by Taylor Parkes
James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire talk about the traumatic year since Richey James' disappearance, the Culture Of Despair he inspired and their Number One album, 'Everything Must Go'
Nicky Wire, squinting into the bright blue of a closed window, begins the sentence, as he'll begin a lot of sentences this morning, with a small, offhand shrug.
"There's a song on the album called 'Further Away'. And when I wrote it, on the Suede tour in 1994, I was aware that, for the first time ever in my life, I was starting to grow away from Richey. He came out of The Priory, full of this 12-point recovery programme and all that shit, and he just wasn't the same person any more as far as I was concerned."
Shrugging again, he looks back at his feet, and starts fiddling with a loose scrap of paper.
"See... when we were growing up, me and him, we lived in the same street, and we'd have a football match every week between my side of the street and his side of the street, and play each other for this little trophy my dad had found on a rubbish tip... and Richey's nickname was Teddy Edwards, after the cartoon character, because he was so cuddly, and... we just generally had a blissful childhood, really. In the sense of being free. Especially Richey, up until he was about 16, when he just hit the wall. And when I was writing the song, I was aware that all those memories were just starting to fade away."
His face, half-shadowed, tilts back into the sunlight.
"I don't know, maybe that's what f***ed us up, not that we had bad childhoods, but that our childhoods were too good. That sense of freedom - we weren't just reading books or watching films, experiencing second-hand culture, we were, y'know, building a dam, messing around in dirt, things like that, which, looking back, seem much more worthwhile."
Finally, pausing, he looks at me.
"I suppose that's what it comes down to. You can never retain that sense of freedom."
Nicky's looking well, at least. Reserved but relaxed, chatting in a hotel bar on a bright hayfever morning (he's recuperating at the hotel after tearing a ligament in his shoulder). He's still a charmer, his voice never rising from that kittenish lilt. And he's still a gangly bastard, though there's a pot belly beginning to appear under the sports shirt.
The wide white teeth are bared more often in smiles than snarls these days; clues to the endless upheaval of the last two years (he's been receiving treatment for stress) only show when the talk turns, as it must, to Richey, at which point his pale and serene eyes mist up and moisten, stray from his trainers and fix on the sunlight shining through the window, or at some point in the middle distance, where the rest of the residents of the Regent's Park Marriot neck Perrier and discuss foreign trade.
How've you been?
"Oh, you know. Bearing up."
If there's anything disturbing about Nicky today, it's just this strange impassivity. You wouldn't call it apathy - he's at least as talkative and impassioned as the last time we met, almost two years ago - but nonetheless, it's easy to see that somewhere, somehow, at some point in the last 18 months, a light went out in Nicky Wire.
"I don't know, I haven't got any ambition left at all any more," he says. "All that young man's ambition's been sucked out of me. I don't want to tour the world and change people's lives anymore. I don't want to convert people to my way of thinking. All that's gone. It feels like we've given so much, and I just look back and think that maybe if we'd gone about things a different way we could all be sitting here now, healthy, happy, stable, successful people."
* * * * * * * * * *
James is looking well, at least. Clean-shaven with a fresh "Brideshead Revisited" crop, lively and smiling, he's telling me - between sips of whisky - how great he's feeling because he hasn't been drunk for about two weeks. He's still a tiny dynamo, a knot of gymnasium vigour and mumbled intensity, courteous and self-effacing.
If, a few months back, patrolling the parties and pubs of media London, he had the look of a man unsure quite what he was doing with the tail end of his twenties, what's most striking today is a certain regained zeal. He's even planning a move back to Wales.
"I've had a good time in London," he tells me, "but maybe I took the whole boy-about-town thing a bit far. In a lot of ways, living here was a bit of failure. I've got a much clearer head now, I know what I'm doing and I don't want to stay any longer."
