Interview: Manic Street Preachers

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Almost 15 years after the mysterious disappearance of lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey James Edwards, intellectual Brit alt rock band Manic Street Preachers have finally released Journal For Plague Lovers. Using Edwards’ lyrics that were passed to bassist Nicky Wire just before he went MIA, the album is being hailed as the Manics’ most remarkable work since 1994’s The Holy Bible. JUICE gets Orwellian with Wire and vocalist/guitarist James Bradfield to find out more about their decision to pursue the past.

Why did you choose Journal For Plague Lovers as the title for the album?
James Bradfield:
It does seem very obvious, that’s quite simple. As Nick said earlier, the lyrics were left in the form of a book and as you went through the book, it almost felt like a diary as there were lyrics, little scrawling, collages, it actually did feel like a journal. There was one song in there called ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ and it just seemed very obvious, very apt.

Tell us about the origin of the music on JFPL. Does this album mark a return to powerful rock after rather introverted, calm albums like Lifeblood?
Well for me, it was a very mixed experience in terms of styles. As I’m looking at the song titles now, there are 4 very contemplative, acoustic moments on there. And I was very aware that we couldn’t really create a sequel, or follow up, to The Holy Bible as not everything in the lyrics were as angry. The only rule was that you had the lyric in front of you and you had to let the lyric guide you. It was as simple as that. There were some things in my head; I wanted to try and reprise the John McGough guitar-style on some of the songs. John McGough was the guitarist from Magazine, but that was it really, just let the lyrics guide you. If a song didn’t come very quickly, we just didn’t re-write it. Just things had to be right, simple as that.

What was it like to work with a producer like Steve Albini, who is known for having a major influence on the sound of an album?
At first it was kind of strange as everything about the session was different compared to the way we usually work. But we knew that we wanted to work on tape and we didn’t want to do many takes and he was up for that … the less takes the better. We didn’t really want any musical direction … he just gets the sound right. And also, we didn’t want anybody interfering with the lyrics. Producers can be notorious for sometimes saying “I can’t understand what you’re singing, perhaps you should re-write the lyrics” and obviously we didn’t want any of that as they’re Ritchie’s words and we didn’t want them touched.
Nicky Wire: We didn’t write anything in the studio really, we’re not a ‘jamming’ band. Everything was quite disciplined, very well rehearsed and recorded onto tape and analogue. It’s very much a pre-digital album: all Ritchie’s lyrics were written, he never had a mobile phone, computer, wrote everything on a typewriter…s That’s the one thing about Steve; I’ve never seen a producer who’s on the phone less than him. He didn’t use his mobile phone or the landline, just didn’t call people. He never ate lunch or breakfast, came to work in overalls every day, and that was exactly what we hoped for. It wasn’t like a fun, laugh a minute session, but it was much more about the aesthetic of just working, very much a pre-digital album.

JFPL was recorded at Rockfield Studios, where legendary albums of bands like Rush, Black Sabbath and Queen were recorded. How inspiring was its atmosphere?
We’ve recorded there before, our 2 #1s were recorded in Rockfield. Every time we go back to Rockfield, there are 2 certain records I think about as I go through the gates. Obviously Hemispheres Simple Minds and Heaven Up Here by Echo and the Bunnymen. And Jim Kerr was there as we were, which was very strange as I’d been listening to Real To Real Cacophony, Simple Minds’ second album in my flat in Cardiff. It was kind of strange; there is a sense of history there. We weren’t as pompous to think that we were creating a small piece of history, but you feel like you can record something that will last, as it has such a great track record as a studio.

In August of 1989 your first single ‘Suicide Alley/Tennessee (I Feel So Low)’ was released, you formed your band a year before that. What are your thoughts when you look back on 20 years of Manic Street Preachers?
It’s nothing dramatic, it’s nothing like “This is brotherhood, we must stay together, we must fight the world!!!”. It’s actually just enjoying being a band. Actually just really wanting lyrics to arrive in the post from Nick and if we’re talking about something on the phone, I sometimes wish we’d written a song about it. There’s no other way for me to feel like that other than being in the band that I’m in. Simple as that, I just love being in a band.
NW: I think the last 3 or 4 years have actually been the best we’ve had as a band. I don’t know why that is, perhaps just a certain age where creativity just seems to explode everywhere. Can’t stop it. We’ve just bought our own studio, as every where’s closing down, we’re bucking the trend and opening one up! I don’t know, we started the band as we felt we had something to say and wanted to express it and that’s never changed. Deep or hateful, or positive or political, that’s our one form of expression – putting it into a song.
JB: I suppose last year, it did help that we had some new experiences. Obviously we’d been apart for such a long time, we played so many festivals last year, which we used to hate but now we seem to like. But we’re committed to playing places we’d never been to before. So we had so many experiences. Last year we supported Bob Dylan in Croatia, it was just us and Dylan. It was just amazing to play in front of an audience that had never seen us before. For us to be innocent and just see what happened was just a great experience. We played in Poland and Latvia, Russia and Turkey and Greece, places we’d never been to before where we had strangely good reactions from audiences, no cynicism, no ‘come on then – impress me, I’ve seen you before!’ So to actually have new experiences at the age of 40 in a band is pretty much a miracle I suppose.

Image and interview Sony Music