ARTICLE: NME, 16th May 2009 - Richey’s Final Mystery
Unedited version from NME Blog
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?’… (both laugh) 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?
NW: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”
NW: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.
You recorded 'Journal For Plague Years’ with Steve Albini. Was that partly because Richey loved Nirvana’s 'In Utero’ [which Albini also produced]?
Nicky Wire: There was an element of that, yeah, but it’s the whole thing of making a pre-digital album, like there’s no singles. It’s a tribute to Richey, it’s also a tribute to the idea of an album. That this is a piece of work that you can’t take a track here and think this is representative, this feels like a body of work. And Steve reflects a lot of those principles, and a lot of those ethics as well. He does records like he does because a lot of his favourite records were made that way. That’s his thing. He hates the digital drama of modern music.
James Dean Bradfield: [Impersonating Steve Albini] The digital squuaaaall!
NW: The digital squuuuuuuuaaallll…
So, ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’. Best song title ever
NW: It is a good title, isn’t it? The weirdest thing is, I think, lyrics aside, a lot of it is very sweet and very pop. If we’d done it in a different lifetime with different words, who knows, it could have been a gigantic hit single. I love the way it draws you in with the softness and everything and then that last minute of rasping… pure hatred and anger kind of… spoils it all.
It’s a brilliant track. I keep singing the refrain ‘Oh Mummy what’s a sex pistol’ at bus stops and freaking people out.
NW: That is a brilliant sound. It actually sounds like a festival chant to me, I can see it… through the crowd, call and response.
JDB: [Shaking head] bizarre.
NW: But we didn’t, right from the start James said, we’re just not gonna try and write a single. We’re just not. Which, you know, after the success of the last record was a pretty bizarre thing to do, it did scare people close to us. But it just felt like the only option. Richey’s not writing these lyrics to get a hit.
That line comes from an actual Sex Pistols poster or flyer, right?
NW: A lot of people wore badges, you see it a lot in photos, and it’s just got ‘mummy, what’s a sex pistol’ on it. It’s just a sort of cultural reference point, I don’t know if it’s any more loaded than that. The song, I find, is pretty impenetrable, I don’t know if Jackie Collins was ever on 'Question Time’, having a bit of a Will Young moment, you know.… I have a feeling, the last bit, ‘situationist sisterhood of Jackie and Joan’. All I can think of is I seem to remember once maybe Jackie and Joan were on at the same time. And it was a bit like the Hitchens brothers but total opposite to each other… maybe 'Question Time’ or something like that. Maybe Russell Harty. I don’t know, James might have a better handle on the lyrics.
JDB: No, I just think that was the one song… I just got drawn into it when I saw it as a lyric. Most of the songs I’ve got a definite idea about what I think they’re about, or there’s a grey area, but I mainly know what they’re about. But that’s the only one where I’m very, very uncertain.
NW: Maybe you know!
The furthest I got was it being something about the breakdown of the possibility of relationships or romantic love. Jackie Collins’ novels, Jackie and Joan being a sort of Situationist sisterhood, turning normal ideas of love on their head?
NW: That’s good.
JDB: Better than either of our ideas!
It’s so tantalising, because it seems to be so loaded with meaning, and you wish you could just… get at it.
NW: I can hear it in my head sometimes, when we’re doing these interviews, his slightly nasal Welsh drone after he’s been talking all day and he’s still had this immense love to talk, and talk. He loved the challenge of doing interviews, he loved… well, he didn’t exactly love journalists, but he just thought it was a chance to get your point across. Even if they hated you, he’d never kind of back down. I can almost hear his chat.
JDB: Even the 4-Real incident, he still kept talking! Which is not something I want to regurgitate or anything, but it’s pretty remarkable.
I feel a bit like I’m in an English Lit seminar. And probably failing.
NW: Yeah (laughs). And we were listening to a lot of Pere Ubu and Skids, and even a lot of Pixies in it musically.
[This next paragraph was from a follow-up phone interview]
Reading through what we said about ‘Jackie Collins’, the mention of Sex Pistols and Situationism in the same lyric suggested the influence of Greil Marcus’ 'Lipstick Traces’, namesake of your rarities compilation. Joan Collins acted in the film adaption of Jackie Collins’ novel 'The Stud’. Maybe the lyric somehow views those films/novels as subversions of traditional romantic love, in the same way that the refrain ‘Oh mummy what’s a Sex Pistol’ line suggests subversion of innocence?
NW: Greil Marcus was a massive influence on all of us… it does seem to make some sense. The way everything seems to be connected – you could definitely be on a goer. And Jon Savage’s ‘England’s Dreaming’… 'Lipstick Traces’ was much more than just a book on music, I could definitely see that, the same idea of recurrence.
Did most of the songs suggest musical ways to present them straight away, or did some of them take longer than others?
JDB: Yeah, stuff like ‘Me And Stephen Hawking’ they felt like slightly overblown haikus, the verses, they’re kind of economic. They have the stabs, and the stops, and then they’re punctuated by something Steve Albini called the ‘Itchycoo Park’ section. And it just felt like ‘Me And Stephen Hawking’, 'Oh we laughed/We missed the sex revolution, when we failed the physical’. It was obvious that we couldn’t be going [hums ‘Ifwhiteamerica’-style crunching riff] nnn-nnn-NNN-NNN. There had to be some kind of bathos or humour in there. That line itself made me realise that the song had to be punctuated with like, mini surprises.
