A couple of weeks back, I did the interview I’ve been waiting to do most of my adult life (and a bit before): Manic Street Preachers. This band were my first big obsession. They introduced me to books, music, films and ideas that would otherwise never have entered my world, and sounded utterly thrilling while they did it.
So naturally, the night before, I got no sleep for shaking. I fretted pointlessly: James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire (Sean Moore was on paternity leave) were totally charming, open and detailed in their answers, wickedly funny, and of course, impeccably dressed.
Cutting down all the amazing things they said, the amazing stories they told me, to make this week’s NME cover feature (out today) felt a little bit like cutting bits off my first-born child to put it in a (really nice) box. So, starting today and continuing in daily instalments all week, here are the bits I couldn’t squeeze into the mag piece.
You’ve said that the time just felt right to use the lyrics that Richey left behind. What in particular had changed?
James Dean Bradfield: For me, personally, I suppose it was the fear of having to make music that could live up to the lyrics. There were lots of other factors, but it did start like, that there was a factor of ‘Would it be tactless to even 10 years after…?’. It just needed to feel as if the distance between the event of Richey’s disappearance and us coming to an understanding of the lyrics, it needed just to be a long time, really. You just gotta let the dust settle in a very natural way, and you can’t take a guess when that’s gonna happen. But I think the overriding responsibility was actually being able to make music that lived up to the lyrics.
Nicky Wire: I think ‘Send Away The Tigers’ was a huge help. I think if we hadn’t come back and had that success and reaffirmed ourselves as just a glorious rock band… we’re not saying it’s the most inventive, far-reaching album we ever made, but it just made us feel young again and it got us back into the consciousness of whatever it is, the NME, the radio, just all those things. If we’d done this album after ‘Lifeblood’, I think people would have said, ‘Oh, they’re just trying to resurrect their career’. But the fact is we’d resurrected our career with ‘Send Away The Tigers’. We were just in the back of a car, and James just said, ‘I think it’s time’, you know… kind of side-stepping the treadmill, to do something as an art project rather than putting us under the pressure of coming up with another gigantic hit.
JDB: I prefer the fear of pure creativity to the fear of knocking out another Number Two single.
NW: As you do! And I think the Godlike Genius award, although we’d decided before then, that did reaffirm, that did feel like it was for the four of us. It didn’t feel like there was three of us on the stage. It really did feel like that summation of our career, that gigantic part of our career, that perfect symmetry was with Richey.
JDB: I’m not saying the record company or our manager, Martin, were against the idea, but I’m sure in the back of their minds…
NW: They were worried.
JDB …In the back of their minds they’d have rather we tried to follow up ‘Send Away The Tigers’ and particularly ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’. So we didn’t take the easiest option.
NW: (jokingly) They were like, ‘Can’t you get a blonde Swedish singer to something over the top?’…
But when we looked at the lyrics, it was just the brilliance of the lyrics, I’d forgotten how much I missed him as a lyricist, how much of a fan I am of his intellect, and his fierce, kind of, rigorous critique of culture, and all those things made me realise I could never do what he did, and it’d be wrong for me to even try.
JDB: And finally, I do think it gave us all a chance to almost sort of act the same role in the band. Nick wrote the music to ‘Marlon JD’, half of ‘She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach’, half of ‘Peeled Apples’, and all of ‘William’s Last Words’. And it gave us chance to actually just all be, in a strange way, musicians. Just musicians interpreting somebody else’s words, even if it was somebody that we were incredibly close to and we knew very well.
When you talk about writing music to live up to the lyrics, how much did you keep it in your mind, like, ‘what would Richey have thought of this particular sound’? Or was it more living up to the lyrics in your own estimation?
NW: I think it was living up to them for ourselves. Because in all honesty, when we did ‘The Holy Bible’, James was the musical tour de force, it’s not like Richey was like, ‘Can you make this one sound like Magazine, or this one sound like Siouxsie And The Banshees?’, it never worked like that. He never came, well he did… something like ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’ which he heard before he disappeared, he absolutely loved the track. He obviously loved stuff like ‘Of Walking Abortion’, ‘Mausoleum’, ‘Faster’. I think there is elements of that on there. But it doesn’t matter, that’s not our driving force, it’s just that the lyrics had to… they dictated the mood, I think, of the record. And they’re slightly different to ‘The Holy Bible’. The lyrics are much less full of utter hatred and putrefaction of the human race. And there is a surreal sense of humour in some of them as well.
