Tour Book - This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours Tour

What do people get wrong about you?

James: That Iím going to be six foot two. They go, ĎGod, you look like the Terminator on TV - youíre so shortí. Iím five five and a bit, I think. Iím fucking tiny.

Sean: They always try to break us down into individuals, and I think Manic Street Preachers is more of a collective thing. Though Richey is lost to us, itís the loss of a limb of Manic Street Preachers, rather than of the individual Richey which all the Richey-ites, Richey-philes see it as. I mean, personally to us it is a loss of Richey, but to Manic Street Preachers itís just that part of the machine is missing, itís still Manic Street Preachers.

Nicky: That Iíve got a big mouth. That Iím not very clever, and Iím gay.

Nicky Wire, the lanky floppy haired man who these days writes all of the Manic Street Preachers lyrics, is talking to a Japanese journalist. She perceives some kinship between his group and Radiohead. (She has already observed that, while she considers their new single to be rather too "dark and depressive", it might do alright because, following the recent success of The Verve and Radiohead "it is said that dark mid tempo rock ballads are now more acceptable than ever before...") Sensibly, Nicky side-steps the comparison. He quite likes Radiohead, but does not consider himself to exist in the same world as theirs, or any other pop groupís. He lives in a terraced house in the Welsh Valleys, where he writes, watches TV, walks the dog, paints on the walls, slouches around and thinks. "I could never write something like ĎIím a creep, Iím a weirdoí," he explains. "I could write something like ĎIím a cricketer, Iím boring, Iím a gardener, Iím a hoovering housewife.í "

There is a new Manic Street Preachers album out soon. Though itís their fifth, itís only their second since their other lyricist and conceptualist, Richey Edwards, disappeared, and it is the first which was conceived from the start without his input. "Lyrically itís just my world - the world I exist in and the things that make me sad and make me happy, that make me get up in the morning and make me go to bed," says Wire. "I think I exist in a completely different world to every other Ďrock starí, inverted commas, in the world. My lifestyle, for one. I donít drink, I donít smoke, Iíve never taken a drug in my life, Iíve been married for five years and I believe in marriage and all that kind of stuff. I still live in the valleys in South Wales on a mountain, completely isolated. Iím not out drinking, Iím not sat in being depressed and taking Prozac. I canít relate to any other person in music. That is the thread - what I see, whether itís through my venetian blinds or through my TV. If people want to say I live a shallow life, Iím totally open to criticism, but this is my truth as I see it. I still feel in many ways exactly the same as I did when the band started. I avoid cliché by my lifestyle. I think thatís important to me. As much as I admire someone like Thom Yorke, I cannot relate to one of his lyrics whatsoever. I just hear someone who I canít recognise in myself. Some of his preoccupations are the same as mine - like flying, and oxygen, and death, and all the rest of it - it just seems to come from a different angle."

"Itís all about his personal predicament," says Sean Moore. What is his predicament? "I donít know. I suppose he just feels alienated." What does he feel alienated from? "I think the biggest thing is maybe people."

That would, quite possibly, be enough. By the middle of 1995 it was far from clear that the Manic Street Preachers even existed anymore. The circumstances of Richeyís disappearance have been endlessly revisited. He had been in an especially bad way for the previous year, and had been in and out of institutions. He disappeared from the London hotel from which he and James were to fly to America to promote their third album, the marvellous but deeply macabre and intense The Holy Bible, and his car was found abandoned two weeks later at the motorway services next to the Severn Bridge. Anyone who cares will know that there are a few tantalising hints to feed the hope that he is alive, and that there are plenty more sensible reasons to believe that he is dead. The remaining Manic Street Preachers eventually decided to carry on. They handled a difficult return with tact. They made themselves deliberately anonymous.

"We felt we had to try and hide behind the music," James says. "We were bearing the cross of so much symbolism at that point anyway that to actually be anonymous was a big relief."

Do you think the Manic Street Preachers are sexy enough?

James: Obviously weíre not as sexy without Richey. Iím not quite sure. I think Nick is. Thatís enough. I think what we were at the start was very sexy, just boys prepared to dress up in tight white jeans and show their little bump Ďní grinds, and be political in the most obtuse senses and be little rascals was very sexy. But we canít be that now, can we?

Sean: No, not at all. Just because weíve become old and bloated, maybe to the record company itís a problem; myself, I donít care. Itís just marketing, isnít it? I suppose itís like cars - people tend to go for the more sleek, shiny, daring-looking cars. As you get older you start moving towards the Volvos; practical boring greyish sorts of cars.

Nicky: I think we were and I think we can be. Iím not sure we are at the moment.

Hoovering housewife Nicky Wire has three Dyson hoovers. One for upstairs. One for downstairs. One spare. (He nonchalantly dismisses my suggestion that no one on earth needs a spare hoover. As for the logically-problematic stairs themselves, he cleans them with the downstairs hooverís stretchy arm.) "I love Dysons," he says. "They are a work of art." When he hoovers, he gets this feeling of cleanliness. He was really into Howard Hughes when he was young. "All his Kleenex protocols and all that," Wire says, as though everyone knows about such matters. "There have been times Iíve switched lights off fifty times," he adds matter of factly.

Me: [alarmed] What do you mean: "...switched lights off 50 times".

Nicky: [shrugs] Itís just an OCD thing. When, say, you go to bed at night Iíd make sure I locked the door about twenty times. Me: OCD?

Nicky: Obsessive compulsive disorder. Which is what they reckon Howard Hughes had. He also had syphilis of the brain.

Me: Quite. How do you feel if stuff isnít hoovered?

Nicky: I get a bit tetchy. When I come home and Rachel [his wife] obviously hasnít hoovered for the past four days - because sheís not as into it as I am - Iím straight out with the hoover. She goes out, takes the dog up the mountain, and I have a big clean.

Manic Street Preachersí fans who are aware of his predilections show their affection by sending him spare filters for his Dysons, he was given about twenty on their last tour, and he is working his way through them, He was sent a t-shirt by a Swedish girl, with words on it somewhat in the style of the Manic Street Preachersí early home-made clothes. Then, their shirts would blare slogans like ĎKill Yourselfí, ĎSpectators of Suicideí, ĎAnti-Loveí, and ĎScars Hate Dead Voidí The Swedish girl had, instead, painstakingly lettered the words ĎI love hooveringí. Last year, when the Manic Street preachers won a Brit award, Nicky wore it to collect the trophy. (Sean, incidentally, has two Dysons. James has none, but he lives in London. He has a cleaner. "He has succumbed," mutters Sean darkly "to those London ways. Everything - cleaners, gardeners, interior designers.")

His standards in these matters are not easily predictable. Before our first interview, he goes to the bathroom for a wash. For the interview.

Every day he is home Nicky Wire polishes his desk, and every other day he polishes his venetian blinds. He uses Mr Sheen. But round the house he wears pyjamas much of the time - that or a pair of fake fila tracksuit bottoms with ĎPhilaí written on them which he bought in a dodgy market when he was 15. Those are his favourites, and heíll wear them for a week or ten days in a row without washing them. He does not like changing his underwear. Though when he is at home he will usually have three showers a day, he will wear the same pair of underwear for three or four days. "I like getting into them a bit." (On the day we are having this conversation, his underwear is on its third daily outing, Three days tends to be his limit when heís in London. "Because," he sagely observes, "itís a bit sweatier.") He notes that for a 28 day tour, Sean will take 28 pairs of underpants, Nicky will take about six, partly because of his eccentric long-life use pattern, and partly because he considers that one of the pleasures of the touring life is washing his whites in the hotel basin. (Theyíre white; or course they are.) "There ís a bit in Rude Boy," says Wire, with a certain rapture, in what may be some kind of explanation, "when Joe Strummerís washing his t-shirt in the basin and heís got pills and everything..."

