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Vive La Résistance! - Music Week, 19th March 2018

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Title: Vive La Résistance!
Publication: Music Week
Date: Monday 19th March 2018
Writer: James Hanley
Photos: Alex Lake, Dave Hogan, Martyn Goodacre

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The Manic Street Preachers have always aimed for the moon - and they usually land amongst the stars. Here, Nicky Wire, manager Martin Hall, Sony boss Rob Stringer, and others take Music Week inside the world of the Manics and their upcoming 13th album, Resistance Is Futile...

There is an incredible, tell-all book to be written on the Manic Street Preachers’ near 30-year career. Just don’t expect Nicky Wire to be the one that writes it.

“I signed a contract with Faber & Faber and tried to write it myself, but I just found it really boring,” admits the endearingly acid-tongued bass player. “I didn’t think I was very good at it and I don’t really want to do it with a ghostwriter, so I’m not sure if I ever will to be honest. I prefer writing lyrics or poetry.”

It seems oddly fitting that the day Music Week catches up with Nicky Wire in his native Wales is the same day the death knell sounds for NME magazine.

Manic Street Preachers graced the legendary paper’s front page well over a dozen times, a 1992 issue featuring missing Manics lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards coming out on top of a 2015 poll to find the greatest NME cover ever.

“It’s hardly fucking surprising,” sneers the inimitable Wire of the institution’s demise. “Growing up, getting on Radio 1, Top Of The Pops and the cover of NME was our masterplan. If we could get that, we thought we’d get everywhere we wanted - and it kind of worked out like that to be honest.

“[NME] was a lifeline and we devoured it. We loved the writers as much as we did the bands in it, it was like an education.

It’s incredibly sad really, but you give away something for free and it always ends up going fucking bust. All those people who laughed when Metallica sued Napster should be choking on their fucking laughter.”

The Manics - Wire, singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore - became a trio in the wake of Edwards’ disappearance 23 years ago, and retain many of the same backroom team to this day.

“They’re like family because I’ve known them for so long,” says Martin Hall, of Hall Or Nothing Management, who originally represented the band with his late brother Philip. “They’re cultured, clever, intelligent people and are a joy to work with.”

“Bands will sack managers and think there’s some magic thing they can do to help you, but the most important thing is that you get on as friends,” suggests Wire. “As a personality Martin just makes us feel better, which is half the magic.

“[Hall Or Nothing’s] Chris Dempsey is also a big help, because he used to be the product manager at Sony. We have an innate understanding of marketing, which is important because I’ve always enjoyed that side of it.”

New LP Resistance Is Futile drops via Sony’s Columbia on April 13, preceded by the singles International Blue, Distant Colours and Dylan & Caitlin. International Blue, which owes a debt to Generation Terrorists’ classic Motorcycle Emptiness, has proved a surprise radio hit, cracking the upper echelons of the airplay chart.

“No rock band has had a Top 20 airplay hit in a long time and it was bizarre when you saw who they were up there with,” grins Hall.

“[BBC Radio 2’s] Jeff Smith is a big supporter, he has been for a long time, as have Radio X, Absolute and Virgin. It’s been really good. I think we’re going to get that again with Distant Colours and I feel confident that we’ll get that with the next two singles as well.”

The album also sees the Manics reunite with their former Columbia boss Mike Smith, now MD at Warner/Chappell UK, after signing a deal with the publisher earlier this year. Their back catalogue remains with Sony/ATV.

“[Resistance Is Futile] is a very strong collection of songs,” says Smith. “I genuinely believe it’s some of the best songs the band have written in terms of their melody, power and lyrical depths. There is a tremendous feeling of storytelling going on.

“I’m a great lover of people who push themselves lyrically and do not follow clichéd paths,” he adds. “That’s something that has always drawn people to the Manic Street Preachers and I think they’ll really appreciate it with this record. It’s absolutely amazing to have the Manics back and the world is a much better place with them making music in it.”

The four-year gap since the last Manics record is the longest of their career. Wire explains the band struggled for direction following 2013’s Rewind The Film (59,557 sales - OCC) and 2014’s Futurology (50,034) - released less than 10 months apart - and the upheaval caused by having to vacate their longtime HQ, Cardiff’s Faster Studios, due to a residential development.

“We weren’t quite sure where we were going for a while,” notes Wire, both figuratively and literally. “Futurology was such a high concept, dense album, and it was so well received. It went to No.2 and is in a lot of people’s Top 3 Manics records.

