Was part of the reason you took so long to return to these lyrics that you were reluctant to have that very personal part of your lives picked over again?
James Dean Bradfield: There are many reasons, but they're all tied up with the same thing. First of all we had to know what being a three-piece meant, first of all, when Richey went missing. And obviously 'Design For Life' helped us crystallize a vision of what we could be without Richey. Or what we had to be. And then once you realise it's just the three of you for now, you get on with life. It's as simple as that. But the subject of Richey is unavoidable. Although over years I got fed up of the B-moviefication of Richey.
I do sometimes get a tiny bit fed up of people trying to imagine what kind of person he would be now, or I get fed up of people imagining what he actually did, did he disappear or is he living in a monastery somewhere... and I get fed up with this kind of horrible tacky TV movie version of what the possibilities of Richey being or what he was or what he would think or what he would feel. And it was kind of, after all those years of just letting kind of those things wash over you, ultimately we'd let enough time elapse that there wouldn't be anything tasteless about doing this.
And it was a relief to not actually trade in hearsay or myth or speculation, we could really just trade in something real. We could just say, these are his lyrics. They are typed. This is the binder, we have three copies of this book. We can trade in something real. We can try and interpret something that Richey actually did. Something he actually felt. And it's a relief to actually, it's got nothing to do with setting the record straight, it's just that you actually manifested something that's real about Richey rather than something imagined.
With all the talk about living up to the responsibility of it, it does seem like something you've enjoyed as well, rather than a burden or a task.
Yeah, setting the subject of Richey aside for a second, after the first three days in the studio, I actually started feeling happy that we were in a band, and we had this wishlist. And that wishlist was in front of our eyes. The first thing we said was we wanted Steve Albini, who we'd harboured ambitions to work with for a long time. We knew that on the horizon, Jenny Saville had made positive noises about saying yeah, I'd love to give you a painting, I just need to hear a record.
And the first week in the studio, we were actually like, God, we're really fucking lucky to do this. We've got Richey's lyrics, we've made contact with Jenny Saville and she seems open to it, Steve Albini's stood in front of me. It's pretty fucking good being a band sometimes. And I was able to really enjoy myself for the first couple of weeks in the studio. And then you get kind of caught up in having little arguments about whether a song's right or not, and that's just part of the drudgery of being in a band. Not drudgery, but it's normal stuff to us. And after a while, you know, there were days where I wouldn't have any loaded thoughts about what we were trying to do for Richey, we were just making a record. Some days.
And I remember when we first arrived in the studio, there was a weird moment, you know, I arrived from my flat in Cardiff. I know Rockfield really well, because it's where we did 'If You Tolerate This...' and 'Masses Against The Classes' and I got out the car, and I walked into the studio, and I didn't see Steve Albini in the control room, so I walked through to the live room, where they did 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and stuff like that, and he was stood there, and he had his overalls on and he had his round glasses on, and it was a really strange moment for me. Like, 'fuck me, he actually got on the plane!'.
I didn't think he'd fucking come. And then two days later, because the day I went to Rockfield Studios, which is a place I absolutely love, I gotta say, but the morning I woke up to go there I was listening to 'Reel To Real Cacophony' and 'Sons And Fascination' by Simple Minds. Because I love those early Simple Minds records, they're a deeply misunderstood band, because their first four albums are just fucking genius. Because they were done in Rockfield, those records. And I was listening to those records before 'The Holy Bible', so I thought I'd listen to them again, just for a traditional sort of superstition thing.
And we arrived at Rockfield, and someone said, 'Oh yeah, Simple Minds are next door'. And I was like, that's a bit weird. And then a couple of days later, I walked into the kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee, and Jim Kerr was sat there. There were just weird little echoes around the place. And I'm not a superstitious person, I'm not even that spiritual, but there were little echoes everywhere. Jim Kerr, when he was writing the lyrics to 'Empires And Dance', I thought it was fucking genius. Not enough people say it.
So he was sat there, and I was talking away, and I started unloading all this stuff on him, and he started getting scared because I was such a trainspotter... but there was just something that felt right about it being in Rockfield. There were just little signs everywhere that I was gonna enjoy the process. 'The process', as wankers say...
You said you might issue all of the lyrics as a book?
JDB: Might do, might do. It's loose at the moment. We still wanted to make a record. There was vague talk about when the record came out, trying to do it simultaneously. But we decided that we still wanted Richey to be part of the band. We didn't want to make him too much of an art statement, I mean, we had the Jenny Saville thing on the cover. We need to see how people react to the record first, I think. We need to see that. And I think we really used the best lyrics in the booklet. I don't think there's stuff still in there that could have made the album.
One of the lyrics you mentioned in the past being in the ones that Richey left you was the one about cutting the feet off a ballerina. Was that one of the ones that was too impenetrable to use?
JDB: You know what, I don't know, and it's because Richey made the original copy of the lyrics, and Nick got the original copy. And then Richey made two other successive versions that were a bit more photocopied from the original, and they have different covers. And there are one or two lyrics that are missing from the copies. And I don't think I've got that one in my book. And I haven't obsessively been through Nick's to see which lyric that is actually. Because I remember Nick saying that he thought Bloc Party used that line.
