You recorded 'Journal For Plague Years' with Steve Albini. Was that partly because Richey loved Nirvana's 'In Utero' [which Albini also produced]?
Nicky Wire: There was an element of that, yeah, but it's the whole thing of making a pre-digital album, like there's no singles. It's a tribute to Richey, it's also a tribute to the idea of an album. That this is a piece of work that you can't take a track here and think this is representative, this feels like a body of work. And Steve reflects a lot of those principles, and a lot of those ethics as well. He does records like he does because a lot of his favourite records were made that way. That's his thing. He hates the digital drama of modern music.
James Dean Bradfield: [Impersonating Steve Albini] The digital squuaaaall!
NW: The digital squuuuuuuuaaallll...
So, 'Jackie Collins Existential Question Time'. Best song title ever
NW: It is a good title, isn't it? The weirdest thing is, I think, lyrics aside, a lot of it is very sweet and very pop. If we'd done it in a different lifetime with different words, who knows, it could have been a gigantic hit single. I love the way it draws you in with the softness and everything and then that last minute of rasping... pure hatred and anger kind of... spoils it all.
It's a brilliant track. I keep singing the refrain 'Oh Mummy what's a sex pistol' at bus stops and freaking people out.
NW: That is a brilliant sound. It actually sounds like a festival chant to me, I can see it... through the crowd, call and response.
JDB: [Shaking head] bizarre.
NW: But we didn't, right from the start James said, we're just not gonna try and write a single. We're just not. Which, you know, after the success of the last record was a pretty bizarre thing to do, it did scare people close to us. But it just felt like the only option. Richey's not writing these lyrics to get a hit.
That line comes from an actual Sex Pistols poster or flyer, right?
NW: A lot of people wore badges, you see it a lot in photos, and it's just got 'mummy, what's a sex pistol' on it. It's just a sort of cultural reference point, I don't know if it's any more loaded than that. The song, I find, is pretty impenetrable, I don't know if Jackie Collins was ever on 'Question Time', having a bit of a Will Young moment, you know... I have a feeling, the last bit, 'situationist sisterhood of Jackie and Joan'. All I can think of is I seem to remember once maybe Jackie and Joan were on at the same time. And it was a bit like the Hitchens brothers but total opposite to each other... maybe 'Question Time' or something like that. Maybe Russell Harty. I don't know, James might have a better handle on the lyrics.
JDB: No, I just think that was the one song... I just got drawn into it when I saw it as a lyric. Most of the songs I've got a definite idea about what I think they're about, or there's a grey area, but I mainly know what they're about. But that's the only one where I'm very, very uncertain.
NW: Maybe you know!
The furthest I got was it being something about the breakdown of the possibility of relationships or romantic love. Jackie Collins' novels, Jackie and Joan being a sort of Situationist sisterhood, turning normal ideas of love on their head?
NW: That's good.
JDB: Better than either of our ideas!
It's so tantalising, because it seems to be so loaded with meaning, and you wish you could just... get at it.
NW: I can hear it in my head sometimes, when we're doing these interviews, his slightly nasal Welsh drone after he's been talking all day and he's still had this immense love to talk, and talk. He loved the challenge of doing interviews, he loved... well, he didn't exactly love journalists, but he just thought it was a chance to get your point across. Even if they hated you, he'd never kind of back down. I can almost hear his chat.
JDB: Even the 4-Real incident, he still kept talking! Which is not something I want to regurgitate or anything, but it's pretty remarkable.
I feel a bit like I'm in an English Lit seminar. And probably failing.
NW: Yeah (laughs). And we were listening to a lot of Pere Ubu and Skids, and even a lot of Pixies in it musically.
[This next paragraph was from a follow-up phone interview]
Reading through what we said about 'Jackie Collins', the mention of Sex Pistols and Situationism in the same lyric suggested the influence of Greil Marcus' 'Lipstick Traces', namesake of your rarities compilation. Joan Collins acted in the film adaption of Jackie Collins' novel 'The Stud'. Maybe the lyric somehow views those films/novels as subversions of traditional romantic love, in the same way that the refrain 'Oh mummy what's a Sex Pistol' line suggests subversion of innocence?