We didn’t want to repeat that because we didn’t think it would be as good stylistically, so it did take a while before we sat in a room together and started to realise the way to go.

“It turned into something very natural, where everything was just drenched in melody: a widescreen sadness, but uplifting. It just felt pointless to do something contrary and try and make it harder, or odder, because it just wasn’t coming out that way.”

In the interim, the band kept themselves busy with 20th anniversary tours of their back-to-back masterpieces The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go. They also penned Wales’ Euro 2016 anthem Together Stronger (C’mon Wales), which soundtracked the Welsh football team’s best ever run in a major tournament.

“I wanted to give a little tragic history of being a Welsh football supporter over the last 40 years,” chuckles Wire. “We had a blast doing the video with the team.

You have a moment like that and put everything to one side and just enjoy yourself - which is not something we do very often as a band! With the team getting to the semis and the feelgood factor, it was an amazing summer.”

The Manics boast a high-profile supporter in longtime cohort, Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer, who signed the band in the early ’90s. They played the 2014 Music Week Awards in recognition of Stringer’s Strat Award and presented him with the MITS Award last year.

“He’s always been there,” says Wire. “Right from the start, he was desperate to sign us and I still speak to him all the time. He loves [Resistance Is Futile], he was probably the first person to come down to our new studio and hear most of it.

He will tell us if he thinks it’s rubbish as well, but he didn’t - he said there are so many hooks on this record he couldn’t believe it.

“Whether it’s him coming to my house at Christmas for a bit of cake and tea or just meeting up in London, he’s as much a friend as he is as a music business person.”

“Rob was the only person that offered them a deal and he stuck by them through their leaner, less commercial years,” acknowledges Hall.

“He always believed in them and that’s why they came through with Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. He’s been like the fifth member of the team in lots of ways and they’re still friendly, they still speak to him all the time.”

Stringer, for his part, declares himself “overwhelmed” at their “fresh”, “uplifting” and “hook-laden” new material.

“Their recording career is characterised by specific sonic chapters, as is the case with most bands with great longevity,” he tells Music Week. “I think this album has a sheen and vividness, unlike previous albums, so it sounds completely contemporary.

This view is clearly shared by the UK company, because they feel very passionate about the album, even though the band have been signed for 27 years now.”

“This is the Manics’ 13th album for Columbia and it’s a testament to the consistency of the band’s songwriting,” asserts Columbia UK president Ferdy Unger-Hamilton. “In my opinion the album contains some of their best work yet.

The response at radio has proved consistent with that and I am expecting Resistance Is Futile to be one of the band’s best received albums.”

A microcosm of how the music business has changed, pre-streaming, the Manics achieved 34 UK Top 40 hits, but last bothered the singles chart in 2010 with (It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love. They previously scored two No.1s: If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next (1998) and Masses Against The Classes (2000), a feat Wire now considers “as distant as me flying to the sun”.

“Those dreams you would have as a young kid have been totally dispersed,” he laments. “Obviously you want people to buy it and you want all those things you wanted when you were younger, but you just don’t know how that figures in the real world.

“We still get a massive buzz out of hearing International Blue on radio A-lists everywhere and stuff like that. It’s still a massive part of our lives, so we’ve kind of settled for that.”

After the multi-platinum success of 1996 mainstream breakthrough Everything Must Go (1,083,005 sales) and 1998 follow-up,

This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours (1,051,123), the band continued on the crest of a wave, headlining the 1999 Glastonbury Festival and then Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium (now the Principality Stadium) to mark the turn of the century.

What happened next is frankly inconceivable by modern music industry standards. Ditching the sweeping, orchestral sound that propelled them to rock’s top table, the Manics went lo-fi with 2001’s Know Your Enemy, a sprawling, sporadically brilliant but ultimately incoherent mess of an LP, awash with anti-American sentiment.

In an equally divisive move, they opted to launch the record in Cuba (see previous page).

Despite charging out of the gates with two Top 10 singles released on the same day (pre-dating Ed Sheeran by 16 years), Know Your Enemy was a commercial failure, shifting a relatively disappointing 219,985 units. “The whole thing was a reaction to This Is My Truth being so big,” smiles Wire ruefully.

“A lot of bands get to that point where they react against what made them huge and I guess This Is My Truth was our most arena and stadium-sounding album.

“[Know Your Enemy] is such a sketchy record. There are moments on it that I truly love, but we weren’t at our most disciplined, we were quite lazy on it.

