inevitably, we will talk about anyway), I can't blame him if he doesn't have the stomach for all that now. But still...
A lot of fans are disappointed that you don't dress up any more, Nick.
"I feel past it at 27, but I still try to make a semblance of an effort. A very faint semblance. It's up to a younger band. But I look around, and there are no bands out there who take any risks in the way they dress. It really disappoints me. It's either sports gear or black casual shirts. Maybe Orlando, but it's easy for them because there's only two of them. It doesn't take so much effort. With us, it was always 'Come on, Mooro, get this fucking blouse on!' And, 'NO! FUCK OFF!'"
A lot of fans are also disappointed that you don't mouth off, misbehave onstage any more. Especially when you're supporting Oasis.
"I don't do it full stop. There's no difference. It's been a conscious decision..."
To ingratiate yourself with a new audience, by being nice instead of winding them up?
"Yeah, to a certain extent. Not so much new fans, but the general aura of us as a band... I find some of the things I've said, some of the things I've done... well, this year's the first time I've actually met people in other bands. It's hard to avoid it when you're at festivals. Before, I've always completely secluded myself. But when you actually meet people, I can't bring myself to go out in the press the next week and take the piss out of them. I couldn't live with myself if I couldn't say it to their face. Whereas before it was all right because I'd just say summat, and never see these people."
I was more talking about your blank, uncommunicative stage presence. That upsets people.
"Yeah, but you haven't seen us on this tour yet, have you? All the projections and stuff behind us. For 'La Tristesse', a Dylan Thomas poem comes up, for 'Small Black Flowers', it's a Japanese arthouse film that James likes, for 'Interiors', there's a still of a Willem De Kooning picture - and we felt that was our way of being informative, rather than me incoherently giving pleasure to a minority of the fans who love seeing me misbehave."
The pantomime's over.
"When the gigs are getting bigger and people love you more, and there's all this euphoria, it's harder to get quite so angry."
So when you sing, "You Love Us", now, it's actually - to coin a phrase - 4 REAL.
"When you're playing the songs off 'The Holy Bible' to a really partisan audience, and you're all dressed up in military gear like a fuckin' soldier, it makes you feel more aggressive. I still feel like doing it. I don't feel like smashing things up so much any more, because... my back's a bit bad, and I'm just a bit older."
I WISH I HAD A BOTTLE RIGHT HERE IN MY PRETTY FACE...
He casts a derisory eye over my own choice of sportswear.
"Why are you wearing that American hockey shite?"
LA Kings. Black and silver. I like it.
"What's wrong with Cardiff Devils?"
Red's not my colour, the stupid devil logo looks like Garfield The Cat, and, anyway, I'm from Barry, not Cardiff.
"Aaah, but you're not from LA either, are you?!"
When I was growing up, Cardiff City fans were violent scum. The Under-Fives, the Inter City Firm...
"They're not scum, Simes! There were a couple of fucking Soul Crew boys in the early Eighties, wearing Pringle, caged up in terrible grounds... I'm not into tribalism, I'm into oneness. We're too small in Wales to divide any more. There's three times as many people in London as the whole of Wales."
That'll be why you're a Spurs fan, then.
"Look, to be honest, football doesn't stimulate me any more. Rugby does, especially when we beat two English club sides in the European cup."
Whatever. I still don't give a shit about ice hockey.
"You should go and watch it. It'll get all that fucking machismo out of you, all the fighting in there!"
...TO SHOW FROM WHERE I CAME
This is the new, patriotic Wire.
Until "A Design For Life", the Manics had never acknowledged their Welshness on record (apart from a quick aside on "PCP" about bilingual road signs). This year, they've become adopted godfathers of the new Taffia, taking Catatonia, Super Furry Animals, Gorky's and Stereophonics out on tour with them.
Why the turnaround?
"At the start, we never went around wearing Welsh credentials. Richey was really paranoid about ever coming across as Welsh. He always called it the Neil Kinnock Factor: 'Turn the lights out!' I've become more conscious of it lately. I've started to really support the Welsh rugby side. Vanity Fair interview Sharon Stone recently, and they asked her to name her favourite Irish author, and she said Dylan Thomas! Things like that wouldn't have annoyed me before, but they really do now."
