Manic Street Preachers - Nicky Wire on "The Ultra Vivid Lament" | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, June 6th, 2023  

Manic Street Preachers - Nicky Wire on “The Ultra Vivid Lament”

Against the Overwhelming Tide

Aug 25, 2021 Photography by Alex Lake Web Exclusive
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It’s a busy time for Nicky Wire and the Manic Street Preachers. Next month (Friday 10th September) sees the release of their eagerly anticipated fourteenth long player The Ultra Vivid Lament. While today amidst signing 3000 albums, the amiable bass player is on promotional duties. One of which includes speaking to Under the Radar about the band’s latest record.

The Ultra Vivid Lament is the first new release for the trio—Wire (bass), James Dean Bradfield (guitar and vocals), Sean Moore (drums)—since 2018’s Resistance Is Futile. The new album represents arguably their most ambient, widescreen pop record to date.

Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): How’s life been throughout the pandemic? Have did you cope with the continued spells of isolation?

Nicky Wire: There’s a lot of people who’ve had it a million times harder than me. I’m trained for solitude and boredom and exploring my own internal galaxies. Luckily, we’ve got a studio where we could form our own bubble at times and get on with work. So, we’ve been blessed with a lot more than most people to be honest. I don’t want to be the one moaning about lockdown. Everyone has their own existential moments of confronting nothingness but I’ve got a garden and a studio to go to so it could have been a lot worse. Also, I think being in a band like ours that’s lasted years. You do get trained to wait. Waiting for soundchecks, waiting for a plane, waiting for a bus, waiting to check into a hotel. You just get trained to wait! If you don’t, you tend to go off the rails slightly and that’s when the destruction comes. So, the three of us really are highly attuned to boredom. There’s a telepathy between us now. I’ve known James for 47 years and likewise, James and Sean have known each other since they were two, being cousins. So sometimes there’s not a lot that needs to be said between us. One thing it did give us was time just to rehearse, and face each other musically. Really dig in to try and make a record that we could play and be natural with.

The Manics’ fourteenth album The Ultra Vivid Lament comes out next month. How long have you been working on it? When did you start planning this record?

It must be 20, 22 months since James came up with “Orwellian” and “The Secret He Had Missed.” Those were the first two, pre-COVID. I gave him the lyrics to those two in October or November 2019. A long time ago. He’s always bugging me for words! “Have you got anything? Have you got anything?” I said, “You’re doing the fucking song, what are you hassling me for at the moment!?” He was happy with those two, I think it was because he’d started writing songs on the piano. It sounds obvious but he taught himself piano, and got better and better. During lockdown in particular, but even before that he’d presented a couple of demos which were really piano based. That certainly sent a signal we were onto something here. A natural ABBA, piano vibe which came through straight away which felt like something different without trying too hard.

The ABBA vibe jumps out several times throughout the album, especially on “Don’t Let The Night Divide Us,” which doesn’t hold back in its lyrical content about this Tory government (“Don’t let their hatred bind us”). Was it always something you’d intended doing, creating a melodic pop record influenced by the likes of ABBA infused with socially aware, politically astute lyrics?

I think so, yeah. We’ve always been influenced by ABBA. “Motorcycle Emptiness” in particular has a bit of “Dancing Queen” in the melody. It’s all our parents’ record collections really, be it ABBA’s Greatest Hits, or Diana Ross, or Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell. Those kind of pick and mix compilation albums as well. ABBA has always been there. I’ve seen Sean cry to “Eagle” many times. We always mess around with covers in the studio and we’ve done “S.O.S.” many times. It’s probably one of the greatest records ever made. So, it’s always been there, but it did need to come from a base of purity through the piano. That’s what gelled it all together really. “Waterloo” was 1973, then “Bring on the Dancing Horses” was 1985 and that’s the musical framework for the album. I can’t pretend to you that it’s anything more modern than that!

Yet it does sound quite modern and relevant, particularly a song like “Orwellian,” which depicts the times we’re living in via an instantly memorable chorus people will hear on the radio and sing along to in minutes.

We wanted to make something seductive. Sometimes we’re all about smacking you in the face, whether it’s “Faster” or “Slash ’n’ Burn” or whatever, “You Love Us.” It’s there. Even “International Blue” to a certain extent. But there’s plenty of other times when its much more seductive. “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” for example. For a song to be that big with the weight of the lyrics gives me more pride than anything because people just sing along to it, and sometimes the message seeps through as well. With this album, we’d all reached 51, 52 so it felt like a really natural way to go for us. There was less of me being a dictator, and more of an organic futurism. Which there are hints of on Futurology and Lifeblood and to a lesser extent, “If You Tolerate This…”. A more graceful kind of sound, I guess.

