I Am Manic Street Preachers...|
By This Is Who I Am in association with Orange
Wearing glam clothing and eyeliner, the Manic Street Preachers burst out of Blackwood, Wales, in 1991. Their masterplan was to release one album that would outsell Guns n’ Roses Appetite for Destruction, tour the world, headline Wembley for three nights and then burn out.
They didn’t split, but instead went on to become one of the biggest rock acts of the past two decades: notching up eight top ten albums and fifteen top ten singles, winning a clutch of Brit Awards whilst becoming the first western rock band to play in Cuba.
The Manics ninth and latest album, Journal for Plague Lovers, features lyrics left behind by guitarist Richey Edwards. Early in 1995, Richey checked out of his London hotel, drove to the Severn Bridge, and then disappeared. His body has never been found, but he was officially presumed dead at the end of last year.
Kerrang's Loz Guest spoke to singer James Dean Bradfield and bassist Nicky Wire about the people and the music that have made the Manic Street Preachers the people they are today.
KERRANG!: This latest album Journal For Plagued Lovers uses lyrics written before Richey [Edwards] went missing. Richey was obviously a key relationship in your lives. When Richey disappeared, how did that affect you personally and also as a band?
NICKY WIRE: Initially when he disappeared, it just destroyed the dynamics of the band; there were none. We basically were paralysed. It didn’t matter we were a band, but as human beings; a friend, family, brother, son. It had absolutely nothing to do with any kind of rock and roll mythology. It was something that lots of people go through. It only changed the dynamics really five months later when we wrote A Design For Life. I sent James a load of lyrics, and that was the song which defined us as a three-piece. It’s also the song which made us carried on. We felt we were doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t let people hear this music. It was one of the best things we’d ever done. Richey wasn’t a fantastic musician, which everyone knows, he made a racket in the corner, but he was a rock god. He was always plugged in but he knew that the audience we just transfixed by him and his angelic beauty.
K!: Is there a song from that period which reminds you of Richey?
NW: There’s loads really. Everything Must Go is probably the one which is most lyrically direct about his disappearance. We didn’t really junk our past, but we had to make it clear that we couldn’t be the band which you fell in love with. It would have been a sham otherwise. We weren’t the people who made The Holy Bible.
K!: Tell us about the how the album came about – was it difficult choosing the right time to do this in Richey’s memory?
NW: About 18 months ago, we were in the back of a car and James just turned me to and said, “I think it’s time for us to do Richey’s lyrics next.” I was quite shocked because I’m usually the one who comes up with mad ideas, like “Let’s go to Cuba to launch an album,” and usually I see the boys wince! To side-step the treadmill, to do something which is much more of an art project, it just felt right. Once the writing process started, it became apparent that we were doing the right thing.
K!: How long have the lyrics been around?
JAMES DEAN BRADFIELD: I’m not sure, but I assume that the lyrics were written some time after The Holy Bible.
NW: Yeah, I think that’s right.
JDB: Briefly before Richey went missing, he handed Nicky the original booklet journal of lyrics. He gave myself and Sean photocopy versions of it. You could say that the timing perhaps wasn’t accidental. So we had these lyrics and over the years we’ve taken them out of the cupboards or floorboards where we’d stored them, and we’ve looked at them and perhaps the weight of responsibility has weighed down upon us and we haven’t had the strength to tackle them. It’s taken all this while to realise there is that responsibility; he did leave them with us at a very tactical point and we realised it was about time we did it. I think it was the first time we looked at the lyrics and we were all getting ideas and we thought, “perhaps this won’t be as scary and it’s about time we do something about it.”
K!: Did you try to replicate the band you were then?
NW: I think initially we were looking more towards The Holy Bible for inspiration but it quickly became apparent that the intellect to the lyrics was different to The Holy Bible. There’s less rage and hatred, more philosophy and doubt; there’s a sense of humour and surrealism to the lyrics. This dictated that the music palette would be broader. It was the logical progression of The Holy Bible; there’s still elements of it but it’s more of a rock record. It’s less new wave, or post-punk.
K!: Are there any particular tracks which you’re really proud of, which came from those lyrics?
