Ahead of a one-off Bristol gig we caught up with James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers about the longevity of the band, politics in music, and working on their new album.
Laura K Williams interviews for Louder Than War.
Organisers of Bristol Sounds festival were eyeing up the Manic Street Preachers for last year’s gigs but while the stars didn’t align then, this summer they have. While the date and location of the harbourside shows are ripe for a wave of Glastonbury warm-up acts, Manics are playing it as a one off – their first big gig in just over a year, paving the way for a wave of international festivals
It’s been a tumultuous few months for the band who lost the lease on their Faster Studios in Cardiff six months ago thanks to, as lead singer James Dean Bradfield puts it ‘the ceaseless march of progress’.
Speaking from a new studio at a ‘secret lockdown location in Wales’ says: “Cardiff is growing, like a lot of other cities, and the guy who owned the place wanted to sell the ground for flats – which is happening right across Britain. We’d used the place since 2001, so we had a great run there. We made Rewind The Film there, Futurology, Send Away The Tigers, Postcards From A Young Man. In some degree some of those records were all done there. We’re not asking for any pity but we thought we want to be in control of our own destiny so we’ve taken on this project and we’ll see where it lands us.”
He adds: “We’ve just about finished our new place so myself, Nick and Sean are now in a mortgage with each other at the age of 48. We’ve not done it before and don’t really want to do it again, I feel like a bigamist.”
Louder Than War catches up with Bradfield as he takes a break from working in the new album in the new studio to collect lunch for himself, Mr Moore and Mr Jones, breaking the conversation to lob some chicken at his bandmates he hints at some technical issues they’re working through but says the new album is coming along nicely and while new material won’t be ready to showcase at the Bristol gig, he hints towards a tour in the new year.
As a band which have played hundreds of gigs over their 30+ year career, going a year without treading the boards has left them with a bit of an itch. “With the studio closing down and having to set up the new place, we haven’t really played together in the last 12 months,” says Bradfield, “We’re doing Bristol gig to keep our hand in and see if we can still do it for people, because this year we’ve been trying to write and finish and demo a new record and we’ve really missed playing live. You need to go into the studio sometimes for 2 weeks and not come up with anything good. That’s really important and I haven’t been able to do that and we arrived here with some really sketchy demos and it’s gone surprisingly well. One song def just came out of the box and it was like ‘fuck, that reminds me of being 20 years old again’ it was just what we needed.
“But sometimes I’ll be watching TV and I’ll see a band playing on later and think ‘god, I used to do that’. It’s been a year and whenever you haven’t played for a while you just get that itch.”
The Bristol gig on Thursday 22 June sees them take to the stage alongside the likes of British Sea Power and The Anchoress, who they played the Eden Project with last year. It’s not a happy accident as Bradfield reveals that bassist Nicky Wire (Nick Jones) leads the charge when it comes to shaping these bills. Referring to The Anchoress, he says: “We get on with her, like the record, we keep following her moves and she’s going to go somewhere interesting, albeit a bit dark, just really interested to see where she’s going for the next record. She’s just a really cool woman. It’s such an easy fit.” Adding: “British Sea Power are great too. I thought the last record was really cool, they’ve really upped their game on the production of the record and everything. Nobody would ever bracket them as being a powerful rock band, but they really are if you see them live. Especially the production on this record, I realise it’s such a muso thing to say, but it’s really elevated them.”
The Manics have a long and impressive history working with other musicians, from the early duets such as Little Baby Nothing with porn star Traci Lords (they wanted Kylie originally but she never got the memo) and a wave of recent musical collabos on Rewind The Film, co-writing material for other bands such as The Lightning Seeds, Bradfield’s vocals featuring on other songs such as Lopez by 808 State and Turn No More on the forthcoming Public Service Broadcasting album Every Valley.
“Obviously I’m really connected to the subject matter on this record – socio-geographically – but John’s just a brilliant chap,” says Bradfield referring to J.Willgoose, Esq. of Public Service Broadcasting, who supported them at the Liberty Stadium gig in Swansea last May (2016). “If he’d have been around in the ’20s or ’30s he’d have been one of those classic English gentlemen with the wherewithal to go to the South Pole. He just gets on with it. He sets up a studio in improbable locations, writes an album about improbable subjects. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeonly old codger, but he never moans, he just fucking does it and there should be more people like that.”