A lot of the anger of ‘The Holy Bible’ was quite positive, in a way, quite purgative. But some of the lyrics on ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ feel… not exactly defeated, but there’s a more sort of closed…
JDB: Serene and resigned.
NW: Yeah, I think there is a sense of more calm. It’s like, he’s been through this process of doubting everything and questioning everything. And the conclusions he reached, they’re not particularly happy. But it does seem like he’s reached them, he’s been through the process. There’s less railing against the world. There’s less chance of solving a problem, there’s more chance of recognising what it is, and accepting it, after this really rigorous process of ingesting everything. But then, he’s not around, so we can’t say for sure.
When you came to interpret the lyrics, in the way they were written down, when you were editing, were there any sort of ambiguities of grammar, or moments where you though, I’m not sure, by editing this, that you might change the meaning?
NW: For me the only one really was ‘William’s Last Words’, because that is probably two pages of A4, and it was obviously condensed into a very short lyric. And when you hear it now, it obviously sounds very autobiographical, and very sad and like some kind of goodbye. The original does seem to be about a character, Richey was fascinated with the film The Entertainer with Laurence Olivier, Archie, you know, the sad music hall kind of thing. There’s obviously huge analogies when you’re reading it, because it does seem to relate to him. But to edit that down… All the rest were pretty much lyrics, weren’t they?
JDB: Yeah, ‘William’s Last Words’ and ‘Bag Lady’ were the only two written as pure prose.
NW: But you know, Richey was a master of the lyric and he treated it as his art form. ‘William’s Last Words’, perhaps, maybe that could have been the next step that he was going for.
JDB: Along those lines, I think the only thing that was confusing was say in a song like ‘Me And Stephen Hawking’, or what’s another one, perhaps ‘Peeled Apples’, there are some verses where the intent or meaning behind the words were actually… I couldn’t unlock it. I couldn’t understand it at all. And that might be a bit shocking, because there might appear to be some lyrics on the record already which are quite hard to understand. But there were some stuff which actually seemed like the key had just been chucked away to the meaning of them.
NW: For the first time ever, it’s just not worth a debate about a lot of these words, because I just don’t… because we weren’t in that state of mind. I just wasn’t reading that much! You know, he was reading fucking six books a week! He couldn’t sleep, he had bad, really terrible insomnia, post-treatment. He just seemed like he had an utter inability to switch off, so that everything was coming out in these words. You’d need to do quite a lot of research just to spot the references.
JDB: I would think I was being intelligent just by reading a novel that none of my friends had read before, but sometimes he was just, reading like the teachings of the eighth pope. Or something that was beyond my grasp.
NW: So I don’t think we’ve changed the meanings of any of the songs, I think we’ve done a really sensitive job, and some of them only a couple of lines have gone anyway. ‘Jackie Collins…’, ‘Virginia State Epileptic Colony’ I think are pretty much exactly verbatim. So… it’s not that much different to what he always did. You know, he’s always handed us lyrics. I mean when James first saw ‘Yes’, I mean that was almost like a piece of prose in some ways, wasn’t it?
JDB: Yeah, in the past, you know, just because he would hand you some lyrics that it actually seemed it might be impossible to put music to them, didn’t mean that they weren’t written as lyrics.
NW: (cackles at length) Or that’s what you thought!
JDB: (chuckles) So that kind of process hadn’t changed.
NW: He wasn’t looking for an Ivor Novello, was he, the boy. He was looking for a Pulitzer Prize.
JDB: And strangely, I’ve never thought about it, but he was never looking to be compared to any other lyricist.
NW: No, he wasn’t, no. He just wanted to be JG Ballard.
Did you find the individual nature of his lyrics pushed your songwriting around them in a certain direction, that maybe it hadn’t been for a while?
NW: Oh definitely, James might be too humble to say this, but he definitely touches places that I can’t. And therefore, it does push James to write music in a different way. Because it’d be embarrassing if I tried to do that, you know. Became all jagged! And angular! And compounded by so many references… it’d be embarrassing if I tried to be him. But it does push you in other ways.
JDB: Yeah no, I think subconsciously we put some songs together on the record, I mean like ‘All Is Vanity’ leads into ‘Pretension/Repulsion’. And ‘All Is Vanity’ is quite self-explanatory what that deals with… that deals with just hating those momentary lapses of just falling into narcissism and then realising perhaps that even the appreciation of yourself is just useless. And then that leads into ‘Pretension/Repulsion’, which mentions Odalisque by Ingres, which talks about the idealisation of beauty, or what is ugliness. I love the way that ‘All Is Vanity’ deals with one issue and ‘Pretension/Repulsion’ seems to resolve it for me. In a strange, kind of twisted way. ‘Pretension/Repulsion’ could pretty much be another song that just said ‘I have no judgement in my eye, I cannot behold anything’.
