According to the Manic Street Preachers, that is. James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire have their fifth album in the shops, and here they talk to Valerie Potter about the validity of war, the validity of their lyrics, their dislike of America and the strangely appealing notion of disappearing up their own arses!
James Dean Bradfield is impatiently pacing the Sony boardroom. It’s the first interview of the day and before the Manic Street Preachers vocalist/guitarist starts, he needs a wake-up jolt of nicotine and caffeine, preferably in that order. When I tell him I don’t smoke in response to his attempt to cadge a fag off me, he snaps, "How stupid! What’s wrong with people these days?" – and I silently pray that his promo person will locate a smoker in the building quickly.
Once drawing luxuriously on a cigarette, with the promise of coffee on its way, James is more at ease while we await the arrival of bassist Nicky Wire, but his small talk ("Have you travelled far to get here today?", "Are you going away this summer?"), though friendly, has the faintly distracted air of one who is engaging a stranger in a dentist’s waiting-room in conversation to take his mind off impending root canal work. In contrast, Wire arrives smiling, and appears much more relaxed and open throughout the interview, while James falls silent, his face expressionless, when any question looks as if it might take a personal turn.
Perhaps that’s hardly surprising, with two days of international promotion ahead of him and the likelihood that at least one foreign hack will hungrily intrude on the band’s private grief – the mysterious and still unexplained disappearance of the band’s former guitarist, Richey James, in 1994 (sic) – in search of a "good quote", despite the fact that all scribes have been repeatedly and emphatically cautioned that questions of that nature are strictly off-limits.
Of course, the problem with being warned off a subject is that it then hovers unspoken in the air throughout the interview, instead of being dealt with and dismissed. For this journalist at last, its constant mental presence creates a nervous fear of inadvertantly causing pain by letting a reference to it slip out at some horribly inappropriate moment.
But, to be honest, it’s doubtful whether a ‘Richey question’ is even relevant at this point. After a period of mourning, James, Nicky and drummer Sean Moore returned in 1996 with their fourth opus, the searingly beautiful ‘Everything Must Go’. It was their most successful album to date, going triple platinum and winning numerous accolades, including Brit awards for Best Album and Best Single (‘Design For Life’).
That success looks set to continue with their latest opus, ‘This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours’, on which the band explore the vein of ‘Everything Must Go’ more deeply, with epic songs featuring more lilting anthemic choruses. The first single, ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, is a case in point, featuring Wire’s lyrics inspired by the International Brigade’s actions during the Spanish Civil War. "It’s also about how generations today don’t know how lucky they are," Nicky observes. "The International Brigade went to fight with the Spanish against the fascists just because they wanted to fight fascism, this really naïve deal. There’s no way any generation now would just go in and fight a war for an ideal."
"The song is not saying that all war is good " James hedges.
"We’re the only band in the world that would consider writing a pro-wart song, because, unfortunately, some wars can’t be avoided," Nicky continues truculently. "If you’ve got countries massacring everyone, something’s got to happen. We probably wouldn’t be sitting here now if it wasn’t for the Second World War."
Other songs deal with equally weighty subjects, such as the Hillsborough football disaster ('South Yorkshire Mass Murderer'), the submersion of a Welsh village for commercial reasons ('Ready For Drowning'), depression ('Black Dog') and personal freedom ('Born A Girl'). But when a band is selling millions of records, how many of those who buy their product actually listen to and absorb the message in the lyrics? "Probably 10 or 20 per cent of our fans are completely into every aspect of us as a group and as people, but there's always going to be people who think 'Design for life' is about wanting to get pissed," opines Nicky. "That's life, it doesn't bother me. Sometimes it's just as good to see a bunch of lads wrecked out of their heads, jumping up and down, as it is to see hardcore fans down the front, mouthing every single word. "Some of our earliest gigs, when we didn't have any fans, were the best, because they were so close to the edge of some kind of violence. There were blokes looking at us thinking, 'What the fuck are those prats doing up on stage, shouting and ranting?' It gives you a thrill, really. It's always nice being hated and loved at the same time." "if you trace our history just little points like the festival where Nick got half-brained by bottles hitting his head (in Swansea in 1993) you never saw us complain about it," James points out. "We kind of always dealt with it as an expression."
