Bands with a heavy message (as opposed to bands with a heavy sound) seem to be a dying breed today. But for more than 2 decades and now running into their 10th album, the Manic Street Preachers have been merging indie guitar sonics with a lyrical mastery that tackles Orwellian-old political and social themes. Their last outing Journal For Plague Lovers used words from their ill-fated comrade Richey Edwards and painted an introspective, surreal bleak future. Now they’re sharpening their tools and tongues for Postcards From A Young Man which is said to be their last attempt at persuading the masses to swap Gaga for Tolstoy. JUICE secures a line with chief lyricist and bassist Nicky Wire…
Image Dean Chalkley
Hi Nicky! Where are you at the moment?
I’m in London, came back from Berlin yesterday and we’ve got a launch gig tomorrow so, just doing lots of interviews today. You’re lucky you called me first, while I’m fresh. (Laughs).
Would this be the first time you’re speaking to somebody from Malaysia?
I think it is, first time we got an interview. They told me last night and I can’t recollect ever speaking to anyone from Malaysia.
You’re quite lucky you got JUICE then! We’re absolutely bonkers. Well we heard you’ve got a new album coming up. Postcards From A Young Man is suppose to be a happier product compared to the bleak Journal For Plague Lovers. Did somebody in the band fall in love or was it a backlash to being depressed?
No, this album is very much like harking back to everything we did back in ’96. The last album Journey For Plague Lovers, because it was Richey’s lyrics that we used, inevitably they bring a certain darkness to the band and I think after doing that and feeling very pleased with what we’ve achieved in terms of placing Richey as a great Writer again, I think this new album was always gonna be more uplifting. And that kind of classic Manics sound with lots of strings, lots of melancholy and hopefully it’ll make people feel quite nice.
Were all the lyrics on the new album written by you or was it a collaborative effort?
No, it’s all written by me except for one track which is called ‘I Think I Found It’ which James wrote.
You’ve mentioned that Postcards is a last attempt at mass communication. What is it that you’re trying to communicate to the public if it hasn’t been known before this?
A few things to be honest, not just in terms of the lyrics. I think an overall impression on that. We may be on our 10th album, we may be 41; but we still feel incredibly passionate and energised about our music, our lyrics and our band. We have tried to pull over that fact that, as Dylan Thomas said, raging against the dying of the night. And everyone in this country tells you that the record industry is over, that you know, music is all for free and everything else and we just felt like, try to make statement that we still believe in the album, we still believe in the power of music to uplift and to make you think and to stimulate. I think that’s the kind of point that we’re trying to get across.
So while we’re on the subject of age, when kids are young they’re full of rage and confidence that what they’re fighting for, what they’re doing is the right thing. What’s the secret to maintaining that rage without getting too jaded, full of yourself or worse; going bat-shit nuts?
(Laughs) That’s a really good question because I sometimes wonder why I still get so angry about things. And, I do, I can’t stop myself. Sometimes it’s really tacky and childish and sometimes it quite important but it’s something that just doesn’t leave me. And it does leaves me exhausted sometimes, but I’m glad I’ve got it because it gives me the drive and gives the band the drive. I think it’s probably the way we grew up in Wales in a really working class area, we never took anything for granted. We always felt we had to try much harder to escape our surroundings. That drive, it just doesn’t go. The minute it goes, I guess, it’s when we know that we can’t carry on.
And that hasn’t happened yet?
Surprisingly not. Haha. I think maybe around the time of Lifeblood, we did get a bit lazy. We’re very proud of the record but it just didn’t connect with people. I think we became probably disenchanted with the band slightly and maybe disenchanted with each other. And I think with Send Away The Tigers we kind of reinvigorated our love for each other and for the group.
When you said Postcards is meant to have a mass communication approach, do you mean that your previous albums were consciously written in a way to alienate those that, for a lack of a better term, lived a rather sheltered life?
I think there is a funny thing with us, that we do react to our previous work where we also react quite badly to success sometimes. It’s like, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours was our biggest ever selling record, we were playing stadiums and we sold 3 million albums. And for some reasons after that we did Know Your Enemy which was like going to Cuba, meeting Fidel Castro… it was a very odd, lo-fi record when it should have been the album… with other bands it would’ve been the album that was big again. I think we do have a problem with success. It’s a very odd thing.
What do you feel about other bands that tackle political and social issues, but do it in a very straight forward way? Sort of like just dumb-ing down the issues when we know that sometimes evil is not really that clear and the difference between right and wrong is not typical?
I do know what you mean and I kind of agree with you. We all know that politics and social issues, let’s face it, they’re all actually really complicated. They’re barely black and white; they’re usually complicated and grey. Sometimes it’s just frustrating when people will just blame everything like, George Bush for an instance, became the ultimate figure of hatred around the world as if he had caused every problem in the world. I’m no fan of George Bush but he wasn’t the only caused of world troubles. But a lot of those bands are just too obvious and sometimes they’re the views of a 15-year-old rather than that of a mature man.
There’s a novel coming out based out Richey’s life. It’s said to be a work of fiction. Were you opposed to the idea of further glamourising his death?