NW: It’s one of the greatest rock couplets ever: “Shards, oh shards, the androgyny fails/Oadlisque by Ingres, extra bones for sale”. That’s never gonna appear by anyone else. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
JDB: It makes me think in a different way, but… I’m not just trying to boast round Nick, but on ‘Send Away The Tigers’ I’m just used to dealing with lyrics that people don’t have to sing, you know. The first lines of ‘Send Away The Tigers’ are “There’s no hope in the colonies/So catch yourself a lifeline/Things have gone wrong too many times/So catch yourself a slow boat to China”. You know, it’s not like I’m not used to having to pay attention to the words when I sing them. If I wasn’t used to it by now I would just be an absolute dummkopf.
So, how much do these 13 tracks represent of the whole of the notebooks that Richey left you?
The original one was an old kind of Ryman’s ring-bound one that contains artwork and photos and tracts from various writers, and I’d say, I can’t quite remember but it might be 28 or 30…
JDB: 28 feels right.
NW: Something like that. And included in them are ‘Elvis Impersonator…’, ‘Kevin Carter’, ‘Removables’, which he heard, (and) ‘Small Black Flowers…’ and we demoed a couple of them and James played acoustic to them, literally the week before he disappeared. So there’s probably between eight and 10 maybe that were too impossible. Some of them are little haikus, four lines. ‘Dolphin-Friendly Tuna Wars’, that’s one, ‘Alien Orders/Invisible Armies’, that’s one. ‘Young Men’, which is quite Joy Division-y. It’s not like, um, they just didn’t feel right. We’ll probably put them all out in a book one day. There’s not gonna be a ‘Journal For Plague Lovers Two’. The special version of the record does come with the original version of the tracks on there. So you can see the editing process, if there is any.
JDB: But the thing is I do think we used the best of the lyrics?
NW: I think so, yes.
Is it true the Japanese version of the album has two extra tracks on it?
NW: No, there’s just a cover of ‘Primitive Painters’ by Felt and an instrumental, ‘Alien Orders/Invisible Armies’. So we used the title of that one, but it’s just an instrumental. Because it felt like a good title.
So, if we could go through the songs track-by-track… Starting with ‘Peeled Apples’
NW: “It starts with an audio clip from The Machinist. If there was ever a film made of us, Christian Bale is the one person who could play Richey. Maybe Michael Sheen. Both Welsh. Both mental. No, I mean, I just think the script, obviously Richey never saw The Machinist, but I just think it sets the tone.
You were talking about the lyrics being a bit inscrutable. I’ve thought and thought until I nearly broke my head, but I can’t figure out what that line “The figure eight inside out is infinity” might mean.
NW: I know how you feel…
JDB: It stands for the Scalextric of his mind. Racing around, and sometimes crashing, and getting back on…
NW: But he did always go on about, if you remember, he was obsessed with the perfect circle and Van Gogh’s figure eight and all that. It was a kind of recurring theme that he never seemed to get to grips with.
JDB: Drawing the perfect circle’s meant to be the test that has sent many an artist into insanity.
NW: But I don’t know whether we relate it to that either. It might just be like James said, the internal maelstrom. I mean, that first line “The more I see, the less I scream”, that just sums up… I mean, this was a long time ago, this was before media saturation, but even then, you know, I think he was feeling, like, ‘I’ve seen it all’.
JDB: And also, you know, I think a lot of people use Chomsky as a benchmark of their political knowledge or thought these days, and Richey seems to takes the piss out of that with Chomsky’s Camelot and riderless horses…
NW: It goes back to like ‘Faster’, “I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer/I spat out Plath and Pinter”. I love the kind of insane ambition of his intellect.
You’d never have anyone else writing a line like that.
NW: No, you wouldn’t. “A dwarf takes his cockerel out of the cockfight” – that was a hard one to sing, wasn’t it?
JDB: “The naked lightbulb is always wrong”… there are so many lines there that just kind of set your imagination off. Is that kind of taking the piss out of almost… picturesque existentialism? That’s the kind of things it brings up in your head. And then there’s more literal stuff like “falcons attack the pigeons in the West Wing at night”. I think if you sing the song along it does come together in your head as a sort of tableau of bizarrist imagery, if that makes sense.
