Manic Street Preachers: Sublime and ridiculous

Trouble follows the Manic Street Preachers around like a mangy dog. Trouble, grief and political strife. And now their hotel-room door won't open! Strewth. Fortunately, Simon Price is on hand to settle things down as Wales's finest finally crack the code and open up. They've a new album to discuss, a new way of looking at themselves - and the lost Richey Edwards is seldom out of their thoughts...

Sunday 24 October 2004 00:00 BST

'Formed in the Valleys, ner ner ner ... Inspired by Guns N'Roses and Public Enemy, ner ner ner ... Bloke went missing, ner ner ner ... Have I really got to read that shit again?" James Dean Bradfield draws on a Marlboro in Nicky Wire's Langham Hilton hotel room (against the non-smoking bassist's wishes).

'Formed in the Valleys, ner ner ner ... Inspired by Guns N'Roses and Public Enemy, ner ner ner ... Bloke went missing, ner ner ner ... Have I really got to read that shit again?" James Dean Bradfield draws on a Marlboro in Nicky Wire's Langham Hilton hotel room (against the non-smoking bassist's wishes).

The singer is speaking about his feelings at being required to approve a new press biography to accompany Manic Street Preachers' latest flurry of activity, but he might as easily be anticipating the rash of articles which will ensue, including this one. Despite dreams of being "free from our history" (on Everything Must Go, as far back as 1996), no band is as self-consciously shackled to history - its own, and that of the wider world - than the Manics.

Indeed, the last two Manics releases, Forever Delayed and Lipstick Traces, were a greatest hits and a B-sides collection respectively, their next-but-one is a remastered reissue of a classic album from a decade ago, and their imminent studio album, Lifeblood, is inhabited by spectres from the past.

If the Manics' self-reflexive fascination with their own story seems a little morbid, unhealthy even, it's understandable. Stepping back and viewing their career from the outside, they must be able to see a human drama with sufficient tragedies and triumphs to sustain a whole book. Yes, James, you really have got to read it again.

His reluctance to rake over the past is doomed, given their release schedule, but he's happy that the new album is receiving a relatively gentle push from Sony: "I don't want to make this album join the army if it doesn't want to," he says (ironically, for someone who has always looked as though he could have been a squaddie, if he'd made the minimum height requirement).

If the three Manic Street Preachers have altered as people and as a band, it's telling that the change is slight, gradualist rather than revolutionary. Bradfield surprises me, when the tape isn't running, by speaking of his high hopes for Gordon Brown. James remains an engagingly enigmatic mixture of the gentleman and the brute, always courteous but retaining a no-nonsense toughness (of which his tattooed bicep is a visual reminder). These days, however, he's increasingly confident displaying his intellectual side, once hidden behind an exterior of laddish bravado.

Sean Moore, the notoriously reticent drummer, has noticeably opened up and offers scattergun, off-the-record assassinations of several of the Manics' musical peers. He's even doing his part for the PR campaign (he's drawn the short straw today, doing phone interviews with Thailand and Canada), where once he'd have sat huddled over his Gameboy, or absconded completely.

Nicky Wire, to the horror of many female fans, is sporting a few days' growth of light brown beard. The former Glamour Twin has oscillated between glitter-and-tiaras and casual blokewear since the disappearance of his other half Richey Edwards, and is very much in one of his casual phases. He's still something of a fusspot and a hypochondriac ("the only working organ in my body is my brain"), fretting that James and I will set off the fire alarms with our ciggies and drench his room. Famously a motormouth with a poison wit and a sharp tongue, Wire has unexpectedly become a diplomat, half-jokingly coaching his bandmates with the pre-interview instruction: "Remember, no politics, and be nice!"

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Beforehand, a little vignette speaks volumes about the different personalities in the band. We're outside Nicky Wire's hotel room, trying to get inside, but the computerised swipe card won't work, and the little light doesn't want to go green. "Let me try," says James, who proceeds to shoulder-charge the lock. After sheer violence has failed three or four times, Wire, who has been waiting patiently behind us, quietly says, "Shall I go down to Reception?"