What about all this South Wales = The New Seattle Hype, then?
"I think it is justified. Catatonia did make some good pop singles, Super Furries did make a good album..."
And right now, of course, being Welsh is painfully hip. When the Manics started, though, it was considered an open target for racist mockery.
"We took a lot of racism early on, and it's not too strong to call it racism. Any other country would have stood up and said so. It's only because we're such non-confident wet bastards..."
AND I JUST HOPE THAT YOU CAN FORGIVE US...
Sales of "Everything Must Go" are approaching the half-million mark, almost as many as the previous three albums combined.
"It's down, one, to the climate, cos even when 'The Holy Bible' came out, Oasis and Blur were only just starting to happen, they hadn't had their Big Year. And now a whole generation of kids have grown up wanting to like that geetar-driven, slightly alternative rock. That's being very calculated about it, but it's true. And, two, when they hear songs like 'Motorcycle Emptiness', they think it's as good as anything else that's about, and 'A Design For Life' was a really special record, sonically, lyrically, everything."
I tell Nicky that "Australia" is my least favourite Manics single since "Slash & Burn", and he agrees, admitting that it was calculated to work as a radio airplay anthem (it's worked: it's currently being used as the backing music on Capital Gold's football round-up). I also inform him that "Everything Must Go" has achieved a rare double: voted Album Of The Year by both The Maker's critics and readers.
"I'm really surprised by that. I'm really pleased. Melody Maker has always been the bastion of our true weirdos, if you know what I mean, and I thought they might have gone off us."
Well, we do get some letters...
"They're always gonna be frozen with an image, and I can understand that. I was a sucker for all that kind of stuff. A lot of people assume that really bothers me, but it only bothers me when they apportion blame, or say, 'How can you do this?' I don't mind if they want to listen to someone else. I just hope they get into something a bit better than Marion, that's all!"
Have they? Some people, eh? A touch of badly-applied eyeliner, and they're anybody's.
"I get a lot of letters saying, 'Oh, we're into Marion now.' It's hardly fucking...
He remembers himself. The new, friendly Wire.
"... Oh, I just think, 'Good luck to you.'"
IT MAY HAVE WORKED, BUT AT WHAT PRICE?
One imagines that, all things considered, the Manics' long-overdue success isn't easy to wholeheartedly enjoy.
"Yeah. It's not as sweet as it would have been five years ago. It's gratifying, but it's not... well, I still get times when I just wanna fuck off home, however well things are going. The rigmarole that goes with the job... At least Richey's got a couple of Albums Of The Year, for the first time! He might be alive, wishing on that..."
He hugs a Rupert Bear pyjama case for comfort.
To get by from day to day, do you find it easier to assume you won't see him again?
"No. I honestly... especially after Chuck D and his 'TuPac is alive' theory, I thought, 'Fuck me, Richey's gonna be pissed off with that, TuPac's outdone him!' I really did. I thought, 'Oh dear, what's he gonna do next?!'"
"It got me thinking when I was reading it, though, if TuPac's done it, it's unbelievable! It's amazing the stuff Chuck was coming out with: TuPac got cremated the next day, Las Vegas is a pay-off town, there's no homies out there in the desert, there's only one alleyway you can go down... Unless Chuck D's insane, I dunno. Maybe it's one conspiracy theory too far. I mean, TuPac's mate got killed as well as last week."
I laugh, nervously.
"It's not a blind hope or anything. I genuinely kind of think that Richey's still out there..."
He mists over. At one point, it looks like if he's about to start crying. He still isn't used to this. I feel guilty for raising the subject, but then I remember: he raised it. Human decency overrides journalistic ruthlessness, and I desperately try to think of something else to talk about. But there isn't anything. We continue.
It must be difficult to remain realistic about percentage chances, whe emotionally you're hoping for one outcome, but deep down you fear the worst.
"Doctors keep saying, 'You've gotta accept it, he's dead,' but I don't think anyone can accept someone's death without a body."
In a way, that would be equally unrealistic: just a trite psychological device to block it out, to put a full stop on things.