NW: Greil Marcus was a massive influence on all of us... it does seem to make some sense. The way everything seems to be connected - you could definitely be on a goer. And Jon Savage's 'England's Dreaming'... 'Lipstick Traces' was much more than just a book on music, I could definitely see that, the same idea of recurrence.
Did most of the songs suggest musical ways to present them straight away, or did some of them take longer than others?
JDB: Yeah, stuff like 'Me And Stephen Hawking' they felt like slightly overblown haikus, the verses, they're kind of economic. They have the stabs, and the stops, and then they're punctuated by something Steve Albini called the 'Itchycoo Park' section. And it just felt like 'Me And Stephen Hawking', 'Oh we laughed/We missed the sex revolution, when we failed the physical'. It was obvious that we couldn't be going [hums 'Ifwhiteamerica'-style crunching riff] nnn-nnn-NNN-NNN. There had to be some kind of bathos or humour in there. That line itself made me realise that the song had to be punctuated with like, mini surprises.
And then something like 'This Joke Sport Severed' is I think just beautiful, a really beautiful lyric about something which is probably quite sad and resigned. And I just wanted the first half of the song to be beautiful. I didn't want things to have to be reminiscent of the riff on 'Mausoleum', or 'Ifwhiteamerica...' or 'Of Walking Abortion', because the words just weren't saying that to you. It was an absolutely beautiful little lyric, 'This Joke Sport Severed' The ability for him to turn that kind of inner turmoil into something which is beautiful, is something you just gotta admire in him.
NW: I think with 'Stephen Hawking' as well, people will say, oh, well this seems like some kind of dated reference, but I think you've got to remember that this is two or three years before Radiohead even started to do the Stephen Hawking stuff... It's kind of unavoidable that some of the references are of that time.
'Me And Stephen Hawking'. As well as the obvious concern with genetic modification in the first verse, it seems like he might be trying to refer perhaps to the way those technologies are marketed in developing countries, or the way we view their struggles.
NW: I know what you mean by that, and then there's the mad thing of Giant Haystacks, who was obviously a famous wrestler in our time. He was the bad guy to Big Daddy and this was really... ITV on a Saturday afternoon, it wasn't WWF. I'd love to know if Giant Haystacks fought in a Bombay fight and was watched by 100,000 people. Because if that's true... no, I don't know what the fuck it's about. Cos then, like you said the genetic stuff, the scientific angle, seems to... I don't know, it's just that amazing mixture, Richey was never afraid of really low art and really high art. And that's why it's never elitist really, it's just knowledge, it's just taking something from everything.
JDB: And I also feel that it's a precursor to how other worlds, even then in Richey's imagination it was all becoming interconnected, and everything was having a knock-on domino effect in world culture itself. If that's what he's trying to say in the lyric, then he couldn't have been more right.
NW: And the Tracey the sheep thing, every month there's another cloning story that's really similar to that reference. But feel free to write your own ideas on this, seriously, in the piece, because it's nice to have a different perspective on stuff.
It's hard at first to see how the two verses relate to each other. They could be from two different songs covering two totally different topics. And then you try and think of ways that you could join them up.
JDB: Seriously, you haven't seen the rest. Seriously, you wouldn't fucking believe them.
NW: I love the fact, that, looking at that, you would never think it could be sung. But I don't think James ever sounds that awkward singing them. He's got a technique.
JDB: It's just enjoyable, really at the end of the day. I mean, you can overblow all that... 'Culture sucks down words/Itemise loathing and feed yourself smiles'... it's always the fucking same.
NW: 'Motorcycle...' is particularly awkward, actually, yes.
I'm sure this has been said to you a million times, but it does sound particularly attention-grabbing, as well, that the lyrics are so staccato and unusually phrased.
NW: I think the difference is, that deep in my heart, probably, I know I could never write lyrics like this, or I could never write lyrics this good. I'm completely humbled by him as a lyricist. That's just a fact. Having said that, he probably couldn't have written 'A Design For Life'. It probably would have just turned into something so complicated... and it's very minimalist, lyrically, 'Design For Life'. So it's a weird dichotomy.
JDB: 'Lowry, Hughes, working classes, matchstick man, I am Superman!'
NW: Yeah, yeah...
JDB: That just came off the top of my head, sorry. Richey's version of 'A Design For Life'.
