You’ve been warned. The documented story of self-mutilation with a razor blade (the thinking being, the best way to make a point is with one), and another, less widely known anecdote, heard third or fourth hand and originating from a woman who worked on one of their videos that they all had scabies or impetigo or some other such disease. So you go to meet Manic Street Preachers in a state of dichotomous trepidation: You want to frisk them for sharp objects but fear, should you do so, you might catch something.
The Manics arrive, however, to squash their past under the instrument cases and duffel bags they've humped up the steps to the photo studio. Sleepless from Frankfurt - they’ve been playing festivals, “the shit circuit," as they put it, all summer - they have the beat-'em-up-with-a-swizzle-stick charm of the terminally exhausted. Maybe that's what makes them seem quite the opposite of drunken, insult-hurling delinquents, a rep they quickly earned even prior to the release of their debut, Generation Terrorists. Or perhaps there's a certain strategy behind it, as if they've decided, for the new album, Gold Against the Soul - a crafted, bright hard rocker as commercial as it is confrontational, Clash meets Queen or what you could call Conscience 'N' Roses - that they didn't want to be perceived like that.
An act or not? Hard to tell, as the band's lyricists and spokesmen, Richey James and Nicky Wire (two can talk, and two can play - James Dean Bradfield removes himself during the interview while his cousin, Sean, nods out peacefully on the sofa) are convincingly soft-spoken and polite. They also look fairly clean, without a dash of drag or eye makeup.
This is our Ray Gun invades the UK issue, so we’re interested in finding out your views on the states.
Richey: It was just really strange, bewildering, because we recognised every place we went from TV and films. I mean, you’re in a foreign country for the first time and you land and you know the airport, you know the road, you know the cafes. We got to LA 3 days after the riots - Welcome to America!
Nicky:' It was typical, because we had the NME with us and straight away they wanted us to stand infront of a burning car for a picture.
Sean: (awakening momentarily) Yeah, but about a week later they came out with Ian Astbury standing out infront of the rubble!
Richey: We went to Disneyland instead and got our cover there.
Nicky: We were under a lot of pressure at the time because every gig we turned up to, we felt we weren’t being judged fairly - people just kept expecting Richey to carve himself up on stage.
Is that still a big deal?
Richey: It's not in Britain any more, but it may be the impression people have...But we've never done anything like that just for the sake of it or because it's expected of us - that sort of reduces a band to the level of a car crash.
Nicky: We only did like five gigs there. That seems to be the modern way of judging bands - send them to a foreign country and have them play the capitals. Then you go home, and if your record's played on radio and it's a hit, you get to tour. But we really believe in the old-fashioned way of just playing gigs every single night.
Did you play in Wales [they're from the mining town of Blackwood] a lot?
Nicky: No. We did one concert there, and it ended up in a riot. It was just the natural reaction towards us. We were quite pleased by that. But we just realized then that we had to go to London.
Would you say you're representational of the youth of your town?
Richey: The geeks. No. I think we show the same level of discontentment there.
Nicky: Wales is pretty much like any place in the north of England - it's depressed, not much industry, not many jobs. The only thing that's there is the pubs and the drugs.
Richey: And it seems beyond repair. Not even a fucker of hope except for going to see a band or a film, and most people are just wandering around in a daze.
In other words, life sucks and then you die.
Richey: that's correct.
Nicky: Oh, I don't think we're that negative. I think we've got a lot more anger and frustration. That's why we're in a band: There's still a point to what we do.
Richey: But the human animal is the only animal that realises he's going to die - we’re always thinking in terms of death. That's the burden of mankind, and we all have to deal with it in our different ways.
What are some good ways for venting anger - besides rock 'n' roll?
Richey: Sports are quite liberating.
Nicky: Working class people, they either pick up a guitar or they play sports. Just like in America. So many black people make brilliant music or are fantastic sportsman.
Richey: But I think the worst abstraction is when it ends up after ten pints of beer in a pub on Friday night and everybody just beating each other up. And it's not because you particularly hate the people around you; it's just that there's nothing left to do after you've had five days in a semi-moronic factory job.
Is rock ‘n’ roll a way out?
Nicky: Well, if we didn’t have some ambition or dreams then we’d stop being in a band. It’s a real drag that we’ve only been able to play 5 concerts in America, because we haven’t had a chance to be judged as a band, we’ve just been judged as a hype. People were quite cynical towards us in the states and that wasn’t necessarily our fault. I mean, you read the British press and it seems like we’re doing something outrageous every week.
