The lyrics on 'She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach' [a track on new album 'Journal For Plague Lovers'] seem to see love as a dirty trick, at best.
Nicky Wire: Yeah. I did rearrange a couple of lines to fit. And the one line that always haunted me, which I don't know how we got in there, was 'salmon pink skinned Mary, still caring'. It reminds me a bit of the play we did in O-Level, 'An Inspector Calls', when the girl, doesn't she pour bleach, to kill herself, by drinking bleach? I can't quite remember, but it might have something to do with that. I think the title is more scary than the lyric in this one. A lot of people have been shocked by the title. Once again, in inimitable and bizarre Manics way, we just never get shocked by stuff like that. Even when he was around, you know, when he gave us 'Intense Humming Of Evil'. continued...
James Dean Bradfield: Yeah, I didn't think 'oh gawwwd', I though, 'cool, this is going to be difficult, but enjoyable'. Which is bizarre, because the subject matter of the lyric is awful. It's just the way we've inoculated ourselves against certain realities and just got on with the creativity I suppose.
NW: It's just our knowing ourselves, all four of us, or all three of us since Richey's disappearance. If you've known someone since you're five years old, you don't need to go through all that bullshit that other bands do, you just don't need to. There's telepathy, there's kinetics involved, you know, there's trust?
JDB: I mean, I feel pretty embarrassed, sometimes, actually saying, articulating what I think the songs are about, because we don't really talk like that, do we?
NW: (laughs) No.
JDB: We might say one or two sentences, this or that, but it isn't like inside the actor's studio where we talk and talk and talk and try to interpret things, and what we would call something, it was a lot more, sign language between each other.
NW: The only time we did was around 'Lifeblood' and we just confused the shit out of ourselves so much we didn't know what we were doing. Trying to theorise, like I was trying to insist that there were no cymbals on the record, you know, MAKING A POINT! And it didn't need to be like that.
Would you say this is a kind of sister song to 'She Is Suffering'?
NW: I don't know, 'She Is Suffering' isn't one of my favourite songs anyway.
JDB: It's my least favourite song on 'The Holy Bible'.
NW: It doesn't really fit 'The Holy Bible' anyway. I just don't know... I think 'She Is Suffering' suffers slightly more from sort of, the man coming to the rescue (laughs) syndrome. Whereas I think this one is different, I think it's slightly weak.
It is that idea of female victimhood again.
'Facing Page: Top Left': This seemed to me to be kind of about women's magazines, or maybe magazine culture in general.
JDB: That did... you kind of have to be careful talking about lyrics, because like Nick said, we can never be sure if we're being accurate. But there was sometimes, when we'd visit Richey in certain places, some women having treatment, you know, alongside him, that would be impeccably turned out sometimes, in the place, there would be a garish use of lipstick and very made up et cetera. And that did strike me that maybe there was something about that in that lyric.
But I still think it's part of the little community of 'Journal For Plague Lovers', 'Facing Page: Top Left', 'Virginia State Epileptic Colony'. It is just about how you become homogenised under the gaze of certain doctors and analysts and how you kind of lose yourself in treatment.
NW: I think it's so amazing, like, the original lyric, for once, does have punctuation, doesn't it? It's like, full stops after every fucking word.
JDB: Not every word. Just every other word. And for somebody that never used punctuation, just chucked them out of the window, it felt quite strange. 'Pretension/Revulsion' did as well, actually.
NW: Commas. He had a lot of commas in there. But it lent itself, the one track that seemed to cry out for a kind of acoustic lament, a 'Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky' kind of thing.
JDB: Physically the hardest song to sing, definitely... 'dipping neophobia'.
NW: Yeah, I love that line. I don't know if 'neophobia' has ever been used in a song before. I don't even know if it's a word.
It's a great line, but I just couldn't, grammatically speaking, make out what it meant at all.
JDB: Which one?
NW: "This beauty here dipping neophobia".
JDB: Again, I just thought it was about routine. Once you get couched in the useless supposed cure, then you get caught in a routine. Which outside of that, can often be comforting to you.
NW: Which you know, does kind of hark back to 'Small Black Flowers...' in the idea of being trapped in the zoo, the desperation of zoos. Relating that to his own condition... I don't know.
NW: Yeah. But I think the institutionalisation of beauty, and trying to be all those things that you're never gonna get to, and all that, the application to him seems to say, 'I've given up on all that bollocks'. 'I've long since reached a higher plateau', I think that line from '4st 7lb' really counts on here. I think on this album he really does reach that plateau of... the disgust has perhaps turned to ultimate realisation.
Kind of got over the disgust and [quietly] just reached a new level. [Perks up] Having said that, though, he was a brilliant at saying 'you should stop being vain' and all that kind of stuff. But he was one for looking in front of a mirror for long, loooong periods.
