Nicky Wire is reminiscing. For the self-professed “nerdy historian” of Manic Street Preachers, the wistfulness is not misplaced. New album “Postcards From a Young Man” is Manic Street Preachers’ 10th: a landmark under any criterion, but Wire is keen to accentuate what a milestone it is for a group of childhood friends from a deeply unfashionable mining town in South Wales.
“I’ve been in the same class as James (Dean Bradfield, vocals/guitar) since I was 5,” the bassist says, beaming. “That’s really unhealthy, isn’t it?”
Quite how Manic Street Preachers arrived this far is testimony to the perseverance of rock’s great survivors. Recalling just how unlikely this all seemed takes little imagination. Exploding onto an unsuspecting world in the late 1980s armed with a love of Guns N’ Roses and Sylvia Plath, this “mess of eyeliner and spray-paint” boasted they’d sell 16 million albums and immediately split. Their thirst for infamy suggested an enduring career was implausible.
Even taking into account that exuberance of youth, the path to their 10th album has been anything but smooth. On more than one occasion, the Manics appeared a spent force; disappointing albums both creatively (1993’s “Gold Against the Soul”) and commercially (2004’s “Lifeblood”) stalled momentum, while the tragic and mysterious disappearance of guitarist Richey Edwards in 1995 in the middle of promoting intense career-high “The Holy Bible” sent the Manics to inconceivable depths of personal turmoil.
On a brisk autumnal day at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre, Wire radiates a contented air. At tonight’s gig he will display all of the flamboyant glamour that has become his trademark — leopard-skin coat/skirt combo, lashings of makeup, sailor hat — but backstage early evening his dress code is a relatively conservative army- jacket-style hooded top.
The days of outlandish, ill-conceived antagonisms are gone, but he remains charming, unfailingly candid and eminently quotable.
Proclaiming the virtues of “Postcards . . . ,” Wire can’t help but continue the nostalgic theme. The album features guest appearances from long-term influences John Cale and Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, as well as a duet with Echo & the Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch. Its sweeping, epic manner makes it the swaggering older relative of breakthrough album “Everything Must Go” and it is designed to be, as Wire so triumphantly claimed upon its September release, the Manics’ “one last shot at mass communication.”
“That’s how it felt when making it,” says Wire. “The songs were just some of the most immediate songs we’ve ever written. When that starts happening, you really f-ck it up if you try and manipulate those songs into something they’re not. They are obviously big, orchestral pop-tastic rock songs. That was something of a throwaway grand gesture line from me, but it did suit the mood. I don’t know what ‘mass communication’ means anymore, but I think it’s achieved its goal. This record is a celebration of Mark II of the band.”
One of the many paradoxes of the Manics’ career is the level of success they have attained since Edwards’ disappearance. Yet talking with Wire about the band’s formative years, there is a palpable sense of how dearly he cherishes those early memories. He revels in how “Postcards From a Young Man,” a reference to how the four (including drummer Sean Moore) used to keep contact when Wire and Edwards were at university, is an “emphasized version of our youth. People won’t keep an e-mail for 23 years like I kept a postcard. There’s something tactile and beautiful, touching and honest about those things.” When he boasts, “There are parts of our youth that were so glorious and intimate,” the sincerity fills the room.
Ask about Japan and, tellingly, Wire draws on initial experience.
“The first time we went there was outrageous,” he claims merrily. “It was like Beatlemania. We got off the plane in Tokyo to tons of fans, no word of a lie, we were like (turns around to look behind him) ‘Who’s famous here?’ And then we saw people in leopard-print, eyeliner and there were 700 people there waiting for us. We did a residency in a club outside Tokyo; it blew my mind. We were getting gold discs, thousands of f-cking yen, it was amazing. Those early days were such an amazing time.”
True success for the Manics came much later. “This is My Truth Tell Me Yours,” their 1998 mega-seller, shifted over 4 million copies, briefly making Manic Street Preachers Britain’s biggest band.
It couldn’t last. The Manics’ innate contrariness meant an extended postmillennium annus horribilis left them in the postsuccess wilderness.
“We were just searching for something we were very uncomfortable with. We did the gig at Cardiff Millennium Stadium (New Year’s Eve, 1999), and it was that classic thing for a band — what the f-ck now? Once you get to that point you go off the beaten track. We made interesting records and I’m glad we’ve got those records but we weren’t a band particularly enjoying being in a band.”
“Lifeblood,” the band’s musical and commercial nadir, failed on every level, and Wire half-jokes “desperation” brought about the late-career flourish that allowed the band to reconnect with themselves again.
“I think commercial failure hit us big-time with ‘Lifeblood,’ ” he admits. “You’ve only got to look back to ‘Generation Terrorists’ and, whether it was me or Richey, the whole thing was about mass communication. We’ve never wanted to be anything other than larger than life. Certain records are detours from that original manifesto, but the goal is the same.”
Wire mentions Edwards continually, almost as if he were still in the band. It has been over 15 years since Edwards left the Embassy Hotel in London on Feb. 1, 1995, never to be seen again. His Vauxhall car was discovered two weeks later near the Severn Bridge, a popular suicide spot between Wales and England, but his body was never found.
Officially declared as presumed deceased in November 2008, Edwards, who suffered from depression, alcoholism and anorexia, has become a martyr figure among a section of the band’s fan base. Wire still wears the scars: With grimaced face, his voice stutters for the first time when I mention a new novel written by British music journalist Ben Myers, called “Richard,” based loosely on Edwards’ life.
“I just think it’s really presumptuous,” he says, disbelief in his tone as he tries to reason. “It would be really pious and stupid to try and ban it because we grew up on rock ‘n’ roll mythology. I feel uncomfortable with it and it fills me with a bit of dread, but if I was 16 I’d probably look at reading it. But we’re not happy with it.
“The world’s full of people . . . ” he continues before trailing off, trying to find the words. He sits up sharply and purposefully. “The thing no one ever grasps, and what that book in particular never grasps, is that first of all he was a friend, someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s cousin. It’s really boring but it was a Vauxhall Cavalier, there’s nothing f-cking glamorous about it. The Severn Bridge and a Vauxhall Cavalier. It was as Reggie Perrin, British, dour as you can get.”
Has the cult of Richey spiraled to the point where people feel able to arrive at their own conclusions as to his true self?
“That’s a good way of putting it,” says Wire. “And that’s the sad thing: People’s own conclusions become the truth. Even I’m not arrogant enough to think I knew him as well as I thought I did. He disappeared, and I never thought he would. I was with him constantly for 15 years, at university, doubling up in the same bed on tour, but I wouldn’t be as presumptuous to write a book about him.
“I just feel sorrier for his family more than anything. It’s a unique and unnerving situation, because it’s never been settled. Nothing changes for us. It’s still sh-t on stage. He was such a visually striking, beautiful person. It wasn’t musical.”
He quickly returns to the conversation’s prevailing theme.
“That’s the thing with us: There were no egos, and we knew our roles. We’ve always been the same. We’re on the same label as 1991, same manager, same band, although unfortunately without Richey.
“All our peers have either split up or re-formed for money, done the festivals, obviously hate each other and split up again. Our whole generation has become slightly tawdry. I’m proud we’ve kept a pure spirit for the band.”
He allows one last huge smile. “It’s staggering what we’ve done, really.”
Manic Street Preachers play at Studio Coast in Shin-Kiba, Tokyo on Nov. 26 (6 p.m.; ¥6,900;  3462-6969); and Yokohama Bay Hall on Nov. 27 (5 p.m.; sold out). For more information, visit www.manicstreetpreachers.com.