JDB: The first track of the song is Peeled Apples and the fourth is This Joke Sport Severed and the last track is William’s Last Words. You can actually see what happened between those three tracks. We just let the words guide us. If we were to try to live up to what some fans wanted from this record, like a real follow up to The Holy Bible then we would have had to tried make William’s Last Words more angular and angry; a bit more post-punk. But we didn’t. Instead, we let the words lead us down the right path for that song. If you take those three songs, you really see that the words were the guides to those songs. I’m proud we made the right decision.
K!: I know you’re not doing singles from the album, but is there a particular song which you’d like to play?
NW: Yeah, Peeled Apples. It’s the first track off the record. We wanted some songs to sound slightly like Nirvana’s In Utero - that’s why we used Steve Albini. It has ferocious power and fierce intelligence; it took a while to nail, but as soon as we got it, we knew. Opening tracks are really important and this is a great opening track.
K!: What do you think Richey would have thought?
JDB: It’s really hard to guess and it can be a dangerous guessing game. But instinctively when making the record I thought that Richey would like certain songs; I thought he would like Peeled Apples because of the intent. I thought he’d love William’s Last Words because Richey did love a really good a soppy ended song. There’s a bit of Echo And The Bunnymen in there and they were his favourite band. They were crucial for him.
NW: It’s hard, and I’m not sure it even matters. It’s not as if when we were making Gold Against The Soul, Richey would rush in and say “That’s an amazing piece of music” anyway. So I think what he would have really enjoyed is the interpretation of the words. I think there’s a real fragile acoustic side to Richey as well as the dirty power side. He would like the naked beauty of Facing Page: Top Left, because it’s just James and a harp. I think All Is Vanity too, which is probably the closest song which could have been on The Holy Bible. It’s just got that feel about it; a hint of menace. We’re talking completely hypothetically here; sometimes he had really bad taste in music! He loved Tool and Pantera – not that that’s bad! But we’re not going to make an album which sounds like Tool!
K!: When you were growing up, what were the first cover songs you played?
JDB: God Save The Queen, Ever Fallen In Love by The Buzzcocks, Just Like Honey by Jesus And Mary Chain or Teenage Kicks. I can’t remember which one it was, but it gives you a pretty good idea of what influenced us at the time.
NW: I quite like Just Like Honey by Jesus And Mary Chain because it was the easiest – three chords! But before that, we were busking – that’s how we got our name. James would learn all of Billy Bragg’s Life’s A Riot… album
JDB: We used to play To Have And To Have Not by Billy Bragg, busking around Cardiff. We were even cynical to play songs which we didn’t think were great. We tried to play The Clash’s Garageland which we loved, but once we were playing in Newport, which had a lot more hardcore punks like Sham 69 fans, we played Hersham Boys because we thought we’d get more money…
NW: Oh god! We also used to do La Bamba when the rugby was on because people were drunk! It was great when pound coins came because when people were drunk they’d think they had given you 5p when instead it was a pound chucked in! As a band, God Save The Queen we never pulled off, but it’s one of the greatest records ever made.
K!: Whose idea was it to go busking?
JDB: I’m not sure really, we’d left school and it was that summer in limbo, where we were going on to do A-levels but we also had this notion that we were going to be the biggest band ever! Still not achieved! I suppose the quickest way to get a reaction for a young budding musician was to go busking in the summer. We just thought it was cool.
NW: And there’s this weird story which is 100% completely true. We were busking one day and Steve Albini - who ended up producing our record – he was touring at that time and he walked past us. We told him this in the studio with somewhat a sense of disdain it has to be said!
JDB: We were playing a song and he walked past and shook his head and made sure we saw him do it. We told him the story the first day in the studio and he said, “Do you know what? I’d like to deny that was me, but it probably was.”
K!: Who or what was it which influenced you and made you first pick up a guitar?
JDB: My first real love affair in terms of music was Electric Light Orchestra. They were my first proper proper true love. Then, when I was 14, for some reason I started buying the NME. Simple as that.
NW: I was lucky because I had a brother, so I had the secret lineage of Rush. The intricacies of Rush and the power of Black Sabbath – I was obsessed with Whitesnake; they were probably my favourite band for a long time. I think the secret society that was Rush which was passed down the generations – they were really important. They made a real mystery and magic out of loving bands. I was healthily obsessed with Rush, and still am today.
