To the British festival goer, used to the scenic, landscapes of Reading and the like, the Positivus AB Festival in Latvia comes as something of a shock. Buried deep in lush, seemingly never ending woods (looking like something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale), the site is located on the shores of the Baltic sea a couple of hours drive from the stunning capital city of Riga. The site is beside the undulating sea (it doesn’t lap the shore so much as wobble towards it like jelly), festival goers sit getting pissed watching the blazing sunset over Sweden, just out of sight on the other coast. The perimeter fence is patrolled by angry looking dogs, like an Eastern European Burns Manor, a far more effective deterrent than a ten-foot high superstructure and probably a damn site cheaper too. When we walk off the path to the beach, a security guard runs over to warn us that if we don’t get back on track, we’re highly likely to get mauled. This is more like it.
Manic Street Preachers are headlining the first night of the festival as part of a summer run of gigs that takes in virgin territory across the former Soviet union, alongside more familiar stages at the likes of Oxygen in Ireland and aforementioned Reading (and Leeds).
Prior to the gig, the dressing room is all carefully applied nail varnish and “In Utero” played at full volume; the first Mary Chain album and the local speciality beer (lager mixed with Rose only keyboard player Sean Read is brave enough to indulge). While the rest of the band scout out the site, Nicky Wire sits and reflects on the summer so far.
You’re halfway through a load of summer festivals and you’re playing a host of places you’ve never played before.
And I have to say, from Romania to Poland, Bucharest, Switzerland, Zagreb, Latvia...they’ve been some of the best festivals we’ve ever done. We played Oxygen in Ireland which was great but it didn’t have the sense of mystery that the other ones have had, a real sense of wonder, of turning up places just not knowing what the fuck it’s going to be like. You don’t know what the city is like, how the people will react. It’s like missionary work in a way. There is a sense of conversion going on. When some songs get played, something like “...Tolerate” especially, they seem so universally popular.
Has it been like an alternate version of Manic Street Preachers in a way...in their perceptions of what the band are as opposed to how the audience at home see you?
I think James would say the same thing, that the places I mentioned already, it’s just much easier to be less inhibited and just more entertaining. James has been a different kind of front-man, more communal. It’s quite odd but it doesn’t feel embarrassing at all. I don’t mean it even in a naff way; it’s been really enjoyable to do. In Bucharest, it was like Queen doing the “Radio Ga Ga” video, 12,000 people going nuts, all in time with the band! It felt humane and enjoyable, not what we expected at all. It’s strange because I don’t even know really if we’ve sold records out here. Post-Soviet, all the countries that came out of the Soviet Bloc, I’m not sure if our albums have sold, it’s kind of an unknown for most bands I think. That said, “Your Love Alone...” and “Autumn Song” particularly seem to have transcended everything. Even I have to admit the wonders of the Internet on this one - the 1.2 million viewings on You Tube must actually mean something for once.
The start of the summer we were pretty scared, thinking, “Why are we doing this?” in typical Manics fashion. It started with Foo Fighters and two gigs in Germany (Rock Am Ring/Rock Am Park) and to be honest, those were the hardest ones we did, because it was such familiar ground. The Foo Fighters gig in Manchester was really hard because it was the first one back. Sean has never drummed so fast, James couldn’t play the solo on “You Love Us” ‘cos the horse had bolted - it was the fastest “Motown Junk” & “You Love Us” you’ll ever hear. I forgot loads of notes, it was messy. We’re always like that though, we need to get gig hardened after any real time off. Oxygen I messed up too, I played the wrong second note all the way through “Motown...” and I kept staring at my bass thinking, “Why is that sounding wrong?” That said, I was smashed. We were on late and I peaked early. We were on at midnight, I’d had a bottle of champagne and a bottle of white wine before I’d even got onstage. Sometimes I am so fucking useless.