Manic Street Preachers sprang into existence nearly two decades ago in Blackwood, a small town in one of Britain's most culturally deprived and economically depressed regions, the former mining valleys of South Wales. Politicised by the Miners' Strike, inspired by 10th-anniversary documentaries on punk, and seized by a desire to mix revolutionary rhetoric (yes, Public Enemy) with commercial rock (yes, Guns N'Roses), four bored teenagers formed a band containing a clearly defined "political wing" of university-educated best friends Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire (né Jones) - their musical talent was limited but their skill with a soundbite and a visual image was not - and a "musical wing" of singer-guitarist James Dean Bradfield and his cousin, drummer Sean Moore. Their intention was to launch a kamikaze strike on a sleepy music scene.

In a turn-of-the-Nineties musical landscape dominated by blissed-out bagginess from "Madchester" and soporific "shoegazing" from the Thames Valley, the Manics were a deliberate anomaly: as one writer put it, "a speed band in an E generation".

Their initial tinny attempts to replicate the up-and-at-'em sound of The Clash were of limited musical merit, but the press couldn't get enough of them. While they were almost universally derided by critics, editors knew that the Manics "gave good quote". They were gleefully anti-consensual - their third single featured a chorus which crowed, "I laughed when Lennon got shot" - and endlessly provocative (they described long-forgotten indie band Slowdive as "worse than Hitler").

They also gave good photo. An explosion of Paris '68-style sloganeering and Motley Crue-style make-up methods, "a mess of eyeliner and spraypaint", they injected glamour into a drab, dressed-down age. Perhaps unsurprisingly, to begin with their public profile far exceeded their actual popularity and sales figures.

In May 1991, the Manic Street Preachers provided their most infamous visual image of all. After a gig in Norwich, and frustrated by an interviewer's refusal to take them seriously, Richey Edwards took out a razor and hacked the inscription "4 REAL" into his forearm. He'd been a habitual self-harmer since schooldays. The resulting gory photograph from the NME's Ed Sirrs remains one of the most iconic in rock, and is retrospectively - rightly or wrongly - viewed as a foreshadowing of what would become of Edwards himself. Having outraged the indie world by "selling out" to corporate giants Sony, the group hilariously vowed to sell 20 million copies of their debut album, headline Wembley Stadium, then split up. It didn't quite work out that way. Generation Terrorists, 1992's ambitious yet flawed double album with a polished classic rock sheen, arrived at a time when, ironically, commercial rock was uncommercial. It sold respectably, but the accompanying tour began not at Wembley but at Northampton Roadmenders. Its successor, Gold Against the Soul, met the zeitgeist halfway - a blend of Bon Jovi and Nirvana - and the lyrics, particularly in songs written by Edwards, switched from the political to the personal, dwelling on themes such as insomnia, the impossibility of love, and the trauma of becoming an adult.

Meanwhile, Edwards' gaunt appearance betrayed his growing dependency on alcohol and the beginnings of anorexia; and his self-cutting, often performed onstage, was becoming more frequent. By the time the band's third (and greatest) album The Holy Bible arrived in 1994, Edwards' mental state had deteriorated badly. The album addressed unimaginably grim themes, from genocide to self-harm. In July, following a two-day cutting and drinking binge, he was admitted to psychiatric hospital in Cardiff and, later, The Priory in London, forcing the band to play festival dates as a trio.

Edwards rejoined the band for their autumn tour, culminating in three memorably intense pre-Christmas shows at London's Astoria, and his health seemed to be improving. However, in February 1995, on the eve of a promotional trip to America, Edwards vanished from a London hotel room, leaving only cryptic notes and parcels for his bandmates. His car was later found near the Severn Bridge, prompting many to assume that he had committed suicide. From that point on the trail went cold - although spurious sightings and conspiracy theories have continued to stimulate the Manics' constituency.

When they re-emerged in 1996, almost topping the charts with A Design For Life, there was a sad irony to their sudden success. Here they were, at the height of Britrock, finding a mass audience at last, and Richey Edwards, who'd craved it more than anyone, was not around to enjoy it.

But success grew. With Nicky Wire now their sole lyricist, the group achieved their first number one hit in 1998 with "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" to go with the multi-platinum soft-rock-dominated album This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. The first number one of the new century was theirs too. "Masses Against The Classes" followed up the largest indoor gig in British history, when they played to 70,000 at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on the eve of the Millennium. Then 2001's Know Your Enemy built on the groups' newsy profile: the Manics went where no western band had been before. They played Havana's Karl Marx Theatre, met Fidel Castro.