If, today, Nicky's emotions are never far from the surface, James is altogether more pragmatic, admirably open on difficult subjects ("Ah, if I was a journalist, I'd be straight in there. We set ourselves up to be this honest, we can't back down now. We don't expect any charity"), but keeping enough in reserve to keep composed, committed.
"I'm never going to lose touch with myself, or with where I came from. The only destructive force I've ever had in my life is alcohol, and even that never got me in trouble, it just made me put on weight. I'm 27, I've been in this group for years, I think it'd take a MacFisto-like amount of redressing one's self-image to go off the rails now."
"A Design For Life", the first new Manic Street Preachers single in a year and a half, has done more than re-establish the band - it's propelled the Manics to a pop star status they'd once have seized and subverted, but which has, in arriving so late, brought only quiet satisfaction, and a desire to shrink from the limelight they longed for, long ago.
Contrary to claims in other papers, I never assumed, when reviewing the single, that the song - a confused-yet-crystal-clear critique/criticism of contemporary working-class culture - was "about the end of the world", but I did locate a certain "millenncholia", a deep millennial angst trembling there in the thunderclap chords and marshalled tumult.
In fact, the song's effect has been immeasurably positive, returning to the three Manics that hunger and immense pride that first inspired and galvanised the band, and had been all but pulverised by the insidious, inevitable advance of wealth and success, and by mad, monstrous circumstances.
"That was the song that really gave us the will to go on," James explains. "As soon as I read those lyrics... I immediately remembered where I came from.
"See, that's one thing that's always set us apart from other bands, that's always been our inspiration, the fact that we do believe in a certain class structure. Even last year, when I turned into Mr Rent-A-Party for a while, I always instinctively rejected certain values - I had the chance to become a Groucho Club regular and all that, hang around Soho House every night, but it never interested me. Where I come from, I've seen violence, I've been in stomach-churning fights, bones broken and everything, but even that doesn't turn my stomach as much as some of the things I see in London. The perpetuation of certain privileges, certain forms of so-called intelligence... that really horrific provincial violence seems more understandable, even more acceptable to me. Hah, cut to me in hospital three weeks time: 'Urrgh, why did I say that...?'"
Isn't the entire class structure - including working class culture - just a mechanism for keeping people in place?
"One thing I'm proud of," offers Nicky, "is that, where I come from, throughout the whole mining era, every colliery in every town gave money to build an institute, with a library, with complete access for free, which was a way of keeping your class, but having access to learning and education - that's why I ended up at university, for a start. And the fact is, now, almost every one of those institutes has been destroyed. So, 10, 20 years on, you've got this pitbull terrier working class, completely without pride, and you'd be very naive to think the working class had done that to themselves. It's down to an actual plan by the Conservative government to destroy the working class.
"'A Design For Life' was inspired by a library that's still standing in Newport, that was set up by miners in 1904, and there's a huge engraving over the door that says 'LIBRARIES GAVE US POWER'. And I still find things like that inspirational."
So, the album: "Everything Must Go". It's magnificent - that rumbling, nerve-nipping terror that made "The Holy Bible" so awful and so glorious is gone, displaced by a tough and uplifting sound that accepts chaos and crisis (traces of unrest remain within the older songs, notably Richey's "Kevin Carter" - a vicious, ambiguous requiem for the war photographer pushed to suicide by the pressures of new-found fame and the haunting horror of his Pulitzer Prize-winning shot), yet seems more than anything energised and resilient and, ultimately, somehow optimistic.
The touchstone is the title track, a monstrous, pulse-pumping, unashamed anthem that takes on the horror and the heartache of the Manics' recent history, and wins - it emerges as a testament to strength, to the band's own courage and fortitude, a song of survival. If Richey's songs ("Kevin Carter", the grim, rattling "Removables" and "Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky", a beautiful and possibly allegorical song about caged animals - plus two incomplete lyrics completed by Nicky, which the bassist "really, really didn't enjoy") sound rather like relics among the newer material, Nicky's "Everything Must Go" is the song that best sums up the mood of the album, the solemn determination at its core.