Tour wise, all the places have all been fantastic. The Baltic is just an unbelievably cool place. Zagreb was just so beautiful a city; I really fell in love with it. When Scott (our agent) started coming up with offers to play these places at the start of the summer, we were a bit unsure, but as it’s unfolded, it really has had the feeling of missionary work, of conquering new ground, of planting the Manics flag in virgin soil. And, as I said, the audiences have been fantastic. I think we matched Bob Dylan on-stage at Radar in Varazdin! We played an amazing show that night.
It’s strange and a bit exhilarating to walk round the cities that we’ve played this summer. It’s as if post Soviet, post Yugoslav war, the cities have that feel of the first throws of consumerism kicking in, what Britain in the 1950s must have felt like. You get the feeling that there’s a massive explosion going on, people thinking, “Fuck me this is alright!” There seems so much cultural, artistic and civic pride and a real sense of rediscovering ‘your own country’. Also, thank fuck for this, they aren’t saturated with Starbucks. From here, we’re off to Moscow. I have to say it’s always been a bit of a dream of mine to play there. But, a bit like Havana, the closer it gets, the scarier it all seems.
It’s funny that you’re playing all these places, in a way they seem like archetypal Manic Street Preachers types of places...
The odd thing is, anywhere that was occupied by the Soviets, you do get quite a hard time from the journalists there. Not that we were card carrying Commies or anything, but imagery that we’ve used in the past seems to have stuck out somewhat. You’ll be sat in an interview and someone will ask, “So, those medals that you wore in a photoshoot in 1994, where did you get them from?” All “The Holy Bible” stuff is very much in the back of people’s minds. The Castro thing doesn’t go down well either. Actually, it doesn’t go down well any fucking where! We thought it worked at the time, but Christ, it’s always there lurking at the back. I mean, it’s fine for Bono to shake hands with George Bush but shaking hands with Castro seems like you’re a living endorsement of all his bad policies over the years.
Any other highlights with these gigs?
Meeting Ian McCulloch at Oxygen was incredible. Unbelievably witty and sharp, I have to say. There are still some genuine surreal moments, even after nearly 20 years of doing this. To think that James, Sean and Richey, their first ever gig was Echo & The Bunnymen at Bristol Colston Hall. They met Pete de Freitas outside just getting on his motorbike. I never went, I was way too much of a mummy’s boy to ever go to gigs. To think that they were there as 15 year olds and now he’s sat in the dressing room for hours, holding court, which is pretty impressive, to think that he could shut me up.
So is Reading & Leeds putting a lid on “Send Away The Tigers’?
Yes. It does seem like the culmination of a ‘world tour’. We’ve maxed out on a great rock record. It’s what we set out to do too. With “Lifeblood” we did something like 20 dates in the UK, 2 in Japan and that was it. I don’t think we did a festival at all. That was when we were offered Guilfest!
So if that’s the end of this bit, then what next?
End of September, we’re hoping to start a new record. I can’t really talk about it at the moment, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s booked and we’re going in to start recording properly around then. I’ll do another one of these when it’s all sorted out properly, I’ll talk people through the record. We’re really excited about it though, we really are.
What else has been happening in Manics world?
I’ve been listening to “The Modern Dance”” by Pere Ubu a lot, that’s having a bit of an influence on the record. “Non-Alignment Pact”, what a record. Sean’s been listening to Late Of The Pier and Sheryl Crow a lot. I’ve been listening to “Bummed” by Happy Mondays. Indie bands these days just don’t have the intelligence or the wit to make records like that. it really reminds of the old Heavenly Records office on Clerkenwell Road, of nicking a 12” of “Lazyitis” from there when Jeff (Barrett) was doing their press and signing us. It seems odd to think of that record as being 20 years old now. Richey used to be obsessed with “Do It Better”. The lyrics really reflect how little attention bands give to the words these days. It’s either the American cliché or the London cliché. “Tired Of England” indeed...
How much time do you dedicate to listening to things you know you’ll hate?
