Your album's at the top of the charts and you're on the road again — you're mad for it, right? Not if you're the Manic Street Preachers. When Paul Elliott arrives in Glasgow he’s given two choices - 'watch us ironing, or count our singer’s chins'...
Glasgow, May 23, 5pm. In three hours, at the city's famous old Barrowlands dancehall, the Manic Street Preachers will play their first major headline gig since the disappearance of guitarist Richey James. In a room at the Hilton hotel, Manics bassist Nicky Wire is feeling nervous.
"I always used to think that something was going to happen when we did gigs, whether we'd be completely shit or awe-inspiring. Now, it's a little more...level." he says, weighing his words carefully.
"The record is no problem. I think we've made the best record ever, for us. But I'm honest enough to admit that we're not quite ready to do brilliant gigs just yet. There's such a big gap to fill. Not so much musically, but personality-wise. It's really disconcerting."
A room service waitress arrives. with Nicky's dinner - lamb cutlets. He is eating here because he putters to be left alone when on tour. He and frontman James Dean Bradfield have also begun doing interviews separately, but this, says Nicky, is James' choice. "James won't do interviews with me because he says I take the piss out of him all the time. I suppose I do," he grins. "There's no massive split in the band. He just doesn't really like having me around." That won't look good in print, Nicky. "Everything looks worse in black and white," he shrugs.
Much has been printed about the Manic Street Preachers this past month, and most of it has focused on Richey; his suicidal depressions, vodka hinges and appalling self-mutilation. The surviving Manics - James, Nicky and drummer Sean Moore - have not held back the truth or their feelings about Richey. Yet they didn't speak to the press until their comeback single, 'A Design For Life', had reached Number Two in the UK chart. The Manics didn't want to be seen to he using Richey as a means of publicising the single.
"Certain people believe that Richey was always locked up in his bedroom chopping himself up and drinking," sighs Nicky. "They want to believe that he was perpetually tortured, and any kind of ordinariness they just don't want to see. They'll never believe that Richey and me played cricket for hours on end."
"The last year of being in the band, he did definitely go downhill. We got one letter which said, 'Why didn't you talk to him?'. And I spent more time in my life talking to Richey and trying to understand him than I have done with any other person. He made my life a misery sometimes, because I was just worrying about him all the time. "I can understand if some fans never want to like us again, but I can't understand why they want to have a go at us, because they never knew Richey. They never had to go through all the stuff we had to go through. I can't understand why they want us to he as fucked up as he was."
"We get a few nasty letters and a few people down the front shouting for Richey, but we're going to miss him more than those people ever will. They don't miss him coming round for tea with me and my misses. They miss him as an icon. They'll miss the picture on the wall."
Ironically, without Richey the Manics have made their finest record to date in 'Everything Must Go'. This says a lot about the friendships within the band, which began in the small Welsh town of Blackwood when James, Nicky, Sean and Richey were kids.
In 1996, the Manics have grown into very different characters. Sean is the most unlikely rock star imaginable. A quiet and studious musician, he gets a haircut this afternoon in preference to doing an interview. In the Hilton bar after the gig, sipping vodka and cranberry juice, he's more talkative, especially when the conversation turns to movies. He especially loved 'Seven'.
James is also very quiet. He's remarkably shy for a rock singer. James is friendly, but its obvious he doesn't like interviews. He's happier talking off-tape. Paradoxically, Nicky is confident and outspoken, yet he prefers not to socialise when the band are touring. Nicky is a self-confessed hypochondriac who recently injured a shoulder while reaching for a phone. He's also obsessed by sport.
"I've become rugby obsessed," he confesses. "And I've always loved darts. Jocky Wilson (beery, bulldog-faced Scottish dads hero) was one of my idols. I once asked him for his autograph and he told me to ink off.
"I don't enjoy touring," he says, matter-of-factly. "I just stay in my room and watch telly and keep myself to myself. It's bearable in Britain but worse when we go abroad, because I don't like travelling. In the past, the hour on stage has made everything else worth it, it's such a release. I'm still not quite sure if it's going to be like that anymore."
"I was always a bedroom boy when I was young. In the first six months of the band I had a flirtation with the rock and roll lifestyle, but my body wasn't suited to it."
Nicky is happiest at home in Blackwood, where he lives with his wife, just two miles down the road from his mum and dad's house. "I've always lived there, always will," he says. "I don't need to be recognised; my ego disappeared about four years ago. And I don't like people that much. I never have done."
He popped over to his mum's for tea when 'A Design For Life' hit the Number Two spot.
"Trifle I had, which my mum made. Very mundane. I think if it had happened with 'Motorcycle Emptiness' (the Manics' first Top 20 hit in 1992), we would have loved it. But five years down the line, with everything that's gone on, it was more bittersweet. Still, I thought it was great"
Sean still lives in Blackwood too, while James has a flat in London's Shepherd's Bush. "I think James just realised that he's single and he might as well make the most of it. It's not much fun living in Blackwood on your own if you're a successful rock star," Nicky smiles.
Nicky calls James "the boy about town". James is embarrassed by the comment, but nods in acceptance.
"Nicky was always my best friend because we're completely different people," he says. "He insists that his body is failing at a rapid rate, and if you look at the total of his injuries, it is. He thinks his brain is the only pure working organ in his body, and he wants to keep it that way. He likes being in control of his mind, and sometimes I like being a grinning, happy, drunk little chap.
"Nicky and Sean are pretty much married, but the only responsibility I have is to the band, so yeah, I was definitely the boy about town. You can make a good situation out of any crappy club by just drinking quite a lot."
"But I definitely took it too far. It was like I'd had an operation to fuse me to the bar. I knocked it on the head when the double chin started getting out of hand. It was slapping 'round my ankles."
"I went out last week after not drinking for two weeks and I felt like a completely different person. I went on a two-year extended session, basically, and when you stop drinking you get certain facilities back - everything becomes much more vivid again. But I'm not saying I was ever an alcoholic. It's no big deal."
James is drinking tea this afternoon. He has also been doing his ironing in a corner of his hotel room. He may be the Manics' top lad, but he's no rock pig.
He's also dismissive of any hype concerning the band's music. Asked how he felt when 'A Design For Life' went so close to Number One, James shrugs and replies: "It felt like people heard the record on the radio and bought it without knowing anything about the band, which is kind of what I've always wanted.
"It's only one single that's done really well, so I didn't become 'an entity' in any kind of tabloid sense. It was success on quite an anonymous level."
James is similarly low-key when discussing the new album. Nicky describes it as "ambitious" and goes on to rave about the Smashing Pumpkins' 'Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness', which he dubs "the most ambitious record of the '90s". James' assessment of 'Everything Must Go' is much simpler.
"I'm fed up of trying to compete with our own history," he says. "I don't care if it's our best album or not. I just know I did my best."
"Just because you put a string arrangement or a harp on something, people think that's ambitious, but it's really just a subconscious reaction to how the song is. When I wrote 'A Design For Life' I could hear the strings straight away. To me, that's not ambition, that's just being naturally articulate."
"It's our fourth fucking album. Ideas for songs should come pretty naturally by now. If they don't, I would think that I'd pissed away a lot of my braincells."
James allows himself a few large whiskies tonight after a great gig at Barrowlands. He and Sean look a little relieved but mostly happy. Nicky is smiling and chatty.
But only Sean and James show up later at the hotel bar. Nicky is tucked up in bed watching the England v China game on Eurosport. Some things never change...