JDB: Tapping his stomach, 'how many situps have I done today?'
NW: He did take weights with him on tour.
JDB: It was the Olivetti typewriter and the weights, in a suitcase. So the tour manager fucking hated him.
NW: He used to say to me, when he got a skinhead, and he came in 'oh, you should really get one, it just clears you from all the vanity, and everything'. As he's looking in the mirror. It's like, 'it's alright for you, you always look fucking great'.
JDB: I did notice when we all turned up to the main photo session for 'The Holy Bible' we all had very obviously military gear on, and he turned up to that session with one of the shirts was just black, with some badges on it, because it was his favourite shirt. He didn't really wanna go military, because it was his favourite shirt, at the time... (sounds tired) they're just recurring obsessions, aren't they. Routine, lack of sleep, failure of love, failure of God.
NW: I think the vanity thing as well, I know it troubled him, but it interested him as well, that idea of being trapped within vanity and constantly trying and then thinking it's pointless... it always just flips back and forth with him. Course, he never looked anything other than brilliant.
JDB: Except the waistcoat.
NW: The waistcoat, you're right. It's a rock'n'roll law, do not wear a fucking waistcoat.
What did you make of the title?
JDB: That was my favourite title.
NW: It just sounds like it could be a chapter in John Updike or Saul Bellow. It just sounds like a brilliant book title to me.
Maybe it's a conflation of the kind of idea of how institutions change you and the ideals of perfection in magazines?
NW: Feel free! No seriously, I'm happy to explain every lyric, it's just hard to give any kind of definition with authority. It's a shame he didn't leave... The idea of a journal, it's not actually notebooks or scraps, these are all fully formed pieces that he left us. So it's not like there's any background information for us. There's images with them and photos and bits and bobs, but they're just pieces of his work really.
When you say he worked on an Olivetti typewriter, was it a proper old clickety-clack typewriter?
NW: Yeah, it was a bit more modern than that, but not much. I've got one now, which I still use, you can get them in London. They're slightly smaller. Not like really old-school Joe Strummer, but still cool.
So you'd hear it clacking away, in the next room.
NW: Oh yeah, oh yes. And he loved writing as well, physically, with pen and paper. Me and him always used to say as a running joke, when people asked 'what instrument do you play', and he'd play the pen and I'd play the paper. And the sound of a typewriter is just erotic. The sound of a computer is a gigantic turn-off.
'Marlon JD': Here at least is one that's slight more clear what it's about...
NW: Well, it's clear, apart from the JD bit.
I assumed that was for James Dean.
NW: Well, a lot of people have said that. But the lyrics in all honesty, quite a few of them are stolen, well, not stolen, borrowed from the film, Reflections In A Golden Eye. Marlon Brando does actually say in it (adopts Brando wheeze): "I'd like to live without clutter, live without luxu-reee". So um, the film itself is beautifully shot. Richey did have a fascination with the idea of Marlon Brando, with someone that was so beautiful.
JDB: He loved him because he was the idealisation in his mind of what the ideal man could be, but also because he turned to shit as well.
NW: Exactly, yeah. The idea that he walked around his island in a nappy, eating and fucking.
JDB: That's why he's his kind of like perfect role model, because he rejected his innate beauty and talent turned into Jabba The Hutt.
NW: And Brando is such a complicated... well sometimes he seems utterly superficial, but just all those things... combined. And he did talk to me about that film a lot, Reflections In A Golden Eye, he was really into that, and I think that Young Liars, with Marlon Brando when he's a German officer.
JDB: I think this is one of the lyrics where Nick just proved he can be one of the greatest researchers in the world and just did great research on it.
NW: And you know, to use the sample on it as well, and I actually wrote the tune, apart from the Bloc Party bit.
JDB: And the middle.
NW: The harmonics bit! [Producer] Steve Albini didn't do this one, it's slightly more modern. It's still live, it's still done in the same way. But it's a more Neu!, motorik kind of thing.
I must confess I haven't seen the film.
NW: It is the classic thing where you've got two minutes focusing on Elizabeth Taylor's arse and Marlon Brando staring... I mean, he loved Elizabeth Taylor as well. It's kind of homoerotic. Well, the sexuality in the film is very blurred, it's not homoerotic, it's just that everything is blurred, relationships are blurred, no one loves each other.
JDB: Pain and pleasure's blurred.
NW: The one's that do love each other are not allowed to love each other.... I think bizarrely it might be John Huston, which is odd.
And the horsewhip across the face mentioned in the lyric, that's an actual scene from the film, right?
NW: It is, yeah. He fucks up Elizabeth Taylor's horse, and she humiliates him in front of everyone by whipping him across the face. There's a lot of humiliation in the film. Private and personal and public. So I think it's more for once, I don't think it necessarily hugely relates to him. It's more a kind of general inspiration and we all kind of went down that route.
