Back with their sixth album, Manic Street Preachers will be aiming to reclaim their crown in 2001. Nicky Wire outlines the battle plan.
First the running pig-dogs of the press turned on their masters, declaring the reigning regime a spent force; tired and divided and riddled with cross-dressing perverts. There were red faces in the corridors of power over the lacklustre nature of recent albums and the sympathy vote finally ran dry. Finally, the JD Bradfield Administration was rocked to its core by the Glastonbury-quaking scandal that was Toiletgate. The cries for abdication could be heard throughout the empire.
Read. Their. Lips... No. More. Epics. The searing return to form of 'The Masses Against The Classes' a year ago heralded a U-turn in Manic Street Preachers' Maximum Blandness Policy and now, after months of speculation and rumour, the band have announced that their new album, 'Know Your Enemy', is to be released in March will be launched at a groundbreaking gig in Cuba on February 17. They'll be the first Western band to play the only outpost holding out against Americanisation in the Western world. Not bad for an opening salvo. And to make the impact even greater and send lesser mortals scampering back to the trenches, bassist Nicky Wire claims the Manics decided to crash back on the scene with a gig in the communist Caribbean country because they didn't "want to come back in the usual way. It could be a disaster… but it's the idea that it's a bit of an adventure." The Manics are going into battle and they've thrown away the rule book.
Speaking from his home in Wales just before Christmas - and probably halfway through a game of Risk, though NME is merely speculating here - Nicky admits their war plans need to be more carefully honed and more from the heart than ever before. The band's sixth album is arguably the most crucial in their 11-year career after the lacklustre critical reception given to 1998's 'This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours', which Nicky now admits was "overcalculated". Never mind prevailing rumours since late 1999 that the band were on the verge of splitting up.
But now, revitalised, excited and looking forward to a good scrap, Nicky says the Manics were not going to repeat the mistakes they admit they made while making and promoting their last album, which left the band feeling jaded with the whole business of releasing records. Now, his battle cry is: "Our natural instincts are back!"
NME: So, where have you been working on the new album?
"Loads of places! Most of it in El Cortizo in Spain. We're just finishing off mixing in Abbey Road, and RAK. We've finished now, we've got one little thing left. It's exactly a year since we started and we've written, recorded and mixed 27 tracks. We're very pleased with everything.
What does the new record sound like?
"It's just totally different from 'This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours' - that's the best way of describing it. It's a lot looser, there's a lot of songs that we've only ever played two or three times in the studio, we've just done it on the spot. We've got a lot of rehearsing to do. A lot of these songs were written and recorded in the studio and previous albums we rehearsed before. So it's a lot more inspirational and off-the-cuff. Ragged!"
Does that mean you've returned to your punk roots after the orchestral themes of 'TIMTTMY'? More 'The Masses Against The Classes' than 'If You Tolerate This…'?
"Yes, it's kind of like that, but it's not just like that. There's bits of it which are more like 'Masses…' but there's bit of it - well, there's a full-on 70s disco number on there as well. It's just something we've always tried to do. We tried with 'The Girl Who Wanted To Be God', that's how that kind of originally started, but then the whole (Phil) Spector Wall Of Sound took over there. But it's something we've always wanted to do.
"There's lots of different stuff on there, but there's a definite thread to it. Lyrically really, more than anything, there's a bit of a thread. I've written every one, as usual."
Haven't James or Sean chipped in at all, then?
"Ooooh, I can't say! There is a lot of that, a lot of role-swapping. There's all kinds of stuff like that. Swapping each other's instruments. As I say, it's a lot looser in that sense. And the album was effortless to make.
"The main fault with the last album was just that it was too calculated, it wasn't the actual songs, it was the way we treated them. We thought about things too much and that's what we wanted to avoid with this album. I think we're men enough to take the blame where it's due. There are still some glorious moments on that record, but generally, it was just too calculated. It certainly served its purpose. One of the main things we wanted to do was actually sell some records outside Britain and we did sell a million albums in Europe so it was a success in that sense. It was something we'd always wanted to do; everything does get a bit too parochial sometimes and you do just want to go somewhere else and lose yourself."
