Just another Manic Street Preachers road trip

The Manic Street Preachers followed their recent creative revitalisation with their first American tour in a decade. The novelist John Niven travels with a band still hungry for new challenges

Movie-Land, Chicago, the cab crawling through the rusted beltway, crossing Racine (where Sean Connery's "Irish" policeman lived in The Untouchables) and making a left on West Addison (the false address, you'll recall, that Elwood Blues gives to the police in The Blues Brothers) with the crowds growing thicker and noisier, fluorescent-jacketed police directing traffic at intersections, Klieg lights splitting the night sky, a sense of excitement crackling in the cold air too as showtime draws near and then suddenly there it is – Wrigley Field Stadium (where, you'll also recall, Ferris enjoyed part of that fine day off) lit up like an ice castle.

Wrigley Field, however, is strictly baseball tonight. The Manic Street Preachers are playing at the Metro Theatre a few blocks along the street – capacity, 900.

For a band who have filled the arenas and stadiums of the UK and who headline festivals across Europe, Japan and Australia, you wonder if this US tour might be a depressing reminder of the kind of cultural gulf the grey tub of the Atlantic can engender. Then you remember – it is the first time that they've set foot in America for 10 years.

The faces packed along the front of the stage tonight are peaked with excitement as the band walk on – many in the crowd would have been in elementary school the last time the Manics played town and a few look like they can't quite believe they're really here. A crackle of static, a strobing of camera flash, and they're straight into "Motorcycle Emptiness", the first real anthem they wrote, in a living room in Blackwood, South Wales, more than half a lifetime ago.

There are two lights on the front of the singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield's amplifier: a forest-green one for bright and clean and a Def-Con-Four red one for raw, full-crank overload. The green light is not much employed, and yet there is more space and daylight in the arrangements than ever before. With the addition in the last couple of years of Sean Read on keyboards and Wayne Murray on rhythm guitar, Bradfield can do less; and when his Les Paul does growl back in, it fairly sets your fillings thrumming.

Somewhere along the line, Nicky Wire has become a very slinky, nimble bass player, his plectrum-less right hand pumping fluidly in and out of Sean Moore's drums. As they hurtle through the songs – "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough", "La Tristesse Durera", "Faster", "You Stole the Sun from My Heart", "Motown Junk", "Little Baby Nothing" – you are reminded that this would be a greatest-hits set back home.

Over here, of course, none of these songs much troubled the charts or the airwaves. Which is exactly why, you realise, it means so much for this small crowd to be hearing these songs live. During the climactic "Design for Life", I realise that the girl in front of me is crying softly.

Behind The Wire

The potted history for those unfamiliar with it: back in the mid-1980s, four childhood friends from a small Welsh town formed a rock'n'roll band. Inspired by the Clash, Guns n' Roses, Public Enemy and a raft of existential literature they begin to break through at the beginning of the 1990s, when they are so hideously out of step with Madchester culture that they are assumed by many to simply be a joke: the Darkness of their day by way of Camus or Colin Wilson. They proclaim that their debut album will sell 20 million copies, at which point they will split up.

Neither happens.

Their third album, 1994's The Holy Bible, is one of the most harrowing, desolate and extreme records of its era. Lyrically largely the work of their deeply troubled guitarist/lyricist, Richey Edwards, it in part details his anorexia and mental breakdown. It transpires that, as anyone with the slightest interest in the band could have told you, the record is no pose: Edwards goes missing on the eve of the band's first major American tour. The tour is cancelled. (Tragically, Richey is never found and was officially pronounced dead last year. He has since come to occupy the same iconic ground inhabited by Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain.) In the years that follow, the band go on to conquer the rest of the world, scoring massive international hits with the albums Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. They play huge gigs in Japan, Australia and Europe and sell records everywhere.

Everywhere bar America, of course...

Why, in the nicest possible way, come back and put yourself through it all?