And then something like ‘This Joke Sport Severed’ is I think just beautiful, a really beautiful lyric about something which is probably quite sad and resigned. And I just wanted the first half of the song to be beautiful. I didn’t want things to have to be reminiscent of the riff on ‘Mausoleum’, or ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ or ‘Of Walking Abortion’, because the words just weren’t saying that to you. It was an absolutely beautiful little lyric, ‘This Joke Sport Severed’ The ability for him to turn that kind of inner turmoil into something which is beautiful, is something you just gotta admire in him.
NW: I think with ‘Stephen Hawking’ as well, people will say, oh, well this seems like some kind of dated reference, but I think you’ve got to remember that this is two or three years before Radiohead even started to do the Stephen Hawking stuff… It’s kind of unavoidable that some of the references are of that time.
‘Me And Stephen Hawking’. As well as the obvious concern with genetic modification in the first verse, it seems like he might be trying to refer perhaps to the way those technologies are marketed in developing countries, or the way we view their struggles.
NW: I know what you mean by that, and then there’s the mad thing of Giant Haystacks, who was obviously a famous wrestler in our time. He was the bad guy to Big Daddy and this was really… ITV on a Saturday afternoon, it wasn’t WWF. I’d love to know if Giant Haystacks fought in a Bombay fight and was watched by 100,000 people. Because if that’s true… no, I don’t know what the fuck it’s about. Cos then, like you said the genetic stuff, the scientific angle, seems to… I don’t know, it’s just that amazing mixture, Richey was never afraid of really low art and really high art. And that’s why it’s never elitist really, it’s just knowledge, it’s just taking something from everything.
JDB: And I also feel that it’s a precursor to how other worlds, even then in Richey’s imagination it was all becoming interconnected, and everything was having a knock-on domino effect in world culture itself. If that’s what he’s trying to say in the lyric, then he couldn’t have been more right.
NW: And the Tracey the sheep thing, every month there’s another cloning story that’s really similar to that reference. But feel free to write your own ideas on this, seriously, in the piece, because it’s nice to have a different perspective on stuff.
It’s hard at first to see how the two verses relate to each other. They could be from two different songs covering two totally different topics. And then you try and think of ways that you could join them up.
JDB: Seriously, you haven’t seen the rest. Seriously, you wouldn’t fucking believe them.
NW: I love the fact, that, looking at that, you would never think it could be sung. But I don’t think James ever sounds that awkward singing them. He’s got a technique.
JDB: It’s just enjoyable, really at the end of the day. I mean, you can overblow all that… ‘Culture sucks down words/Itemise loathing and feed yourself smiles’… it’s always the fucking same.
NW: ‘Motorcycle…’ is particularly awkward, actually, yes.
I’m sure this has been said to you a million times, but it does sound particularly attention-grabbing, as well, that the lyrics are so staccato and unusually phrased.
NW: I think the difference is, that deep in my heart, probably, I know I could never write lyrics like this, or I could never write lyrics this good. I’m completely humbled by him as a lyricist. That’s just a fact. Having said that, he probably couldn’t have written ‘A Design For Life’ . It probably would have just turned into something so complicated… and it’s very minimalist, lyrically, ‘Design For Life’. So it’s a weird dichotomy.
JDB: ‘Lowry, Hughes, working classes, matchstick man, I am Superman!’
NW: Yeah, yeah…
JDB: That just came off the top of my head, sorry. Richey’s version of ‘A Design For Life’.
NW: It definitely would have been… not that it would have caused conflict, but maybe we would have just gravitated to writing separately. But in a good way.
Where is the audio sample on this from?
NW: It’s from a film called 'The Sun’, about the Emperor Hirohito. We just felt it fitted. The actual translation is just ‘turn the radio up, turn the radio up’.
‘This Joke Sport Severed’: I was surprised that you gave this such a musically gentle treatment, considering the bleakness of it.
JDB: Well ‘severed’, yeah, the word ‘severed’, it’s one of those words that when you see it, it just describes exactly what it is. But the song it is… it did feel like a dead flower to me, because it’s got the possibility of just giving up on conjugal relationships or love, I think. And that emotion is not turned out to anybody in particular except himself. It’s just saying perhaps I’m not worthy of love, or love in relationships doesn’t work for me. I’m not saying he’s objectifying love in the sense of just saying nobody’s worthy of my love, it’s all about him. It’s just saying maybe I’m not worthy of love. That’s what I thought the song was about.
NW: I just thought it was another one that seemed to come to a conclusion after a process, you know, “I endeavoured to find a place where I became untethered”, it just feels like, you know, he’s looked at the possibilities and, like I said, a lot of the conclusions aren’t pretty or positive, but they are… rational, even? You know? It’s just nice to know I think, well, I know for a fact from the last 10 days that we were with him, that he’d reached a place where he was much ha… not happier…
NW: Yeah, and it was just like being like we’d always been. That eight months from 'The Holy Bible’ onwards was incredibly strained and miserable, you were just losing someone and you couldn’t reach him. But the last two weeks where we had this demo session together and everything and went through these songs, whether he’d reached some conclusions or not who knows, but he was much… the pathos was back, the smile was back. Which now I guess, obviously, has a different context, but at the time I felt like we were actually… I mean we did about seven songs, didn’t we?
JDB: 'The House In The Woods’ and stuff?
NW: Yeah, and we did the theme to [the Judge Dredd film,] 'Judge Yr'self’ as well, the Sylvester Stallone, which I think he really enjoyed, doing that. Because he loved the fucking cartoon.
