If you have followed the fortunes of Manic Street Preachers across the decades there have undoubtedly been moments you wanted to punch Nicky Wire on the nose. Gobby with a vengeance, the lyricist and bass player has elevated hackle-raising to an art form. Bill Clinton, Glastonbury, the saintly Billy Brag... all have felt his sardonic wrath. In the flesh, you expect an antsy provocateur, eager to antagonise.
Actually, he's nothing of the sort. On the several occasions we've crossed paths, the Welshman has proved endlessly polite. Seated opposite him in a Dublin hotel a couple of years ago, I struggled to reconcile this quietly spoken man, middle-aged and a little careworn, with Nicky Wire, scourge of music journalists. Does he keep a dastardly twin in the attic? "Until you meet someone, you have no idea what they're like," he says today. "Back in the day, we probably came across as provocative. We were being natural: this is the stuff we were talking about in our bedrooms. We carried that into the media."
At the height of their notoriety, the Manics were something to behold. You could savour the band as thorns in the flank of the moral majority even if left cold by their music, a very mainstream pop-rock distinguished by Wire's lyrics (their biggest hit, 'A Design For Life', for instance, is a devastatingly articulate rumination on the Spanish Civil War in the style of mid-period Queen).
As outrage stirrers, they were consistently good value. In 1994, Wire took advantage of the group's highestprofile appearance yet at Glastonbury to express the wish that the site was turned into a motorway. He also labelled President Clinton a c*** and, playing Cork, again in 1994, tried to punch a hole in the ceiling of the venue with his bass guitar. In the audience, I was one of many who felt he could use a slap.
Of all the Manics' antics, the one with the longest-term consequences was their 2001 press trip to Cuba, at which they were photographed shaking hands with Fidel Castro. To this day a substantial number of fans cannot forgive. The band address the subject on their new LP, Futurology.
"I have plenty of regrets," says Wire.
"Cuba was different. It wasn't an endorsement. We didn't know Castro was going to be backstage… We never thought Cuba was going to be a communist Nirvana. People in post-Soviet Europe have a certain point of view about us going to Cuba: they despise Castro, bring it up all the time that we shook hands with him."
Almost as infamous was 1999's 'loogate' incident, again at Glastonbury. Backstage at the festival, journalists and musicians were amused to stumble upon a portaloo cordoned off for the exclusive use of the Manics.
So much for working-class values (this prompted a 'feud' with Billy Bragg, the first to complain about the Manics' private toilet).
"The misconception is that we were somehow being elitist in terms of not sharing our toilet with the public," Wire told me a few years back. "Well, you never share a toilet with the public anyway. You literally share it with other musicians. I was the one who asked for it. I thought it was a perk of the job."
"Early in our career we used to use a John Lennon quote, 'we will achieve our dreams when all our toilets are made of marble and gold leaf'," was the opinion of singer James Dean Bradfield.
"To be working class doesn't mean you have to have empathy with other musicians. My father was a carpenter in Wales. He never went into the 'Carpenters' Arms' every day and talked to other carpenters. It doesn't happen."
"We're working-class kids with slightly austere upbringings," added Wire.
"James had an outside toilet growing up. We've always had that fierce sense of being old-fashioned, working-class people. The whole facade of proving you are real by rubbing dirt over yourself... that was never our way of doing things."
Futurology is widely hailed as the Manics' finest record since the 90s. Nobody is more surprised at their continued relevance than the band themselves. What a trip it's been: they've survived the death of Britpop (with which they were lumped, against their wishes) and the disappearance in February 1995 of guitarist Richey Edwards, presumed to have thrown himself off the Severn Bridge in Wales (his car was abandoned close by).
"Post-Richey I don't know if we would have carried on were it not for 'A Design For Life'," says Wire.
"That was the song that came to us and everything kicked on from there. Thank God for that."