"Well, I mean, I doubt we've done more than 25 gigs in America in 20 years!" Nicky Wire says. "It's appalling, really. We've probably done more in Finland! And I am regretful that we never put the hours in here... we've really got a sense on this trip of how much, how long, some people have been waiting to see us here."

Nicky – variously referred to as Nick, Wire and The Wire – is a physically imposing presence. Approaching six-and-a-half-feet tall, and still thin as a credit card at 40, his eyes are usually obscured by huge sunglasses or a daub of Kohl. He's well known for his love of domesticity (married for 16 years, two kids), vacuuming (multiple Dyson owner) and Sky Sports (he will pretty much watch anything with a competitive element), so you imagine touring must be a hardship for him.

"No, not at all. I'm addicted to routine and on tour, within a day, you form a routine: get on the bus, do your make-up, chat, coffee, alone time. Funnily enough, Richey was the opposite way, so I think when we were at our absolute peak, lyrically anyway, was when you had both elements. Maybe that's why things like "La Tristesse" and "Motorcycle Emptiness" were so good."

What did Richey make of America?

"It was so long ago. Maybe '92 we were here together? He sent that brilliant postcard to Stuart Baillie that was in the NME: 'Van Gogh's perfect circle, Mickey and Disney', all that kind of stuff. It was just one short tour – maybe eight gigs? When we played LA, the record company had turned the urinals into the LP cover, so you were literally pissing on yourself."

As opposed to metaphorically?

"Exactly!" he says. "I mean, it's just bizarre looking back to think we ever had a chance out here. Grunge was breaking everywhere, everyone looked like a sack of shit, and then we turned up looking like the New York Dolls."

He sighs melodically. "It was never gonna happen."

Motor City emptiness

Early the next morning, I join Al, the bus driver, up front, drinking tea while Detroit emerges hulking out of the dawn drizzle ahead. Al is a gem: 60-ish and laconic, with a Southern drawl straight out of Tennessee Williams, he does not drink alcohol or caffeine and gets through the monster drives demanded by US tours (Joe Strummer memorably said that America gigs all seemed to involve driving from London to Glasgow 10 times) fuelled solely by dried fruit and Junior Mints. It turns out that one of his first jobs back in the day involved driving NWA at the height of "Fuck tha Police" mania. "Oh," Al drawls, "that was a treat."

Detroit has been harder hit by the recession than most American cities, and this was a city that wasn't much in shape for being hit at all. Great turn-of-the-century buildings lie empty and abandoned and swathes of the cityscape are just weed-strewn lots behind rusting chainlink fencing. In a familiar attempt at regeneration, money has been poured into building casinos and the first thing we see as the bus pulls off the freeway and into downtown are eight valet parkers huddled in the rain in front of a casino. But there are no longer cars to park in the Motor City. "Finished," Al says sadly. "I had an aunt and uncle back here, in the '50s and '60s? Different town then..."

The Majestic Theatre is Detroit in miniature: a cavernous, once beautiful Edwardian ballroom, its ornate ceiling is cracked and peeling. It also turns out that this was the very theatre where Houdini received the punch in the stomach that killed him. As though this were an omen, it turns out that ticket sales here are the worst of the tour so far – just a few hundred in a hall that would hold several times more. It is easily the smallest crowd I have ever seen the band play to. I flashback briefly to almost exactly a decade ago – Bradfield spinning across the stage of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in front of 70,000 fans on New Year's Eve 1999 – and wonder how difficult a gig like this must be for a band once they achieve a certain level of success.

But, as they tear into the second song, "No Surface, All Feeling" – James changing the lyric and staccato- spitting the line, "Feel. The. Cold. Of. The. Motor. City. Winter" – to cheers and punched air, the hall contracts and the audience swells and the empty space doesn't seem to matter to the kids down the front who have been, literally, waiting half of their lives to see this band.

