At the top of the charts with their provocative new album Resistance Is Futile, the Manic Street Preachers’ Nicky Wire sounds off on the tumultuous state of international politics and the malign influence of social media on political debate.
One of Manic Street Preachers’ great strengths is their willingness to lay down cultural and political signposts, with their songs directing listeners into areas they may have previously missed. The Welsh trio’s new album, Resistance Is Futile – to these ears their finest in a long time – thankfully continues this practice, but also finds room for doubt in these confusing times.
So, Nicky Wire, opening your 13th album with the couplet “people get tired, people get old” is leaving yourself wide open surely?
“Oh yeah,” nods the Manics’ bassist and chief lyricist, “but I think we work best as a band when we are totally honest with ourselves. Sometimes people buy into that, sometimes they don’t. I think time caught up with us – we did 12 albums in 22 years. We put so much energy into Futurology particularly; it was such a lyrically dense and esoteric kind of thing that we needed to free ourselves up.
“I think there’s a lot of joy in this album, mixed with at least a vague sense of hope. That idea of trying to find your place, not just as a band, but as a person.”
Does it share the sentiment of The Clash’s line, “You grow up and you calm down”? As you get older, is it in fact harder to believe in things like you once did?
“Yes, because we’ve seen so many ideologies fail in our lifetimes,” replies Nicky. “Socialism, Thatcherism, neo-liberalism, coalitions – everything has, at some point, failed. So it does get harder. It’s really hard to believe in anything definite. I’m glad we grew up when we did, in the Cold War age, as there were certain symbols and political and cultural attitudes that you felt a kinship with.”
It was easier to pick a side?
“It was, but now everything has been cross-pollinated, which can be a good thing,” says Nicky. “But it was a simpler time: you could nail your colours to a mast. People now tend to cherrypick issues, which end up turning in on each other, and it tends to go nowhere, nothing gets done. So much digital hysteria surrounds every issue. I think the tech companies love that: they want you to see the world as a dystopian nightmare, and try to find solace in what they provide.”
The recent Cambridge Analytica controversy has seen a “Delete Facebook” movement spring up, but surely it’s too late to turn back?
“I think so, the genie’s out of the bottle,” says Wire. “I have never, ever been on Facebook. For one thing I hate the aesthetic of it, the fucking way it looks!”
It’s odd that people were so shocked that their data was being manipulated. What did they think was happening?
“That’s the scariest thing of all,” notes Nicky. “What’s that Orwell quote about people not looking up from their screens to notice what’s happening? These companies present themselves as a soft alternative, but they are the ultimate in capitalism, they have turned you into the product. The album does have a sense of bewilderment, that we don’t have the answers anymore. When we started, it was the four of us in a gang and, fuck it, we’ll tear down everything and build it back up. I feel lucky that we were there before this seismic change in evolution, this rewiring of brains and attitudes.”
‘International Blue’ references nouveau realist and monochrome fan, Yves Klein. Do you see art as an escape, like that blue window in Klein’s The Void?
“Art has become a hiding place for me,” admits Wire. “I seek refuge in it and it reminds me of a tangible and important part of my life, which gets lost in the miasma of endless digital screaming. We get accused of being pretentious, but really with these songs, we are pointing out things that are better than us.”
‘Vivian’ is written for the amateur Chicagoan photographer Vivian Maier, whose work only gained exposure, if you will, after her death – a series of events documented in 2013’s Oscar-nominated Finding Vivian Maier.
“She was so completely outside the establishment view of art,” says Wire. “Certain museums were almost saying, ‘We didn’t find this, so it can’t be good’, but it is extraordinary photography. I bought a print in New York and that opened the floodgates to the lyric. There is something wonderful about a photographer, in an age where everything is documented, not even developing her photographs.”
Were the museums resistant to a democracy in art, in that this was an “ordinary” person?
“Yes, there was a similar thing with LS Lowry in the ’70s in Britain,” says Nicky. “There was a hugely popular exhibition, but in London they kind of hid him away because he didn’t rate, to their trained eyes, as a serious artist.”
Would Nicky say the Manics are aiming for purity in their art, untainted by commercial considerations, in the manner of Klein’s ‘International Blue’?
“We try to apply that,” he says. “You’re always going to make certain compromises and you can’t avoid hypocrisy, but there is a sense of purity. We have the same feelings and the same passion, and if you can keep hold of that, it’ll get you through.”
But hold on, didn’t you promise to break up after the first album?
“Ah, yes, we did, but it took us 20 years to sell 16 million! Yes, the good old days when Richey and I weren’t interested in instruments or songs, we were just interested in manifestos! James and Sean were always caught in that crossfire.”