"We're well aware that we can never be the same band we were," admits Nicky. "Playing live is really difficult at the moment. Going through the motions... the day before we supported Oasis at Maine Road we played a warm-up gig at The Hacienda, and I remember the introduction to 'From Despair To Where?', looking over to where Richey would have been standing, swigging at a bottle of whisky, and there was no one there. And when we came offstage I virtually had a breakdown, I was just crying hysterically for about three hours, like a twat. The first time I'd been able to cry since the day they found his car.
"But that last night at The Astoria," he goes on, referring to the Manics' now-legendary Christmas 1994 London shows, "when we smashed everything up, we knew something was ending right there. We knew that, whatever happened next, something had finished. Nothing could replace that. Those last 10 minutes were the closest the four of us had felt to unadulterated happiness for years.
"And we'll never be that good again. And we had to change."
Despite the new album's tenacious tone, the Manics' place in history is fixed. Forever more: poets of the abyss, prophets of futility, synonymous with anorexia and self-mutilation, the latest in that old "Dark Stuff" lineage that seems so trite and juvenile when you stop to consider the human tragedy it takes as fuel.
Nicky's equally unimpressed.
"It's pretty upsetting because that myth has completely taken over what the band was originally about. When Richey went missing, I didn't get any kicks from this great rock'n'roll myth happening around me. It made me very, very ill.
"And originally, the band was never about self-hate anyway, it was about injustice in society, and with 'The Holy Bible' it became so inward looking, too inward looking for my liking, to be honest. It was never the intention to carry on in that vein, but now we're destined to be frozen in time as this myth. And the only way we could ever break out of that now is to completely shed all our old fans, which I don't want to do. Well... let's say, a SECTION of our old fans... those Cult Of Richey people... I dunno, it's up to them. If they wanna stay frozen in time, and they never like us again, fair enough."
Sometimes fans end up hating their idols, sometimes they just outgrow them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them. These people want you to suffer and suffer...
"I was never the same person as Richey. For a time we thought in a similar way, but ultimately, melancholia makes me happy. I mean, this album's very melancholic, but I think it gives you a certain warmth. But there are fans who'll never be happy until I'm cutting myself, or James is anorexic, whatever, and that's never, ever going to happen. Like in your review of the single, where you were saying, 'This was never the point of the Manic Street Preachers' - there's a certain section of our fans who'll never, ever accept that."
I take it you don't feel any responsibility.
Would it please you if these people just f***ed off and (in some cases, quite literally) died?
"It wouldn't please me, because I think connecting with those people was a positive thing, especially as no one else was giving them a voice at the time. And when your best friend was a genius, you don't want to throw away everything he stood for, just like that. But let's face it, we were never a fanclub kind of band, were we? We were hardly known for, you know, [cheesy grin] 'We love our fans'. We were never the kind of band who'd hang around signing autographs or whatever, but I think ultimately we gave them something a bit more special than that. We gave them a part of our lives."
I have to ask - are you aware of the damage you've done?
"That's a censorship argument. Ask Martin Scorcese that. Ask Brett Easton Ellis that. It's just people latching onto certain songs and making connections in their own heads, linking it all with this cult of Richey. I don't want to disappoint those people, but I wrote most of the words to 'La Tristesse Durera', 'Roses In The Hospital' - almost all the words in those songs are mine."
James looks uneasy.
"Am I aware of the damage we've done? I'm certainly aware that too many people realised they could aggrandise themselves through 'The Holy Bible'. Maybe that the album did turn a few psyches around. The one thing I am slightly regretful about is that you go and see a film like 'Seven' and you realise that most people can't become what they want these days, and the one thing you can become is a killer. It's the easiest thing in the f***ing world.