At the time of writing, it's looking as though a hat-trick is on the cards. "The Love of Richard Nixon", a single with a typically provocative title, is number one as we go to press. It appears to be another case of sympathy for the devil. "The main thrust of the song," Wire explains, "is the idea of being tarnished with a certain part of your life forever. With us, people might think of Richey's disappearance, or 4 REAL.

"With Nixon, people will always associate him with Watergate and being a crook, not the fact that he was the first president to go to China to build up relations. Or the way he de-escalated the arms race with the Soviet Union - quite admirable things. Whereas Kennedy for instance, when you analyse it, he was the first president to put troops into Vietnam. He sanctioned the Bay of Pigs - besides his moral disaster zone of shagging everything in sight."

"If you take someone like JFK," agrees Bradfield, "Bay of Pigs was undeniably American imperialism, akin to what Reagan was doing with the Contras. There were the assassination attempts on Castro. He forced the Soviet Union's hand with the missiles in Cuba, and everyone knows Bush stole the election, but JFK stole 'his' election. Now, if you put Nixon next to JFK, I would probably be so liberally wet that I'd go with JFK."

Wire, who has watched Oliver Stone's Nixon twice or three times a year since it came out, continues: "There's always been a ridiculousness to Manic Street Preachers. Not humour, not funny-ha ha, but a question of 'Do they really mean it?' But there's probably more empathy [with Nixon] than I should admit. Nixon wasn't a good president, but he wasn't George W Bush. He was a brilliant man, and not all Republican presidents have been. I do think he's a fascinating character, particularly in today's climate. He probably ended the Vietnam war. Whatever you think his reasons were - and conspiracy theories abound - he signed off at the end of it ... If Radiohead are Kennedy," he smiles, switching to soundbite mode, "then Manic Street Preachers are Nixon: the ugly duckling who had to try 10 times harder than anyone else. Paranoid megalomaniacs."

"The Love of Richard Nixon" is atypical. Lifeblood, is an uncharacteristically insular, apolitical record, its inner sleeve adorned with a quote from Descartes: "Conquer yourself rather than the world."

"Fifteen years ago," Wire grins, that quote would have been 'Conquer the world, and fuck yourself.'" At a time like this, it seems strange that the Manics, of all people, are shying away from making great political statements. "I think there are great statements to be made," adds Bradfield, "but I don't think there are great statements to be made with music. One of my favourite bands is The Clash and one of my least favourite albums is Sandinista. When they became an internationalist politics band, I don't think it worked that well..."

"I just think the worst thing we could do at this moment," reckons Wire, "would be writing an anti-George W Bush song. When it gets to the level of Green Day doing them, there's no point. I couldn't bear to be associated with Bono, Chris Martin or Damon..." Bang on cue, on the hotel TV, Bono appears on the news gladhanding Mr Blair. "I think politics has been reduced to such a trivial level, and we're trying to grapple with complex issues.

"I couldn't dumb down my politics, which I think you have to do at the moment. It's all about single issues. You know - Make Trade Fair, blah de blah... I'm not saying they're bad things, but they're too bleeding obvious. I'm an intellectual snob, I guess, when it comes to politics. I do think a song like 'Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children' was a prophecy. It said everything that needed to be said about American foreign policy. And I'm really bitter about the fact that it needed a war for everyone else to become political. How pathetic is that?"

Lifeblood is a subdued, mellow, melancholy, quietly lovely affair, with few of what the singer calls "the slashing chords of James Dean Bradfield", and much use of synthesizers, pianos and, apparently, digital drums. Bradfield thinks it sounds like "Fleetwood Mac played by the Cardigans"; Wire thinks it's "a mature record ... elegiac pop." Bradfield speaks of "a passionate coldness, a compassionate coldness." Wire says, "This album is clean, not a dirty album. It's cold sex, not warm sex. It's dry sex." The initial sessions were recorded in New York with David Bowie's sometime producer Tony Visconti (Wire and Bradfield are both fans of Bowie's late Seventies output, from Low to Scary Monsters) and mixed by Goldfrapp's engineer Tom Elmhirst.

