The Manic Street Preachers are revolting! In more than ways than one, too, with a new single, 'Revol', a new LP and a hot shot at Reading '94. Wales' most unlikely export blasts back into combat with stories of sin. Howard Johnson takes 'em down...
"The most surprising thing was that I didn't even get a stiffy, and I really thought I would. I suppose I'm easily turned on. The Graduate (famous '60s flick) still does it for me."
James Dean Bradfield and I are discussing the Manic Street Preachers' latest manoeuvres, and what is rapidly becoming a legendary sojourn in Bangkok. He's discussing his visits to the notorious sex bars of the Patpong district, where swim-suited, vacuous Thai girls gyrate for the pleasure of Western tourists. I'm surprised anyone could get the horn over such a sexless act, but the Manic Street Preachers always have the ability to surprise.
The band were invited into the heat, dirt and stench of Thailand's capital after a local DJ bombarded the city's radio listeners so relentlessly that they had no choice but to succumb to the fury of Wales' most unlikely export. Likewise, the Manics had no choice but to immerse themselves in this alien world of sin and depravation. It's hard to explain the effect to someone who hasn't been in the midst of Bangkok, but you find yourself leaving most of your Western ideas/ideals at the airport when you arrive.
Maybe it's the heat, because 'oppressive' is way too small a word to describe Bangkok. If it is, then no wonder the Manics went mental. James, guitarist Richey James, bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore all complain about the heat in the relatively sane London summer sunshine. Incessantly. Could this explain why Richey freely admits to having had sex of a sort with a hooker over there?
"I didn't. It was a hand-job. It was just something that I did. I've never been in love, I've never had a girlfriend, so I wasn't even being unfaithful to a memory. I'm always looking to see what will make me happy." And did it? "No. I felt nothing. I couldn't even put an emotion on it. It just passed a few hours."
It's conversations like this that help make the Manic Street Preachers as important as they are. Their honesty is a breath of fresh air, even when we're dealing with such potentially sordid subject matter. What also makes the band important is their music, an effusive explosion that owes its linear heritage to a head-on collision between intellect fed by university education and gut reaction instructed by an omnipresent trash culture. It's led to the most invigorating Rock music produced in the last five years and now threatens to enter a daring new phase with a new album, 'The Holy Bible', due out at the tail-end of August. From the three tracks I've aurally ingested ('Faster', 'PCP', and 'Revol'), it's a short, sharp shock and a kick away from last year's polished 'Gold Against The Soul' album, a return to the furious Punky roots that spawned their self-righteous white noise in the first place.
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"On the last album we lost the power to speak in tongues," explains James cryptically. "We were too objective in our approach. We were too theoretical about periphery stuff. We knew the industry had taken a down-turn. We knew how many albums our contemporaries had sold. It didn't help and it came out a bit too Brit Rock-ish. I think we became... bland. 'La Tritesse Durera' sounded like a video storyboard. 'Gold Against The Soul' was too songy, there was no linear directive."
You certainly couldn't accuse 'Faster', 'PCP' and'Revol' to be lacking in linear directive. And while I applauded 'Gold...' and still stand by the positive verdict, this new material is so edgy that it elevates the band to a new plane.
Commercially, Who knows?
"I don't know if it will be a commercial bomb," admits James. "But I'm glad we've done it. The Preachers are back."
"It's definitely more natural this time around," says Richey in a separate conversation. The two refuse to be interviewed together, as they'd just, "contradict each other all the time."
"We just went in to write some songs and ended up with an album very quickly. We decided we'd use a demo studio near us in Wales. Nobody bothered us, I picked everyone up from their places in the morning and dropped them back at night. It was like the days before we had a deal and that was good for us. We could have gone for the whole 'Bob Rock in Hawaii'-type thing, being pampered like babies, but the time wasn't right."
This band's enduring quality lies in this ethos and their dogged determination to direct a career as they see fit. It's not anti-careerist (the Manics have one of the most obvious work ethics of any band I've met), but it's anti-manipulative. Honesty is viewed as sacrosanct, even to their own detriment:
"We're not that popular with other bands," confesses Richey, "so we get no favours. It's a ditch that we've dug quite happily for ourselves. We don't hang around with other bands at festivals and that's perceived as arrogance, but why walk around a field when I can sit on the tour bus and watch a movie?"
What about this alleged run-in with Blind Melon?