"And there's a parallel there, people taking the easiest route out of having to fulfil their ambitions, equating 'The Holy Bible' with some sense of unrest that they feel themselves and thinking, Ah, right - copycat. Richey wouldn't have found those people interesting. For a start, he was too vain to admire people like himself; it's well documented that Richey was very cynical about these people. He got so sick of anorexics coming up and offering him f***ing peaches. I'm not suggesting that all these people are fakes. But I think a lot of them are selling themselves short. And I think they need to be told."
Nicky again: "The scary thing is, we did know exactly what we were doing when we made that album. Because, funnily enough, when we were making it, we were having a really good time. Richey was going through a good period, we were recording in Cardiff, close to home, no one from the company was around to influence what we were doing, and that's why it's so clear and concise. You couldn't make an album like that if you were actually feeling the way the record would suggest, because you wouldn't have the discipline.
"But, as I say, there are people who are just frozen in time at that point, and will not allow themselves to move on. I can't deal with it when it gets to the stage where they start writing us letters in their own blood. I've got enough to worry about at the moment, if you know what I mean. I don't want to have to take on their problems as well. I can't feel responsibility for these people, or the people who think we're crap because Richey's not in the band any more.
"I mean, I've got memories of Richey that no one would even want to know - Richey coming round my house and playing on the Sega, this time in a bar in Portugal when he started doing the Moonwalk in front of all these people staring, and me thinking, 'Well he's not tortured tonight, he's just pissed' - because they just want to think of him in his room reading and chopping himself up. I really, really resent that. Maybe if they lost some of their preconceptions..."
It's just not that, it's the way so many seem so happy to assume that easy, destructive victim role...
James: "One thing I know is that towards the end, Richey became very obsessed with some kind of victory over himself. He really didn't want to be a loser. But, because we haven't got a clue what the f*** happened to him, people can't take that as a testament in blood, that he failed or he succeeded. All I know is that, as I say, towards the end, he was totally obsessed with this idea of victory. Which makes you think... it's only an assumption, but... maybe he wanted to divorce himself from everything he created?"
There's always been motion in the Manics history. In however ghoulish a way, there's always been something to hold the attention. Which always contributed to that immense and immensely healthy distance between Manic Street Preachers and other, more slovenly bands.
Now that you've reached some kind of plateau, what's left to separate the Manics from anyone else?
James is ready for this.
"Well, quite a lot, I think. For instance - OK, this isn't typical Manic Street Preachers tittle tattle, right, attacking other groups - I think Damon Albarn takes a lot of unnecessary flak, I love 'The Universal', I love 'For Tomorrow' and 'To The End'. But there are other songs of his where he treats characters as completely disposable. As if life's a peepshow for him - you know, from the perspective of a well-off pop star, he pays his pound, looks at all the funny little lives, writes a few lines about them and that's that. And I don't think we've ever done that. If we use characters in our songs - 'Kevin Carter', '4st7lbs' - then they're never, ever treated like that.
"What I'm saying is that, as long as we're the absolute antithesis of another main voice in pop music, then that's justification. A lot of groups who're massive right now, like Blur or especially Pulp, they've got big by creating a certain empathy with their audience. And I don't think we're doing that now. Maybe with 'The Holy Bible', but not now. This record, it's not arms outstretched, fingers touching... I think we've put the shutters down on that at a time when a lot of bands have started using it as a way to get on. We don't have the same agendas we used to have. And yeah, that will turn a lot of people off us."
Can you understand that response?
"But how much are we really going to lose? There hasn't been any massive shift in our values, or in our feelings."
If you start off working at a certain level of intensity, you'll always be judged by that. It's easy, especially in a world as impatient and unforgiving as pop, to be rendered irrelevant by your past actions.
"We'll never be a conventional rock band."
Why so sure?
"Just because of the people we are, for a start. It depends - do you think R.E.M. are a conventional rock band?"
"Well, you'll probably think we'll become a conventional rock band, then."