NW: For one thing, I think Richey never did anything to show, this is the mind of a man, a 27-year-old at his creative peak. He was just saying what he thinks, it’s not like, I’ve read this or I’ve seen that. It really wasn’t about that – he just took it to heart. He had more desire and more uncontrolled desire, to be an artist. We’d never say something like that, you know, it’s not in the Manics canon to say ‘we’re artists’. It just usually means you make fucking terrible records. But I think he was, he was, y’know. He wouldn’t have said it himself, but that’s what he’d become.
There are lots of echoes to other songs… that line “The Levi Jean is always stronger than the Uzi”, that’s just brilliant.
NW: That could have been on ‘Generation Terrorists’.
Yeah, it reminded me of that line from ‘Born To End’, “Europe freed by McDonald and Levi’s”
Yeah, and kind of one of our – it used to be our most embarrassing song ever – but ‘Natwest Barclays Midlands Lloyds’, became the most prophetic. That line “black horse apocalypse, death sanitised through credit”, which he wrote.
JDB: Ain’t so funny now, huh?!
NW: Yeah! And we were embarrassed when we used to play that sometimes. But, uh, there you go… I think musically it’s the nearest to why we got Steve Albini in, it has that ‘In Utero’ power. The drums are massive, menacing, it’s got the ‘Archives Of Pain’ kind of bass… it sets the tone. That and ‘All Is Vanity’ are probably the two most ‘Holy Bible’ kind of tracks. That and ‘All Is Vanity’ are probably the two most ‘Holy Bible’-ish songs.
That and ‘Bag Lady’.
NW: It is, and that’s why [it’s a secret track]. We thought it was too grim, musically. And also we wanted 13 tracks like ‘The Holy Bible’ and we wanted a secret track like ‘In Utero’. Just a petty rock’n’roll thing.
JDB: ‘Bag Lady’ was the only sound that we actually worried about from a listener’s perception of what we were trying to do. Because that is the song that just came straight away from the lyric.
NW: It’s just got the most miserable chord ever.
JDB: I mean, we just felt even though that was what came out, we just felt it didn’t suit. For people like us to come out with music like that, it was just a little, mmm…
NW: I guess that we felt maybe we were being a little bit contrived musically.
JDB: But it was at the end of the record, so we were losing our perspective at that point.
How was working with Steve Albini?
JDB: Loved it, because it was probably different to anybody else we’ve worked with, and that was the main reason we did it. We wanted somebody that was gonna… we originated trying to achieve some sort of purity, because we were working with lyrical restrictions, and we needed to embrace that, and we needed someone else that wouldn’t give us limitless possibilities as to what we could turn the song into. So we knew that he works in one take, and that he doesn’t do many takes, and that he wasn’t gonna stroke our egos and say ‘yeah, it sounds great’, we knew none of that was gonna happen. There’s an aspect there on some of the records he’s produced which we just knew might fit these lyrics. I do remember us talking about working with Steve Albini when Richey was around.
NW: ‘In Utero’ that year, and ‘The Holy Bible’… to be honest, it matched the rawness of the lyrics, that unbridled honesty. And it is a pre-digital album. Richey wrote it on a typewriter, he never had a computer. An Olivetti portable typewriter, which wasn’t portable at all, it was fucking huge, he carried it away with him everywhere. And it sounds analogue, it’s something of a time capsule I guess. And we just wanted to follow through on that. And it took a lot of our safety nets away. If you phone Steve Albini up today, he’s not going to be like ‘Wow, what a great experience, working with the Manic Street Preachers’. He might say he liked a couple of the tracks. But we didn’t want that, we didn’t want a producer saying how great we were.
JDB: We just loved the tell-tale signs about what kind of person he was.
NW: He wore overalls to the studio.
JDB… with a big E on it, some pencils, never had breakfast, never had lunch. Never on the phone, which is unbelievable for producers. They’re always on the phone going ‘Oh my god, Elvis Presley, I’d love to work with him’. And when he did settle down in coffee breaks, to watch MTV or NME TV, with Nick, I’d walk in the room and it’d be like listening to two vipers.
NW: He’s the only person I’ve ever met who’s got more spite than me, but in a very funny way.
JDB: There’s just a really good work ethic there, it’s a really good old-fashioned application of recording science. But not overdone, he just really loved microphones, and he just got the balance right. And at the end of the project, we couldn’t quite finish it, and so we just went and did a couple of tracks without him, and he sent us over a big package of Studs Terkel books, which kind of says it all really. He’s still very engaged in what you call social realist politics. Bit of the soup-kitchen vibe sometimes. He believes in the grassroots application of just being a political person rather than supporting parties.