Some hotels have a marvellous piece of string which you pull out from the wall to make a clothes line, and he loves that. Otherwise, he hangs them from the shower rail. If time is tight, he has been known to spend an hour or so in the hotel bathroom with the blowdrier, chasing out the dampness from his freshly-washed smalls inch by inch.

Ironically, the widespread popular success which had always evaded the Manic Street Preachers came with their first single as a trio, "A Design For Life". "Itís about a hundred years of social working class struggle," says Nicky. "But you canít get that across to everyone." Some people liked it because there was something wonderful about a record at number 2 in the charts beginning "Libraries gave us power"; some people liked it because of its sweeping faux-Spector grandeur and beautiful tune; some people liked it because when it swelled into the chorus you could holler along "We only want to get drunk..." (Musicologists now know this last phenomenon as the Chumbawumba effect.)

Before, Nicky and Richey had shared the lyric-writing between them. "I knew I could never be a replacement for Richey in terms of leading a lifestyle similar to him," Nick says, " and I knew, especially with A Design For Life, we had to kind of redefine ourselves lyrically, because there was just no way I could write like that." Itís a process which has continued on their new album, "I always thought we had more of the scum factor, because the valleys are the estranged hybrid of Welshness," says James, "Itís got such a coarseness to it, whereas traditionally a Welsh background is very lilting, very gentle. They always say rural towns bordering on urban cities have the worst violence, that scum factor, and I felt we had that up until now, and this is the first time Iíve felt weíve reached a calm. Weíve actually distilled ourselves, to know exactly what weíre saying. It feels like our name has been stripped off the corrugated iron and put on a signpost in the country instead. Thatís the only way I can put it. Weíve reached some kind of serenity in terms of our own language, in terms of basking in our inner knowledge to a certain degree. For the first time ever. Whereas before it was always guns blazing all the time. We just feel completely and utterly comfortable with being in judgement of our own language, whereas before it was almost like a fighter mentality - our backs were always up."

Musically (the basic music is written by Bradfield, then worked on with Moore), they have similarly sheered away, "My favourite band will always be the Clash," James says, "but I canít hear any of that in us anymore." The only influence he says he can hear is Badfinger. "Songs that have got an expansive backdrop without being shouted from a mountain top," he explains. "For me, itís almost like youíre just ripping it out from under turf. Thereís something about the way earth smells - itís dirty, but it smells beautiful. I donít know. Iíve just got these images in my brain..."

A few months ago, Nicky attended a celebration of the National Health Serviceís fiftieth anniversary on Tredegar Mountain. It was pissing down on a winter Friday night. "I was just thinking," he says "thereís no way anybody else in a band would be doing this in the whole of the world." The voice of Aneurin Bevan, the late Labour MP who was the great architect of the national Health Service was booming out through the downpour, on the same mountain in his constituency where he would speak to crowds of ten or twelve thousand. "This is my truth," he said, then and now. "Tell me yours." And that, consequently, is the title of the new Manic Street Preachers album: This Is My Truth - Tell Me Yours.

Do you ever worry that, with Richeyís impulses taken out of the band and with you growing up, thereís a danger of the Manic Street Preachers becoming the band who tells you how good libraries are and how one should live to offer a decent critique on society...?

Nicky: Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Thereís always the idea in my head we need to redress that with glamour. Sometimes when we play live we still are absolutely shit. Iíll just put the bass down and dance around for ten minutes. And I really think thatís still a vital part of us.

But it used to be vitally important to you to be sexy and reckless, and probably now youíre less interested in either.

Nicky: Yeah. Especially the recklessness. This is our fifth album. Weíre 29 now. It sucks that real urgency out of you. And with Philip and Richey as well, itís just impossible to keep that sense of recklessness, because you just think, round the corner something disastrous is going to happen. You just canít throw caution to the wind.

The video for "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" is being filmed in a studio just south of the Thames. They spend most of the day waiting, sitting in a small room filled with a couple of sofas, a table and a TV. On the door it says **STAR ROOM**. It is the day after the England-Argentina match.

"Iím sick of all these English moral victories," Nicky says. "Just because theyíre shit." They briefly discuss the Beckham affair. "Nicky got sent off in a really important school match," says James, mischievously. They all went to school together. James and Nick were in the same year. Sean, who is Jamesí cousin and grew up in the same house as him after his own parentí s divorce, was in the year above (so was Richey). "I only swore," Nicky says. He was the teamís captain, and he said "Fuck off" to the referee. "Left his team rudderless," teases James. They sit around. It takes forever. Theyíre bored. "Iím too old for all this," Nicky says. "I hate this." He turns on the cricket: England versus South Africa, second test. "Come on Rob," he shouts to bowler Robert Croft, who is Welsh. "Show those fucking English woossies what bowlingís all about." The ball plops ineffectually towards the stumps. "Spin the ball, Croftie," he exhorts, "for once in your fucking life..."

He and James start debating films. "...Heat! Thatís a fucking masterpiece!" James exclaims. "A fucking modern day masterpiece." "Rubbish," says Nick. Instead, he speaks out in praise of Excalibur - "Itís a fucking heavy film! When they look for the Grail and thereís pestilence..." - and we all laugh at him. He has a thought. "Actors are lucky that they can do a lot of shit films and carry on. If youíre a band and make too many shit records, youíre fucked." More waiting. "You wonder why I like housework so much," Nicky says to his manager, Martin. "Itís better than this, isnít it? Sense of achievement. I really wish I took drugs at times like this. I wish I had some vices." His press agent Terri, suggests some confectionery instead. I imagine she is being facetious, but Nickís frown lifts just a little. "Iíd quite like a Topic," he says. More waiting. Nicky mutters something rude under his breath to Sean. "Oooh," says Sean. "Philip Larkin of the valleys!" "Philip Larkin died in hospital," says Nick, "and he insisted on wearing his blazer he used to wear at Lords, and his tie. I quite like that. Cantankerous to the end: Ďbye bye you cuntsí."

Sean talks about how much he enjoys watching Patrick Mooreís the Sky At Night. "The Sky At Night is the most boring programme on television," says Nicky derisively. "Youíre someone who likes watching womenís golf," retorts Sean, reasonably. "Allison Nichols won the US Open last year," argues Nick. "It was great."

They listen to a tape of Nickís: lots of Led Zepppelin, some future Manic Street Preachers b-sides, a little Embrace, a little Lo Fidelity Allstars, Madonnaís ĎFrození. One of the b-sides is called "Montana Autumn 78". Nick explains. Thatís where and when the Unabomber sent his first bomb. They are their most animated each time another Led Zeppelin song comes on. "No one sounds this good," sighs Nick. "That ís what happens if you sell your soul to the devil, like Jimmy did." They met Page & Plant at the Ivor Novello awards, and told them how they used to play their ĎThe Song Remains the Sameí video on the tour bus on early Manic Street Preachers tours when they wanted to go to sleep. ("No Quarter" was particularly effective.) "Robert Plant said it used to have the same effect on him," Sean says.

Their manager reads in the Sun about Paula Yates suicide attempt. "Now sheís in the priory," he says evenly. "Well thatíll do her the world of good," says Nick. (Thatís where Richey went. When he came out, he didnít seem to be himself. And soon after that he was gone.) Eventually they are called to the set. They are connected to curly cords which connect their wrists to the ceiling - they are, remember, an experiment - and they run through the song. Throughout the shoot, the song is played back considerably faster then it is on the record. This is so that their performance will have a slight disembodied aura when played back at normal speed, but itís pretty annoying, turning a stately, searing ballad into a rather irritating half-hearted attempt at a jungle record.