JDB: Nietszchean references he could latch onto.
NW: “Blessed be the…” what is it?
JDB: “Blessed be the blade, blessed be the scythe.”
NW: “Dionysus against the crucified!” So yes, I guess that idea of conclusion is… is good.
It is bleak, but I guess no more so than many other songs he’d written a lot longer ago. I was wondering, with songs like this do you worry that people might interpret them less as lyrics, less as art, more as symptoms? Reading them too much retrospectively?
NW: It’s a good question, but I just think a line like in silken palms that tear bone from skin, that’s just poetry in its own right anyway. No, I don’t think that’s fair, I think if you take your writing that seriously, like he did, I don’t think he’s writing a diary, I still think he’s writing lyrics.
JDB: I think our main perspective, perhaps when we’ve gone through any kind of emotions when we were writing or recording these things were that it’s nice to just admire a lyricist or somebody who has poetry in his soul, et cetera. I think it’s fairly obvious that I wouldn’t want anybody to kind of challenge themselves as much as Richey challenged himself. I wouldn’t want anybody to go down that road anymore. And I don’t hear any echoes in my head or my heart about the way Richey felt sometimes. I just stand back and admire his writing. Like I said, to actually turn something that ugly into something beautiful and erudite, is something that he was trying to do all the time. And regardless of what happened in the end, it’s about admiring somebody who’s trying to process or turn personal emotion into creativity.
‘Journal For Plague Lovers’: I felt this could have been about a number of things, but the main impression I got was of it being to do with the medical establishment.
NW: Mmm. That’s good, that, actually. As in, doctors being gods?
NW: I took it more literally as just being like, a secular masterpiece like Bill Callahan’s 'Faith/Void’, but I can see where you’re coming from. [Reads through lyrics aloud] I think there’s a fair bit of doubt in religion in there as well. I don’t really get the 'PG certificate, all cuts unfocused line…’. Does that imply some kind of censorship, then? It’s funny, it’s the one track with a title which doesn’t seem to quite match the concept. 'Journal For Plague Lovers’ doesn’t seem to relate so much to the song as others. If it’s about what I think it’s about. It’s not very good, I know, but some of the stuff, we just don’t fucking know.
JDB: No, it’s alright, it’s just that through the songs, some, like I said, like 'All Is Vanity’ and 'Pretension/repulsion’ are linked together and the three songs that link together with this one are 'Journal For Plague Lovers’, 'Facing Page: Top Left’ and in a strange way, 'Virginia State Epileptic Colony’. I think it talks about how when the malady doesn’t fit the cure. And how the cure sometimes homogenises the person. And it’ll be like, 'PG certificate, all cuts unfocused’… the cure will sometimes bring a bland focus to what is a real problem.
NW: (to JDB) You think it’s more his journey, then, this? A comment of more, 'they’re all trying to change me’? Because of course, The Priory is a mixture of all pseudo-God and religious bollocks and doctors trying to cure you.
JDB: And submitting to some symbol, or God.
NW: Ripping your soul up.
JDB: I think that those three songs link together and the sense of community that you get with the people that you meet when you’re having treatment.
NW: He quickly realised, when he was in The Priory and not the NHS hospital, that the cure basically means having to destroy the entire entity that you are. And I don’t think he’s prepared to do that for the sake of survival in the modern world.
JDB: He had this amazing quote once when we went to the Priory and he was very pissed off with somebody that was trying to treat him, and he said 'they would just believe that something was wrong with me if I went and sat in the bushes with a camouflage hat on and pretended I was in some kind of war. Then they would think there was something wrong with me. Which is a bleak fact.
NW:NW: Fucking turning into a therapy session, this.
JDB: Therapy’s just bullshit, because talking never makes you feel good.
NW: It just makes you feel fucking shit. For me, anyway. But for other people, might work.
I loved the concision of that line, 'PG certificate, all cuts unfocused’. The double meanings of 'cuts’ and unfocused’.
NW: And that sung as well: Cuts. Un. Focused. It has a wonderful rhythm to it… although when he was in the Priory and Eric Clapton was there and he offered to come round and jam on the guitar, that was one of those moments where you couldn’t write anything funnier, in a tragic situation.
JDB: God bless Clappo, he wasn’t being nasty…
NW: He wasn’t. He just thought, hey, rock'n'roll musician, come on. I would love to have been there to see Richey’s polite 'well, maybe not…’ ‘Matron, bring my Strat, close the door’. And Richey’s like 'Fuck, I’m getting out of here!’
’She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach’: Is there any particular story or source behind this one, do you know?
NW: I don’t know, I really don’t think so.
JDB: We’ve just got to keep quite shtum on these. I think there are some people he met when he was in one of the two places having treatment and I think he just took in, just digested other people’s stories and experiences.
NW: Especially the NHS hospital in Cardiff in Whitchurch, which was… I mean, The Priory was grim in a different kind of way. In a… not false, but just a wrong sort of way. But the NHS hospital, obviously everyone was trying really hard, but it wasn’t a nice place to be. It was, how can I put it, visiting in there, it did wither your soul. I don’t know, is this song about that? He was kind of capable of just a kind of pettiness towards any idea of marriage or love, or relationships.
There’s a deeper way, but there’s also, he just couldn’t fucking understand it, you know. It wasn’t for him. Back in university, when me and him were together, he would relentlessly, when I got dumped by a girl, he would laugh and mercilessly take the piss out of me for weeks on end. In a funny way, but in a (laughs) kind of savage way as well. And I think it’s the closest to the kind of Nirvana thing, we really went for it on this. I did a little demo of it and James changed the chorus into something bigger and more dramatic. I mean that is a really pure song, there’s hardly anything on there, is there?