Visconti's trick, Bradfield says, was to "de-school" the band and encourage them to "take four steps back".

"Which sounds a bit stupid, like he's some kind of zen master in the corner, but he did a bit of a David Carradine number on us. With young engineers, they all wanna be Nigel Godrich. You ask for a drum sound, and they put the lead mic through a dustbin, and put the sound of the dustbin through a squeezy Fairy Liquid bottle, and say 'You've got a drum sound - that's genius man!' But there was none of that. Visconti put four mics on the kit, and 10 minutes later we had a drum sound. And whenever I'd be thinking, 'It's gonna take about 10 more takes to get it right,' he'd say 'That's great!' and I'd be like 'NO!!! You can't cut me off like that!' He made me realise that for the past four years or so, I'd been trying to get past the first and the second idea, to get to the third idea. And maybe we've got to an age where the first idea is good again."

Wire's lyrics, often given to prolixity, are deliberately pared down: "He's left a gap for the music to be more important," says Bradfield. It's the first time, he says, that the band have admitted to themselves that they actually enjoy playing together as musicians. So much so that they've been breaking self-imposed musical rules, and trying things which would once have been taboo, like slap bass (Wire tried to think "Ashes to Ashes", not Level 42) and harmonica (Bradfield tried to think "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out", not The Alarm).

The nearest thing Lifeblood has to a radio-friendly anthem - what Wire calls "the Football Focus factor" - is "Empty Souls", a piano-led track which Bradfield likens to The Associates. One line, however, jars, and may upset the programmers: "Exposed to a truth we don't know/ Collapsing like the twin towers..." Even from a band like the Manics, who have never been shy of using such words as "holocaust", "rape" and "apocalypse" metaphorically, is this one simile too far?

"It depends if you like us as a band, to be honest," says James. "As soon as I read the lyric, I realised it was about the incomprehensibility of death. I've never comprehended it when I've been faced with it." (James's mother died of cancer in 2000, the subject of a rare Bradfield lyric, "Ocean Spray".) "How do you ever find a path back to being positive again? And not being completely negative and nihilistic about everything that's left?"

Doesn't the casual use of the twin towers image cheapen 9/11? "It's meant to do the exact opposite," Wire maintains. "It's meant to show the enormity of death. The twin towers is the defining image of our generation, the ultimate symbol of death, and how incomprehensible not only that, but ONE death is. It's not a statement about terrorism or politics. But it's meant to be poetic, metaphoric, and in no way is it meant to be callous. We recorded an alternate version with the line 'collapsing like a dying flower', but it just didn't have the same impact ... The conclusion I've come to is, confronted with something like 9/11, as a society we find ourselves incapable of taking in the true nature of death."

Mortality and loss are recurring themes on this record. "This album is about death," Wire explains, "the 'trivialisation' of death. People talk about the sanctity of life, but I think the sanctity of death is as important. If someone wants to grieve for 10 years, and just sit in the corner and refuse to do anything, I think it's fair enough. I think we're victims of it ourselves, suffering delayed grief from 10 years without Richey. We've always been kind of, 'Come on, sod it, let's play Brixton Academy, he'll come back!'" The smile is bittersweet this time. Wire's eyes well up whenever he discusses Richey for more than two sentences.

Inevitably, Lifeblood, like every album since his departure, is haunted by Edwards, and at least one song ("Cardiff Afterlife") is directly addressed to him. One wonders whether Wire will ever exhaust or exorcise the topic, or whether the Richey songs will always come. "This one came in a big moment," he says. "There was a splurge of two or three pages of vitriol which I had to edit down. Our albums have always been infused with bitterness, and for the first time ever, there might be a bit more love than hate. So I had to edit a lot of the bitterness out." Bitterness towards people who try to claim Richey as their possession? "A little bit that, but also a little towards Richey himself. Which isn't fair, because a lot of it is driven by people outside. "It is about reclaiming something- 'I kept my silence, your memories are still mine...' The idea that he's a friend first, not the rock myth."

