More than any other band, Manic Street Preachers have epitomised the uncertainty and pain of Nineties Britain. Rhythm meets drummer Sean Moore and finds a man unchanged by ten years of turmoil and triumph.
Sean has short, neat hair and a boyish face. He doesn't look like a pop star; you'd think he was something sensible, respectable - a systems analyst or maybe a marketing designer. During his ten years or so as drummer with MSP he's seen more than his share of mayhem, and yet here he is, apparently quite sane. His one indulgence - apart from a marked enthusiasm for hi-tech gadgetry and T3 magazine - is a weakness for chart positions. Notably those of his bands latest album. With the businesslike air of a bond dealer on the line to Tokyo, he repeats the latest figures. "Number One in Sweden, Finland, Republic Of Ireland. Number four in Denmark, number two in Norway, 32 in Germany, which is a real result for us. Fourteen in Australia. It's all starting to come together now"
We meet at the BBC studios in West London, on the set of Later With Jools Holland. After our interview the Manics get up on stage to run-through "Tolerate" and "Tsunami". This is mature, uncluttered rock music, burning with fierce intelligence and pride. Appropriately enough, it was in another TV studio years ago that I had a close look at the Manics. I was interviewing the producers of a show called Snub TV when the Manics plugged in and proceeded to soundcheck. The ensuing sonic hurricane promptly terminated all attempts at an interview. But then, MSP have always demanded one's undivided attention. Sean doesn't, though. When not on Manics duty, he lives quietly in Bristol and isn't the kind of man to court publicity. He answers each enquiry with consideration and doesn't appear put out by dumb questions. Which is just as well because I ask him a lot of those. He's a normal guy, with normal guy interests - enthusing about gadgets and computer gear. "I haven't bought any games for well over a year" he confides. "That interest has completely gone. I've grown up now"
Sean is a self-taught drummer. "Before I picked up a drumstick I played trumpet in youth orchestras and big band jazz orchestras" he explains. Apart from the odd dabble on kit during breaks in band practise, Sean had little interest in the instrument until his cousin James and friend Nick decided to get a band together.
"None of them wanted to play drums" he recalls "so I volunteered. I took all my inspiration from people like Topper Headon (Clash) Clem Burke (Blondie) and Keith Moon (Who) At the time, in the mid eighties, there weren't any contemporaries as such, apart from maybe Stewart Copeland (Police) I was very retrospective. I looked very much towards the past for inspiration. I took the ideal of Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones) and Ringo Starr, where it doesn't really matter how technically proficient you are as long as you play to the melody and do it in a tasteful way - then hopefully I could blag my way through it. I seem to have done all right so far..."
None of the trio had been in any bands before, but they had a gameplan, fired up by an obsessive fascination with rock 'n' roll. "Right from the start, we've always been called Manic Street Preachers" Sean asserts "We wavered at the beginning, experimented with female singers, but that was a mid-eighties indie phase - bands like The Shop Assistants were the ideal behind that. But that was very short-lived, about two weeks, and then we realised we weren't about that"
The female singer, in case you're wondering, moved to Venezuela. At this time, around 1986, the nascent Manics were harking back to the heyday of punk, feeding on a steady diet of the Clash. "Constantly, almost every day, all the time. A bit of the Rolling Stones, early Sixties stuff. Echo And The Bunnymen. It was mainly The Clash. There's such a wealth of inspiration there because Topper Headon is such a fantastic drummer. London Calling; I also like Combat Rock as well - that's a late night album. Sandinista was a little bit messed up..."
Although it had given Sean a useful musical grounding, playing trumpet in the school orchestra was deemed "unsatisfying" With the recruitment of local lad Richey Edwards - a development which would prove fateful - Sean decided to commit himself to the band. "A music teacher said to me "What do you want from music?" I said "Satisfaction, but also to make a good living" He said "Well, you want to get into pop music, because it's the only way you can achieve both" Sean no longer remembers the teachers name and he's not too sure if he was giving him honest advice or just trying to get rid of him (oh Sean!!) "I don't know, to be honest. I was always one of the strange people who sat at the back and wore black, who wasn't really into it"
The Manics caused a sensation when they blasted out of their native Wales in the early Nineties, but it's taken them the better part of the decade to establish themselves as one of Britain's most important bands. The descent of Richey Edwards into alcohol and self-mutilation and his subsequent disappearance in 1995, cast a shadow over their endeavours, but as a songwriting unit, they have few rivals.