There’s two guitars, a bass, a vocal and a drum, I think. What we realised on this record was that unlike something like 'The Everlasting’ where it took something like six-and-a-half minutes to put a verse chorus bridge and solo in, when we were doing it on this album it’d be two and a half minutes. And there’s still as many musical features on there. But we haven’t done that for years and years and years. And it was completely natural.
What kind of Nirvana songs did you have in mind?
I was just thinking of stuff like 'Serve The Servants’, 'Rape Me’, a sort of speeded-up 'Heart-Shaped Box’. And there’s a kind of '60s pop sensibility to the verse as well, it’s quite sweet. And again it just shows off James’ brilliance. It’s just a fantastic guitar solo. Like Steve Jones at his peak. Let the Bradfield off the leash…
The lyrics on 'She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach’ [a track on new album 'Journal For Plague Lovers’] seem to see love as a dirty trick, at best.
Nicky Wire: Yeah. I did rearrange a couple of lines to fit. And the one line that always haunted me, which I don’t know how we got in there, was 'salmon pink skinned Mary, still caring’. It reminds me a bit of the play we did in O-Level, 'An Inspector Calls’, when the girl, doesn’t she pour bleach, to kill herself, by drinking bleach? I can’t quite remember, but it might have something to do with that. I think the title is more scary than the lyric in this one. A lot of people have been shocked by the title. Once again, in inimitable and bizarre Manics way, we just never get shocked by stuff like that. Even when he was around, you know, when he gave us 'Intense Humming Of Evil’.
James Dean Bradfield: Yeah, I didn’t think 'oh gawwwd’, I though, 'cool, this is going to be difficult, but enjoyable’. Which is bizarre, because the subject matter of the lyric is awful. It’s just the way we’ve inoculated ourselves against certain realities and just got on with the creativity I suppose.
NW: It’s just our knowing ourselves, all four of us, or all three of us since Richey’s disappearance. If you’ve known someone since you’re five years old, you don’t need to go through all that bullshit that other bands do, you just don’t need to. There’s telepathy, there’s kinetics involved, you know, there’s trust?
JDB: I mean, I feel pretty embarrassed, sometimes, actually saying, articulating what I think the songs are about, because we don’t really talk like that, do we?
NW (laughs) No.
JDB: We might say one or two sentences, this or that, but it isn’t like inside the actor’s studio where we talk and talk and talk and try to interpret things, and what we would call something, it was a lot more, sign language between each other.
NW: The only time we did was around 'Lifeblood’ and we just confused the shit out of ourselves so much we didn’t know what we were doing. Trying to theorise, like I was trying to insist that there were no cymbals on the record, you know, MAKING A POINT! And it didn’t need to be like that.
Would you say this is a kind of sister song to 'She Is Suffering’?
NW: I don’t know, 'She Is Suffering’ isn’t one of my favourite songs anyway.
JDB: It’s my least favourite song on 'The Holy Bible’.
NW: It doesn’t really fit 'The Holy Bible’ anyway. I just don’t know… I think 'She Is Suffering’ suffers slightly more from sort of, the man coming to the rescue (laughs) syndrome. Whereas I think this one is different, I think it’s slightly weak.
It is that idea of female victimhood again.
’Facing Page: Top Left’: This seemed to me to be kind of about women’s magazines, or maybe magazine culture in general.
JDB: That did… you kind of have to be careful talking about lyrics, because like Nick said, we can never be sure if we’re being accurate. But there was sometimes, when we’d visit Richey in certain places, some women having treatment, you know, alongside him, that would be impeccably turned out sometimes, in the place, there would be a garish use of lipstick and very made up et cetera. And that did strike me that maybe there was something about that in that lyric.
But I still think it’s part of the little community of 'Journal For Plague Lovers’, 'Facing Page: Top Left’, 'Virginia State Epileptic Colony’. It is just about how you become homogenised under the gaze of certain doctors and analysts and how you kind of lose yourself in treatment.
NW: I think it’s so amazing, like, the original lyric, for once, does have punctuation, doesn’t it? It’s like, full stops after every fucking word.
JDB: Not every word. Just every other word. And for somebody that never used punctuation, just chucked them out of the window, it felt quite strange. 'Pretension/Revulsion’ did as well, actually.
NW: Commas. He had a lot of commas in there. But it lent itself, the one track that seemed to cry out for a kind of acoustic lament, a 'Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’ kind of thing.
JDB: Physically the hardest song to sing, definitely… 'dipping neophobia’.
NW: Yeah, I love that line. I don’t know if 'neophobia’ has ever been used in a song before. I don’t even know if it’s a word.
It’s a great line, but I just couldn’t, grammatically speaking, make out what it meant at all.
JDB: Which one?
NW: “This beauty here dipping neophobia”.
JDB: Again, I just thought it was about routine. Once you get couched in the useless supposed cure, then you get caught in a routine. Which outside of that, can often be comforting to you.
NW: Which you know, does kind of hark back to 'Small Black Flowers…’ in the idea of being trapped in the zoo, the desperation of zoos. Relating that to his own condition… I don’t know.