Maybe more about how Brando's role in that film relates to Brando's whole life.
NW: Yeah, and maybe that then relates back to his admiration for him. And you know, maybe the line, 'learn to live without clutter, to live without luxury' has a slightly deeper resonance. Cos he was ridding himself at that time, he did seem to be ridding himself of any material complications. [Very slowly] It was just books, or watching the TV or listening to music. There wasn't really anything else involved.
'Doors Closing Slowly': There's a lot of religious imagery in this one...
NW: I think James had the most trouble singing this one. It is incredibly sad. The first line "Realise how lonely this is, self-defeating, oh fuck yeah. There's even a kind of pathos involved as well. Just that last couple of lines, you know, listen to the selfish ones, they are the voice of accomplishment. See, I don't know if he's saying there, the pressure of relationships, that's the idealism of that, he's never gonna get there, that idea of accomplishment is just so ugly, alien to him... "Unarmed army salvation", that's the hardest bit to sing.
JDB: Sally Army.
NW: Yeah. "The shadow is the cross, OK... silence is not sacrifice, crucifixion is the easy life". It's just a classic Richey line. That's him pressing buttons that he knows he's pressing. I know.
That last line is quite sort of Richard Dawkins in a way.
NW: If you apply it to religion, definitely. That kind of self-centred righteousness that if you don't understand faith, well, you know... if you haven't got faith then you will never understand. His religious obsession or rejection of it is quite strange.
JDB: It runs deeper than you would ever have thought.
NW: It ran really deep and its not something I just don't think we've ever felt. Being oppressed by religion, it just hasn't been a realisation in our time, in our country.
JDB: No, we've always thought there's been a really good separation of church and state.
NW: Exactly. I mean, he went to Sunday school for a couple of years and he always talked about how he really hated it and didn't enjoy it, but it does seem to have had more of an impact (laughs) than just a couple of years of Sunday school.
JDB: I just think he found it galling that the supposed beauty in religious art, like the depiction of death as being beautiful and glorious kind of troubled him and inspired him by the same turn. And again, the objectification of like, sacrifice and suffering, and how it can be always represented in some kind of beautiful tableau, I think he always found it, like I said, inspiring and disgusting at the same time.
NW: Despite that, I was always waiting for the moment when he converted to something, some obscure religion, just to piss people off.
JDB: Zoroastrianism. Worship of fire, I believe...
NW: I think this is the most stunning piece of music on the record, Albini really, it was the one time he actually arranged four bars of music. He said, 'I'm really embarassed about it, I hate doing this, I never do this, but just lay back on the first four bars and invert the beat on the intro, and then you've got that Harlem funeral sound'... and he called it really humble, he said 'it's such a humble song'. I think he genuinely liked this song. Yeah, I think it's a proper piece of music. It kind of reminds me of 'In The Neighbourhood' by Tom Waits. Velvet Doom March, you called it, didn't you?
JDB Yeah, Velvet/Harlem funeral dirge.
Did he read the Bible at all?
NW: He had read the Bible, but more literature that sprang up around the Bible and related to it. But I think he did go through a stage of reading the Bible. I'm useless with all that stuff, you know 'PCP', read Leviticus and stuff like that, I know nothing about chapters of the Bible. It's just like listening to a neverending fucking Nick Cave record, innit. Over and over, here's another fucking chapter...
Where's the audio clip from this time?
NW: It's from The Virgin Suicides, not so much because it's a great film, but because Richey loved the book [by Jeffrey Eugenides]. I don't think the film would have been made by then [Sofia Coppola's adaptation was released in 1999], and that particular dialogue just seemed to fit.
All Is Vanity...
JDB: I loved that some of the lines, that 'I would prefer no choice, one bread one milk one food'...
NW: I love that.
JDB: That's showing his slightly unfashionable side, his left-wing authoritarian side. Sometimes I'd prefer to live in a utilitarian Eastern Bloc culture where I don't have to worry about choice and how glorious or glamorous I could be, I just wish I was restricted.
NW: And I mean, that still resonates with us so deeply today. The idea that there's just so much choice now, that when we apply that to music, people think it's great that there's so much music, and that's so obviously not the case because so much of it is utter drivel. And you know, too much choice in music has led to mediocrity. And I think it's that kind of idea that Richey liked experts. He liked people who he though were thoroughly researched and immersed in each particular subject. And we're still like that now.
JDB: And just the idea that sometimes your emotions are not your best guides or friends. Or desire is not your friend or guide (laughs). Which is quite an unfashionable way of thinking, isn't it.
NW: It is.
JDB: It is relinquishing yourself to that old-style authoritarianism.