NW: It definitely would have been... not that it would have caused conflict, but maybe we would have just gravitated to writing separately. But in a good way.
Where is the audio sample on this from?
NW: It's from a film called 'The Sun', about the Emperor Hirohito. We just felt it fitted. The actual translation is just 'turn the radio up, turn the radio up'.
'This Joke Sport Severed': I was surprised that you gave this such a musically gentle treatment, considering the bleakness of it.
JDB: Well 'severed', yeah, the word 'severed', it's one of those words that when you see it, it just describes exactly what it is. But the song it is... it did feel like a dead flower to me, because it's got the possibility of just giving up on conjugal relationships or love, I think. And that emotion is not turned out to anybody in particular except himself. It's just saying perhaps I'm not worthy of love, or love in relationships doesn't work for me. I'm not saying he's objectifying love in the sense of just saying nobody's worthy of my love, it's all about him. It's just saying maybe I'm not worthy of love. That's what I thought the song was about.
NW: I just thought it was another one that seemed to come to a conclusion after a process, you know, "I endeavoured to find a place where I became untethered", it just feels like, you know, he's looked at the possibilities and, like I said, a lot of the conclusions aren't pretty or positive, but they are... rational, even? You know? It's just nice to know I think, well, I know for a fact from the last 10 days that we were with him, that he'd reached a place where he was much ha... not happier...
NW: Yeah, and it was just like being like we'd always been. That eight months from 'The Holy Bible' onwards was incredibly strained and miserable, you were just losing someone and you couldn't reach him. But the last two weeks where we had this demo session together and everything and went through these songs, whether he'd reached some conclusions or not who knows, but he was much... the pathos was back, the smile was back. Which now I guess, obviously, has a different context, but at the time I felt like we were actually... I mean we did about seven songs, didn't we?
JDB: 'The House In The Woods' and stuff?
NW: Yeah, and we did the theme to [the Judge Dredd film,] 'Judge Yr'self' as well, the Sylvester Stallone, which I think he really enjoyed, doing that. Because he loved the fucking cartoon.
JDB: Nietszchean references he could latch onto.
NW: "Blessed be the..." what is it?
JDB: "Blessed be the blade, blessed be the scythe." NW: "Dionysus against the crucified!" So yes, I guess that idea of conclusion is... is good.
It is bleak, but I guess no more so than many other songs he'd written a lot longer ago. I was wondering, with songs like this do you worry that people might interpret them less as lyrics, less as art, more as symptoms? Reading them too much retrospectively?
NW: It's a good question, but I just think a line like in silken palms that tear bone from skin, that's just poetry in its own right anyway. No, I don't think that's fair, I think if you take your writing that seriously, like he did, I don't think he's writing a diary, I still think he's writing lyrics.
JDB: I think our main perspective, perhaps when we've gone through any kind of emotions when we were writing or recording these things were that it's nice to just admire a lyricist or somebody who has poetry in his soul, et cetera. I think it's fairly obvious that I wouldn't want anybody to kind of challenge themselves as much as Richey challenged himself. I wouldn't want anybody to go down that road anymore. And I don't hear any echoes in my head or my heart about the way Richey felt sometimes. I just stand back and admire his writing. Like I said, to actually turn something that ugly into something beautiful and erudite, is something that he was trying to do all the time. And regardless of what happened in the end, it's about admiring somebody who's trying to process or turn personal emotion into creativity.
'Journal For Plague Lovers': I felt this could have been about a number of things, but the main impression I got was of it being to do with the medical establishment.
NW: Mmm. That's good, that, actually. As in, doctors being gods?
NW: I took it more literally as just being like, a secular masterpiece like Bill Callahan's 'Faith/Void', but I can see where you're coming from. [Reads through lyrics aloud] I think there's a fair bit of doubt in religion in there as well. I don't really get the 'PG certificate, all cuts unfocused line...'. Does that imply some kind of censorship, then? It's funny, it's the one track with a title which doesn't seem to quite match the concept. 'Journal For Plague Lovers' doesn't seem to relate so much to the song as others. If it's about what I think it's about. It's not very good, I know, but some of the stuff, we just don't fucking know.