NW: Yeah. But I think the institutionalisation of beauty, and trying to be all those things that you’re never gonna get to, and all that, the application to him seems to say, 'I’ve given up on all that bollocks’. 'I’ve long since reached a higher plateau’, I think that line from '4st 7lb’ really counts on here. I think on this album he really does reach that plateau of… the disgust has perhaps turned to ultimate realisation.
Kind of got over the disgust and [quietly] just reached a new level. [Perks up] Having said that, though, he was a brilliant at saying 'you should stop being vain’ and all that kind of stuff. But he was one for looking in front of a mirror for long, loooong periods.
JDB: Tapping his stomach, 'how many situps have I done today?’
NW: He did take weights with him on tour.
JDB: It was the Olivetti typewriter and the weights, in a suitcase. So the tour manager fucking hated him.
NW: He used to say to me, when he got a skinhead, and he came in 'oh, you should really get one, it just clears you from all the vanity, and everything’. As he’s looking in the mirror. It’s like, 'it’s alright for you, you always look fucking great’.
JDB: I did notice when we all turned up to the main photo session for 'The Holy Bible’ we all had very obviously military gear on, and he turned up to that session with one of the shirts was just black, with some badges on it, because it was his favourite shirt. He didn’t really wanna go military, because it was his favourite shirt, at the time… (sounds tired) they’re just recurring obsessions, aren’t they. Routine, lack of sleep, failure of love, failure of God.
NW: I think the vanity thing as well, I know it troubled him, but it interested him as well, that idea of being trapped within vanity and constantly trying and then thinking it’s pointless… it always just flips back and forth with him. Course, he never looked anything other than brilliant.
JDB: Except the waistcoat.
NW: The waistcoat, you’re right. It’s a rock'n'roll law, do not wear a fucking waistcoat.
What did you make of the title?
JDB: That was my favourite title.
’NW: It just sounds like it could be a chapter in John Updike or Saul Bellow. It just sounds like a brilliant book title to me.
Maybe it’s a conflation of the kind of idea of how institutions change you and the ideals of perfection in magazines?
NW: Feel free! No seriously, I’m happy to explain every lyric, it’s just hard to give any kind of definition with authority. It’s a shame he didn’t leave… The idea of a journal, it’s not actually notebooks or scraps, these are all fully formed pieces that he left us. So it’s not like there’s any background information for us. There’s images with them and photos and bits and bobs, but they’re just pieces of his work really.
When you say he worked on an Olivetti typewriter, was it a proper old clickety-clack typewriter?
NW: Yeah, it was a bit more modern than that, but not much. I’ve got one now, which I still use, you can get them in London. They’re slightly smaller. Not like really old-school Joe Strummer, but still cool.
So you’d hear it clacking away, in the next room.
NW: Oh yeah, oh yes. And he loved writing as well, physically, with pen and paper. Me and him always used to say as a running joke, when people asked 'what instrument do you play’, and he’d play the pen and I’d play the paper. And the sound of a typewriter is just erotic. The sound of a computer is a gigantic turn-off.
’Marlon JD’: Here at least is one that’s slight more clear what it’s about…
NW: Well, it’s clear, apart from the JD bit.
I assumed that was for James Dean.
NW: Well, a lot of people have said that. But the lyrics in all honesty, quite a few of them are stolen, well, not stolen, borrowed from the film, Reflections In A Golden Eye. Marlon Brando does actually say in it (adopts Brando wheeze): “I’d like to live without clutter, live without luxu-reee”. So um, the film itself is beautifully shot. Richey did have a fascination with the idea of Marlon Brando, with someone that was so beautiful.
JDB: He loved him because he was the idealisation in his mind of what the ideal man could be, but also because he turned to shit as well.
NW: Exactly, yeah. The idea that he walked around his island in a nappy, eating and fucking.
JDB: That’s why he’s his kind of like perfect role model, because he rejected his innate beauty and talent turned into Jabba The Hutt.
NW: And Brando is such a complicated… well sometimes he seems utterly superficial, but just all those things… combined. And he did talk to me about that film a lot, Reflections In A Golden Eye, he was really into that, and I think that Young Liars, with Marlon Brando when he’s a German officer.
JDB: I think this is one of the lyrics where Nick just proved he can be one of the greatest researchers in the world and just did great research on it.
NW: And you know, to use the sample on it as well, and I actually wrote the tune, apart from the Bloc Party bit.
JDB: And the middle.
NW: The harmonics bit! [Producer] Steve Albini didn’t do this one, it’s slightly more modern. It’s still live, it’s still done in the same way. But it’s a more Neu!, motorik kind of thing.
I must confess I haven’t seen the film.
NW: It is the classic thing where you’ve got two minutes focusing on Elizabeth Taylor’s arse and Marlon Brando staring… I mean, he loved Elizabeth Taylor as well. It’s kind of homoerotic. Well, the sexuality in the film is very blurred, it’s not homoerotic, it’s just that everything is blurred, relationships are blurred, no one loves each other.
JDB: Pain and pleasure’s blurred.
NW: The one’s that do love each other are not allowed to love each other…. I think bizarrely it might be John Huston, which is odd.
And the horsewhip across the face mentioned in the lyric, that’s an actual scene from the film, right?
NW: It is, yeah. He fucks up Elizabeth Taylor’s horse, and she humiliates him in front of everyone by whipping him across the face. There’s a lot of humiliation in the film. Private and personal and public. So I think it’s more for once, I don’t think it necessarily hugely relates to him. It’s more a kind of general inspiration and we all kind of went down that route.
Maybe more about how Brando’s role in that film relates to Brando’s whole life.