JDB: For me, the glory days of radio were when Peter Powell would go into Kid Jensen would go into Janice Long would go into John Peel. I’d get obsessed with listening to the radio at about 14 or 15. I fancied Janice Long so I’d buy the records she played!
NW: On a Friday night you’d have Tommy Vance. I was much more the metal head; James and Sean are much more alternative.
K!: What’s your favourite Rush song?
NW: There’s so many! I think Moving Pictures is one of the best albums ever made by any band.
K!: What was it about ELO?
JDB: I don’t like it when people treat them as a guilty pleasure, I get annoyed about that. Electric Light Orchestra are truly a great band! I gave Jeff Lynne a Q Award. But I came to Rush late, at about 17 years old.
NW: I sort of forced metal down their throats.
JDB: Yeah, about 16 or 17 I got into some metal, but before that, ELO were just amazing. Bizarrely, the first album I got into was Secret Messages, which is not their best album. When not such a good album gets you into a band and you stay with them then that’s a good sign.
K!: Did the music which you listened to growing up shape who you are?
NW: I think there was a time when we were about 14 or 15 when everything converged. Myself, James, Sean and Richey – it was either The Smiths, The Bunnymen; everything felt more like being an outsider, but in a good way. There were some brilliant bands around at that time who were becoming really big, like The Smiths. But they had indie principles. I guess that was the time when all that previous music we liked would still be there with us, but this was music which would inform us more really.
JDB: Yeah, The Clash really kicked in. And lots of other stuff that Janice Long and John Peel were playing. I started sending away for these really obscure records, to Small Wonder Records I think it was called. You’d send away your postal order and sometimes you’d get the record and sometimes you’d never get anything. I think it was that secret club thing again; you’d hear a record played by John Peel and be intrigued by it and send away to get it, and you felt like you were part of a secret club.
K!: Was there one band which changed your lives and who you are today?
NW: It would have to be seeing The Clash. It was either the 20th or 25th anniversary of punk. There was live footage of them on Granada. Joe’s hardly singing and he’s on the floor and he forgets all the words. That and The [Sex] Pistols. We weren’t punk obsessives but The Clash and The Pistols seemed like our [Rolling] Stones and The Who. They were fantastic rock & roll bands with great lyrics and looked brilliant. I just wanted to be Paul Simonon. It was the live performance which did it.
JDB: We even copied the instruments.
K!: Before a gig, do you listen to music to get you in the mood?
JDB: For a long time, we’d just listen to Appetite For Destruction. There was something about that album which got you in a fighting mood.
NW: That record changed our lives in a way as well. Like The Clash, they were a band of our time rather than something to look back to. Last summer, there was a lot of Serve The Servants off In Utero. It usually ends up with me choosing the music and Sean saying, “Turn that off!” I tend to be in charge of the iPod. I’m sure Rush has figured rather a lot! I like playing music before going on stage whereas Sean likes silence. He doesn’t like any distractions.
K!: Is there one track from Appetite For Destruction that you’d like to play?
NW: Probably Rocket Queen. It’s such a dirty climatic song – a rock ending. It felt really good at the time, because if you came to London, like we did, with tight white jeans listening to Guns N’ Roses, no-one wore funny t-shirts then. There was musical snobbery which made us feel isolated and yet more powerful. Guns N’ Roses made us feel like we had a purpose.
K!: What current music do you listen to?
NW: I’m obsessed with The Horrors’ record – I think they’ve found their soul. People have written them off. It reminds me a bit of us around the time of The Holy Bible. They’ve made a record only to satisfy themselves.
JDB: I’m listening to a band called The Thermals. There’s just something about them, just a tight indie rock band.
NW: New Doves record is really good also. And I like British Sea Power at the moment.
K!: How do you find out about new music?
NW: In a very traditional way! Through magazines and journalists telling you – the way it should be! There’s so many music channels too – I’m a TV addict anyway. I find it easier to be inspired by them, it’s really easy. The last My Chemical Romance album was genius. If I was a 16 year old, I’d be thinking “I want to go see them.” But mostly we rely on magazines, and people we trust.
JDB: Last year I was into a band called Deerhunter and I got it for Nicky for Christmas - don’t know whether he liked it.