Was it a sense of wanting to break free that led you to release 'Masses...' a year ago?
"Yes, exactly. That was a kind of breakthrough for us, just realising that we're in a position where we don't have to plan so rigidly. We didn't do a video for it, we didn't do anything for it and it was just nice and easy and free."
You said that you'd recorded 27 tracks for the new album - how many are actually going to end up on there?
"That's what we're still doing at the moment actually, choosing. We've got 15 definites already and there's a couple of ones in between. It'll probably end up being a 16 or 17-track album."
Who have you worked with on the album?
"We've worked with David Holmes, he was the main curve-ball. We did most of the album with Dave Eringa 'cos he's so quick and fast, that's how we wanted to work this time."
How did the relationship with David Holmes work?
"We gave him four basic tracks that he worked on and he just added his sonic brilliance to them. We didn't just want to farm him everything, 'cos we thought that would be a bit unfair on him. We just gave him some tracks that he'd actually want to work on. And they just sound fantastic, amazing. It's amazing that he can still add his touch and that it can still sound like us, which is what we wanted."
"There's one particular track called 'Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children'. Kevin Shields has played some guitar on there as well which was quite a nice moment for us. It's just a lovely bit of guitar, very melodic. David Holmes did additional production on that as well. It's a particular favourite of mine."
What about 'Miss Europa Disco Dancer', the "full-on '70s number"? Is it really pure disco?
"I wouldn't say that - I wouldn't say it's deep, that's not the right word, but it's a very pertinent lyric - (laughs) for use of a better word. Is it about somebody? No, not really, but it's a very sad little story."
"In all, we've done two tracks with Mike Hedges (who produced the band's last album), four with David Holmes, and all the rest of the album with Dave Eringa and ourselves."
The Manics have always had a jinx trying to break America, or even touring there - launching your new album at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana isn't really going to help matters, is it?
"(Laughing) No, I think hopefully it'll mean that we won't be allowed into America again because sometimes if you've got Cuba stamped on your passport they turn you away because of the trade embargo and everything. Might not even get to America this time! It'll be great! (Laughing) After the tour with the first album, it was such a bewildering experience, we've never really had any hopes of cracking it out there anyway."
But the Manics always had dreams of world domination - is this a new laidback Nicky speaking?
"Yeah! No, it's the new stimulated Nicky! Our natural instincts are back. And that's borne out on the new album."
Have you completely abandoned your orchestral leanings on 'Know Your Enemy'?
"There's lot of hi-hats on it. And Sean plays trumpet on it as well! But no, the original title of the album was 'No Strings'. Because that's what it was. There's no violins on it, or anything. All cycles come to an end and I think it's proved in a lot of groups that unless you actually change and move on, you know. And sometimes you've got to go back to move on, that's what 'The Masses Against The Classes' was all about really, just an idea, a concept more than anything else. You've got to do that just to keep your interest going."
Has anything outside of the band interested you over the course of the year musically?
"New wise? Um, no. I've been listening, more than anything, to McCarthy (late-'80s/early-'90s politico indie rockers). 'I Am A Wallet' is one of the greatest albums ever made. Lyrically, that's had a big influence."
They were Marxists too, weren't they?
"Yeah, they were. They were a lot more right on than I'll ever be! (Laughs) I loved that first album when I was young and I've just gone back to it an awful lot. The lyrics, are so biting and true."
You've not spent the year humming along to Craig David then?
"No, he's alright. I really liked The Magnetic Fields' album, I liked the Idlewild album, I like JJ72, but you know, I can't say there's anything I've rushed out to get. Anything American metal sounds like Saxon to me."
"The album we've made sounds like we've listened a lot to our old records and realised where we got our original inspiration from. The biggest vibe for the record is actually that we may not look like on, but we actually sound like a really young band! It's got a bit of our naivety back. I'm 31. It's not that old. Most sad bastard bands are only starting when they're that age. We're not dadrock yet!"
Know your enemy? The Manics reckon they have the opposition sussed and have drawn a line in the sand on a Cuban beach. Let battle commence.