Later, on the bus, after the band have spent more than an hour chatting with fans and signing records, T-shirts and guitars, I ask James if his heart sinks when he walks onstage and sees all that space in the hall. "Yeah, well, it does a bit. You want the crowd just to be a liquid mass. The best thing about a gig is when people lose self-consciousness, and with a small crowd in a place that big it's just not gonna happen. But, having said that, when you've been in a band as long as we have, it's a bit like the end of Groundhog Day sometimes – anything different is good! When you get to 40 and something can still feel new and scary... that's pretty amazing. Also, from the people I spoke to afterwards, you know it really meant something to them. Sometimes these days, I think everything's so surface: 'Oh, I won't go to the gig, I'll catch them at a festival.' Or, 'I won't buy the record, I'll just download it.' To actually feel that greater level of commitment and connection we've felt here, it's good to know that exists. And, I mean, commercially, for us, this is the weakest territory in the world!"

Is it important to you to make some kind of mark here?

"Since I was 15 years old I've been obsessed with Gibson guitars. If you buy into rock music you buy into America. As soon as you come out here for the first time you understand why writers and musicians are obsessed with American life. It's all the records and books and the movies you've consumed. You buy into it and you rail against it too. You come to realise in America that you're not touring a country; you're touring different territories. Yeah, tonight was tough, but I'm so glad we went there. Nothing is handed to you on a plate because nothing is handed to anyone on a plate in Detroit. To see all those factories empty, those grand hotels all derelict. You imagine the old, dignified concierge who used to work there, and it was a position of power and respect... and none of that stuff is there anymore. People have had all of that taken away from them. You can't complain if enough of them don't come to see your rock'n'roll show."

Detroit disappears behind us into the night, Canada waits ahead.

Longevity's reward

The last few years have seen the band hitting something of a purple patch. Having arguably reached a creative and commercial nadir with 2004's Lifeblood – an oddly cold, disaffected and uncharacteristic record that produced one of the UK's strangest radio hits in the single "The Love of Richard Nixon" – the band splintered for two years while Bradfield and Wire released solo records. They returned in 2007 with the single "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough". The track – a controlled, whipcracking burst of melody – went in at No 2, going on to become an airplay smash all over Europe and an MTV staple, while its parent album, Send Away the Tigers, was critically lauded as their best record in more than a decade.

How best to follow this renewed commercial standing?

With an album of songs written by Richey Edwards at the height of his mental breakdown, featuring choruses such as "Riderless horses on Chomsky's Camelot" and with no singles whatsoever, of course. Journal for Plague Lovers was one of the truly unexpected delights of 2009, and absolute confirmation of a band operating where all real artists sometimes must – far upriver, beyond the reaches of convention, in a Colonel Kurtz playground entirely of their own manufacture. All the more remarkable given that it was the work of a band now into their 20th year.

The renewed sense of vigour, of creative purpose, was brought home powerfully when I scanned the walls of the Chicago Metro for forthcoming attractions: Bob Mould (late of Sugar and Hüsker Dü) and Echo and the Bunnymen; fine names with some unarguably great records between them to be sure, but acts whose creative high-water marks are almost certainly long behind them, names that feel, well, a little tired. One does not get this feeling around the Manics.

"Yeah," Nicky says, "I do think there's a real sense of purpose again. You can tell with us when we don't feel like that, say around Lifeblood, when our arses were completely on the floor and you do get that tired feeling. But I think now... your 10th album is pretty much a landmark for any band."

In terms of longevity, you're now mapping your career against the likes of the Who, or the Stones. You're probably somewhere around the point of Tattoo You now...

"I know! I was doing exactly that the other day and it blew my mind! When we signed our new deal a few weeks ago someone said that we're now the longest-signed act to Sony UK! Apart from Sade, who's made like three albums in 20 years! I feel good about that! The whole reformation thing – Blur, the Verve – they can say what they like about those bands 'doing it for the love' but we all know that..." Wire pauses and reconsiders whatever track he's on. "Look, the great thing about a marriage is trudging through the shit times sometimes. And then you realise your wife's still there! The misery makes the good times so much better."

Sweet revenge

We have a day off in Toronto, where I catch up with the drummer Sean Moore – a man for whom, initially, you imagine the word "taciturn" was surely coined. Neat and trim, he radiates a quiet, steady sense of purpose, of not suffering fools gladly, but talking to him you quickly get a sense of a quick, dark humour, and how very seriously he takes the business of making music.