"It's an interaction between all of us" Sean explains "We don't actually jam as such, but there'll be little bits and pieces that we fit together and create a song from. I had a little guitar part that I was playing on the bus on a Finnish tour when we were supporting Therapy? years ago. James then took hold of it and added a little bit to it. Same with the lyrics. The original lyric came from Richey but then it was manipulated and added to by Nick and we came up with "No Surface"
Then there was a little tune entitled "Motorcycle Boy, Go Buzz Baby Go" which became rather better known as the epic Motorcycle Emptiness. For Motorcycle me and James had a lyric given to us by Nick. Basically we decided to go downstairs to the kitchen and work through it in the night. There isn't any formal way; inspiration can come from anywhere"
Do any of the songs start from drums, as suggested by the epic intro to "A Design For Life?" "That's just an idea I had in my head - that songs in 6/8 time are always really successful" Sean smirks "In one of the guitar magazines there's a play along transcription and it's in 12/8. I'd just like to tell them it's in 6/8 but there's not a lot of difference anyway"
Certainly the drums are very prominent throughout the Everything Must Go album, tracks like Australia for instance... "That was more of a Who, Won't Get Fooled Again-inspired drum part" admits Sean "We always sort of hark back to the past, hopefully give it a good old mix and come up with something different"
As the Manics have progressed from punks to stadium rockers to whatever they are now, how does Sean feel his playing has developed over the last eight or so years? "It's got slightly better but it's not halfway near anywhere I'd wanna be. I always remember watching a Buddy Rich video. They were asking why his drum kit hadn't grown and he said something like "I haven't even learned how to play four drums yet, why would I want to add any more?" He's perfectly right. It's something that takes a lifetime and then you might not even get to where you want to go anyway"
Sadly, though, it's goodbye to Sean's other instrument. It seems that his trumpet playing days are over. Indeed, the last time he played was for the memorable solo on Kevin Carter. "I did four tracks in fifteen minutes and I was actually coming up with the part as well. It doesn't inspire me enough. I love the physicality of playing the drums anyway. It's good therapy" Ah, the well-worn theory that drummers tend to be well-balanced because they get to vent their aggression by beating the skins... "To be honest with you, when you look at people like Keith Moon and Topper Headon, I wouldn't say they were particularly well-balanced. I think you should rephrase it to say that they're more well-balanced than guitarists and singers. But the general population? I don't think so" (you tell 'em!)
Asked to look back over his body of work and choose his favourite performance, Sean makes a slightly obscure choice: "Archives Of Pain" from The Holy Bible, the Manics most harrowing album. "It's something I wouldn't normally do" he says "It was one of those sudden rushes of blood. Even now I couldn't really play it to you" Another great part is Girl Who Wanted To Be God from EMG. "That was mostly down to the coaching of Stephen Hague (producer, noted for his work with New Order and Pet Shop Boys) All we used from the Stephen Hague session was the actual drum part - we couldn't really improve on it. I'm usually stuck by myself, isolated from everyone, maybe looking through a glass screen, or even a TV monitor, and you feel very isolated. But this time he actually sat right infront of me, watching everything I did and encouraging me to improve my performance"
While recording This Is My Truth... Sean found himself embarking on a programme of radical simplification. "Tsunami" for example, was inspired by Stewart Copeland's playing on The Police's Every Breath You Take. "I tried to do that but throw in a little of David Grohl" he says "A bit of Nirvana/Foo Fighters type thing. But it's very simple. I only put in a drum roll where it's needed and I never try to over-embellish anything"
With producer Mike Hedges at the controls, Sean found the experience of recording This Is My Truth a bit of a doddle. "Mike is really easy on the drumming. He's got his Pro-tools set up, so I go in there, knock out about ten parts and he just takes the best bits. To be honest with you, that's no different to the past, except they'd be editing tape. I remember Bob Rock with the Metallica album where Lars Ulrich played about 32 tracks of drums and it was down to one of the sound engineers to edit them all together. Same sort of thing"
Nicky Wire was recently quoted as saying that no other band ever cited the Manics as an inspiration or as their favourite band. It's true that they've always retained an outsider status; a band who wouldn't join any club that would have them. Mind you, the Boo Radleys incongruously covered a Manics song, 4st 7lb, on daytime Radio One a few years back. "The people who are inspired by us wouldn't admit it anyway" Sean reckons "For the simple reason that we would maybe not appreciate them. With Boo Radleys it's different because they are friends of ours and we're very honoured that they covered one of our songs. It's a pity we couldn't reciprocate, but I don't think we could play their songs. Much too difficult for us"
In the early days the band were completely out of control. Screaming around the country trashing gear, getting drunk, having sex. When journalist Steve Lamacq (now with Radio One) accused the band of not being for real, Richey immediately took a blade and carved the words 4 Real into his arm. There was chaos in the music too, as Sean more readily recalls.