The song itself was inspired by the Spanish Civil War, and by two of the finest British works of art which the war inspired: George Orwellís "Homage to Catalonia" and the Clashís "Spanish Bombs". It was a war which people from all over Europe joined, simply because it was the right thing to do. Nicky has some envy for an era where people would simply say we will fight fascism because itís evil. (The lines "If I can shoot rabbits/Then I can shoot fascists" are a quote he read from a British farmer who went to war.) "Your life is too complicated to think that today," Wire says, and that seems to be what the song is pointing out: that it is at careless times like this that the freedoms earlier generations died for are smuggles away and compromised, through apathy, indifference and selfishness.

If there is a theme to current Manic Street Preachers records it is an unusual one to find in pop music: it is of them offering up a fairly moral world view that acts, to some degree, as a kind of reprimand to an irresponsible era. On the video set, it is only after several run-throughs that anyone tells Sean and Nicky that they canít be seen in the camera. They wander away. I watch James check his reflection. There is a long horizontal scar which shows up in his stubble under his chin. "Knife fight," he grunts. Itís a chicken pox scar.

In the middle of the evening James sneaks off to the pub for a half of Guinness. The others stay. Nicky films a scene where he has to vomit, in his underwear, into a toilet. He does it over and over, looking authentically wretched. "Johnny Depp eat your heart out, eh?" He says dryly to me. T

hroughout the day, James strums at an acoustic guitar in the **Star Room**. Thereís the odd familiar riff - The Stone Rosesí "Waterfall", for instance - and lots of noodling. He plays, perfectly, the Allmann Brothers instrumental used as the BBC Snooker theme music. "I worked it out when I was 16," he says. "My dad nagged me not to play guitar, so I did it to show him I could do it properly." His father had wanted to hear the Shadows "Apache" as proof, but the snooker theme did fine. As a rule, he doesnít sing as he plays, but in the middle of the evening he begins banging out an unfamiliar punk rumble, singing its words in a quite high voice - loud enough to be heard, but not so loud that it could be considered a performance. "Donít want to go to parties and drink like a fish/Or like U2, as you do - Iíll do as I fucking well wish... Anti social! Anti social!".

"Itís the second song we ever wrote," he says. "ĎAntisocialí" .. Nicky walks in, catching the end of this. "Youíre not taking the piss out of my lyrics, are you?" he says.

Tell me some things that are true.

James: 1984 to 1985. The minerís strike and everything. Truth before your eyes. Easy.

Sean: The sky is blue. The world is round. It goes round the sun. I could go on for days.

Nicky: Sport. The best people always win. Itís different in music.

The first lyric Nicky ever wrote was called Aftermath Ď84. It was about the miners strike. And about betrayal. It included the line "This woman that fatefully sowed this seed", which, naturally, was about Margaret Thatcher. They were always obsessed by the idea of having one of their lyrics printed in Smash Hits, which is why, when James gave Nicky those lyrics back, heíd written on them something like "these deserve to be next to Morrissey/Marr". They were not cool kids. One of Nickís nicknames at school was Joey Deacon, after a boy in a wheelchair on Blue Peter. The younger you are, of course, the more desperate is seems.

When I chaperone a discussion about these teenage years, Nick and James talk about how Sean and Richey used to get into trouble for wearing their hair sticking up - theyíd put coke in it - as though such wonders were beyond their reach.

"Sean always had a girlfriend, of course," says Nick. "It was easier for him."

"No it wasnít," Sean objects. "I didnít have a girlfriend till I left school."

"You had a bit more than us," Nicky retaliates

"Yeah," says James, "You wore really good school trousers, and you had a tie pin."

"You were always so immaculate," Nicky agrees.

"And your tie was always really cool," says James, though he does add, with a certain edge, "And you had all the Thompson Twins albums - the girls loved that sort of stuff."

"But after school." Sean protests, " I didnít used to go anywhere. It wasnít as though I went to youth clubs or discos..."

"You know what Iím on about," says Nick. "I didnít even kiss a girl until I was 17. Sixteen and a half..."

And on they go. I imagine they can play this game of growing-up-in-the-Welsh-valleys one-down-manship for some time. What they did have was each other. Earlier, alone, Sean had described the magical days when they would spend afternoons in the bedroom where he and James shared bunkbeds, drinking cups of tea, listening to the Clash, reading out poetry, and eating Cadburyís Spiras.

"Weíve been lucky to find ourselves, me, James and Sean - and Richey when he was around," says Nick. "If youíre lucky in life you can find someone to build your life round. It doesnít happen for everyone. It wasnít even enough for Richey at the end of the day."

"We werenít all wasting our talents," James reflects, "and we found each other. And thatís the best thing in the world, isnít it?"

They saw the Clash on a tenth anniversary punk programme, playing "Garageland" and "Whatís My Name?", by comparison, all the bands around seemed drab. They resolved to become the kind of band they wish had been around as they were growing up. Richey was only brought in later. Their first anarcho-punk bass player didnít work out, a dalliance with a female singer didnít work out, and - ironically, as things would turn out - they didnít want to be a three-piece because it seemed too much like the Jam. Richey couldnít play guitar properly, and he couldnít sing, but that simply left more time for the things that really mattered. They began designing their own clothes, and dressing in ways which werenít normal for a Welsh valley town. James was the one who looked tough, who found himself in a protective role.

"Richey and Nicky used to get the piss taken out of them all the time - ĎLook at those fags over there! Go and suck each otherís dicks in the corner, you Welsh faggots!í," he says. "Thatís the kind of thing that got my back up a bit."

They had already learned that, whatever you wanted to do, provocation wasnít a bad first step. Once Nicky and Richey were on the same schoolboy coach trip to France. The passengers took turns to put tapes on. Richeyís was Einsturzende Neubauten: grotesque post-industrial screeching and the five minutes of a tap dripping. He revelled in each of the ten minutes the noise blared out before the teacher said, "Letís get this off."

"Which never left him, throughout his life," Sean says. "Heís always loved to annoy."

"He loved to do it to us." Nicky says. "Heíd put Pantera on at one hundred and fifteen decibels."

"Or Dogs DíAmour," Sean says, ruefully.

James Dean Bradfield is in a weird position - the voice of a band, but not the author of its lyrics; the first face you see, but not the first mind you explore. He used to worry that it held them back: successful groups have proper front men, and he was never a proper front man. People often used to think Richey was the singer - he was the one most often on the magazine covers, after all - and James used to think that it might have been better that way. But Richey simply couldnít sing. James did try to write a few lyrics when they started. There was one called Jackboot Johnny. About local oi bands. He swears that heíd never tried since, not even privately:

"Iím in an absolutely brilliant, quite unique position where Iím able to interpret Nicky and Richeyís lyrics. Itís the closest thing I could have ever done to being an actor, because I wanted to be an actor before I wanted to be a musician."

He wanted to be an actor after he stayed in one Friday night when he was 14, depressed because no one had asked him out, and "Meantime" came on. This reminds him of something.

"That cunt," he fumes. "That bastard, Phil Daniels."

About three and a half years ago, he saw Phil Daniels when he was out - Daniels was standing next to Damon Albarn - and went up to him. Itís not the kind of thing James does, but "Meantime" meant so much to him.

"I said, really quick - I didnít hang about - ĎWhen I was 14 I was in on my own on Friday night and Meantime came on and it was one of the best things Iíve ever seen and Iíd just like to say thanks.í And he went..." James imitates Danielís dismissive voice - "...íoh, everybody always says that to me.í I thought, well, fuck, I should have said ĎI saw Puffy the Green Baize Vampire and I thought it was the worst thing Iíd ever seen, you prickí "

He prides himself for his knowledge of film and Clash trivia. He used to run seriously. About a hundred miles a week. "When I was young it was a Nietzsche thing - you can only beat yourself; the mountainís not going to beat you." Now he jogs. He worries that, even recently, people have got the wrong idea about him.