"Yeah. If I accepted he's dead, I don't think it'd make much difference to me. I mean, what happens? You say, 'Oh, he's dead,' and then what? And I don't see it in terms of blocking anything out or putting a full stop on anything. I see it as an ongoing situation that you've got to come to terms with. Which is really difficult. I mean, it's gonna be two years now, in February. Which is quite a long time. To be dangling. Dangling, man... And it's a long time, if he's alive, to be out there as well - it really is."
Nicky avoided watching Channel 4's "Vanishing Of Richey Manic" documentary, and tries to avoid reading magazine articles on the subject.
"I've really made a conscious effort to blank that out, to remember what I remember, rather than remember what I read. Every time I see something like that, I think of something I know, for definite. I think it's good that we've kept certain memories to ourselves, because that keeps that sort of bond there. It doesn't become a myth. For us, it's still... a bloke. I think it's really important that we keep hold of that."
Rupert's being squeezed to within an inch of his life now.
If Richey did come back, the situtation would be unbearable, impossible anyway, wouldn't it?
"It would be. I'd have no qualms about inviting him in... to my house... for a cup of tea, and a chat, and watch telly, but I'd have serious qualms about saying, y'know, 'Come on tour!' And a lot of fans find that really harsh. They say, 'Why do you say such things?' But you've gotta actually be around those things to realise it was totally unhealthy for him, and us."
100% RISK OF STEPPING OUTSIDE
The Manics' live set tends to avoid the morbid, nihilistic "Holy Bible" material these days. Is that because you don't feel very morbid and nihilstic at the moment?
"Yeah. I mean, 'Yes', which is one of the band's favourite songs, it really is, James finds it impossible to sing live. It may be in third person, about a prostitute, but it's so personal to Richey, he says, 'I can't do that live, I don't care how much I love that song.' It's weird being onstage when you've got these fucking... myriad emotions going through your mind, that's when I usually forget what I'm playing. 'Faster' is the only one we do, cos I wrote half of that anyway. I mean, a lot of people assume 'The Holy Bible' is just a Richey album, but that doesn't bother me. 'Faster' was one of the few songs on the album that was a joint effort. It was my title, you know, and there's quite a lot of lines on it that are mine. When we sing that song, it gives me a lot of strength. It's such a strong, Nietzschean superman lyric: 'I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer, I spat out Plath and Pinter.' I like to still think of Richey as being stronger than what he became. Which is that he just... caved in."
(So damn easy...)
"But if he just ran away and he's happy somewhere, then obviously he didn't cave in, and he is stronger."
The lyrics on "Everything Must Go" possess a different kind of strength, a melancholy positivism, a scarred optimisim.
"Faded optimism. I've always been a bit more like that than Richey. I've never ever... trawled the depths. At the end of the day, we've still got three Top Five singles, of which one's about a suicidal photographer, one's about Richey going away and everything else, and one's about working-class literacy. So it's still... there."
A lot of things take on new meanings now. What about that line in "Motown Junk": "I laughed when Lennon was shot..."? The Beatles could justifiably write a song that goes, "I laughed when Richey fucked off..."
"I know! I'm really paranoid about that line now. I say to James, 'We're in Liverpool, don't fucking sing that line tonight, just say something else.' Especially in the current climate. It's just me, perhaps, but what with the Americanisation of our culture, it does scare me."
A little paranoia, nothing major, is beginning to creep into the Wire psyche. It shows itself in unexpected ways. During a break in the interview, he asks me to translate the ingredients on some Belgian chocolate from the minibar.
"Has it got nuts in it?"
Noisettes... Amandes... yes, it has. Why, are you allergic?
"No, but I've head about people choking to death, you know..."
THE STILLER THE OXYGEN, THE HARDER YOU BREATHE
Last time Nicky spoke to The Maker, he made a hugely ironic comparison between the Manics' possible future status and R.E.M.
"I meant more that we're being perceived like them, we're being accepted by Q Magazine and MTV as the elder statesmen of British alternative rock. I didn't mean we were going to become them."
But the constant drama and turmoil which once propelled the Manics story does seem to have settled into a new stillness. Do you see this stretching away from here to eternity?
"Yeah, but I'm just too paranoid to think of the stillness. I just think it could go wrong at any time. And there are so many possibillities that could go wrong, it's too scary."
What are your immediate plans for 1997?
"Once the awards ceremonies have died down..."