NW: Yeah, and maybe that then relates back to his admiration for him. And you know, maybe the line, 'learn to live without clutter, to live without luxury’ has a slightly deeper resonance. Cos he was ridding himself at that time, he did seem to be ridding himself of any material complications. [Very slowly] It was just books, or watching the TV or listening to music. There wasn’t really anything else involved.
’Doors Closing Slowly’: There’s a lot of religious imagery in this one…
NW: I think James had the most trouble singing this one. It is incredibly sad. The first line “Realise how lonely this is, self-defeating, oh fuck yeah. There’s even a kind of pathos involved as well. Just that last couple of lines, you know, listen to the selfish ones, they are the voice of accomplishment. See, I don’t know if he’s saying there, the pressure of relationships, that’s the idealism of that, he’s never gonna get there, that idea of accomplishment is just so ugly, alien to him… "Unarmed army salvation”, that’s the hardest bit to sing.
JDB: Sally Army.
NW: Yeah. “The shadow is the cross, OK… silence is not sacrifice, crucifixion is the easy life”. It’s just a classic Richey line. That’s him pressing buttons that he knows he’s pressing. I know.
That last line is quite sort of Richard Dawkins in a way.
NW: If you apply it to religion, definitely. That kind of self-centred righteousness that if you don’t understand faith, well, you know… if you haven’t got faith then you will never understand. His religious obsession or rejection of it is quite strange.
JDB: It runs deeper than you would ever have thought.
NW: It ran really deep and its not something I just don’t think we’ve ever felt. Being oppressed by religion, it just hasn’t been a realisation in our time, in our country.
JDB: No, we’ve always thought there’s been a really good separation of church and state.
NW: Exactly. I mean, he went to Sunday school for a couple of years and he always talked about how he really hated it and didn’t enjoy it, but it does seem to have had more of an impact (laughs) than just a couple of years of Sunday school.
JDB: I just think he found it galling that the supposed beauty in religious art, like the depiction of death as being beautiful and glorious kind of troubled him and inspired him by the same turn. And again, the objectification of like, sacrifice and suffering, and how it can be always represented in some kind of beautiful tableau, I think he always found it, like I said, inspiring and disgusting at the same time.
NW: Despite that, I was always waiting for the moment when he converted to something, some obscure religion, just to piss people off.
JDB: Zoroastrianism. Worship of fire, I believe…
NW: I think this is the most stunning piece of music on the record, Albini really, it was the one time he actually arranged four bars of music. He said, 'I’m really embarassed about it, I hate doing this, I never do this, but just lay back on the first four bars and invert the beat on the intro, and then you’ve got that Harlem funeral sound’… and he called it really humble, he said 'it’s such a humble song’. I think he genuinely liked this song. Yeah, I think it’s a proper piece of music. It kind of reminds me of 'In The Neighbourhood’ by Tom Waits. Velvet Doom March, you called it, didn’t you?
JDB: Yeah, Velvet/Harlem funeral dirge.
Did he read the Bible at all?
NW: He had read the Bible, but more literature that sprang up around the Bible and related to it. But I think he did go through a stage of reading the Bible. I’m useless with all that stuff, you know 'PCP’, read Leviticus and stuff like that, I know nothing about chapters of the Bible. It’s just like listening to a neverending fucking Nick Cave record, innit. Over and over, here’s another fucking chapter…
Where’s the audio clip from this time?
NW: It’s from The Virgin Suicides, not so much because it’s a great film, but because Richey loved the book [by Jeffrey Eugenides]. I don’t think the film would have been made by then [Sofia Coppola’s adaptation was released in 1999], and that particular dialogue just seemed to fit.
All Is Vanity…
JDB: I loved that some of the lines, that 'I would prefer no choice, one bread one milk one food'…
NW: I love that.
JDB: That’s showing his slightly unfashionable side, his left-wing authoritarian side. Sometimes I’d prefer to live in a utilitarian Eastern Bloc culture where I don’t have to worry about choice and how glorious or glamorous I could be, I just wish I was restricted.
NW: And I mean, that still resonates with us so deeply today. The idea that there’s just so much choice now, that when we apply that to music, people think it’s great that there’s so much music, and that’s so obviously not the case because so much of it is utter drivel. And you know, too much choice in music has led to mediocrity. And I think it’s that kind of idea that Richey liked experts. He liked people who he though were thoroughly researched and immersed in each particular subject. And we’re still like that now.
JDB: And just the idea that sometimes your emotions are not your best guides or friends. Or desire is not your friend or guide (laughs). Which is quite an unfashionable way of thinking, isn’t it.
NW: It is.
JDB: It is relinquishing yourself to that old-style authoritarianism.
NW: I like that “makes me feel like I’m talking a different language at times”. That seems quite a pointed reference. Perhaps he didn’t even feel he was communicating with us. That everyone seemed… and it’s true, because apart from those last 10 days, it was hard to keep up with him, to understand why his mind was working so fucking fast, and the level of consumption was just so gigantic… I think he felt he’d lost his art of communication with everything and everyone, apart from his own art.
I read the line 'it’s not what wrong, it’s what’s right’ as a response to the question 'what’s wrong?’
NW: Maybe, yeah. And then, because the next line is 'makes me feel like I’m talking a foreign language’, maybe he felt like he couldn’t explain himself. And he couldn’t explain himself, at that point. People in the same situation the world over just reach a point where there is no explanation.
NW: Another night of torment now as I remember what I’ve just said for the fucking four hours…
JDB: No, you’ve been fine….