And then to spend all the money going to Cuba and launching it there, I do wonder how we got away with it. But they were different times when a record company believed in you. Whether there was more money around, or people were just happier to just take a punt and run with the consequences, it’s hard to know really.”

On whether he expected the record’s uncompromising themes and raw production to take such a big chunk out of the Manics’ casual fanbase,

Wire confesses: “I think we were deluded at that point to think that we could still convert people, which was mad because it’s such a difficult record to comprehend what we’re on about anyway.

We made it in a studio out in Spain and it was boiling hot - it wasn’t a great studio to be honest - and we were just lying around the swimming pool for days.

“But it’s great to have a grand folly in your record canon. When I look back at it, I’m glad that it’s truly messed up like [The Clash’s] Sandinista! and [The Rolling Stones’] Their Satanic Majesties Request. It’s not as good as those, but it’s something we can always laugh about.”

Hall admits to viewing the whole period with a distinct tinge of regret.

“It took them a while to come back from that,” he concedes. “In hindsight, if we’d gone with a [acclaimed 2007 comeback album] Send Away The Tigers-type record then we could have solidified. But bands have to find their journey and that was their vision, so we backed it.”

The Manics floundered further with 2004’s Lifeblood, at No.13, their lowest-charting album. But Send Away The Tigers revitalised the band, kicking off arguably the most consistent stretch of their career, encompassing 2009’s Journal For Plague Lovers (featuring leftover lyrics by Edwards), 2010’s Postcards From A Young Man and the aforementioned Rewind The Film and Futurology.

“There were a few odd ones in the first 10 or 15 years but since Send Away The Tigers we’ve been on a really great run of songwriting, different concepts and different styles,” reflects Wire. “I think that’s due to a realisation of dedication and effort.

“When we got to Know Your Enemy and Lifeblood, we were perhaps still basking in the huge success of This Is My Truth and Everything Must Go.

There are moments of greatness on those records, but we weren’t quite as committed as we should’ve been. Even when an album doesn’t sell quite as much now as maybe we’d like it to, we know that we’ve committed to a concept, 100%.”

Wire’s 2006 solo album, I Killed The Zeitgeist, and Bradfield’s The Great Western are also credited with giving the band a new impetus. “It helped us relearn one, how much we love being in a band and two, different ways [of working],” says Wire.

“I certainly relearned how to play the guitar and I’ve written a lot more tunes since that point. It gave us a good gap to look at the band and think, ‘When we actually pull it off, the three of us together, it’s a really special feeling’. So it helped, definitely.”

“They have managed to stay relevant when some of their contemporaries have not because they work so diligently at their craft,” muses Stringer. “This is not a hobby or a distraction, even after all these years, and their attention to the recording process today is equal to when they were a young, upcoming band.

“Some of the working class values that they have focused on in their lyrics over the years also apply to their own work ethic. Most bands fall out because of either creative or personal or business pressures or all three and, remarkably, the Manics are joined at the hip still, despite a journey that has certainly had its share of turmoil.”

“They’re in a really good place,” affirms Hall. “They just wanted to go back to classic Manics songwriting. On Futurology and Rewind The Film, the decision was made to do something a bit more leftfield. They’re both great records, but not particularly commercial.

Futurology probably should’ve come first because it was an easier record with potential singles on it as opposed to Rewind The Film, which was a much more introspective, acoustic album. But they’ve made a big rock record this time.”

As with many seasoned rockers, the digital revolution remains something of a quandary for the Manics, especially while their physical sales continue to hold up so well.

Their most popular track on Spotify is If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, with 15.3 million streams. A Design For Life and Motorcycle Emptiness have also topped 10m. International Blue currently stands at just over 650,000.

“They want to embrace and engage with streaming,” stresses Hall. “At the moment, if you look at most rock bands’ numbers, it’s hard - certainly for older bands. But we know people at Spotify, we’ve got some supporters there and obviously Apple and Amazon have come to the business as well.

“Nick subscribes to Music Week, they understand the business and are clever enough to know that this is the future. But their fanbase still wants the deluxe version with all the extras and the handwritten notes, so it will take a moment for that long tail of the catalogue and new records to start making impressions.”

A UK arena tour, promoted by SJM Concerts, is booked for April/May, with select festival dates to follow in the summer, alongside a show at Robert Smith’s Meltdown and a handful of European support slots with boyhood heroes Guns N’Roses.

