by Jon Savage
What follows is a transcript of an interview done with Nicky Wire and Jon Savage in February 1996, during which Nicky agreed to talk frankly and on the record about Richey James' continued disappearance and its impact on the group. It is to be hoped that these answers... ...will reduce the need for further questioning on the subject.
Jon Savage: The single, "A Design For Life" seems to be about Blackwood, going back to where you started.
Nicky Wire: "A lot of people think that "A Design For Life" is quite negative, but it's almost heroic, in the sense that whatever is thrown at the working classes by the upper classes, we will always come through. That's what the lyric is about: we always come back with something better. Whatever you say, there is a working class in this country and I think it's got more talent that any other class. All my favourite bands are the same, working class people with pretensions. The first single we did with Heavenly Records, "You Love Us", it's got on the cover Travis Bickle, Pete Townsend, William Burroughs. It does sum up everything we loved at the time, and we haven't really changed, they are still the things we go back to for comfort. So it's going back, it's rediscovering what we always liked about our youth".
JS: The single sounded very focused, more direct than "The Holy Bible".
NW: "When James wrote the tune, he phoned me up that night and played it down the phone to me, and he had the complete vision of how it was going to sound, an old Motown record, a bit of REM, a bit of Ennio Morricone, which we don't always have. Fortunately, we're better players now and it's a bit easier to nail it".
JS: Tell me about "Everything Must Go".
NW: "We recorded it in this little recluse in Normandy, which is like being in Wales. It's in this big chateau, it's the old Abbey Road desk, it's all wood. "The Beatles" and "Dark Side Of The Moon" were recorded on it. It actually does sound very warm. It's such a relief when you can't speak the language because no-one can speak to you. You just say a few words: Coke or Mars bar, and that's it. Mike Hedges was really nice as a producer. We did seventeen tracks and we're going to pick twelve for the album".
JS: Can we go back a bit and talk about some of the misconceptions. You and Richey both wrote the lyrics, how did that work?
NW: "We used to sit down and write lyrics together. It's very rare for any band. Sometimes I would just have a title and he would write the song, sometimes we would write them together. For example, "Little Baby Nothing" was my title, but Richey wrote all the verses, I wrote the end. "Roses In The Hospital", I wrote virtually all of that. With "The Holy Bible", obviously Richey's state of mind dictated that he wrote many more of the lyrics. I had just got married and moved into a new house and I didn't want to write about death camps and mutilation. I had a lot of songs stored up then but I still wrote about 30% of the record".
JS: Would you say your writing style is more direct than Richey's?
NW: "He was black and I was white. I'm not pretending to be the same kind of lyricist as Richey on this album I don't reach the depths of madness and self-hatred that he did".
JS: Do you think the sensationalism of the early days is a help or a hindrance?
NW: "It would be wrong to say we regretted it. We could have sold a lot more records if we'd done a debut album that was ten songs just like "Motown Junk" and played the game a bit more carefully but I prefer bands when they're messy and sprawling and epic, and they make mistakes. Philip Hall always encouraged me to be controversial, always".
JS: Do you still feel that need?
NW: "I do deep down. That was the difference between me and Richey, he always wanted to be understood but I preferred being misunderstood. I get strength from feeling that no-one likes me, that I'm being anti-fashion.
JS: Can we talk about Richey now? I suppose one of the most disturbing things with hindsight, is that you expect pop music and performance to be about some kind of artistic projection rather than strict autobiography. Was that a problem for Richey, that it was very autobiographical, that people didn't see the warning signs?
NW: "I've always felt that for all of us, there was a massive self-fulfilling prophecy, that we would implode. I always thought Richey would be the first. We did what we could, but I always felt something would happen, not to the extreme that it has. The first thing that we said in an interview was that we were going to set fire to ourselves on "Top Of The Pops". You don't say things like that for the sake of it, you do actually believe those things when you're young. If you'd gone into any of our houses, any of the four of us, you'd see all the books and all the videos, all the same, all negative. Depression, suicide, alcohol, that's what we all found interesting".
"The whole thing is hard to document, sometimes you can say carving 4 REAL into your arm, that's suicidal but then for a year or two it went away, and then with "The Holy Bible" it came back. From the time we went to Thailand on, I felt something was going to give. When we released "Faster", from then on, I felt something wasn't right. Everything caught Up with us".
"It's not like the Kurt Cobain thing, because we spoke to Richey every single day for the last five years, there wasn't a day where I didn't speak to him. The first time I didn't speak to him, I called his parents, rushed down there and he was in a state.
JS: It seems to me that you're in an impossible situation. If someone close to you dies, it's difficult anyway; you have the shock and then you have the stages you go through, anger, grief, acceptance, whatever. That takes a long time anyway, but if you don't know, that must be all the more difficult.
NW: "It's suspended, mixed up. At the end of the day, you can't feel grief, because you don't know if he's dead. You feel anger, sympathy and sadness. The thing is, the tragedy lies on a personal level. On a professional level, as a professional band, it doesn't really come into it. You don't think 'oh, the band's fucked'. We've known each other too long for that. It's the personal element that is the hardest to take".
JS: Do you have a gut feeling about Richey, one way or the other?
NW: "Personally, I still think he's alive, although I've got no physical evidence or reason to think that he is. But I do. I've spoken to people about this who say you're just trying to block it out, that I've just got to accept that he's dead but how can you accept that he's dead, when there's no body, no evidence whatsoever? It's irrational".
"We slept in the same bed together for about six months. We shared a room in every hotel. I've know him since I was six but if someone wants to disappear, they can. It's not very hard at all. It really isn't".
JS: Will there be any of Richey's songs on the new record?
NW: "Some of the songs were written while he was still around. Three or four songs are Richey's lyrics: two of them are co-written, we did them old style, and two of them are completely his. They're pretty heavy going. There's one track called "Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky", which he wrote about getting borne in zoos and just going mad with boredom, but if you read it, you'd just think it was about him".
"We were thinking it might be better to put them out on an EP later but somehow I think if he's out there, he'd like to hear his songs. We've done the things like set up a trust fund for him so all his publishing goes to him, which is horrible because legally you can't say he's dead anyway. It takes seven years. I speak to his parents and his sister every week and they really want us to put this record out, because they think it might flush him out".
JS: Obvious question, why did you keep the name?
NW: "We did consider changing the name and starting over again, and we probably would have done if we knew he was dead. It would be more like a Joy Division/New Order thing then. It was an imponderable position really to consider changing our name, it was about the last thing on our minds, really?
JS: How have you personally coped with the situation?
NW: "There's one line on the album that says: "All I want to do is live no matter how miserable it is ..". I'd rather live in total misery until I'm 150 than die. With Philip and Richey, it's been very hard, I don't know how we've managed to make records through it, but the last three years have brought home to me how precious life is, even if it is miserable. I'd rather be alive than anything else".