It’s interesting you say that, because The Ultra Vivid Lament is a very expansive record, almost like the final part in a trilogy with Futurology and Lifeblood. Do those two records infuse the new one to some extent?

I think they do a bit. It’s almost like a hybrid in some ways. The luxurious, beautiful cascading of Lifeblood with that little edge of Futurology. The future that never actually arrived. It does feel like those two, certainly, along with the grace of “Tolerate…”—we used to call it organic futurism—where you’re not quite sure what era you’re listening to. Which is probably the key to something timeless, I guess. A lot of our albums are rooted in time. Generation Terrorists, Everything Must Go, and even Send Away The Tigers. They really stick to a certain moment but some of the others gradually fall into different places.

There are 11 songs on The Ultra Vivid Lament, then two extra ones on the Japanese version. How many songs were written over this period? Were there any others that didn’t make it onto the album which might be revisited in the future?

We were very tight on this one. If it didn’t feel like it could be on the album, we were either dumping it or stowing it away so there’s three or four. There’s one James wrote called “Eternalised” that he didn’t think was up to the mark. The two extra tracks on the Japanese version of the album are really good actually. “My Drowning World” in particular. There’s one I wrote called “Time of Reckoning” which didn’t make the cut either. But we weren’t writing masses and masses. Lyric wise, there does come a point where I’m running out of words let alone things to say! Fourteen albums in, I don’t know how many songs we’ve written but it must be over 300?

It’s probably fair to say the current political climate has given you a lot of ammunition for lyrics. There’s several that stand out on the new record such as “The Quest For Ancient Colour” (“Now I’m confused”) for example that appears to deal with the political lines being blurred since Brexit.

I think that’s a general thread running through a lot of the lyrics. I’m really grateful that we were cold war kids. I don’t know how you feel about it but everything was much easier in terms of picking a side when I was growing up. It felt like it anyway. The blurring of the lines—not just politically—but in the endless culture wars and misuse of words that “Orwellian” deals with. The tyranny of social media. The digital coercion of fake communities. This bombardment of worrying about what to say and how you say it. I’m really finding it hard to make too many direct statements because I am slightly overwhelmed by all of those things. I’ve listened to “Going Underground” by The Jam, probably a hundred times over the last six months. I could be wrong but it feels like it all became too much for Paul Weller. I’ve found my ideals and now I’m putting my head down. I can’t handle this. I’m a spokesman for a generation, there’s too much information, and that was 40 years ago. I feel like that now in a lot of ways. It’s hard to disseminate. There’s certain things you can pick out easy enough, and I think “Don’t Let the Night Divide Us” does that most explicitly. But on a lot of other topics there’s just that overwhelming saturation where you’re just constantly questioning yourself. I’m ravaged with self-doubt and what I think. How you portray yourself. I’m just so fucking glad I was born when I was born. That’s why I always cut young people a break. Sometimes you make great sense then other times you’ll fuck up. God knows how much shit I talked when I was young. There’s too much quick judgment just to condemn young kids all the time.

I think there is, especially with this whole “cancel culture,” where one mistake on social media could have devastating consequences on an individual’s entire future.

Indeed. I made a decision early on—luckily, I’d given up drink as well—in terms of any social media not to have a personal account. I do a bit for the band which tends to just be the really boring shit. I prefer speaking to journalists. I love having a filter, which I guess is what the whole point of music journalism is about. To either make you look bad, which has never really bothered me at all. Or to make you look really good. Reviews still excite me whether they’re good or bad. There’s nothing wrong with critiques of records. We’ve had plenty of good ones and plenty of bad ones. Hearing our songs on the radio still excites me as well. I heard “The Secret He Had Missed” on the radio the other day and it gave me a massive buzz. Whereas we had some data through about streaming recently, and “If You Tolerate This…” has reached 50 million streams on Spotify which doesn’t give me anything. It might end up giving me a few pennies but it just doesn’t hit me in the same way as the feeling you get from hearing us on the radio or walking into a record shop and seeing our albums stacked up. It’s just totally different.

The only positive with the internet is that it’s increased the number of platforms where people such as yourself can engage with your audience if you choose to do so.

I have barely any desire to engage with those platforms. The very worst platforms, they just make me think of Nick Clegg in California, dictating people’s futures. How the fuck did that happen? The man who led his party into political oblivion.

Let’s be honest, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems have to take their share of responsibility for austerity, the advent of Brexit, and ultimately where the UK is today. A lot of people seem to have erased that from history but it can be traced back to 2010 when the Lib Dems propped up the Tories and allowed them into government. It didn’t just start with the EU referendum in 2016.