Yeah I feel quite insulted by it. I don’t really want to get involve with it because it’s pointless trying to… there’s been so much of this kind of stuff. It would, as you said earlier, drive me absolutely nuts if I, if we all cared so much. You know, we got involved with it but we just tried to rise above it really. I mean, I think I know Richey pretty well but I wouldn’t dare to write a book on what I thought would have happened to him or fiction on him. And this Writer doesn’t even know him at all, has never even met him and he seems to feel he can write a book on what Richey was thinking. I find it pretty distasteful really.
So would you say that if Richey was alive today, he wouldn’t agree to it?
I just don’t know, I mean that’s the point really. I think I knew Richey really well but I would never say I could speak for him. It seems really presumptuous to think you can do that. And I know Richey was someone who did try to pursue the truth as much as he could. And it seems to go against those principles really.
We’ve heard that you have a flair for wearing dresses in the past, do you still do that?
Yes! It’s always something I’ve always felt comfortable doing. Growing up as a young boy I was always at my mum’s makeup table, using her spray, stealing my mum’s clothes. It’s just something in me that I felt comfortable doing.
What was it about David Bowie and glam rock that shook your world?
I think it’s the idea of feeling special, of making an effort to dress up. We grew in pretty grey times under Margaret Thatcher, there were endless strives, riots. And the idea of, some kind of escape just really appeal to me. I just felt my natural bone structure suited it. My mom always said I should have been born a girl. (Laughs). Fair enough coming from my mum.
What did you say to Fidel Castro when you met him in Cuba?
It was a very strange experience, I have to be honest with you. It was like being in Forest Gump, it felt like you were in a movie. We started chatting about politics, we talk about sports, started talking about Wales, Scotland and England, and differences between the countries. I’ve met a few politicians and for all his faults, he was really bright and really intelligent for his age. It was quite a surreal experience. I often think about and think, “Did it really happen?”
He was a very good host we take it?
Yes, you know what he said, “The drums were louder than war”. That was quite a good quote.
Do you consider your lyrics to be romanticised versions of otherwise dry political statements?
Yeah I think if you look at ‘If You Tolerate This…’ which is about the Spanish Civil War and Welsh people going to fight against fascism, I guess there’s an element of romance. Some people put romance into songs about love, songs about going out clubbing, songs about drugs. And I guess we put it in politics a little bit.
Did the economic problems affect touring in any way at all for Journal For Plague Lovers? Did the kids come out to your gigs in full force? And what’s your prediction for the new tour for the new album, you reckon the lads will have extra beer money to spend?
Luckily enough I think in over 20 years of our career, in terms of playing live, because we put so much effort in, we’ve always been able to travel around the world and play for lots of people. We’re very grateful of that. I mean these are really harsh economic times as you know and this tour has sold really well. It’s 80% sold out already and we’re still 8 weeks away. Touchwood, but in terms of records it’s never been worse I mean, trying to sell a CD or whatever it’s a pretty impossible task. But so far everything’s been really positive. We’re getting lots of radio-play, we’re getting lots of good feedbacks so we’re just gonna sit here and hope while I try and talk about it for the next 3 days (laughs).
What was the last record that you bought?
I bought a couple of records last week. I bought Avi Buffalo, they’re a Sub Pop band and I bought the new Mystery Jets album (Serotonin) as well. I love going to record shops and I love buying music, until this day it gives me comfort. Unfortunately it’s getting harder and harder to find record shops.
Looking back, how did you rate your solo effort I Killed The Zeitgeist? Did you manage to say all you wanted to say that you couldn’t with The Manics?
I’m really happy with it. It certainly led me to find a new way of writing songs. I’ve written much more music with the band on the new album. I’ve written 3 tracks completely which never happened before. I learnt to play acoustic guitar again by doing the record. I think it showed a side of The Manics that perhaps people didn’t know about. For myself and James it also helped us appreciate how much we loved being in the band. Doing the solo album, you’re quite bare without your friends. I think it worked on a couple of levels.
The world has gone through a few changes during the past year. Has any current global problems or issues sipped in to your new albums?
Yeah, I think in terms of the UK especially the idea of New Labour almost destroyed its own class. The idea that the only people we ended up saving were banks, the financial institutions while every other industry, the Labour party kind of just left them to crumbled. But to think that the only industry they nationalised was profiteering banks is like the greatest irony you could ever have. It’s more capitalist than the Tories or the Conservatives have ever been. And that cast a shadow over quite a lot of the lyrics.
You’re about to embark on your most extensive UK tour, will you be visiting Malaysia sometime soon and have you ever played in a Muslim country?
I’m not sure. I definitely like to come to Malaysia. I mean, we nearly came; it was 2 years ago we played Singapore and we were hoping to go to Indonesia and Malaysia as well. Unfortunately it just didn’t work out in the end. All of us have grown to love travelling so much and the experience of going to different cultures is one of the most stimulating things about being in a band. It’s something we really enjoy.
Well, Slash is playing in KL tomorrow night.
….And we remembered at one point you guys said that your manifesto was to beat Guns N Roses’ album sales.
We didn’t say…
…So you should come down here and show him who’s boss!
Haha okay… cheers man!
Postcards From A Young Man will be out in records shop on September 2010. Keep up with The Manics at www.manicstreetpreachers.com.