Richey: It’s the only country in the world where they refuse to talk about music or lyrics. If you play to 20 people a night, they’ll put you on the front cover but if you sign a record deal and actually are playing to an audience, it’s just like, “fuck you, you’re boring”.
Nicky: It’s the old British disease of hating success.
In the states, it’s different, success feeds on itself. The worst possible people are famous. But OK, let’s talk about lyrics. What does La Tristesse Durera mean?
Richey: We’d just been reading a Van Gogh biography and apparently those were the last words he wrote before he died. We had the phrase rolling around.
Nicky: The sadness will never go away, or the misery will never end. It was basically a suicide note but we applied it to the fact that in a lot of countries you go to the old people are just pushed aside, they’re very much an embarrassment. And these are people who’ve been through starvation and war...
Richey: So much more than us young ones. The thing about war veterans, regardless of the war or what they did they just get wheeled out once a year and patted on the head, given a little medal and told "well done - now go away".
I dig old people. They're so wise. My grandfather and I correspond regularly. But it must really bug them that people few people seek their knowledge, even know them.
Richey: Exactly. I lived with my nan [grandmother], and we were very close - but there was an attitude of. "oh, we hope she's not going to do anything at the dinner table."
Nicky: I think that's what makes us different from every other rock band on the Planet - we're not obsessed with writing about our personal habits or lifestyles.
What about “Drug Drug muggy?" Is that an anti-drug song?
Richey: No, we have more of an ambivalent attitude about drugs. But drugs — soft drugs in general - especially when you sign a record deal, so many people come up to you and say, "I'm smokin' a joint. Yeah? I’m a bit of a rebel. Yeah?"
Richey: in the sixties. Drug use was completely tied up with the political changes that were going on.
Nicky: To think that drugs can be a symbol of rebellion in the 1990s, is just so naive and old-fashioned. In the 1990s. It's a lot more subversive to go out and read a book. A lot of kids where we come from, they just get cider and inject it straight into their veins. It just means you can get completely smashed in about two seconds.
What's the drug of choice? Good God!
Richey: In a way it's a lot more honest than going, "on. I smoked ten joints last night!"
Do you have a fave track?
Richey: Roses In The Hospital. It’s about different things, but the title comes from the idea of something very natural, in a place of death. It can’t really take your pain away but whenever someone brings you flowers, it makes you feel good for a few minutes.
As I see it, there are two types of political lyricists. People who open the newspaper every day to find out what they should write a song about, and those who don't have to look at the paper because they're writing about their own miserable lives.
Richey: There was a thing in Britain in the mid-eighties called Red Wedge - a lot of bands aligned themselves with a political party, and they'd go on stage and say, "Okay, You must vote for this party because this is what they’re going to do." We never wanted to do that - finding a cause for the sake of it. Or like you said, opening up the newspaper and saying [gleeful smile], "Hey, man, The Bosnians! Let's write a song about the Bosnians!" It has nothing to with us.
Nicky: Our politics are just too cynical for us to be dogmatic. We're more interested in pointing out the wrong things in life than trying to provide any sort of answer. We just write about everyday life. But the more informed young people are, The more the potential for change.
What they're calling in The States now the Twentysomethings
Richey: Generation X
Right. Ther's a tendency among them, which I thought was sort of heightened by Nirvana, towards apathy. I think that's dangerous.
Richey: But it comes from when you‘re an adolescent, you feel so powerless, you just want to retreat. Stay in your bedroom, read a cook, play guitar, hang out with your friends. You just feel incapable of doing anything else, and those brief moments of doing what you want is all you've got. I think that's a pretty European attitude, as well.
You're all about the same age, from the same town...
Nicky: We've pretty much grown up together, been through college together.
You went to college? Graduate?
Richey: I majored in history; Nicky was politics; Sean did music, he's classically trained - that's another strange thing about the British press, they'd never write about it! To them, we were just a working-class band, and we're aggressive, so they felt that we couldn't have ever learned anything.
Not that going to college means you're smart.
Nicky: Of course not. Self education - you learn a lot more from discovering your own books. If you start listening to Rock 'n' roll music, you get certain clues. We were listening to the clash, and then we realised that Allen Ginsberg read on their last album, so you read Allen Ginsberg, and then you read Jack Kerouac, and then you go on to Camus or whatever.
Give me the Manics’ recommended reading list.
Richey: Aside from the things we just mentioned - and all the classics, I suppose - Tennessee Williams' "Night of the Iguana;" Oscar Wilde's "Portrait Of Dorian Gray."
You're telling me that when you're on the road, you read instead of playing game boy?