They helped enable it.

There are two duets on the album. “The Secret He Had Missed” with Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming, and “Blank Diary Entry” featuring Mark Lanegan. Were both songs written with those two vocalists in mind?

“The Secret He Had Missed” was definitely written as a duet. I was really interested in the idea—not just Augustus and Gwen John—of how siblings can turn out so radically different. Even though me and my brother get on really well and are as close as ever, we are so radically different in our thought process. He is the mad one of the family. He’s the real eccentric not me! I’m the sensible one. With Gwen and Augustus John they were so bonded by this genius of being able to paint and express themselves visually but are so opposite in their lives. Gwen is so interior and quiet whereas Augustus is bohemian and larger than life. He painted for money by the end almost. They’re so radically different and that really interests me. I’m a huge Sunflower Bean fan as well. “Twentytwo” is one of my favourite tracks of the last decade so when Julia said she’d do it I was over the moon. They were both brilliant. Mark did his in Ireland, and Julia in New York. It’s one of the best moments of making an album when you send something off to someone, be it Ian McCulloch or Cate Le Bon or Nina Persson, and you get something back which blows you away. James in particular just gets sick of his own voice! “Blank Diary Entry” wasn’t written so much as a duet, but as soon as he wrote the tune you could tell it was kind of coming out like that. James and Sean are huge Lanegan fans. We’ve really bonded with Mark over the years. He was in Screaming Trees when we toured with Oasis. The famous Barking Branches really bonkers tour, and Mark was in a pretty bad place. Him and James were doing a tribute show to Nico for The Marble Index and shared a dressing room. Mark was really sweet and lovely and they talked about that tour, so carry on a few years and Mark had really nailed it, that vocal. It hovers over you like a broken humanity. It’s gorgeous. It just gives a different color to the pallet.

Your first public live show is scheduled for Halifax Piece Hall on Friday 10th September, which will be the longest you’ve gone without playing live since forming the band bar a couple of radio shows. Are you looking forward to finally getting back out touring and playing to a live audience after so long away?

We are, but one thing that seems like it will be the biggest hurdle to get over is the risk of all those things that have been upon us these past 18 months. It doesn’t feel like they’re going to be eradicated overnight so we’re worried for the audience as much as ourselves. I don’t expect them to have complete abandonment straight away. I’m sure it will be quite circumspect. It will be two and a half years since our last tour, but like I said earlier, I’m not the one that’s been affected anywhere near as much as those working in live events that put on the actual shows. They put so much effort and dedication into making these shows happen. They don’t do it for the money or the glory. They do it for the love of it and enjoyment, employment, you name it. It’s heartbreaking for them, whether you’re a small venue somewhere or putting on a festival. They’ve been left out to dry.

Have you started rehearsing for the tour in September and October and if so, how many songs off The Ultra Vivid Lament are you hoping to play in the set?

We’re actually really tight on all of the new tracks, which is rare. The last few albums have been done in the studio—not on the hoof, we weren’t winging it—but we were so well rehearsed for this because we’ve had lots of time on our hands. We could socially distance in the studio so we were just in our booths playing, and really hitting a groove. Me and Sean were trying to copy the ABBA rhythm section so we’ve actually got eight or nine of the new songs pretty much nailed. Whether we do them all every night, who knows? It’s the older stuff we’re pretty nervous about more than the new songs. It’s quite a weird situation. We’ve been practicing “Bring On the Dancing Horses” by Echo And The Bunnymen and playing it really nicely, but some of the older tracks we’re struggling with a bit. They’re so fucking fast!

Are there any older tracks you haven’t played for a while that might return to the set for this tour?

The toughest decision is with The Holy Bible stuff because we haven’t played anything off that record since the anniversary tour. As I’ve said before, it’s such a state of mind that album. On the anniversary tour we totally bought into it. The old combats were out, the make up was on. You can’t just do a live gig and say we’ll chuck “Faster” in there. It just doesn’t work. You have to have that fierce attitude. Almost a nihilistic, anti-everything feeling. You can’t fake that. If you do fake it, you’re just going through the motions. That’s the hardest decision. We love doing stuff off Generation Terrorists. It’s bizarre that it’s such an odd, dated rock record but then we start playing “Little Baby Nothing” or “Slash ’n’ Burn” and it all comes back so easily.

It’s also 30 years old next February too! Where does the time go?