“They always make bold statements and decisions, and they wanted to do [arenas] again,” explains X-ray Touring’s Scott Thomas, the band’s longtime agent. “Crucially, they knew they had the record to back it up - it is a record that demands those arena stages.”

Thinking big has been a Manic Street Preachers mantra since day one, when they famously vowed to sell 16 million copies of their debut LP and then split up, and ambitions for Resistance Is Futile remain high.

“Columbia seem really engaged, Jason Iley called me and said it’s his favourite new record,” states Hall.

“They’re thinking about trying to get to Japan next year for the Rugby World Cup and do some gigs around that, and there might be a reissue of This Is My Truth down the line as well, so they’ll be keeping busy - they want to work all the time.”

Surprisingly, for such an enduring act, the Manics have attained just one chart-topping album - This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours - two decades ago. A second would be more than welcome. “We’d like to get a No.1 album,” says Hall. “That’s achievable, but it depends on a few other things around us.

“The pre-orders are really strong, the record’s really strong and we’ve got a great campaign lined up, so it feels good.”

“We feel really great about the record,” concludes Wire. “We feel we’ve made, for a band approaching their 50s, a vital, uplifting album, full of love and dedication.”

Looks like that book will have to wait a while longer then.

Havana nights: When the Manics rocked Cuba

So many of the Manic Street Preachers’ most defining moments have come on the live stage.

Whether it’s headlining the world’s biggest indoor event in their native Cardiff on Millennium Eve, playing The Holy Bible in full to 10,000 fans at Cardiff Castle in 2015, Nicky Wire imploring someone to “build a bypass over this shithole” at Glastonbury in 1994 or Richey Edwards’ scintillating last gig at London Astoria later that year (which climaxed with the band destroying thousands of pounds worth of equipment), the Manics have never short-changed their public.

One gig, though, stands out from the crowd. In February 2001, the band performed at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, Cuba, a month ahead of the release of their sixth album Know Your Enemy.

In contrast to today’s globalised business, where no territory is off limits, the trio became the first major Western rock band to play the Communist state and met Cuban president Fidel Castro before the show (he famously asked: “It cannot be louder than war, can it?”). So whose idea was it to launch the album in Cuba?

“It was mine, as per usual,” laughs Wire ruefully. “We were recording in Spain and I realised that quite a few of the lyrics were infused with that idea of Cuba standing up to the United States. It wasn’t a Communist utopia or anything like that, but the idea of that last Socialist bastion.

“The album itself had a lot of political elements and there is a track specifically about Cuba, Baby Elián, so I remember saying to James, ’We should try and launch this in Havana’.”

“You would never get away with something like that nowadays,” smiles manager Martin Hall. “It cost the label an absolute fortune to fly everybody there and, to be fair to Rob Stringer, he backed it. We hadn’t planned to meet Castro backstage, that was something we hadn’t expected, so it was amazing.”

Their booking agent, X-ray Touring’s Scott Thomas, was another key component in bringing the plans to fruition. “It will remain for the band, for myself, and for everyone involved, one of the highlights of our career,” Thomas tells Music Week.

“It was six months of intense work putting it together. It probably nearly broke us, but it was an inspiring idea. There was going to be no money at the end but it would be to be a massive statement and something we’d all remember.

“I was very glad to see that, when the Rolling Stones went to Cuba recently, a lot of the media pointed out that they were some years behind Manic Street Preachers, who were trailblazers in that regard. I keep most of my memorabilia from my career in the office but there are a few things around the house from that Cuba trip.”

“Fair play to Scott Thomas, he did an amazing job putting it all together,” beams Wire. “I feel a sense of bewilderment that we actually pulled it off and that Rob Stringer, again, allowed us to do it - because it was an incredibly expensive exercise.

There are much easier and more cost-effective ways to launch an album.

“It was such a dramatic week out there, almost like an out of body experience. Most things I can remember vividly, but I can’t remember as much of that week as I can of a shitty gig in Wolverhampton in 1991.

It was like being in a film, it was an amazing experience. There were about 100 journalists at this one press conference we did and it was the most bewildering experience. I don’t think we realised how big it would be.”

No regrets then?

“No, I don’t think so. I’ve got plenty of regrets - I’ve talked so much shit over the years - but it was so self-defeating. All we did really was lose absolutely tons of money.”

So one last question: Does Wire still hope that bypass is built over Glastonbury?

“As I said, I do regret a lot of things,” he chortles. “To be honest, I’m just glad it’s fucking around now because everything else has disappeared. So anything that’s older than we are, I’m glad still exists.”