There's an irony: Nicky Wire goes the same way as Michael Stipe...
"It's not the worst thing in the world. But then again, I think the last Rolling Stones album was great. 'Love Is Strong'. 'You Got Me Rocking'..."
Would you be happy to end up the same way? Dancing cadavers? The final betrayal in a career that fed on broken promises, elevated betrayal to an artform? It was nothing. We were only a band. We just wanted to rock.
James: "I'd feel ashamed if we made bad albums but we still carried on. Mojo, issue 502: the album 'The Carpet Is Dirty' wasn't very good, but there's one stand-out track, 'Ice'. I'll only be happy if we keep changing and moving forward, which is perhaps why the second album upset me a bit. I'm very protective about our history, and I wouldn't want to sully it."
Maybe if you can't pinpoint exactly what it is about your work that inspires people, you can't consciously continue it?
"I know what I think made us special," says Nicky, "but spiritually, for others, I haven't got a clue. Except maybe...too much truth?"
Maybe the Manics were always about "too much" full stop. Too much information, too much thought, too much restraint - and then, later, too much of a whole number of yet more destructive things.
Until now: these days, everything's very measured, very clinical, everything's in its place. The lyrics are more coherent, there's less confusion; after all the smokebombs and screaming, there's a certain dignity about the new record, a stately, damaged grace.
And is that enough? James claims they never once considered changing the name of the band ("We were using Richey's lyrics, he never did much in the studio anyway, it just felt like we were working on a Manic Street Preachers record") - but for as long as the Manic Street Preachers exist, so must all the doubt, the perpetual scrutiny they always encouraged, never once tried to dodge.
"I do feel pressure, more to become a replacement for Richey than anything," admits Nicky. "And I'm certainly not going to do that. We're not even going to get another guitar player in, ever, even though we could do with one. Mind you, they wouldn't exactly be queuing up for that one, would they? 'Guitar player required. Must mutilate himself onstage and carry impossible demands on shoulders forever'..."
And, for as long as the Manic Street Preachers exist, there will always be a past that sucks and wastes. Always, stage right, an empty space.
Nicky takes a deep breath and gazes back into the light - way, way past me.
"I know you can never escape your past. Sometimes I just feel frightened when I look back over our career. 'Enola/Alone', from the new album, was totally inspired by looking back at my wedding photos, and I see Philip [Hall, Manics' manager and publicist who died at the end of 1993], and Richey, looking happy and handsome, and I'm just thinking that they're not there any more. And I'm thinking that I'd rather be Number 47 in the charts and still have those people there than anything else. But then there's the dichotomy: was that what made us such a fantastic band? The fact that we took it all further than that?"
He looks almost apologetic. Almost.
"I mean, we've got all the lyrics Richey left, which we'll probably never use - although, to be honest, they're not as grotesque as 'The Holy Bible'. Maybe one day we'll just publish the manuscripts as a book, I don't know. It wouldn't feel comfortable to do anything with them right now."
Another shrug, another pause. A sad, quick-fading smile.
"The hardest thing is just trying to speak on his behalf, for fans' sakes. You get so paranoid, having to watch what you say, and - ah ha - I've never been very good at keeping things in. Richey was never a 'fan' person anyway, and then there's always the fear that he'll be reading it somewhere with a big beard, thinking 'you twat'... all I can say is that, wherever he is, whatever he's doing, I hope he's happy. Whether that's in heaven, or in a factory in Bridlington. It would've been nice to let us know something, but if this is how it has to be, then OK."
Again, he looks me in the eye. Nicky Wire's looked a lot of people in the eye over the years. Sometimes in anger, sometimes laughing. Or making war. Trying to suggest commitment to some impossible masterplan; watching for signs of outrage as the sacred cows go down. Teasing, challenging, taunting, disparaging.
This time round, he simply sighs.
"You know... I just hope he's at peace."
[Originally published: Melody Maker, 1 June 1996]