"The image I always gave off was a bit of a staid blue-collar Springsteen vibe," he says. "My neck was bulging passionate veins. I think thatís what came across."

Me: And you didnít think that was a good thing?

James: No, because I donít like the word Ďpassionateí. Iíve never liked it. I donít like the word Ďbraveí. I donít like any of those words. Itís heroism. What we did was always completely and utterly reflex, but I donít think I ever gave that off. I think I gave more of a stoic pugnaciousness, and I never felt like that.

Me: So your neckís not going to be bulging anymore?

James: Yeah, of course it is. But I do think that the record, for the first time, gives us a chance to step back. I just donít want anything to be strangled, or struggling above the malaise of discontent. I didnít want things to be kind of crawling from the precipice. I think of us itís perhaps our first achievement of some thing vaguely spiritual. It takes me a long time to realise that James is much shyer and more uncertain than he seems. Talking to him, things get interesting when you get past the gruff, assured exterior and find the shy man inside. With most interviewees, the challenge is to get him to open up; with him, itís to get him to close in on himself while youíre still watching.

Towards the end of comprehensive school, James had quite an erratic attendance record. He turned up for the last day, and no one was there. He had got the day wrong. The gates were locked, and he was outside. He makes light of it, but when he talks about it, you can hear in his cracking voice the sadness and the anger chasing each otherís tails. "It was really fucking depressing," he says.

When the Manic Street Preachers started, the odds against them seemed insurmountable.

"We were four dickheads from Wales," James says. "No other dickheads from Wales were making music at that point. And we were kind of pretentious beyond belief. We looked like complete and utter fucking pricks..."

Their Welshness, particularly, was taken as an invitation to patronise.

"Every Welsh cliché was used in our headlines," Nicky says, "Whether it was ĎTaffí or ĎLeekí or ĎDaffodilí. ĎYou sexy Merthyr-Fuckersí they even used once. Weíre ten, twenty miles away from Merthyr. ĎMeek Leek Manifestoí was one. ĎThe Boys From Bangorí. Which is three hundred miles away! Weíre closer to London than Bangor. We had to fight against it an awful lot - people did assume that because we were from Wales weíd be like the Alarm, and weíd be shit and thick."

Instead the Manic Street Preachers made lots of big, proud unfeasible statements. They were the 1st group, and they were going to show up pop stardom for what it was. They would make one album. It would sell 16 million records. They would then split up. I met them for the first time when they were recording that album, "Generation Terrorists". They were sweet, charming and over-eager to explain themselves.

"No one has ever sacrificed themselves", Richey said. "If we become huge and just throw it away, that is a big statement. Then maybe people will see that itís all shit. No bands will be seen as worthwhile and nobody will put any hopes on bands at all."

"If we donít do what we say weíre going to do," James said. "Weíll be destroyed anyway."

Meanwhile they had signed to CBS (now Sony) for a ten album deal. The music press were deeply suspicious of these strange man, half fey and half threatening, from Wales; who were brazen in an era where mopey was still in fashion; who rattled off so many intellectual references that they must either be too smart for their own good or too dumb to know what they were saying; who boasted about drinking Babysham; who wore daft make-up and womenís blouses.

(The glam phase was a bit much for Sean.

"I tried it for one gig and thought ĎThis isnít meí," he says. "I didnít feel comfortable. "

He stuck with the Dorothy Perkins womenís blouses for one British tour.

"They werenít cut properly," he complains, "so Iíd be drumming away, getting stuck to all this horrible crimpolene nylon stuff which was just chafing my arms."

After that tour, he wore shirts instead.) Their battle to be taken seriously took an ugly turn when, after being interviewed backstage in Norwich by sceptical Steve Lamacq, then a journalist for the NME, Richey carved "4 REAL" into his left forearm with a razorblade. The NMEís photographer took a famous photo of Richey, eyes meeting the camera, brandishing the wound. It is, of course, a horrible image, but, of the sixteen cuts, anyone who is hard of heart, and callous enough to enjoy pop culture madness might be able to bear fifteen of them. It is the other cut - the first one; the one that makes the diagonal of the "4" - which is so horrible. It gapes open, like a mouth, itís raw flesh walls glistening. So wide and so deep that you could lose a man in there.

"I wish Richey hadnít felt he needed to do that," Sean tells me one afternoon. "I regret that it was the start, I feel, of a downward spiral in his life, personally." But if this was the beginning of the bad times, it was also the best time. The saddest, and quite possible the best song on their new album looks back to those days, It seems to be about doing something worthwhile - in particular, for instance, creating a band like the Manic Street Preachers - and then carrying on afterwards. The chorus goes: In the beginning/When we were winning/When our smiles were genuine/Now unforgiven/The everlasting/The everlasting.

"The first six months of signing to Heavenly and everything else," Wire says, "Life was a ball. Richey carving Ď4 REALí into his arm was just..." - he cheers - "Ďyes! Thereís not a problem here! This is fucking rock Ďní roll!í Iím not saying when we smile now weíre just putting it on - itís a bit of artistic license - but those were the times when we were just four Nietzschean strong men: we are the young men and we shall conquer the world with our socialist rhetoric."

So what happened? "Half of itís down to us just not making as good a record as we could have, and half of itís just down to deterioration. General deterioration of the group, mind-wise. Mentally. Iím sure itís the same for a lot of bands. They all have golden eras, donít they? Itís just..." Nicky laughs - "ours didnít last very long, did it? That initial burst of Ďwe can do anythingí. I think it only comes with youth, to be honest with you, that feeling of total abandonment. That youíre made of metal. Youíre impenetrable."

You were better than you are now? "We were more exciting then," he clarifies. Then he laughs. "But no one liked us."

I mention to Sean the line "When our smiles were genuine".

Sean: I suppose theyíre not now. Weíre playing this media circus now. Which we did in the beginning but, even though we were talking about alienation, in a much more optimistic and lively way. Weíve become very melancholic over the years.

Me: The irony is, back then you were failing at everything you set out to do.

Sean: Yeah. We enjoyed it. Me: And now youíre a success.

Sean: We had greater expectations then than we do now.

Me: So what is your greatest expectation now? The best that can come of this? Sean: [shrugs] Well, obviously we can do a lot better in Europe and America than we do now.

How many members of the Manic Street Preachers have you kissed?

Sean: One. Richey. Larking - it wasnít on the mouth. On the cheek. I think it was one of his drunken malaises, helping him stand up in a friendly way. It was a very stubbly sort of affair. A brotherly thing.

James: None. I canít even think of kissing Sean when I was young. Iíd need a couple of telephone directories to get to Nickís level, and to kiss Sean would be incest. I saw Richey kissing a bloke once. Not one of the band. I think it was an experiment.

Nicky: I havenít kissed any on the lips. I kissed Richey on the cheek. Weíre a very touchy band but not a kissy band. Very touchy. I mean, I slept with Richey for six months, in the same bed, when we used to live with Philip [their manager]. Downstairs was the couch and the floor, which everyone wanted, and James and Sean, and me and Richey, would swap alternatively. Upstairs was a double bed, which was a bit planes trains and automobiles sometimes: ĎThatís a really soft pillow my handís iní ĎThatís not a pillow!í Richey would just get blotto and pass out, really. So itíd be an incredible smell of vodka in the morning. You know the way it kind of pours out of your skin?