Richey: it's mixed; we go through phases.
Nicky: I did a lot of my reading young. Now I'm just amazed that so many people in bands don't even read a book till they're like 28. And then it's like, "I've just discovered Ken Kesey!" Or Bono's just discovered Dadaism and Situationism. It's very sad that at 30 or whatever he is. he feels he's suddenly seen the light.
Do you think a lot of people don't get your intellectualism because the music is sort of [moshes].
Richey: I think that's quite good. There were an awful lot of rock acts we liked when we were growing up where the lyrics were just, "Baby, Baby, I'm gonna love you forever." And we weren't interested in that. We were much more interested in hearing music that we liked with lyrics that we liked.
Think you'll ever write a love song?
Richey: No. Ninety percent of the stuff you hear on radio is about love.
There's a reason for that. Love kills. I mean, have either of you ever had your heart broken?
Richey: Oh, yeah. But I don't feel a desire to write about it, especially when Aretha Franklin and Johnny Mathis and Otis Redding have already said it better. They're unsurpassable - so why even try?
Nicky: We always liked Joy Division and their miserabalism, but musically, we wanted the backdrop of like The Sex Pistols. We've always wanted to mix that; that's where I think our originality lies. But I think a lot of people just miss the point to us full stop.
Do they miss the cynicism? Do they think you have no sense of humour? Do you have a sense of humour?
Nicky: Very dry.
Richey: It's a deep-rooted British irony, which probably doesn't translate well.
Nicky: And when you're in a band and you've known each other for so long and so well, all you can do is take the piss out of each other. We've gone past the level of having to reassure each other every day - it's more like, "fuck you, you wanker."
Are you like brothers?
Nicky: No. We're more like sisters.
Richey: We're too bitchy to be brothers.
You do have a sense or humour! Anyway. Now that you have this vast experience with the music business, are you at all disillusioned - or is it better than you thought?
Richey: I think there's an awful lot of people who work for record companies and stuff who don't really know music as much as we thought they would. We thought they'd all be fanatics like us, obsessed with music 24 hours a day. But there are people who just clock into work every day, they could be working in a sausage factory. That was disappointing, because where we come from, so many people would die for the opportunity to be involved in music.
Nicky: There's so much privilege in London, and world-wide, in record companies, it's very rare that you come across someone in a record company who really loves music. Or books. Or culture in general. It's just a job.
Did you ever think anyone would refer to what you do as "product?"
Richey: It's quite strange to hear them talk about "units" and "product."
Nicky: But we were brought up on situationist politics, so we weren’t naive.
What's “situationist politics?
Nicky: Just that you are a product, basically.
Richey: You're used. You're advertised. But we knew that, so we never really had a problem when we moved up to a major. Independents do exactly what the majors do, just on a smaller level.
That's true, and there's the reverse snobbism of Alternative rock. How about a bit on the making of the album. Who produced?
Richey: Dave Eringa. He worked with us on our very early singles as a tea boy, basically.
How elitist! The Manics had a tea boy!
Nicky: We really got on with him. And we wanted someone young - he's only 21.
Richey: We did it really quick, about eight weeks.
It's very clear and clean. Not exactly punk rock.
Nicky: I think James and Sean learned an awful lot from doing the first album with Steve Brown, so I think they've harnessed their production skills with Dave's engineering skills. Being a crappy punk band is nothing we've ever aspired to - we want to be a great rock 'n' roll band. This is our first band, and we started playing when we got our first guitars, and we realised early on that me and Richey just were not as good musicians as
James and Sean. So we thought, well, we read a lot of books, we'll write the lyrics, they'll write the music - and it’s very simple.
How would you like to see yourselves grow?
Richey: Just get more concise lyrically; learn how to say things in two or three words instead of five or six.
Now, say you sell millions and millions of records in America. To use a cliche: "Will success change the Manics?"
Nicky: Yeah. It'll make us fuckin' happy!
Richey: We've known each other so long, if any of us began to develop any Axlisms, the others'd bring us down. We have more money than we ever had before...
And what do you spend it on?
Richey: The same exact things: CD's, books, Magazines. I'm not interested in buying underwear that costs a coupla hundred quid 'cause it's the designer to wear.
But you do have a look. I mean, not today, but I've seen you live - the eyeliner, the frock coats; there’s a pretty-boy thing happening.
Nicky: Well, I think it comes from a desire to be different - the first gig we ever did, We just wore our school uniforms and spray-painted different slogans on them. And all our favourite bands happened to be very glamorous. Everyone we're influenced by had that. Albert Camus? Total coolness.