I know! It’s also 20 years since Know Your Enemy. There’s a treasure trove there when you talk about unreleased tracks. I’ve actually found two songs that have never been released before. There’s one called “Roseblood” and another called “Studies In Paralysis,” then there’s a totally different version of “Let Robeson Sing” that’s just James on a Vox Continental or something, I’m not sure. He recorded it at the flat he was living in London at the time and it’s really good, yet he never even played this version to us before. So, there’s a real treasure trove there which I’ve been looking into.

So, will there be anything coming out to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Know Your Enemy?

Everybody’s struggling with vinyl releases at the minute. We’ve had to put the new album back a week plus we’ve committed to signing all these things as well. So, there will be a vinyl reissue of Know Your Enemy. It just might be a 21st anniversary edition rather than a 20th! It actually brought back some memories listening to those tracks. I honestly don’t know what we were thinking of!

I think it’s one of the Manics’ most underrated albums and arguably the most diverse musically. Its easily in my top five and I remember seeing some of the shows from that period too, which rank alongside some of my favorites. You also seemed to be enjoying yourselves back then too, especially playing some of those songs.

It felt like we’d reclaimed ourselves. It was that classic thing of getting so big with This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours that we enjoyed losing a lot of the audience that got into us when we got bigger with Know Your Enemy. It’s so ragged and all over the place. There’s certain songs on it I love like “Intravenous Agnostic” or “Miss Europa Disco Dancer” but it’s also pushing the limits of our capability. Well, my capability anyway! It was nice revisiting it. It’s really drenched in warmth and sunshine. We recorded that album in Spain and then going to Cuba as well, so it really feels like a warm really. It’s hard to explain but there’s a lot of sunshine over that record. I do think the secret track on the end (“We Are All Bourgeois Now”) is one of the greatest covers we’ve ever done. I absolutely love it.

It’s also 15 years since I Killed The Zeitgeist came out. Will there be another Nicky Wire solo record?

It’s pretty much done bar the mixing to be honest. I saw what James went through releasing his solo album and it just seems like so much fucking hard work. If it’s gonna come out it will just be on Bandcamp or You Tube or something. I’ve done 12-14 tracks and they’re actually quite sweet. Sometimes it’s kind of slowed down Big Flame sort of jazz, then others its kind of sweet C86 style indiepop. But I’ve just got to find a way to put it out really. Or maybe bury it in the studio garden like The KLF!

Marc Burrows is bringing out a book in October featuring essays by different writers on the band’s first 13 albums and the Lipstick Traces compilation along with a foreword by The Anchoress. Were you aware of the book and if so, have you read any of the pieces?

No, I haven’t seen any of the pieces but I did get an email from Marc asking for my permission to use a photo on the front cover. I don’t think he needs my permission anyway so no; I haven’t seen the book but it looks really interesting. I like Marc a lot anyway. I wondered what he’d been up to! The Anchoress has done the foreword for it too? It’s been a great year for her.

The Art of Losing is an incredible record. Another of this year’s finest releases.

It really is. I was actually quite disappointed that Catherine [The Anchoress] didn’t get a Mercury nomination. It’s such a powerful, controlled and graceful album. Easily one of this year’s strongest so I don’t know what happened there. To articulate all of that through lyrics and music is not easy. It’s such a heartfelt and generous record. She’s so talented. It’s a shocking omission, but then they never even nominated The Holy Bible either.

The political landscape now is possibly worse than when the band started, particularly here in the UK. The far right has a foothold in parliament while division is rife among society. Does it sometimes feel like everything has been in vain?

We always thought as a band that we could change something a little bit, as deluded as that sounds. You get to a point where you can put it out there and hope something happens but the tide has overwhelmed us, which is only natural when you reach 52 anyway.

Finally, what did you make of the European Championships and Wales’ performance in particular? Again, they were a joy to watch and exemplified a team spirit very few other teams could match.

I don’t think we were ever going to repeat the phenomenal high of 2016 and getting to the semi-final. But I still we think we bought into the whole thing and I loved every minute of it. The whole tournament was brilliant to watch anyway and that win against Turkey was incredible. It was a tough gig for us anyway having to travel backwards and forwards between Amsterdam and Rome with no fans. Every tournament Wales has qualified for we’ve ending up losing to the winners. Brazil in the 1958 World Cup, then Portugal in the 2016 Euros, and a very unlucky 1-0 defeat to Italy when we were down to 10 men this year.

It was very unlucky because I thought Wales created the better chances after they went down to 10 men.

Second half we did! It was bizarre. Bale had a great chance, Kieffer Moore had a sniff. So, whoever beats Wales wins!

The Ultra Vivid Lament is out on Friday 10th September via Columbia/Sony.

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