I remember being backstage at Northampton Roadmenders after the final date of their British Generation Terrorists tour. "It was bleak as fuck," Nicky recalls, when I prod their memory. He had badly hurt his knee onstage (and would need keyhole surgery), and was sitting in the bathroom in agony. Nicky and James had argued onstage about whether they should cut short the set. Richey was perched on a bench in the dressing room, and I think I had already sat down next to him - he was usually the chattiest, and everyone else was preoccupied - before I realised that he was absent-mindedly gouging at his wrist. There was a little blood. Iíd never seen anyone do anything like that. No one said anything about it. It seemed clear to me that they knew what he was doing, and what they were doing, and how best they should deal with it. I remember that it also seemed clear to me that, sitting next to him, my silence might have a different connotation, might offer a more explicit endorsement. The way I remember it, I told him it probably wasnít a good idea to be doing that; he sort of smiled, and carried on looking straight ahead, but he did stop, for that moment. He was always very polite.

Seanís role in the Manic Street Preachers is the most oblique. He is the least likely to join in their visual excesses. For years, even if he attended interviews, he would sit there reading or drinking a cup of tea. It was always the same stupid questions. (After Richey was gone, he at least felt people genuinely wanted to know what he had to say about it.) His role in the songwriting is somewhat oblique, but he is not just a drummer; he played trumpet in the South Wales Jazz Orchestra. When he and James work together at the music, James describes them as "complete pottering housewives." He lives on the outskirts of Bristol with his girlfriend. Neither James nor Nicky have every been to his house. Late at night, on the tour bus, when heís having trouble sleeping, he likes to do the washing up. When they were recording the album at Mike Hedgesís studio in France, Sean bought a telescope. He wanted to find a galaxy heíd heard you could see in Orion, but he didnít. The fans send him drumming gloves. Some have got Welsh flags sewn into them. He keeps them in the bottom of his spare drawer, just in case. He volunteers the information that he was once voted the tenth most uninteresting person in pop in Melody Maker. (Itís the grim worst of both worlds: you make the most uninteresting list, but youíre uninterestingness is not spectacular or impressive enough to get a decent chart placing.)

"I try not to be a pop star. I always try to be as ordinary as possible, " he says. "Itís easy when youíre the drummer." He is obsessed with shopping and newness. "I want everything to look like itís just come out of the wrapper. I love the smell of say a Walkman when you first unwrap it. If it gets a scratch on it, thatís it. Thatí s the way I am. And Iíve always got to get the next best thing. I donít care about money." He knows everything there is to know about "TVís, videos, DVD players, computers, useless gadgets, moblie phones... My search for perfection for something that will do absolutely everything without going wrong." He feels most calm at that moment when, six or seven shopping bags in his hands, he flops into a taxi and tells them to take him to his hotel. Thereís a real sense of accomplishment.

We have tea one afternoon in a London hotel. I ask him, purely making conversation, what he has been enjoying in his life. He raises his eyebrows.

"Nothing really. I donít enjoy anything, I just exist. To be truthful. Because you know itís got to come to an end. We really despise hedonists who do everything regardless of what people think."

Doing nothing and not enjoying life has its consequences too.

"Only to yourself. Itís personal."

Itís very wasteful.

"It is very wasteful, it must be said. Itís a terrible dilemma, the whole thing. Itís just a huge cacophony of contradictions. Itís just complete confusion. If you simplify your life as much as possible then hopefully those threads sort of untangle. [Thinking of something] I appreciate flowers a lot more than I used to. I appreciate the things that are untainted. The innocent."

He does not have children, and he has no plans to have children. "Probably because this world is such a horrible place. Put it this way - if the world ended tomorrow, if the human race ended tomorrow, I wouldnít have any regrets about it whatsoever, because I donít think weíve contributed anything whatsoever, in the entire history of this planet, thatís worthwhile. At the end of the day, everythingís dusk, and that is it."

The first Manic Street Preachers album did not sell 16 million copies, and they did not split up. Telling themselves that they had only failed by their own self-imposed standards, they rushed into their second and worst album, Gold Against the Soul, which has a few good songs, no cogent direction and an unappealing soft-metal sheen. Around this time, they supported Bon Jovi.

"It was probably the first time I felt we were never going to be what we wanted to be, and it all might get a bit messy," says James.

The Holy Bible followed. On the first two records, Nicky and Richey had shared responsibilities for the lyrics more or less equally, but the Holy Bibleís grim torrent of ugliness was mostly Richeyís. Their lyrics, particularly Richeyís had often been fascinatingly unmusical.

"Basically," says Sean, "Richey had no concept of music in terms of metre and bars and beats. No concept whatsoever. A line could go on and on and on." Previously they had attempted to edit and shoehorn the lyrics into the kind of shapes which pop songs demand. For this, their masterpiece of extremity, they resolved that there would be no editing whatsoever. Everything would be included, and the songs would have to cope. Usually, James points out, people make a record like this as a means of "trying to rebuke their poppiness".

"I find it a bit depressing that bands need to get huge before they write a bleak album," Nicky says, referring to records like Pulpís This Is Hardcore and Blurís Blur. "I mean, we did Holy Bible when we were fucking shit nothing anyway. Our lowest ebb."

(Theyíre proud of it. But not all of it. "ĎRevolí," notes James, "is a fucking awful song, and I thought it could be a fucking massive hit. Itís just deplorable. Itís just a piece of dogshit." Luckily, the shame it brought them was rather tempered by its failure to reach the top 20.)

They somehow imagined that the Holy Bible would also break them in America. In the end, it was never even released there. It was on the eve of James and Richeyís promotional trip to America that Richey disappeared. James went anyway. That week I met him, more or less by chance, in Los Angeles. He was at dinner with his American record company, being harangued by a sweetly over-enthusiastic man who said that he really understood where the Manic Street Preachers were coming from because he too was really into the Lurkers and 999. James and I snuck of together. I was going through a bad time for various personal reasons, and it was clear that James was too. He didnít tell me about Richeyís disappearance (the official story was that Richey had an ear infection, though I donít think he told me that either), but I remember asking how Richey was doing and thinking that James was at the end of his tether with him. But really we were just two unhappy people with a common language, trying to wish ourselves away from Los Angeles: we talked through each other and got very drunk. Only when I got back to London, and read the papers, did I realise what he wasnít talking about.

How does Richey appear in your dreams?

Nicky: I very rarely dream. Itís one of the things Iím really glad about. I did when he went missing, I must admit. For the first two or four months; it was pretty nonsensical. Really abstract. The only frightening ones, heíd pop up at my door and Iíd be petrified. Itís almost as scary him turning up as not. You think, Ďfucking hell, my whole life is going to turn over againí. But I very rarely dream now, and I usually dream about Wales winning the world cup in rugby, and weíre sponsoring the side, weíve got "Manic Street Preachers" on the jersey.

Sean: I donít dream.

James: Just really in the most macabre disturbing ways possible. I suppose for round about six months after the actual thing I just had recurring dreams all the time, and it didnít stop for ages. They were pissing me off for a long time because they were every night. Now I have about two or three a week. Theyíre just really uncharacteristic - he was the most unintimidating, very sweet person to be around and all the dreams are very scary. I wouldnít want to go into the details. Very dark and very hard. Physically very intimidating. I wake up extremely unhappy. But Iíve always had mad dreams anyway. I used to have mad dreams about my father, and my father is one of my biggest heroes, one of the nicest people Iíve ever fucking known in my entire life. I had a dream about chopping his head off when I was young, and a dream about him having a big devilís tail. And I knew there was no rational explanation for any of that.

Many of the stories they tell about Richey are strangely funny. He would drink to knock himself out every night, and he would drink to peak in his Richey-ness onstage. Once they had to play two concerts in one day, which presented him with a logistical conundrum. He had to peak twice. He got pissed for the first concert and then tried to sober up by eating kiwi fruit. "He actually thought kiwi fruit would make him sober," Wire reflects lovingly, "so heíd just be piling in kiwi fruits..."

