NICKY WIRE was once the most contrary, mouthy, loose cannon in British rock. One half of the toxic twins of glam-punk provocation alongside former childhood friend Richey Edwards, the Manic Street Preachers lyricist and bass guitarist spent most of the 1990s slaughtering middle-class liberal sacred cows in confrontational interviews.
But the Manics began easing into a more mainstream, melodic sound after Edwards went missing in January 1995, smoothing their spiky rhetoric into bittersweet stadium anthems.
Now 35 and married for the past decade, Wire may write his lyrics in a "well kitted-out shed" in his Newport garden with Test Match Special on the radio, but the sardonic Welshman remains one of the sharpest interviewees in British pop. The difference is, where he once seethed like a revolutionary, now he often sounds more like a reactionary old curmudgeon.
"I’ve always been reactionary in a way," Wire says. "When I said: ‘Build a bypass over this shithole’ at Glastonbury, that was a reactionary statement. There’s not many of us left. Philip Larkin has always been a big influence and Morrissey. People who agitate, people with dodginess in certain views. But if you want to talk about reactionaries, what about the White Stripes? I hate them. Their album was made in three days? Yes, that’s why it sounds like it was recorded in a f***ing biscuit tin."
Barely 10 minutes into our interview and Wire cannot resist savaging rock’s latest media darlings. Someone who gets an easier ride from the uncompromising old socialist is the offbeat subject of the latest Manics single, ‘The Love of Richard Nixon’.
"I’ve always been fascinated by him anyway because of his indiscriminate hatred of people," says Wire. "He was paranoid about everyone. It’s purely a love song. Bill Clinton presided over genocide in Rwanda far worse than anything Nixon did, and yet he can have dinner with U2 and everyone thinks he’s great. Some of the things Nixon did, like breaking down barriers with China... He’s going to be tainted forever with Watergate but he did some decent things. I suppose I just feel an empathy with paranoid megalomaniacs."
‘THE LOVE OF Richard Nixon’ is followed next month by the seventh Manics studio album, Lifeblood, a feast of widescreen soft-rock, all fluid guitar surges and gentle string arrangements. Musical reference points include a host of classic 1980s bands including Scotland’s own lost boys of arty glam-pop, The Associates.
"It is a mellow kind of album," Wire admits. "Elegiac pop was the key phrase. That was what we were trying to create. We’ve never felt duty bound to anyone other than ourselves, we got our inspiration from the bloody-mindedness of New Order and people like that. The Associates were a huge influence. ‘Empty Souls’ on the new album is hugely influenced by Sulk, which is an absolutely brilliant record."
Typically, the Manics are releasing their most personal and least polemical album as the world teeters on its most politically charged precipice for decades. The move may reflect the poor reception which greeted the Welsh trio’s last studio album, 2001’s Know Your Enemy, which was launched at a summit meeting with Fidel Castro in Havana.
"This is definitely our least political album," Wire says. "I don’t know if that was a conscious decision but our albums tend to be infused with hate or infused with love. They just come out that way.
"I think it’s probably down to Know Your Enemy being so criticised, so ridiculed. For all its faults it was ahead of its time, I guess, but perhaps it was a natural reaction to that. There’s just a lot of love on this album, which is very strange for me. It’s also the Manics thing of doing the opposite to everyone else. I mean, when Chris Martin of Coldplay starts talking politics you just think, ‘F*** it, why bother?’"
Martin is the latest addition to Wire’s long list of whipping boys, joining Radiohead, Blur, U2, REM and many others. "Political systems change the world, not charities or individual causes," says Wire. "I couldn’t sit there and pretend that by doing a Fair Trade gig that the world is going to be a hugely better place. Everything I say about those people is in jest, because I know they are genuinely trying to do good, they are not doing it to sell records. But I couldn’t go and have a conversation about the philosophy of Antonio Gramsci with any of them, could I?"
As a politics graduate who was almost recruited by the Foreign Office before joining the Manics, Wire’s articulacy and intellect set him apart from most of his rock peers. But as a consequence, he comes across like a terrible snob at times.
"I am an intellectual snob, yes," he says. "But that’s also because we are scummy working class, no one ever thought we could have a f****** degree between us. Just because one of Radiohead’s got a degree in f****** Tubular Bells or whatever."
Scummy or not, Wire’s politics are defiantly grounded in class struggle and welfare state socialism. He grew up in a "normal terraced house" in Blackwood in the Welsh valleys and his father was a miner, then a builder. He describes his family background as "classic working class, where your parents wanted you to have a better life than they did".
"I had a brilliant upbringing," Wire says. "I’m not claiming poverty, just certain values that I’ve always kept. Like never to be ‘bling’, never to be showy. That’s what I mean by ‘classic’ working class, the post-war generation that built their own institutions and schools. That’s the mould, an extinct mould. A dodo."
While the Manics have long been lionised by the music press for their revolutionary rhetoric and rebel-rock poses, many found their meeting with Castro a contrary step too far. One song on Know Your Enemy addressed the case of baby Elian Gonzalez, which Castro exploited for propaganda purposes. Even left-wing commentators pronounced the exercise naive and distasteful.
"Yes but that’s the post-modern Left, isn’t it?" says Wire. "Not the real Left. I don’t know, everyone who goes to Cuba shakes hands with Castro anyway. It’s a bit like shaking hands with Nelson Mandela now - Naomi Campbell, Manic Street Preachers, the Spice Girls. They’ll just shake hands with anyone.
"But I don’t feel compromised. I was totally aware of the propaganda angle, but I don’t think we’re important enough to be used for real propaganda. And I think it did us a lot more harm than good, we were ridiculed for shaking hands with Castro. You can shake hands with Bill Clinton while Rwanda went on, but you can’t shake hands with Castro. That’s what I can never reconcile."
Despite being so politically outspoken and ideologically motivated, a career in politics is unlikely to replace his current job for the time being.
"Rock and roll is just more appealing," he says. "I was about to join the Foreign Office when I left college, but I didn’t have the dedication you need to follow that path. But to become actively involved in a cause never appealed to me since I chose music.
"We do a lot of private stuff, boring stuff, but it’s no big deal. Like Paul Heaton from the Beautiful South, he’s probably given more money away than most rock stars, but he doesn’t make a big deal about it."
The Love of Richard Nixon is available on Sony Music. Lifeblood is released on November 1