Pretension/Repulsion’: This is such an onslaught of verbs at first, it’s hard to know where it’s coming from.
NW: It is, yeah. I think it’s the other stuff that brings the lyric together, like James said. The actual use of all those words at the start really confused me at first, I didn’t know where he was going with it. But when you get to 'Shards, oh shards’. I mean 'shards’ is such a bizarre word to have in a rock song… Isn’t it shards and chards in the original?
JDB: And chard is sort of food.
NW: And slightly burnt.
JDB: Well, no…
NW: Yeah, the first draft, he had that and shards. And it was like, how can you…
JDB: ‘Leave the vegetables out of it! We’re trying to be serious, here.’
NW: Like I said to you, “androgyny fails/Odalisque by Ingres, extra bones for sale”. I just bow down at the altar of that as a lyric. That just explains the whole song for me. And 'BORN.A.GRAPHIC vs PORN.A.GRAPHIC’, I don’t quite understand.
JDB: Lumpen, useless flesh as opposed to something erotic.
NW: I dunno which side he comes out of on it, though. (To JDB) Don’t say it!
JDB: I think he was just saying, like, how long have we been having this argument for. We don’t need actually magazines like, then I suppose it would have been Loaded and FHM that captured his imagination as to the objectification of beauty et cetera, but he just was saying, this has actually been going on for a long time. Ingres was actually inserting an extra disc in the spine, just to idealise the woman’s body. People have always been obsessed with it.
NW: I really can’t remember the context, but he was always going on about those Benetton ads around that time as well, wasn’t he. That’s part of the same argument. And I’m never quite sure which… and then you get the Jenny Saville painting for 'The Holy Bible’, then you get the exact opposite.
That line, 'Shards, oh shards’ seemed to kind of reference both Yeats’ 'the centre cannot hold’ and Eliot’s 'these fragments I have shored against my ruins’. It’s so much in such a small space.
NW: And that’s the genius of it, that it’s still a lyric.
[From hereon in James and Nicky are interviewed separately]
’Virginia State Epileptic Colony’.
James Dean Bradfield: I’ve said these are the three songs that for me fit together, but with this one you get the overall cynicism of treatment trying to subjugate the intelligence of the patient kind of thing. You get the overall cynicism of somebody saying, there’s not one thing you’ve told me that is gonna make me better. You get the overall cynicism of someone saying, just get the fuck out of my room and let me try and solve these problems myself. And it is heavily laced with sarcasm, the song. and that was the overriding thing, like I said before, just trying not to let anything else but the lyrics guide you, whatsoever.
And I guess again, if I came up with some kind of angular, out-of-step rhythm, it would just be wrong, it would just be wrong. And I might just be completely wrong about it, saying all these things. I might just have been over-thinking it at the time. I don’t know. But it just felt as if this needed, as if I needed to be sympathetic to Richey’s cynicism. It was as simple as that. And it was influenced by 'Outdoor Miner’, a tiny bit, at the start, by Wire. Because there’s the little piano bit. I don’t always start out with a direct influence musically but you end up finding where the things have come from that you’ve gathered into a tune. It quickly became something else. But I also do feel it’s a heavy, heavy dose of Richey just finding, doing a bit of research here and integrating it into his own experience.
Sometimes folk just go, why didn’t you find this record a more emotional or dark experience than it actually seemed for you? And sometimes I just find it inspiring that Richey can kind of find the energy to investigate these things, and to turn it into something that was vaguely constructive for him at the time as an artist, that’s what I find inspiring. I don’t always, when we’re making a record, I never find myself mired in thinking, oh, this is too much. It never ever feels like that, ever.
As John Niven said in the biography that came with the album, that Yeatsian thing of art growing out of ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’.
JDB: And when he was writing these, that was his whole raison d'etre, when he was doing these things, he was trying to articulate so many things. And that bank of TV screens in his head were flickering on and off, they were never off, they were always there.
And what’s the audio sample on this?
JDB: Ahhhh (shakes head, puts finger to mouth). No clearance! I could tell you, but you would tell other people… it’s Russian.
‘William’s Last Words’ is obviously the song that most people are going to interpret autobiographically. Do you have any idea who the character of William might be?
James Dean Bradfield: No, I gotta say. And these are the only problems, when you start to anticipate how people might react to things is when you hit problems, so we resisted trying to forecast how people might interpret lyrics or songs, or what Richey’s trying to say. We had to disengage from being worried about how people might react to these songs. Which was essential, I think. Otherwise we’d get fear. And then we’d stop. And then you wouldn’t get this record. It’s important as a lyric, whether it’s semi-autobiographical or about somebody else, because you actually just get genuine traditional warmth from it.
Which is… you spend an entire record sometimes listening to Richey speak in tongues, and on this lyric, you get genuine traditional warmth. It’s almost like reading a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem or something. You get something so warm and traditional from it. And it gives you the hint that, during the process of writing all these lyrics, Richey hadn’t lost his essential humanity. It sounds overblown, but that’s the impression I get. And I tried and tried, I tried a couple of times to write music to this lyric, and I couldn’t. I came up against a blank wall on this one.
And Rich, there were two pages of prose for this. It was meant to be a lyric, because it was amongst all the other fully formed lyrics, I tried to edit it, and I couldn’t get to the kernel of how to approach it musically, and Nick finally did it. And I was just openly jealous when he finally turned it into this song. Because it was obvious it was going to be the last track. And it was obviously right, because there was a tiny bit of serendipity because I could see that there’d been an Ian McCulloch songwriter special on Sky Arts, songbook I think it’s called that series, and I’d said to Nick, when he writes music, it’s very akin to how Ian McCulloch does it, because he uses very simple chords, but he seems to get so much expression out of it.