There is an argument that, as many of Richeyí s impulses were unfriendly and uncommercial, his absence has eased their rise. "In a way he was very indulgent to his impulses," Sean says. "Nicky has the same impulses but then he manipulates them in a much more universal and user-friendly way than Richey ever did. Richey was more... Iíd say honest. Truthful about it. Heíd actually say Ďthis is ití and push it right in your face. Whereas Nicky will sort of sidestep, dress it up. People sometimes canít digest things in its raw form."

Do you think youíd be less successful if he was still in the group?

"I doubt weíd still be a group," James says.

"If heíd been like he was before he left, then the group wouldnít still be going," Nicky says

"I just think of a million different answers, so itís hard to answer, " says James, quietly.

"He might have learned to play guitar," Nicky says, and they all laugh. They explain how he bought a Nirvana songbook and got Sean to teach him ĎCome as You Areí.

"I had to explain what all these dots were," Sean says.

"Heís probably the least..." begins James, "Heís just not a music person.

"Heís one of the least musical people," Nicky says. "I mean, Iím not musical at all, and heís ten times worse than me."

"Itís strange how someone could remember all those quotes..." Sean reflects.

"...And the history of the fucking partition of Czechoslovakia..." Nicky adds.

"...And could quote In Pursuit of the Millennium back at you..." says James

"...And you show him just a little snippet of music that probably doesnít last more than ten seconds," says Sean, "and within about two or three minutes heíd forget it..."

What do you think Richey would think of this record?

"I find it very hard to answer," James says. "I donít think he would have liked a lot of it."

"To be honest," Nicky says, "In 1993 he would have absolutely loved it. But in 1995, at the height of his..." - he doesnít finish, but he continues - "...there was a note he sent me with a lyric: ĎIdeas for next album - Pantera meets Nine Inch Nails meets Screamadelica...í"

They tried not to write about Richey, but he snuck in here and there. The first song, "Ready for Drowning", begins with a conversation Nicky had with taxi driver. He didnít know who Nicky was, and began talking about that local boy heíd read about in the paper, and whether heíd jumped into the river or not. "I played along," Wire remembers. "I couldnít be arsed to put my two pennyworth in." The song, which Nicky considers his most complicated and which also takes in the flooding of a Welsh village in the fifties so that Liverpool could have enough water, is ultimately "kind of about the mythology of not just Richey," says Nicky, "but of the Welsh famous people who seem to end up drinking themselves to death: Richard Burton, Dylan Thomas, Rachel Roberts... I wouldnít like to categorise Richey specifically amongst them because I could be doing him a disservice. He could still be alive, not drinking. But his mythology is part of our mythology which is part of Welsh mythology."

Another song, "Youíre Tender And Youíre Tired", ends with the repeated lines "Never say goodbye/drift away and die", but they swear that it was only when they did two days of Japanese interviews that they even realised people would think it was about Richey. Only the last song they wrote, "Nobody Loved You (No Vendettas)", tackles the subject head on: "Itís a song of reconciliation," Nicky says. "Of ĎI can understand why you did it. Even though youíve left so much painí, to other people more than us. I think weíre better able to cope with it."

Me: Itís obviously not saying that nobody loved him, I presume. Itís putting that sentiment - ĎNobody loved meí - in his voice and then saying, in a nice way, ĎYou twat, of course they didí.

Nicky: Yeah. Iím glad you said that. But itís true. It is almost a slap around the face. Because in his good times he would have taken that. He would have realised it as well and been ĎYeah, I knowí.

"You have to want to help yourself," says Sean. "And obviously he didnít. I regret that there was absolutely nothing that we could do or say to change his mind. Obviously his mind was completely set, whatever heís done. It annoys me a bit when people say Ďwell, you could have done moreí. We get that from some fans, and even some people in the media. I think we did everything possible. Thereís nothing more we could do."

Afterwards, they employed a private investigator until he told them that he was long out of leads. They were wasting time, money and hope.

A fragment of a conversation:

Nicky: People ask us, have we changed with success. I donít think we have. Certain aspects of my life have gone backward.

James: When youíre asked that question - ĎHave you changed with success?í - the only person it could be said of is me. And if Richeyíd still been in the band itíd be said of him as well.

Nicky: Oh, it fucked him. It didnít change him, it fucked him.

Sean: Iíd always say that in school Richey was a very vain personality, and I think it did give him a vehicle to indulge himself.

Do you think if he hadnít been successful he would have just been a fucked-up person no one knew, or did what happen with the band...?

Sean: It accelerated it.

Nicky: Yeah, I think thatís the conclusion we all came to. It accelerated it. He would always maintain that if he wasnít in band, if he was working in bank, heíd be doing the same things in different ways. And you can only take what he said. Really.

I watch Nicky and James do an interview with a Japanese magazine. As they talk, James smokes, and Nicky eats cut-up pieces of orange, as though it was half-time at a school sports match. Thereís a certain grace to a Japanese pop interview. A typical question begins: "I was very impressed with the album title, which reflects your sincerity as ever..." She compliments Jamesí voice on the album. "He sung like an angel on this one," says Nick. "A fairy," says James. "The older you get," Nicky tells her, "The harder it is to write a fast song. In Utero had slowed down, and that was only a couple of years after." "Itís an age predicament," says James.

"Personally I have loved your music since the New Art Riot EP came out..." she begins (the "New Art Riot" EP, then their second release, was a piece of primitive punk hectoring.)

"You fucking idiot!" James mutters under his breath, more, I think, by way of an apology for what theyíve put her through than anything else.

"...Do you never go back to that Holy Bible sound which was more raw, rougher?" she asks.

"We could never go back to that," says Nick. "It wouldnít be fair to ourselves."

"Or our audience," James points out. They explain to her how some of their older, punkier songs fit into their concerts.

"We wouldnít really play ĎStay Beautifulí by choice," says Nick. "Itís only so 3,000 people can shout ĎFuck offí."

Towards the end of her hour, she asks about how they want to be understood.

"I donít want to be understood," Nicky explains. "I prefer to be misunderstood. Thatís the difference between me and Richey - he wanted to be understood. I donít expect anyone to understand me. I think itís a pretty hard thing to do anyway."

None of the remaining Manic Street Preachers can drive. Nonetheless Nicky Wire spent his one night in jail for attempted car theft. He and his friend were walking home seven miles after a teenage evening drinking Snakebite. After three miles, his friend suggested hot-wiring a car. Nicky got into the passenger seat and dozed off in his drunkenness; his friend was still fiddling uselessly with the electronics when the police came. His parents werenít angry, just upset. He is obsessed with sport. Heís not playing golf right now, because he put his shoulder out onstage and itís never been right since. But he is an obsessive sports fan.

"I bore the band shitless about it sometimes," he says. "But my dream one day is to own a rugby club in Wales, if we ever get enough money. Iíd just try to make it the best club in the world. My legacy."

He owns at least a hundred boxing videos. A parallel expertise: he has an unlikely knowledge of which British hotels do, and do not, have Teletext.

Recently he got a letter off a girl who was so sad. She explained that she wished he could be as obsessed with badminton as he is golf, because she loves badminton so much and she wishes they could play it together.

"I think Iíve brought out a hidden agenda with a lot of people which people thought shouldnít exist," he says with pride. "Theyíll say, ĎYeah, Iíve got to admit I fancy Nicky Faldo on the sly...í"

For ages he wanted to call this new album the Everlasting. "Because I wanted people to go to the shops and go, ĎCan I have the Everlasting Manic Street Preachers?í" Wire says. Itís a word he loves anyway, and it was a song title he went searching for. "Thereís certain songs I loved - ĎThe Eternalí by Joy Division, ĎThe Universalí by Blur - and I work in trilogies sometimes," he explains. He achieved a similar synthesis when he came up with the title for ĎYou Stole The Sun From My Heartí after MTV played, consecutively, Nirvanaís ĎHeart-Shaped Boxí and AC/DCís ĎYou Shook Me All Night Longí. (To him this makes sense.) His favourite word of all is Ďforeverí. "Foreverís always been my favourite word," he says. "Thereís a line in ĎRoses In The Hospitalí - Ďforever delayedí - and thatís what I want to call the greatest hits: Manic Street Preachers - Forever Delayed. Itís just so lovely and beautiful. So much depth in it." I point out to him that, while forever is a slightly sad but fundamentally optimistic word, Ďforever delayedí is a crushing concept. "Yeah," he grins. "It is."