The Resistance Is Futile track ‘Dylan & Caitlin’ – a not too distant relation of Elton John & Kiki Dee’s ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ – can’t possibly be the first time you’ve written about Dylan Thomas?
“Well I’ve nicked plenty of his lines, that’s for sure!”
The idea of this rock n’ roll poet - his wife Caitlin once said of him that “nobody needed encouragement less, and he was drowned in it” – might perhaps be more appealing in our youth. But as we age, killing yourself for your art might not have the same attraction.
“Undoubtedly, but I’m still at times my hopeless romantic, 16-year-old self,” acknowledges Nicky. “Although now I’m mostly more of a living longer, Philip Larkin type. We were lucky growing up in Wales to have the romanticism of Dylan Thomas and the brutal honesty of RS Thomas. I struggle with reading fiction; poetry is my main source of inspiration.”
“Light breaks where no sun shines”: the idea of art breaking through the darkness must appeal to you.
“Yes, I think that idea runs through our work. We share a working class rage with him too, raging against the dying of the light or however you want to put it.”
Elsewhere, on the album, ‘Liverpool Revisited’ is a rousing memorial to the 96 football fans who lost their lives in 1989, crushed to death at the Hillsborough football stadium. The Sun newspaper, citing claims by both police and the local conservative MP, accused Liverpool fans of pickpocketing the dead as well as urinating on the police. It would be 2016 before they were fully exonerated, and The Sun is still widely boycotted on Merseyside.
“The culture of Liverpool had quite an influence on me growing up,” reflects Wire. “There’s something slightly psychedelic about the city. And the whole of the British establishment tried to destroy them, so to resist against one of the biggest cover-ups in this country’s history, and, in the end, turn it around, I’m not sure there’s many other places that could have done that. It was defiance from a living organism of a city.”
‘Distant Colour’ – a lyric by singer James Dean Bradfield rather than Wire – speaks again of uncertainly, disillusionment and “a broken promise for the soul”. Bradfield has said the song was inspired in part by the old Labour party of Nye Bevan, the Welsh son of a coal miner who, as health minister in the Attlee government just after the Second World War, was responsible for the establishment of the National Health Service, providing free medical care for all.
“There was certain tenets you could believe in, but everyone has turned against each other over the last 10 years or so,” suggests Nicky. “One might almost back away from politics, because you can’t find common ground with anyone.”
Widespread disillusionment has led to talk of a new UK centrist political party, formed by senior figures from business and charities. Is it all because of Brexit?
“For one thing, I don’t agree with referendums, they’re banned in Germany,” observes Wire. “They are too linear, too exploitative. I believe in parliamentary democracy. I voted remain but I do understand people who didn’t. There are a lot of working class people in parts of Britain who have been left to die, and they see Europe as a neo-liberal experiment for rich people and multinationals.
“I think the European Union should have been reformed, but it is still the right way to go. But I wasn’t surprised by Brexit in the same way I wasn’t surprised by Trump, because people get sick of the idea of London. I mean London gets Crossrail and it costs £15 billion, that’s half the budget that Wales gets for a year!
“People outside of London are asking, ‘Why don’t I get fucking anything?’ But for me, I spend my life traveling through Europe, and that’s about to become much more difficult. It’s a case of one person saying, ‘You’re a cunt’ and the other person answering, ‘Well, you’re a bigger cunt!’”
Modern politics summed up in one line!
“Yes, but it wasn’t always like that,” rues Wire. “Even in the harshest of times, there was still really good debate. Forthright, but decent. Corbyn, to me, is not cut from the same cloth I associate with classic Labour; he’s much more that militant, ’70s, Bennite. It’s almost like a middle class, London-centric version of what I grew up with.”
Reading all that, one might think that Resistance Is Futile is a dour affair, but it’s far from it. Was it intentional to make such a bright and radio-friendly record?
“We had a few false starts but the positivity came from our new studio,” enthuses Nicky. “It has views across the valleys to Newport and the Transporter Bridge. We could let the music breath and everything came up very melodic. In the past we might have sabotaged what we felt was too sweet, but this time, we didn’t. We tried to maximise the potential of each song and certainly in the UK, it worked in terms of radio. For a band getting on 50, it’s great to be excited.”
Bruce Springsteen, The War On Drugs and Ryan Adams are all touchstones on the album, and there’s a real optimism in the music that counteracts the darker lyrical elements. Hot Press’ own Wayne Byrne compared ‘International Blue’ to Starship’s masterpiece, ‘We Built This City’.
Wire, surprisingly perhaps, takes this as a compliment.
“Yes, it’s got that mixed with ‘Dancing In The Dark’, a lot of those ’80s records overlap!” he says. “But we’ve never been ashamed of that kind of thing; you can hear it in the widescreen feel of ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Right from the start, our raison d’être was to be as big as possible.”