After you've reinforced the mantlepiece to hold up the weight of silverware...
"We're gonna do another British tour in April, we'll probably do a couple of festivals in the summer, James says he's working with Kylie now, but it's nothing to do with me. I'll stick with Ian Broudie, you make more money with him! Apparently, they're using one of our songs in 'Darklands', which is meant to be the Welsh 'Trainspotting', and we'd like to do our own film one day, either a semi-documentary with us and bits of footage in it, or write a film with our own music, like 'Quadrophenia'."
Apart from that, what? Holed up in Gwent, trying to rediscover the muse?
"James has a lot of ideas, and, musically, I think the next record will probably be a bit more adventurous, a fusion of the polar opposites of 'The Holy Bible' and 'Everything Must Go'. But, to be honest with you, I'm finding it really, really hard to write any lyrics. Apart from B-sides like 'Sepia', I've only written one proper song, in terms of anything we could use on the next album. I'm really struggling. I've got writer's block."
I did wonder. The B-sides to "Australia" are covers: two mid-Eighties cutie atrocities (Primal Scream's "Velocity Girl", Camper Van Beethoven's "Take The Skinheads Bowling") and Andy Williams' "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (the adopted anthem of the Welsh soccer team).
"In terms of content, I worry about us because... 'Interiors' was about a fucking abstract painter, pretentious as fuck, but I've still got to keep doing it. I've never been in a position when things have gone relatively well, I've been successful financially, so I'm kind of... it's hard to know what to write about."
Nothing to piss you off any more?
"Yeah, there is, but not on the same magnitude."
You can't write a whole album about potatoes, art galleries and Ian Woosnam.
"Exactly! Richey would always find something new to write about. Always. Whether it was a disease, or an article he read... he would always find something obscure reference which two people in the world knew about. 'Washing your car in your X baseball shoes...' Fuck knows, I didn't know what half of it was about."
It's plainly obvious that Nicky thinks every bit as highly of Richey Edwards as the next man. (The next man, in this case, being me).
"And another thing is, we're not going to use any more of Richey's lyrics. We only used them on this album because he actually heard the songs. They were works-in-progress before he left. We wouldn't wanna write a song without him hearing it, in any kind of shape or form. I think one day, if everything... if it goes on and stuff, then maybe it'd be better to publish them in a book. They're not like lyrics anyway, they're more like poems."
So where will you turn for inspiration?
"I can't write a song about the fucking working-class struggle again, no matter how much I want to. I watched 'Brassed Off' the other night. It's absolutely fucking brilliant, one of the best films I've ever seen. It's got Ewan McGregor in it, it's about a colliery closing down in '89 with the brass bands... It's perfect, all the correlations between Jimmy McGovern and us on 'A Design For Life'. I wanted to write a song straight away."
But I remember sending you the "Class War - A Decade Of Disorder" book once, and James said, "The Manics aren't into class war."
"Yeah, I know, but at the time it seemed so much more to do with anarchy and wearing horrible clothes. But I nicked loads of it... one lyricist I really admire, who I know you'll hate, is Paul Heaton, who's a real pop genius as much as Take That are, but he still has a lot of depth in his lyrics. I've always had a real soft spot for him, and his interviews are fantastic - when he goes on about being a Sheffield football hooligan: 'Those people with the season tickets, they didn't give a fuck, it was the hooligans who kept Sheffield United going in the Eighties.' From a man who writes two million-selling albums, I've got a lot of time for him.
"So, anyway, that's what I find quite scary at the moment, trying to come up with 10 or 12 songs. I really like 'Sepia', which we did on a B-side, I think it's really beautiful lyrically, but I can't write songs about missing Richey for ever. I try to keep them to a minimum anyway."
Whatever you write, people will assume it's about him.
"Yeah. Obviously there's gonna be some coming out, consciously or unconsciously. And that kind of worries me as well..."
PLEASE, TAKE ME ON HOME...
The phone rings. It's Nick's tour manager.
"No, I told you I don't want to fly. You know I'm paranoid about going the same way as Matthew Harding..."
He stands up, momentarily looking shorter than his six-feet-plus, as though his spine is buckling under the weight of expectations (his, yours, mine).
I leave him. Alone.