(Laughing) I get most of it off the telly. I watch NME TV a lot, and you just end up seeing them all on there. I’m not spending money on them, that’s for sure. I’ve made a big effort with Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver but...much as I love the music there’s a lot of lyrical clichés going on there. 22 year old kids should not be walking round with massive fucking beards. It all goes back to The Band. Everyone’s doing it now. The Raconteurs, dressing up in grey Confederate army fatigues...it’s just this search for authenticity and validation.
Here, it’s like one endless party. People in bands spread themselves so thinly these days with endless pointless collaborations, there’s such a grand sense of delusion going on. There’s nothing fantastic or great about writing a song, unless it’s really good. It’s as simple as that. This is a trap we’re in. All your mates telling you it’s great, “Yeah, do another track, man!” It’s just insipid bollocks. It’s the equivalent of getting kicked out of the pub and going round someone’s house to jam on the bongos. I think there should be a band amnesty, where all these fuckwits give their instruments in to the police. They can get retrained with a life skill, then fuck off and stop bothering us.
The other thing I think is truly bizarre is Coldplay going so “Holy Bible” in their pictures and videos. And there’s a track on the album called “Yes”!
I take it that lyrically, it’s not covering many the same bases...
It’s not...thank God. I think it’s weirdly admirable that Chris Martin has dragged his band kicking and screaming towards that image change. It’s like they’ve gone “We must try harder” and that’s got to be a good thing. It’s a hard record for me to like, but there’s something about the amount of effort they’re putting in that makes me think “Good on you.” The attention to detail I admire. I think with a lot of bands, they just seem to have lost the glamour and the will to make any kind of effort to look the part.
Who do you think still manages to make an effort then?
My Chemical Romance with “The Black Parade” for certain. The look, the first video...it was a gothic version of “Sgt Pepper”. It’s a great album. Liam Gallagher is still a star, a very beautiful star. Pete Doherty has still got that quality. When he finally turned up to a gig in Germany, hours late, when he got there, he’s just still got something. An X factor. A very grubby X factor, it must be said...
What have you been watching and reading?
There was an amazing BBC4 documentary about Black Power (“Black Power Salute”). That was very, very good TV. Watched “Summer Of Sam” again the other night, realised what a brilliant film that was. It’s a great period piece, I always thought I’d hate it being about a serial killer, but it’s great. I loved “The Pursuit Of Happyness” and “Zodiac” too, both great period pieces, San Francisco at it’s best. I’ve been reading Andrea Dworkin, “Heartbreak” and “Against The Machine” by Lee Siegel. James has been reading “The Best Intentions (Kofi Anan and the UN in the Era Of American World Power)” and “Ash On A Young Man’s Sleeve” by Dannie Abse.
I had this vicious, bordering on violent argument on the bus the other day with James and Sean. I was making the point that every genre that ever existed in cinema has been done better by TV now. “Godfather” against “Sopranos” - “Sopranos” wins hands down. “American Gangster” vs “The Wire”? No competition. Comedy there’s no competition. Who wants to watch comedy in films these days? The last great comedy movie I can remember was “Midnight Run”. One of my favourite films and also one of Ian McCulloch’s. War stuff, much better documentaries. Musicals? “Blackpool” was really good. It was a deeply flawed argument, I nearly won it through sheer force of will. It really was fucking hard work though...as usual it was a mixture of me talking bollocks with a small element of truth.
P.S. By the way, we’re all really looking forward to playing the Heavenly 18th birthday Festival, I don’t think we’ve ever played “Spectators Of Suicide” or “We Her Majesty’s Prisoners” live (unless any of you can remember) and we certainly haven’t played “Starlover” for 15 years. It’s going to be really exciting, very odd to see a lot of old faces. Sean Read, our keyboard player, is guesting in at least 3 bands over the weekend - no idea how he does it.
Also, thanks for selling out Newport Centre so quickly - you know how to make an old man very happy!