"We were totally different from everyone else because of the Manchester baggy scene. We seemed to just stick out. It was everything that we wanted to do, it wasn't just this aimless quest. On the second album, musically it went out of control. And even on the first album it went out of control. We turned from punks to stadium rockers in about six months. That was down to (producer) Steve Brown, who did a great job, but in retrospect it probably wasn't what everyone wanted and I don't think it was as successful then as it could have been. On the second album we were a little bit too ostentatious, we spent too much money recording it and making it really slick and FM-friendly. A lot of great moments came out of it, like "La Tristesse", which wasn't particularly raucous, but anyway... That's why we reacted on the third album - we tried to go back to what we were listening to at the time, a lot of the post-punk stuff, Joy Division and Magazine, Buzzcocks. I think we captured a lot of it. Even Siouxsie And The Banshees to a degree. We managed to claw our way back to ourselves. And then, with the disappearance of Richey, on the fourth album all we were concerned with was writing songs for ourselves, you know? Getting back to being musical, something to listen to. Because even I don't listen to The Holy Bible. I mean, it's a fantastic album, and there's some fantastic playing on it, but..."
It's quite a crucial record for a lot of people, though, and pivotal for Manics fans... "Oh yes. It was pivotal for us as well. Definitely a turning point for us" When the band came out with EMG in 1996, it became one of the most successful and critically-acclaimed releases of that year. Were they surprised that so many people wanted to hear it? "We're cynical anyway and we just thought that people were perhaps being a little bit too sympathetic. But then we realised that there were some great songs and it was a fantastic album and we thought, well, why shouldn't people want to buy it?" It's got an inspirational quality, hasn't it? It's almost a feel-good record in its way... "It makes you feel like fighting for something again" Sean says simply.
We're sitting on a low wall outside the surprisingly cramped Later studio. As Ian Dury And The Blockheads tune up inside, a grey squirrel warily scales a nearby fence. James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire wave to Sean from across the way. I ask the drummer why he contributes so little to group interviews. His answer is typically self-effacing. "In the beginning, Richey and Nick wrote the lyrics and had much more to say about things. Then, for obvious reasons, James, being the singer, was called upon for his opinions. So then there were three of them and it's too many - one interviewer and three people coming at you all at the same time. It confuses the issue"
Looking to the example of Charlie Watts in the Rolling Stones, Sean conciously absented himself from the interview treadmill. As an essentially private person it suits him that the public know very little about what he's really like. "I'm quite happy just contributing to the music and playing the drums" he says "I never really wanted to be projected into superstardom, I never wanted to be this iconoclastic figurehead. I like to participate, but every now and then I have to step back away from it so I can remain the same"
Does he ever feel that hyper-obsessive Manics fans disapprove of him precisely because he is so normal? (where do they get that from?!) "I think they disapprove of the fact that I don't come forth and voice my opinions more strongly in the way that Nick does or James does... Nick puts it upon himself to be this caricature that people want, but I wouldn't say he was totally comfortable with it"
In ten years the Manics have transformed themselves from some demented punk cartoon into what can only be described as responsible adults making challenging music. What inspired the change? "We just wanted to strip away all the rock 'n' rollisms" says Sean "That was the whole reason for Everything Must Go. We were in plain shirts and plain trousers with normal haircuts. We wanted to present ourselves just as people. And that was it..."