He is still the sort of person who will write a lyric like "the world is full of refugees/theyíre just like you and just like me" (from ĎThe Everlastingí) and worry about it not because the construction is a little too pat, or the rhyme imperfect, but because it might be patronising to real refugees. Another of the songs, ĎMy Little Empireí is, he says, "meant to be a song about taking heroin without ever doing it." It is about him staying home, drowning in his own apathy and routine, and about how that is his equivalent of an opium haze.

"It doesnít sound plausible that domestic chores are the same as heroin, I know," he says, "but itís the same - a kind of dependency just to fill a void."

Nicky Wire voted for Tony Blair. (So did Sean. James, moving house, wasnít registered.)

"I donít blame Noel for going to number ten," says Nick. "Itís just a showbiz thing to do. Itís not something I would have done but then they wouldnít have invited me because Iím too clever."

How does your lack of an invitation relate to your intellect?

"I think they would have been challenged by it, to be honest," he says.

He went to the House of Commons during a school trip and harangued Neil Kinnock about foxhunting, and about the fact that football wasnít played at their school.

"He was on the rack actually," Nicky says. The headmaster had to step in. His mother once said to James: "Nick always wants to be top of the class." He nods. "Iím fiercely ambitious in every respect," he agrees.

What is the victory youíre looking for now?

Nicky: The victory is because, deep down, weíre better than every other band in the world. But it takes a long time for people to realise it. At the end of the day we can take the piss out of ourselves and say weíve written shit songs - which is a lot more than other bands can do - but weíve written three or four of the best songs of the nineties. ĎMotorcycle Emptinessí and ĎA Design For Lifeí are in the top ten of the greatest songs of the nineties, lyrically and musically.

What fetishes do you have?

Nicky: Acrylic paint. I absolutely love acrylic paint because it dries so quick. I paint the wall of the spare bedroom, and itís all over the carpet. Itís molten, rubbery. Iím not saying I cover my wife, Rachel, in it or anything, but I absolutely love it. And when I was young I used to have this thing about pouring toothpaste on my face. If you cover your face in toothpaste it really cleanses, burns your face. I used to do it quite a lot, but I think it might have been taking the layers of skin off.

Sean: It all goes back to shopping. Smelling brand new electronic equipment fresh out of the bag.

James: A really cold bar on my arm, the clinking of ice, drinking whisky and coke. It feels like a bolt of lightning down your arm; it makes you feel clean and cold. And a perfect cup of tea - youíve got to have it in a white cup so you can see the colour of the tea against the white; if you put tea in a dark cup it always makes it look really weak and pissy. And lamb. Lamb is the most sexual food ever. Itís beautiful. It just gives me a thrill. These last two weeks on holiday I havenít had any red meat at all, and your sex drives just goes right down. And if you eat lamb all the time you just fucking want to shag all the time. Itís the purest sexual red meat.

In a housing estate near Old Street, the Manic Street Preachers are having their photo taken. James shakes my hand. It is a painful finger-crusher. I complain.

"From my dad," he says. "Part of my armoury." But he remembers. The next time we meet, a few days later, he will shake my hand delicately, only using his fingertips, very funny. Heís just been home to Wales for the weekend., "I had lamb," he says. "Nice and creamy. And broad beans. I havenít seen a broad bean for years." He digresses. "I havenít seen red ants since the seventies. Remember youíd get black ants and fly them into the red ants and theyíd all fight? The black ants always would win."

Photos are taken. They talk about the X-Files. They refuse to watch it on Sky with adverts; it just isnít right. (Never mind that they are filmed for broadcast in America exactly like that.) They prefer to wait for them on the BBC. Or, better still, hold out for the boxed set. More photos are taken.

Sean explains why he is a vegetarian. "We used to busk down in Cardiff, get enough money for a single fare to Cardiff, and the object was to get a fare home, buy a seven-inch from Spoilers, and get a burger from McDonaldís or Wimpy. And Iíd feel ill all the way home."

They talk about the songs they used to woo the Cardiff shoppers with: Primal Screamís "Velocity Girl", Camper Van Beethovenís "Take The Skinheadís Bowling", Orange Juiceís "Felicity", something or other by the June Brides.

"Various Wedding Present songs," Sean says. I bet you didnít get much for those. "No," he concedes. "ĎVelocity Girlí used to go down well. James went down my himself when there was a rugby match at Cardiff Arms Park and did ĎLa Bambaí and it was the biggest earner. He got pound coins."

"They were all pissed up," James says.

Nicky tries to work out if they can do their European promotional tour by train. "If it was Cologne first we could do it" he says. "Cologneís a piece of piss." He hates flying. He writes a lot of songs when heís flying, about how it makes him feel, because he hates it so much. (There are two on the new album: "Iím Not Working" and "You Stole The Sun From My Heart") "Itís obviously just a fear of crashing the plane," he states matter-of-factly. "If you donít fall out of a plane, you get sucked out, if the plane cracks, you get sucked out into a void." He had never flown until the band started. It was a bad flight back from Thailand which set him off. The turbulence. He also has a liver disease called Gilbertí s Syndrome which flying exacerbated.

Sean, both because of his love for expensive electronic consumer goods and because of Nickyís fear of crashing, bought something known as a Brightling Emergency Watch. "Basically," he explains, "If the plane crashes and you manage to survive and were on a desert island or floating in the sea it actually sends out a signal on the international frequency within a 600 mile radius, and someone will actually pick me up." It was a bargain. "It costs three-and-a-half thousand," he says, "But I got it for £2,900."

In their early days the Manic Street Preachers would write hyperbolic, confrontational letters to writers on the music press. In one of them, as I remind them, they described themselves as "a car bomb kiss-off to the Face".

"One of yours?" Nicky asks James. He shakes his head. "Thatís Richeyís." He explains. "We wanted to be such a non-consumerist band in a kind of situationist sense. We wanted to create our own airs and graces. Nicky and Richey were designing their own clothes at the time, and that was a massive part of the group."

"The Face represented a style we could never buy into," Nicky nods. "Weíd almost rather look like dicks than be super cool..."

The Manic Street Preachers are setting up their own clothing company, Valley Boy. Theyíll open a shop in Cardiff. "Loads of zips," says Nick. "Loads of pockets. Itís going to be the Welsh equivalent of Joe Bloggs, but better..."

One of the new Manic Street Preachers songs is called "Born A Girl". Its chorus goes: And I wish I had been born a girl/instead of what I am/yes I wish I had been born a girl/and not this mess of a man. "Thereís no doubt about it," Nicky says, "I have, in my time, loved dressing up in womenís clothes and that. I canít say Iím desperate to be a woman, but sometimes I feel it would have been a bit easier if Iíd been born one. My body shape is quite a lot like a woman. Iíve got extremely big hips. Iíve got a very small waist, but a really odd pelvic girdle."

Nicky has only worn dresses as part of being in the band, though as a teenager he wore make-up, spent hours on his hair, and wore blouses. "You can be blasé about it now," he says, "but when youíre 16 in a pretty hard valleyís mining town, it takes a bit more guts than you actually think it does at the time."

