Has success spoiled the Manic Street Preachers? Only in that they can’t get enough of it. Mark Day talks post-album depression with Richey James…
When all you want is everything, you’d probably be happier with nothing at all than settle for less. At least you would if you were a Manic Street Preacher.
One of '91's most refreshing bands, the Manics finally set all their bedroom manifestos into action with ‘Generation Terrorists’, their lengthy, 18-track assault on complacency and the lack of ambition they perceived lurking everywhere in music. With a highly developed sense of aesthetic, these well read culture sluts arrived on the scene determined to shake things up.
So did they?
“Well, when we started we wanted to get a record deal, make the LP we wanted to make, sell twenty billion copies and then split up. Obviously, that has not happened...” admits Richey James, the Manic Street Preachers’ main theorist and (occasional) guitarist, with a wry smile.
In the band's embryonic, bedroom-bound state, Richey, bassist Nicky Wire, drummer Sean Moore and singer/guitarist/musical muscle James Dean Bradﬁeld, lived for music culture. Now they're part of it and — surprise, surprise - they're still disillusioned.
“Top Of The Pops was the one programme We used to watch as kids," Richey reminisces on their teen escapism. "But when you do it, it’s just so sterilised; you go through the motions and it’s all very clinical.
"The tour we just did was sold out nearly every night and that was, sort of...good." he concedes. “But we never tried to judge ourselves in those terms. Being a successful UK band was never a big thing to us.”
With a sigh he explains, "We always wanted to be more important than that."
So would the Manics be happier if they were even further away from living out the dream?
“We probably would be happier if everything had been disastrous and we could sit in our Transit van going, ‘Nobody fucking understands us.’ A lot of bands have got that mentality — it was very safe when there was no one at our first gigs and we were driving home, freezing cold in the Transit, thinking, ‘Fuck 'em, no one understands."
Instead of a lifetime of gloriously misunderstood obscurity, however, the Manics continually tested themselves - set goals and pushed limitations. When crowds arrived, many came not to praise those snotty upstarts, but to hurt them.
"I still enjoy a gig more if there’s a bit of trouble,” Richey reflects. "When we went onstage not knowing what was going to happen, we spent all day talking about it, and were really addicted to the concept But now every gig is sold out and nobody gives a fuck, just sittin’ in your hotel room...Sad, really."
Richey’s love/hate views of success surfaces again during talk of the band's surprisingly well received Reading Festival set. Surely then at least, during a three day grunge-fest, the Manics' glam-rock provocation should have resulted in some fear and loathing.
“We went on expecting complete and total abuse, but nothing happened! Even at our own gigs, normally one or two things land onstage...but Reading? Nothing! Whey we started playing and the crowd went wild...fuck! What are you going to do? What can I say? People are just too apathetic to make judgments about bands anymore."
Obviously, the idea of several thousand flannel shirted Nirvana fans bopping to the Manics stings just a little.
As far as world domination goes, on the Continent they complain that the sets are too short ("They expect two hour sets! They've got this big myth about value for money based on how long you play for.").
In America, they don’t seem to get it at all.
“The record company tried to sell us as an old-fashioned British punk band, which is not really what we're like. We'd come offstage and all these people would be complaining, like. ‘They don't want to talk to the fans; they don’t want to come to the bar for a drink."
With a look of horror, Richey shudders, “We’ve never wanted to do that in our entire lives. We're pretty private, pretty shy."
Another thing some people still don't get is Richey's brutally frank role in the band as chief publicist, theoretician and as out ‘n' paste creative element. The boy's not really there to play guitar, so for the most part he doesn't.
"It’s not a surprise to anybody that knows anything about us, but it's hard to get across to the rock press. I'd like to get better, but I can't put myself through the hell of picking up a guitar and practising playing it. People find that difficult to understand; musicians get really offended by that.
"But all bands are based on lies, deceit and power struggles within those bands. We couldn’t exist without James and Sean doing all the music, just like we wouldn't have had any press without me and Nick being in the band, and writing all the time. But we're honest about those things."
The band's biggest hit to date is ‘Suicide ls Painless’, their cover version of the M.A.S.H. theme that was a number one in the '80s, recorded for an NME charity album. Richey admits that it’ll probably be airbrushed out of any future revisionist history of the band, and more or less agrees on its awfulness. In their defence, he points out that even Guns’ N’ Roses (who the Manics are fascinated by) have enjoyed a major hit with a “crappy, shitty cover version", in ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door'.
"It only cost us eighty quid to do in a studio in Cardiff," he pleads, regarding ‘Suicide'. "That‘s how interested we were in doing it! I think I've eroded it from my memory.”
Of recent media events, l assume the Manics have shown an interest in Madonna's recent book of dirty pictures. “We bought it, first day it came out,” Richey says, as if there were no other options. “Just because the only thing left to cling to is cultural icons. But I thought it was pretty worthless - sex is the easiest thing in the world: it's not rebellious, there's nothing daring about it.”
Of their own cultural artefact, the ‘Generation Terrorists' record, he says, “It's very naive in places. Some of the songs are very simplistic and childlike, but we wanted to put on basically all the songs we wrote in James’ bedroom. So there's songs we don't like and songs we like a lot - songs like 'You Love Us’ and ’Motorcycle Emptiness’ I really like. There's songs like ‘Crucifix Kiss’ which make me imagine us as 19year—olds sat in a bedroom, dreaming of about being in a band and trying to write songs, just so we’ll have something to play if we ever get a gig."
Which takes us back to where we started. Just as it was important for the Manics to offer one huge-album then-oblivion, to build a wall between themselves and the bands with the low aspirations that they despised, it's inevitable that they’ll make another.
“From the minute we said that, we knew...” Richey shrugs. 'We said we wanted to go straight to a major, sell shitloads of records and fuck off. Just to distance ourselves from the indie scene. That's one thing we can still do to piss off our fans: make another record. All bands are hypocrites, but at least we put ourselves on a classic level, to be exposed as complete liars."
Accept nothing less.