NW: I like that "makes me feel like I'm talking a different language at times". That seems quite a pointed reference. Perhaps he didn't even feel he was communicating with us. That everyone seemed... and it's true, because apart from those last 10 days, it was hard to keep up with him, to understand why his mind was working so fucking fast, and the level of consumption was just so gigantic... I think he felt he'd lost his art of communication with everything and everyone, apart from his own art.
I read the line 'it's not what wrong, it's what's right' as a response to the question 'what's wrong?'
NW: Maybe, yeah. And then, because the next line is 'makes me feel like I'm talking a foreign language', maybe he felt like he couldn't explain himself. And he couldn't explain himself, at that point. People in the same situation the world over just reach a point where there is no explanation.
NW: Another night of torment now as I remember what I've just said for the fucking four hours...
JDB: No, you've been fine...
'Pretension/Repulsion': This is such an onslaught of verbs at first, it's hard to know where it's coming from.
NW: It is, yeah. I think it's the other stuff that brings the lyric together, like James said. The actual use of all those words at the start really confused me at first, I didn't know where he was going with it. But when you get to 'Shards, oh shards'. I mean 'shards' is such a bizarre word to have in a rock song... Isn't it shards and chards in the original?
JDB: And chard is sort of food.
NW: And slightly burnt.
JDB: Well, no...
NW: Yeah, the first draft, he had that and shards. And it was like, how can you...
JDB: 'Leave the vegetables out of it! We're trying to be serious, here.'
NW: Like I said to you, "androgyny fails/Odalisque by Ingres, extra bones for sale". I just bow down at the altar of that as a lyric. That just explains the whole song for me. And 'BORN.A.GRAPHIC vs PORN.A.GRAPHIC', I don't quite understand.
JDB: Lumpen, useless flesh as opposed to something erotic.
NW: I dunno which side he comes out of on it, though. (To JDB) Don't say it!
JDB: I think he was just saying, like, how long have we been having this argument for. We don't need actually magazines like, then I suppose it would have been Loaded and FHM that captured his imagination as to the objectification of beauty et cetera, but he just was saying, this has actually been going on for a long time. Ingres was actually inserting an extra disc in the spine, just to idealise the woman's body. People have always been obsessed with it.
NW: I really can't remember the context, but he was always going on about those Benetton ads around that time as well, wasn't he. That's part of the same argument. And I'm never quite sure which... and then you get the Jenny Saville painting for 'The Holy Bible', then you get the exact opposite.
That line, 'Shards, oh shards' seemed to kind of reference both Yeats' 'the centre cannot hold' and Eliot's 'these fragments I have shored against my ruins'. It's so much in such a small space.
NW: And that's the genius of it, that it's still a lyric.
[From hereon in James and Nicky are interviewed separately]
'Virginia State Epileptic Colony'.
James Dean Bradfield: I've said these are the three songs that for me fit together, but with this one you get the overall cynicism of treatment trying to subjugate the intelligence of the patient kind of thing. You get the overall cynicism of somebody saying, there's not one thing you've told me that is gonna make me better. You get the overall cynicism of someone saying, just get the fuck out of my room and let me try and solve these problems myself. And it is heavily laced with sarcasm, the song. and that was the overriding thing, like I said before, just trying not to let anything else but the lyrics guide you, whatsoever.
And I guess again, if I came up with some kind of angular, out-of-step rhythm, it would just be wrong, it would just be wrong. And I might just be completely wrong about it, saying all these things. I might just have been over-thinking it at the time. I don't know. But it just felt as if this needed, as if I needed to be sympathetic to Richey's cynicism. It was as simple as that. And it was influenced by 'Outdoor Miner', a tiny bit, at the start, by Wire. Because there's the little piano bit. I don't always start out with a direct influence musically but you end up finding where the things have come from that you've gathered into a tune. It quickly became something else. But I also do feel it's a heavy, heavy dose of Richey just finding, doing a bit of research here and integrating it into his own experience.
Sometimes folk just go, why didn't you find this record a more emotional or dark experience than it actually seemed for you? And sometimes I just find it inspiring that Richey can kind of find the energy to investigate these things, and to turn it into something that was vaguely constructive for him at the time as an artist, that's what I find inspiring. I don't always, when we're making a record, I never find myself mired in thinking, oh, this is too much. It never ever feels like that, ever.
As John Niven said in the biography that came with the album, that Yeatsian thing of art growing out of 'the foul rag and bone shop of the heart'.
JDB: And when he was writing these, that was his whole raison d'etre, when he was doing these things, he was trying to articulate so many things. And that bank of TV screens in his head were flickering on and off, they were never off, they were always there.
And what's the audio sample on this?
JDB: Ahhhh (shakes head, puts finger to mouth). No clearance! I could tell you, but you would tell other people... it's Russian.
[Originally published: nme.com, 15 May 2009, interview conducted on 22 April 2009]