At school he was sometimes called Gay Lord, and he was sometimes called Shirley. He used to spend hours on his motherís bed, watching her do her hair and all that: "I was fascinated with that kind of stuff. Iíve always seen my mother as the most gentle, fantastic human being."

He never thought he was gay; itís never been about that. It wasnít about sexuality; itís about comfort. He is aware that there was a bit of an early nineties pop craze for men in frocks - Kurt Cobain, Evan Dando and so on - and he would not like to be associated with that. "I look dead smart," he explains. "I really made an effort. I thought that I looked like a stonking woman. Kurt did it with a full beard and all the rest of it and it just seemed a bit..." - he searches for the right words - "...Captain Sensible."

After they performed "Born A Girl" live for the first time, he got a letter from a girl asking him how dare he assume that life was easier as a woman. That made him feel really shit, and for a while he didnít want the song on the album. But the point was that it was true for him. Not for anyone else. And for him, sometimes it seems as though life would be easier as a girl. Less confusing. He has dresses in his wardrobe. Fans send them.

"A large percentage of our fans prefer to see me in a dress," he says. "Thereís no two ways about it."

He doesnít wear them round the house, though a couple of years ago he was trying on a dress he wanted to wear at the Reading Festival and was admiring how good it looked when there was a knock at the door. From the window he could see that it was his brother-in-law, who lives down the terrace from him. He slipped on a dressing gown and pretended he had just come out of the shower. (Heíll wear it onstage, but heís not stupid.) Of course, on the record, these are his sentiments but not his voice.

"I feel a bit sorry for James - Mr Marlon Brando - having to sing it," he sniggers. James felt awkward at first, putting music to it, because as he did so he could imagine playing it live, "and all these boys going ĎPoof-tah! Poof-tah! Poof-tah!í" but he did it anyway. "Itís pleading for some female symmetry on his tired male body," says James, who has himself worn a dress just once - a girlfriendís dress, in the bedroom. "Everybodyís done that, havenít they?" he says. "It was nice. A pink dress with flowers on. I was thinner then, I looked much better than any of Chumbawumba."

Sean, incidentally would like it known that, though it said in the Daily Star that he used to walk down Blackwood High Street in his motherís sun dress wearing make-up, this happens not to be true. "If I had," he reflects, "I wouldnít be here now. "

We arrange to meet in Jamesí basement flat in a smart, calm area of London. I wait with James in the kitchen. "Guess what Sean gave me in here," he says. I point at the Phillipe Starck lemon squeezer and he nods. In his front room he has two framed photographs leaning against the wall besides the television. One is of Jeff Buckley, whose Grace has kept him going over the last couple of years in the same way that Yukio Mishima ís novels have. The other is of Robert De Niro backstage at a Clash concert with Joe Strummer. When the others arrive, they look through Jamesí new videos. (Sean has just been buying new DVDs.) James has the Frasier videos - this is their first week of release - but it takes Nicky to point out that they are "Greatest Hits" selections, rather than videos which progress methodically through the series. James isnít happy.

"Fucking sly," he says. "Fucking cunts."

He lights a cigarette as they sit down to talk to me together. "Smoking in the flat?" says Nick, surprised. "Iím nervous now," he mutters. We talk about their fans. They seem to have drawn as active and unusual followers as it is possible to have as a modern pop group. An exhibition of their fanís artwork has been put together, curated by artist Jeremy Dellar. (Nicky particularly likes the pre-Raphaelite painting in which he is morphing into Jesus.) They deliberately donít have a fan club, and are proud of the fact. But, with their history, not all of the responses they draw are going to be comfortable. When Richeyís anorexia became public, he was deluged with amateur anorexic poetry.

"Richey would just look at it," Nicky says, "and say, ĎI just canít read any more of this - itís just so crapí."

I read the poem page in a fanzine, Aspire To Life, lying on the coffee table at their press agentís office. It strikes me what a burden it may be to engage an impressionable public with any of the difficult stuff. One poem is called "Happiness is Depression". Its full text (removing, in the interests of space and sanity, the rather forced and arch line-breaks) is: Fuck off you hedonists, you optimistic bullies, you are blinded against reality, blinded by the sun in your bright blue sky. You tell me to get happy but it is much easier to sink into the depths of my beautiful depression than to climb to the dizzying heights of your so-called happiness.

"Misinterpretation is just something weíve got used to," Nicky says. "When you become so obvious that you canít miss the point, it just sounds a bit naff. She obviously finds comfort in us - comfort in itself is something."

James came to London after he broke up with a girl who he was engaged to. Heíd never done the things a single man with rock Ďní roll impulses can do in a big city, and some of them he fancied. Heís now had a girlfriend for the last two years, but they donít live together.

"I still cling to that Iím an artist to a certain degree: ĎI canít live with you because at 4 oíclock in the morning is when I write music...í," he says. He can only write at night. At night, thereís no one to distract you, or to undermine your confidence. This is how he feels: that finding a song is like archaeology - if you dig two metres to the left you find Tutankamun, two metres to the right you find an old threepenny bit. He only unearths the good stuff at night. He never feels calm during the day, and when he tries to write during daylight, the songs just seem to vanish into thin air.

What is the Manic Street Preachersí contribution to modern culture?

James: Itís simple. Just making lyrics a vital organ in pop music again. And reintroducing the guitar solo.

Nicky: I think weíve made honesty cool.

Sean: Absolutely nothing whatsoever, probably. Will people know who the Manic Street Preachers are fifty years from now? Probably not.

Because of his Gilbertís Syndrome, Nicky is supposed to avoid fatty foods. Itís hard. "I could never give up chips," he says. "If somebody said to me I had to give up chips, Iíd probably fucking kill myself, so thatís one thing Iím never doing." (This casual threat of suicide jolts me, but it does not jolt him. Itís the kind of light threat most people make at one time or another, and, if we are stupid enough to think that Nicky Wire no longer has the right, it is our problem, not his.) "I could never live without chips. Simple as that."

Me: Thatís just so ridiculous.

Nicky: Itís true, though. Chips make my life worth living sometimes. Me: Whatí s so great about chips?

Nicky: Iím not being funny...

Me: I know. I can hear the swell of sincerity in your voice.

Nicky: ...Theyíre just a total joy to me. I was disgusted, I remember, the first time we went to Belgium, that they were putting mayonnaise on chips. Thatís horrible.

Me: So how is the perfect chip?

Nicky: Itís from a good chippie in Wales. Crisp, but soaked in quite a bit of vinegar, and a nice bit of salt. In a bag. Not too thin. Fries...[he shakes his head]... if youíre desperate. If youíre in Europe youíve got to have fucking fries. He tries to restrict himself to two or three portions a week. He used to deep fry at home, but he has weaned himself onto the oven chip blandness of Harry Ramsdensí frozen chips. There is a further detail which he does not tell me, but Sean obliges. The sauce. There is no room for deviation. It has to be Daddyís. When Nicky Wire was a teenager he was a vegetarian for three years. By the end, when he was down to nine stone and ill, he was living off chips and Kit-Kats, because he didnít really like vegetables. Now he likes vegetables. After a fashion. "As long as theyíre fried," he explains matter of factly. "Fried broccoli." Stir-fried? I query, confused. He looks appalled. "Boil it first, then fry the fuck out of it. Bit of Welsh salted butter." I look horrified. "Itís still good for you, though, isnít it?" I doubt it.

He tells me about the time he had a deep fried Mars Bar in Glasgow, and about how you deep fry eggs. As he describes the uncooked egg sinking in the fat, and the perfectly-cooked egg rising back to the surface, its edges crisp and crackled, heís chock-full of passion. "Fried food is fucking great, isnít it?" he says. "Itís just that feeling that itís a little bit burnt."

This is an unabridged version of the Chris Heath interview that appeared in the Face, September 1998.