JDB: No, it's alright, it's just that through the songs, some, like I said, like 'All Is Vanity' and 'Pretension/repulsion' are linked together and the three songs that link together with this one are 'Journal For Plague Lovers', 'Facing Page: Top Left' and in a strange way, 'Virginia State Epileptic Colony'. I think it talks about how when the malady doesn't fit the cure. And how the cure sometimes homogenises the person. And it'll be like, 'PG certificate, all cuts unfocused'... the cure will sometimes bring a bland focus to what is a real problem.
NW: (to JDB) You think it's more his journey, then, this? A comment of more, 'they're all trying to change me'? Because of course, The Priory is a mixture of all pseudo-God and religious bollocks and doctors trying to cure you.
JDB: And submitting to some symbol, or God.
NW: Ripping your soul up.
JDB: I think that those three songs link together and the sense of community that you get with the people that you meet when you're having treatment.
NW: He quickly realised, when he was in The Priory and not the NHS hospital, that the cure basically means having to destroy the entire entity that you are. And I don't think he's prepared to do that for the sake of survival in the modern world.
JDB: He had this amazing quote once when we went to the Priory and he was very pissed off with somebody that was trying to treat him, and he said 'they would just believe that something was wrong with me if I went and sat in the bushes with a camouflage hat on and pretended I was in some kind of war. Then they would think there was something wrong with me. Which is a bleak fact.
NW: Fucking turning into a therapy session, this.
JDB: Therapy's just bullshit, because talking never makes you feel good.
NW: It just makes you feel fucking shit. For me, anyway. But for other people, might work.
I loved the concision of that line, 'PG certificate, all cuts unfocused'. The double meanings of 'cuts' and unfocused'.
NW: And that sung as well: Cuts. Un. Focused. It has a wonderful rhythm to it... although when he was in the Priory and Eric Clapton was there and he offered to come round and jam on the guitar, that was one of those moments where you couldn't write anything funnier, in a tragic situation.
JDB: God bless Clappo, he wasn't being nasty...
NW: He wasn't. He just thought, hey, rock'n'roll musician, come on. I would love to have been there to see Richey's polite 'well, maybe not...' 'Matron, bring my Strat, close the door'. And Richey's like 'Fuck, I'm getting out of here!'
'She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach': Is there any particular story or source behind this one, do you know?
NW: I don't know, I really don't think so.
JDB: We've just got to keep quite shtum on these. I think there are some people he met when he was in one of the two places having treatment and I think he just took in, just digested other people's stories and experiences.
NW: Especially the NHS hospital in Cardiff in Whitchurch, which was... I mean, The Priory was grim in a different kind of way. In a... not false, but just a wrong sort of way. But the NHS hospital, obviously everyone was trying really hard, but it wasn't a nice place to be. It was, how can I put it, visiting in there, it did wither your soul. I don't know, is this song about that? He was kind of capable of just a kind of pettiness towards any idea of marriage or love, or relationships.
There's a deeper way, but there's also, he just couldn't fucking understand it, you know. It wasn't for him. Back in university, when me and him were together, he would relentlessly, when I got dumped by a girl, he would laugh and mercilessly take the piss out of me for weeks on end. In a funny way, but in a (laughs) kind of savage way as well. And I think it's the closest to the kind of Nirvana thing, we really went for it on this. I did a little demo of it and James changed the chorus into something bigger and more dramatic. I mean that is a really pure song, there's hardly anything on there, is there?
There's two guitars, a bass, a vocal and a drum, I think. What we realised on this record was that unlike something like 'The Everlasting' where it took something like six-and-a-half minutes to put a verse chorus bridge and solo in, when we were doing it on this album it'd be two and a half minutes. And there's still as many musical features on there. But we haven't done that for years and years and years. And it was completely natural.
What kind of Nirvana songs did you have in mind?
I was just thinking of stuff like 'Serve The Servants', 'Rape Me', a sort of speeded-up 'Heart-Shaped Box'. And there's a kind of '60s pop sensibility to the verse as well, it's quite sweet. And again it just shows off James' brilliance. It's just a fantastic guitar solo. Like Steve Jones at his peak. Let the Bradfield off the leash...
[Originally published: nme.com, 14 May 2009, interview conducted on 22 April 2009]