He is also a hotel manager's wet dream: his room at the Toronto Park Hyatt is, without doubt, the tidiest rock star's bedroom I have ever been in. Forget empty Jack Daniel's bottles and underwear strewn around, it doesn't even look like the TV remote has been moved from its original position. Does he ever feel a sense of wonder that, 20 years on, he's still doing this with two of his childhood friends?

"No. Never. We never contemplated the odds, or failure. It might have been blind idiocy or whatever you wanna call it but... no. Never. I do feel fortunate in certain ways but then I think, well, we steered our own destiny. We all went to school together, dreamt up this band together and here we are... 20 years later. I mean you do sometimes think, 'How did that happen?' But I couldn't be in any other band. When the guys (Nicky and James) were doing their side projects I never ever felt comfortable with that. I mean, it's up to them. I just don't feel the need to do that and they did. Even when we did the Kylie thing, me and James (Sean and James wrote several tracks together for Kylie Minogue's Impossible Princess album in the mid-Nineties) I just felt like a hired hand. I mean, I still believe that if we'd sold 20 million copies of Generation Terrorists then we would have split up. Even now, if we made a record that sold that many I think that'd be it! We'd split up then. That was what we set out to achieve and, 20 years on, we still haven't done it!"

But, I have to ask, what would you do then?

Sean thinks for a moment before replying, "Bask in the glory!"

And the show that night turns out to be glorious indeed. The motherload: all 1,200 tickets totally sold out, a kid faints and is helped out, and the crowd are screaming from the word go, drowning out Bradfield on nearly every song. Business as usual back home, but especially sweet here considering that the last time they set foot on a Canadian stage the shine was not yet off New Labour. "God," Wire says as the last notes of "Motorcycle Emptiness" are drowned in a roar of approval, "I don't know why it's taken us 10 years to come back." Bradfield elicits a huge cheer by teasing out the intro to "Spirit of Radio" by hometown heroes Rush, and then "La Tristesse" has the whole hall jumping as one. "Marlon JD", from Journal, is heartstopping, savage, crazed. It is quite something during "Me and Stephen Hawking", one of the more outré Richey lyrics from Journal, to see the entire front row – mostly girls in their late teens and early twenties – singing "Herman the Bull and Tracy the sheep, transgenic milk containing human protein, bacteria cheaper than baby food... today it's a cow, tomorrow it's you!" And singing it word perfectly too, I tell James later.

"You know, it is a tiny bit of sweet revenge in finally coming out here again with Journal." He says. "There was that moment when Richey went missing and we'd just had a really good reaction from college radio and the American record company on Holy Bible, kinda like, 'Oh, maybe we do get this band!' Then Richey vanished and down the years it's been, 'Could we actually have something in America with The Holy Bible?' So it feels a bit like revenge against fate and circumstance that we've finally come back here with Journal."

It strikes me how brilliantly cavalier it is, to come and tour a country where you are at best a cult concern with a resolutely uncommercial album. Surely this tour is costing them a lot of money? "Oh yeah," Nicky says, "50 grand in the hole, easy."

After the show, and another hour of autographs and photos, JDB, the Wire, Angus the unflappable tour manager and I enjoy a round of brandies on the 18th-floor bar of the hotel, the crystal battlements of the Toronto skyline forming a billion-dollar backdrop. "It's good to make these kind of decisions at the age of 40, you know?" James says, sipping his drink, the first alcohol I have seen him touch in the four days I have been on the tour. ''What should we do now? Well, let's go and tour in the place where it's hardest for us to sell tickets in the world! But, you know, different is good."

I'm leaving the tour the next morning and Nicky gives me a going-away present, a little bundle of postcards and some William Blake stickers. On one of the postcards he has written the working title of their new LP: It's Not War – Just the End of Love. I ask him what it's going to be like. "Commercial," he says, grinning wickedly.

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