"That was very strange, but it was true. We supported them at The Limelight in New York, and we supposed to be on stage at midnight. We ended up going on at three in the morning. They had to carry me on stage and everyone was just knackered and pissed off. Nicky just made some comments, and..." He shrugs his shoulders. "I actually like them. I'm a fan. But there you go. They've sold six million LPs and we've only played six American shows, so they must've played a better gig than us!
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America remains a sensitive subject for the Manics; the band's profile is so low there, it's ridiculous: "It's strange to have our third album on a major label coming out and still only to have played five gigs over there. It's nothing, especially when all our contemporaries have spent months there. Support tours we've been offered have all been with the wrong bands. There's no point doing three months with Prong, you know?!"
But it must bother you.
"I don't worry about it. We do well in South East Asia, so that keeps us solvent. I'd be happy to do six months playing on our own in America and not sell one extra record, 'cos at least we'd know that it didn't work there. If we go there and fall that's OK, but we don't want to ignore it."
Whether the recently adopted camouflage regalia will turn American heads remains to be seen. Possibly it'll inadvertently connect with a country that's obsessed with images of war and violence. Maybe it'll just get right up their Contra-cosseting noses!
"When we started the band we never thought of the ritual of touring," explains Richey. "We wore white jeans and spray-painted shirts, but they were really impractical, you couldn't keep them clean. Now there's always an Army & Navy store in any town, so you can always get hold of this stuff if you need to."
No more to it than that?
"Well, I've always been fascinated by films like The Deerhunter and Apocalypse Now and I just thought they looked cool."
So it's nothing to do with the revolutionary fervour of new single, 'Revol'?
"Yeah, probably. Revolutionary leaders are very powerful icons when you're young. They were all idealistic and ill-fated, 'cos power corrupts, but they are a very extreme symbol. They offered something to believe in, something that went sour. I linked that theme to the same theory with love. The words start off with love being all-consuming and fantastic and ends up falling apart with 'alimony, alimony' being repeated."
On the domestic front it seems like things are on an even keel for everyone aside from James. He seems reasonably in control, but confesses to having suffered from his fair share of emotional strife this past year.
"That's why I don't get off on this '70s vibe of setting too much store by human emotion. The worst things that have happened in my life have been because of human emotion. Living life day to day isn't enough. We need to be more futuristic from my bitter experience of life so far."
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James seems more confused than anything. On one hand he expounds the virtues of planning and control in making music, then admits he's not put these theories into practice in his personal life.
"I've been morally bankrupt since Christmas. Sometimes you need to glorify yourself a bit and I've done it by getting pissed all the time. Everyone else has been getting their life sorted. They've got partners, flats, houses, all that stuff. I haven't bought anything. I've got no girl and no flat! I'm like a stumpy tree that's been cut down!"
He's very uptight now.
"Everyone's too libertarian these days - and too spliffed-out! It's not a good combination. Andy Cairns (of Therapy?) always tells me that the only thing he hates is hippies! Even Richey's spliffed-out these days! It's a good job he's an academic, 'cos it only affects his short-term memory!"
Whatever you think of Manic Street Preachers - jumped-up pricks with half-baked theories or straight-talking, bullshit-avoiding beacons - there's no doubt that they are the most eclectic, most interesting, most edgy Rock band around. Revol into style!
Manics guitarist Richey James reveals the deep reasons behind his infamous arm-slashing stunt.
Richey James shocked the nation when he carved '4-Real' into his arm two years ago with a Stanley knife when questioned by a sceptical journalist about the band's true motivation. And he still has the scars to prove it! But why on earth did he do it?
"I just can't express what I feel when I'm pissed off," explains Richey. "I don't raise my voice or shout and I'm probably too polite for my own good. I'm not the kind of bloke who goes around blowing his top when things don't go right, because there's nothing you can do to change things, but I get really fed up and frustrated. When you cut yourself you feel so bad about doing it that when you wake up the next day you feel cleansed somehow. It's like when the air is really muggy and a good thunderstorm clears the air. That's the best analogy I can think of!"
So it's not drink that drives you on to do it?
"Not at all. The last time I did it was when we were in Bangkok and I'd only had a couple of vodkas and a beer. The reason I drink is to forget about problems, so when I'm drunk that's the last thing I'd be thinking about doing. Alcohol is sedation, not pain. When you get pissed you forget all your troubles and enjoy yourself."
[Originally published: Raw, 17 August 1994]