The specific pain of the Richey situation, like any unexplained disappearance, is the impossibility of closure. "It's the dangling man syndrome," Wire says. "You've got hope on the one side, and clarity or closure on the other. And sometimes you want closure, but to get closure you have to kill hope." And have you done that? "No. I don't know why. It's probably not healthy, because I have to have definites in my life - it's the kind of person I am. Doubt is not good for me. But until I find proof..." His voice trails off. He says something inaudible.

The last spate of Richey Edwards stories came in 2002, the seventh anniversary of his disappearance, when he could legally be declared dead if his parents wished it so. "The family chose not to," says James, "and I don't blame them. But that's not a decision taken by us or anything. And it's not a decision I'd like to take."

"There was cheap and nasty stuff in the papers," Wire recalls. "'The family can get his money now...' As if they would. It was the last thing on their minds." For the record, Edwards' songwriting royalties continue to be paid into a bank account which remains untouched.

As for "proof", there have been one or two close calls. "We were driving to a gig in Copenhagen once, and you get a phone message through saying they've found Richey's feet in the river." The decomposed feet in the Severn turned out to belong to some other unfortunate soul. In any case, they were wearing trainers Richey would never have deigned to wear. "Exactly. Diadora or some crap that Robert Smith would have worn. I know we always laugh and we're blasé, but it really does make you shudder, stuff like that."

The Holy Bible is due for reissue in December, with the usual DVD extras. The album most associated with Richey's troubles, is bound to stir up... "The question of whether he's still alive?" James interrupts. No, but... a certain amount of picking at the scab, as it were.

"Well, if anyone's picking at that scab, when they're past a certain age, they're necrophiliacs, for want of a better word. And I do want the album to be celebrated, because it's something which didn't reach its audience. It's just like I was saying to my dad - if all the people who told me they loved The Holy Bible had bought it, it would have sold more! And it's good to be proud of it, because it seems to have been inextricably linked with an era... You're made to feel you should forget it and move on.

"Around that album I really felt we were the perfect band. Even the photos backstage, we look really amazing, and without looking like we're trying. Richey wasn't sucking the breath out of his body and going like THAT." He sucks in his cheeks. "Just natural and cool."

For Wire, the motive for the reissue is purely artistic. "You know me, I enjoy the process of marketing, but I just wanted to show how brilliant Richey's lyrics are. Grace by Jeff Buckley and Definitely Maybe [Oasis] have had 10th anniversary editions, and I think it deserves to be in that company. It's fallen off the critical radar a bit."

A decade since his disappearance, I wonder whether the Manics still, consciously or otherwise, seek Edwards's theoretical approval for everything they do. Bradfield admits that, "Up until a year ago, the answer would be 'probably': I used to get the Essence of Richey to do a 'spellcheck' on everything." But times have changed. "I feel, to this day, incapable of going to the places that he went," adds Wire. "I was always scared of being irresponsible - he went to brave places. But I don't think he could do what I've done: be married for 11 years, have a baby daughter, clean the house..."

Wire is quietly firm about keeping his home life and pop life separate. "There's a poet called Elizabeth Jennings who says. 'True love is always quiet'. You see that all the time in showbiz, don't you? Proclaiming undying love for a month, then they're shagging someone else. Having a child just gives you even more moments of joy, I guess. Five minutes' joy a day is enough for me. I think we expect way too much out of life..."

Never much of a party animal to begin with, Wire's small talk is about cream teas in Abergavenny, not cocaine binges in London clubs. Another thing he feels incapable of nowadays is glamour. Eyeliner is out, the light brown beard is in. "We can't project sexiness any more. It's not possible for us to do." Because you feel too old? "When you've got a band like Franz Ferdinand doing it better... the word 'mutton' comes to mind! I still think you can make brilliant records, but you can't have the whole package." Yet the musical half of the package, it seems, still has legs. "We were in Germany the other week," says Wire, "and we reckoned we could do another album next year in Berlin. We felt really good about ourselves. When you're on a roll, it's the right time."

Formed in the Valleys, ner ner ner ... Guns N'Roses and Public Enemy, ner ner ner ... Bloke went missing, ner ner ner ... Made a load of brilliant records. End of story.

'Lifeblood' is released on Sony Records, 1 Nov. 'The Holy Bible' is reissued in December

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