But, seeing as Nicky was dressed in drag and sporting a leopardskin-print headscarf at the festival in question, didn't you deliberately provoke that kind of reaction? "Well, I don't know if it was consciously, but it was provocation in a very timid way," Nicky replies thoughtfully. "I look back fondly, very fondly, on those days." "it's always interesting to meet someone who says, 'I was in the crowd at the Swansea festival and you were fucking brilliant!' And you know they were aiming a bottle at your head!" James muses drily. "Quite an interesting expression, really!" Talking about throwing yourself in the deep end, the Manics broke their lay-off from live work with an open air show at Slane Castle in Dublin, playing with the Verve, but appeared undaunted at kicking off with such a prestigious show. "To be honest, arena gigs are my favourite gigs," saysNicky."PiayingtolO,000 people in an arena is perfect for me. I can't say I want to go back to playing to 200 people down the Bull & Gate because that's the last thing in my life I'd want to do. In the smaller places, I just miss Richey loads, more when I look across the stage. To have the audience that close to you is ail a bit too real. Whereas when you're playing somewhere big, you can lose yourself and it might be a bit vain, but I feel really empowered, I feel like I can do any- thing on stage, I could take off..."
There! Someone said the 'R' word and no alarm bells have rung and security guards haven't arrived to escort me off the premises - although the sound of James' vertebrae stiffening is almost audible. Time to risk a curve-ball question ... With the fact that the band is now a trio and that 'Everything Must Go' was so successful, do you feel like you've now entered a new, second stage of your career?
Nicky fields the enquiry deftly: "No, I feel like we're still on the first stage, but that the success was a bit delayed. If 'Motorcycle Emptiness' had been around at the height of Britpop, we would have had a Number One record, but unfortunately it came out during the Grunge era - a terrible time for music. There's no way we'd have been nominated for a Brit award back then, even though we've sold quite a few records. We'd sold as many records as the Stereophonics, but they get the Best Newcomer awards and stuff. I'm not bitter, it's just totally changed Britpop." After Slane Castle, a lengthy tour beckons - and Nicky appears less than thrilled at the prospect. Although he claims to be looking forward to touring the UK, as far as America is concerned, he states: "Wouldn't bother me if I never went there again! I don't like the place, I don't like the people, I don't really want to go back there. The only good thing last time (we toured there) was supporting Oasis, because it was when they were on the verge of going mental and we were quite sane." "Yeah, it was a nice role reversal!" notes James. During an interview you did at the time, Nicky said he would prefer not to tour at all. Is that true? "Sometimes," he answers. "I could live without it. I'm the one who wishes we could just go into the studio to record albums and release them." "Every band loves the idea of being like REM, where you'd be so big that people would anticipate your album and that anticipation would be promotion in itself," adds James. "You almost seem to think that you would reach more of a creative peak if you do that, like The Beatles did," Nicky continues. "You think to your- self, if you were immersed in the studio year upon year, you'd just keep making records." Maybe you'd just disappear up your own arse "Well you could do, yeah!" he admits, adding: "I'd really like to make one 'head up your arse' album, just because we never really have." In the same piece, you also said that you didn't see the Manics as a long-term band. Do you see yourselves still together in, say, five years 'time? "We just don't want to make any obsolete albums," James declares. "We want to have a good body of work. A band like Echo And The Bunnymen - they had a great history, and they fucked it up to a certain degree." "The same with the Clash at the arse end of their career when they did 'Cut The Crap'," agrees Nicky. 'I'd like to leave with some grace. We'll know when that time is. The only people who can know are the band. If you lose your relevance, you shouldn't really do it."