NW: I did! When you’re in love with music as much as we are, you don’t have to scour the internet to be inspired. This morning I woke up to The Pains of Being Pure Of Heart. It was a lovely sunny day; I was extremely hungover from champagne the previous night. I wanted to feel like I was 16 again.
K!: Have you ever met your musical heroes? Did they live up to your perceptions?
NW: I’ve never believed that you should go seek your musical heroes. I think you should admire people rather than as musicians. For example, I admire Liam Gallagher as a persona and Peter Murphy from Bauhaus met us at a festival in Turkey. [We met] Kylie – that was pretty special. Being backstage in a see-through dress like I was meeting Kylie – slightly awkward! Had to leave the room!
JDB: Jimmy Page. He was very sympathetic towards my plight when he met me – he could tell I was really nervous. He was a calming influence.
NW: I think one of the best was Charlie Watts, in the studio. He just came up to us and said “You’re that good Welsh band I’ve heard of,” it was really sweet.
JDB: I was standing on a corner of a Manhattan street once, outside a particularly scuzzy bar and I had a drink in my hand. Then Mike Monroe from Hanoi Rocks stumbles out of a bar and looks absolutely wasted. He looked like he was still being the rock star he should be – he didn’t let me down!
NW: There was one brilliant week when we met Arthur Scargill backstage in Liverpool and then we went to London and Kylie joined us onstage. That sums up Manic Street Preachers more than anything I think – that mix of pop culture and pop politics. That was a proud moment. James and Tom [Jones] had a singing competition once to find out who had the loudest voice! Everyone turned into a macho Welshman!
JDB: I was obsessed with a band called Big Flame when I was younger. It was insane music, sometimes it sounded like someone falling down the stairs. It was kind of Captain Beefheart-inspired; they would play this mess accurately every time. It was very formulated in that sense. I received a few letters from him when I was 15 or 16. I sent away on mail order for some of his stuff and he’d replied back to me and encouraged me with the band. I’ve always had a lot of admiration for the letters he sent back. They never sold many records but they were heroes.
NW: I’d like to play Oasis Live Forever. It was quite a dark time for us as a band; this record came out of nowhere and seemed to transfix the country and everyone who heard it. I remember touring with Oasis the year after and Liam just lived up to expectations, he just did feel like an all conquering, all powerful force with an amazing sense of humour and brilliant voice. Something genuinely uplifting to your soul listening to that record, for me anyway.
K!: You mentioned Tom Jones before - how important is being Welsh to the Manic Street Preachers? Has your heritage made an impact on the people you are today?
NW: I think we’ve learnt that it is very important. Some bands define themselves by where they come from, but for us, it’s reality grounding. It gives you an identity when you’re away. I wouldn’t say we’re nationalistic, but I think it’s important. There’s such a sense of never ever being able to develop an ego if you’re Welsh, because no-one gives you respect in a good way; it’s healthy.
JDB: I’ve spent less time in Wales than Nicky has; I’ve lived outside for a number of years. I spent my time living in Chiswick, probably more than in Cardiff. I do all my work in Cardiff in terms of the studio and the boys and I do have a deep longing for it when I’m not there and stuff. I think I have become a little bit more – dare I say it – nationalistic as I’ve got older.
K!: If there was a Welsh artist we could play now, who would it be and why?
JDB: There’s two which spring to mind. For me, it’s between Super Furry Animals and Badfinger. Badfinger were three-quarters Welsh and I’d probably plump for them as they don’t get much radio space. I’d go for Baby Blue which is a great pop rock song which conquered America which is a great achievement.
K!: And finally, what’s your favourite air-guitar song?
JDB: I always thought the best air-guitar song was going to be something like Spirit Of Radio by Rush or something cornier like Sweet Child O’ Mine. But there’s a track which I discovered recently called The Messiah Will Come Again by Roy Buchanan. It’s a bit of 70s rock and you’ve just got to listen to the track to understand why it’s an air-guitar song. It’s absolutely amazing. I’ve never played air-guitar, only real guitar.
NW: I guess at the old school disco I’d play air-guitar. If they played Rock & Roll by Led Zeppelin I’d be there…
JDB: I’m sure I remember seeing Nick doing Freebird at the school disco…
NW: Yep, that wouldn’t surprise me!
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