They did, yeah, in 'Where Is Home'? I assume they referred to it because they were fans.
JDB: I think the bass player in Bloc Party is a Manics fan. Of course, Nick's version of the book, the original is all kind of perfectly spotless, where he preserved it, whereas mine is all sort of crumpled, because I kept getting it out over the years and then putting it back in the drawer because it was too scary. Like that scene from Friends, putting a copy of The Shining in the freezer because it's too scary. And I could feel the drawer going dum-dum-dum, let me out! Let me be! But I don't think I've got that one in my copy.
How did you feel about them using that line?
JDB: Oh, fine. We've pillaged enough from people...
Let's talk about 'Virginia State Epileptic Colony'.
Nicky Wire: This is a lyric that we didn't change much at all. For me it kind of resonates back to the Small Black Flowers thing of being trapped, of the mundane nature of life. Which I think is a weird thing, that it almost seems sometimes like a celebration. We were all sort of bedroom, routine people, me and Richey especially. We had no room for chaos, we couldn't work under chaos, we weren't kind of classic rock'n'roll style at all. That Nietzschean ethic, if you like, of order and strength. But that seems to be falling apart, this does seem to relate much more to personal trappings.
I mean, I don't know that much about the Epileptic Colony myself, but the Andrew Marr program on Darwin that was on recently, they covered this, because there was a huge number at this period, about 500, because they used Darwin as an excuse. It was between 60-150,000 people over this long period that were sterilised, it became eugenics, with supposed defects. I don't know how that relates, is he saying, I wanna be sterilised, I wanna be incapable? I don't know.
It's been an eye-opener to me today, because that theme of doctors or institutions trying to really stamp their authority does seem to have come through, and it's a bit of an eye-opener to me. I personally always found that sort of thing easy to resist, maybe because there's part of me that always wanted to conform. But I never felt that Richey felt he was like persecuted in that sense. Not persecuted, but I guess when you're under that much pressure when you've had that sort of breakdown, you obviously feel different.
In the booklet, which you get with the special edition, there's a Scottish clan motto, I think it's MacDonald [Stewart] which is something like 'The wound makes you stronger' [Courage grows strong at the wound]. And that's quite a big thing in this booklet, he's got it in there. But he doesn't seem to be so strong on this. It does seem to be that he's feeling the pressure more, or he's come to some more brutal conclusions. But I guess all The Holy Bible was lived before the real shit happened, so perhaps he did feel some more mental strength then.
[The song is] Genuinely authentic post-punk. I think James got a documentary from Sean for Christmas, about soldiers... and all the Russian murmurings in the track might be from that.
'William's Last Words'
NW: There's two ways I look at it. Either it genuinely is about someone else, because I know we've said to you, I know when he was in the institution in Cardiff, he was writing a lot. And you can't avoid it in those places, it's not like The Priory with your own room. Either that, or as I said it's a giant analogy from The Entertainer and Archie Rice, that kind of sadness at the end of the career I know he loved that film, and it reminds me a bit of that.
But I didn't pick those lines out, because I wrote the music for this, I didn't pick those lines out on purpose, it isn't like I wanted to make it seem more applicable to the situation, I was just drawn phonetically and in terms of the music, because I write quite simple songs, and when I played it to James and Sean, they weren't shocked, but there was a bit of a lump in the throat.
I think a track called Primitive Painters by Felt which me and Richey used to play to death at university. There's definitely an influence of that on there. Out of tune Lou Reed vocal (laughs), a bit of Caramel by Blur. But it's definitely from a more indie background than some of the other tracks. James added the most beautiful Jimmy Page guitar, which kind of falls like a waterfall over the whole piece. I mean the ending the wake up happy stuff, that is quite like the ending of the piece of prose.
If I remember rightly, that is quite towards the end. But there is a sense of calm in it, there is a sense of if it is some kind of goodbye, it's like, I know what I'm doing, it's probably the only thing I can do, I'm not insane, it's not something I've taken lightly. Because I do feel that. There's very little comfort to be had from someone disappearing, but if you do feel that they've done it from their own accord with some sense of clarity that there is no other way for them, I think that as a friend and a bandmate you just have to somehow accept that.
NW: We did think, 'Does this sound like we're trying a bit too hard to sound like The Holy Bible?' Someone really shook me and James up yesterday by pointing out that after William's Last Words the first line of Bag Lady is I Am Not Dead, as if it was meant to be some kind of resurrection! I hadn't realised that. That is not something we contemplated.
For me, on The Holy Bible, Die In The Summertime had some of the most biting images, and this one as well. I'm kind of sure that he did say this was about someone he met in the hospital, he took a lot of stuff down verbatim. This was a comparatively long lyric, about a page. And it does seem to be about a female, quite a successful lawyer who has, for want of a better word, lost it.
I suppose the danger with all of these songs would be to assume that they're all about Richey himself.
NW: Yeah, I think it would because in the songs and in the ones we haven't written up as well, there was so much context, and I don't think it's entirely internalised. Like I said, if you're consuming that much culture, I think he'd be pretty insane to connect everything to himself. You know... I don't think he's comparing himself to Giant Haystacks.
[Originally published: nme.com, 19 May 2009, interview conducted on 22 April 2009]