And there was a bit of serendipity there because Richey’s first love, Richey’s first obsession musically was Echo And The Bunnymen. y'know, after I’d seen him around (primary school) in Blackwood when I was young, Richey, and I kind of knew him and played football against him and stuff, the next time I really saw him and started talking to him was in Oakdale comprehensive and he had an absolute identikit Ian McCulloch haircut. He’d walk down the corridor and you’d see someone with hair this tall… and it wasn’t just sugar and water, it was proper proper hair products, it was done properly. The attention to detail was scary.
And my first concert, Me, Richey and Sean went to see Echo And The Bunnymen on the Ocean Rain Tour at Colston Hall in Bristol. And they were his first love, he absolutely adored Echo And The Bunnymen when he was in comprehensive. So it seemed to me there was a kind of serendipity in that Nick seemed to have written something that could have been off 'Ocean Rain’. And in a corny way, that felt kind of full circle to me.
And I think this was Steve Albini’s favourite song. When we were doing that, I was doing my electric guitar on it and Nick wanted me to do something that was Jimmy Page-esque, a la, not the rock stuff, but the stuff from like 'Physical Graffiti’ where it’s almost quite erudite and quite flowery. And when we finished that song, Steve Albini was very un-Steve Albini-esque by saying, ‘I’m pretty stoked after that’.
When I got the lyrics, this was the one I was most shocked by. I never would have imagined him writing something like this.
JDB: It was the only time I ever got close to what you might call a soft-focus B-movie moment in the studio. Camera close-up: will you see a tear fall from his eye? It was the only moment where I felt I had to step back a tiny bit and be like, let’s just stay focused on this track. Because you can draw some pretty obvious conclusions from the lyrics. But we’ve just spent a whole interview trying to give you our interpretation of the lyrics.
And we can’t stress enough that it is an interpretation. In The Holy Bible, you know, sometimes I would say to Richey, what are you trying to get at here? Is it voyeuristic, is it vicarious, is it first person, is it third person? And sometimes he could explain things to me sometimes, and sometimes he wouldn’t. But for this record, we haven’t been able to do that at all. Whatsoever. So it is all conjecture at the end of the day.
Did Nicky sing on this one because he wrote the music?
JDB: He did a demo of it and it just worked straight away. I mean my description of Nick’s voice in the past has been, it’s like a mixture between Mark E Smith, Lou Reed and Katharine Hepburn. And I can’t do that with my voice. And I find that pretty galling, really. I’ve spent my life, since I was nine years old, singing in a choir, and I can’t convey that, I can’t convey what he does. Which is quite galling for me really.
He has a breathless quality to his voice and as soon as I heard the demo, I knew that I wouldn’t be singing that. And there would be a bit of Welsh bluster in what I did… It would be like (booms)“Isn’t it looooooovely”. And it would have been wrong. It would just have been wrong. And that’s the other thing about the lyric, actually, it’s one of the only Welsh references that Richey has in the entirety of his lyrics, when he says “Nos da”, which is Welsh for goodnight. And I like that. Because if you ever hear playbacks of Richey’s voice, he sounded so Welsh. People forget that (laughs) he had that real lilt to him.
Bag Lady – you said you had this as a hidden track because you wanted the same amount of songs as ‘The Holy Bible.’
JDB: The drudgery of symmetry… Even though, when the record was finished we shied away from comparing it to The Holy Bible, we wanted some kind of symmetry to The Holy Bible. With the artwork , with the number of songs on it. And for lots of reasons, I think. The record is different, but I think they’re the same…. There’s a painting by Jenny Saville on the first record, and now there’s a painting by Jenny Saville on this record. But they’re different. Because the triptych on ‘The Holy Bible’ shows the wide spectrum, there are some more, there’s a variety of topic choices on The Holy Bible.
It’s a lot more varied. There are a few more political songs on The Holy Bible than people ever imagine. And there are a lot more wide-ranging references on The Holy Bible. But obviously, this record is a lot more personal. And that’s why we chose the up-close portrait of the young girl so that represents how much more personal the record is. Essentially it was the extra track because we couldn’t have 14 tracks on the record for aesthetic symmetrical reasons. But I think Bag Lady is the most reminiscent of ‘The Holy Bible’. Perhaps that’s why we shied away from putting it on the record as well. Sonically, it actually sounds like the Bible, sounds more claustrophobic, I mean it sounds too crammed with perhaps just a bit too much stuff.
The image of walking in half view of all mirrors is strangely terrifying.
JDB: Yeah, and that’s another reason why it was left off the record, because it gives a feeling… it’s not as resolved, the lyric itself. This is the only lyric that really weighed me down, I wouldn’t wanna inhabit that lyric too much. I wouldn’t wanna sing it every night on this tour. I don’t know why, it just makes me feel like that sometimes. And the push and pull between pretension and repulsion between being vain and rejecting any notion of what is ugly or beauty, must have been exhausting at this point, when it gets to lyrics like this I think. It would be for me to sing it every night, I must say.
The rejection of morality and law and eternity, is very sort of… losing any sense of centre.
JDB: On the record it rejects ideology, it rejects God, it rejects love, it rejects possibility. There you go! The perfect album for our worst economic downturn of all time.
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.