Asked about the influence Wales has on him as a musician, Bradfield reveals that he will always be a ‘Valley Boy’ and, despite living in London for years, never ever classed himself as a Londoner. He says: “I lived in London for a while, so I had a break, but I just had a longing to come home – ‘hiraeth’ (Welsh word for longing). I was back here all the time seeing my dad and it just made sense to come home.
“I have the realisation that I may have been in the band and the band may have had some success, I may be older, I may have a family now, I may live in Cardiff now, but I’ll always kinda be a Valley Boy – not in a romantic way, but you can’t escape it really. I never really escaped it. I can act as if I’ve escaped it. If you’ve achieved some kind of balance in your life, you kind of owe a debt to the places that have made you because places do make you, for better or for worse.
He laughs as he recalls a conversation with a neighbour: “One of my old neighbours, an old old man, used to say ‘where you off?’ and I’d say ‘I’m off to that London’ and he’d say ‘the mountains will take you back one day’. I forgot how fucking beautiful it is. The actual topography of the place is just stunning; in a revivalist, spiritualist, psycho-geographical way, it’s kind of affected me in some sort of osmosis. What a fucked up sentence that is?!”
With Jones living in Wales and Moore just across the border in Bristol, it’s a convenient scenario for the trio. “We’ve been together for so long,” muses Bradfield, “it’s hard for us to cut ties with the geography, the history, the proximity, there’s no reason for us to cut ties ever really.”
The witty Welshman jokes that Moore can’t claim back his bridge fare on expenses, before we move onto the inevitable conversation about missing guitarist Richey James. It’s a question Bradfield has answered a million times before and you can hear the weariness in his answer as he explains how no-one else can ever really understand the impact of the 27-year-old’s disappearance in 1995.
He says: “Bridges provoke memories and it was a godsend when the other bridge opened. Look, I think it’s different when you listen to the band and ask questions about somebody, but I think it’s good to escape that history. Everybody has their own version of what Richey epitomised, everybody has their own version of what went through his head, everybody has their own script of what they think he did, but we were right in the middle of it for a long long long long time, longer than anybody. Whilst our loss can never match that of his family, we were there. The one thing you become wary of is other people seem to think they own the truth when they just weren’t there.”
Looking back on those early days, the first few albums from Generation Terrorists through Gold Against The Soul and onto The Holy Bible, before they hit the big time with 1996’s Everything Must Go, Bradfield pines for a clearer vision of life. He says: “It shocks me when I listen to older songs as to how they had much clearer visions of what they wanted to say. It puts into focus how ill defined everything is now. I listen to a song like This is Yesterday or Enola/Alone, A Design for Life and it shocks me at how clear focussed Nick and Richey’s lyrics were, how easy it seemed to have a clear vision; now it’s much harder whether you’re talking about economics, about religion, about politics, anything, whether you’re talking about the future. It’s just harder to sit down and say this is the way I feel these days because everybody, reviewers, journalists, the audience, demand complication. They demand to be magpies, to take a bit of this, a bit of that, they demand that question mark to be left hanging above the audience, they demand you don’t preach to the audience and everything has to be that way because everything is so fucking modern.”
Speaking to us around the time of the 2017 General Election, Bradfield shares his disappointment with both the right and left wing for failing to listen to the people they propose to serve. He says: “As Nick said around the time of the referendum, it’s between me and the ballot box. I would never stand on stage and say vote for this person. Ever. It’s something I don’t believe in doing. If you want to be known as a political artist, then write political songs by all means but you’re not a political artist if you’re just telling people to vote for somebody. That’s the way I feel but I don’t look down on people for doing it, I just don’t feel comfortable telling people to vote for a specific party.
“Now and then I might admit that I’ve voted for the very obvious choice, but I try to keep it private. I will admit that I’m finding it very hard to choose at the moment because the echo chamber on either side is filled with irrationality and fake news on both sides – and there’s no way you can make the right and left discernible from each other, they’re both indulged in the most vulgar echo chambers imaginable. And I hold them both accountable and, as someone who comes from a staunch Labour family, it’s becoming harder for me to make my choice at the ballot box.
“I’m absolutely fucked off with people like Labour not actually listening to people who live out of cities, people who live in towns. I’m absolutely fucked off with the Tories pretending that they listen to people who live in towns not cities. I’m sick of both of them. The older you get the more you release that you can’t just be honour-bound by the party whose position you agree with. You’ve got to listen to different opinions, otherwise you have situations like the fucking referendum, if you don’t listen to other people.
“It’s not angst, it’s just reality. I’ve watched places like the valleys just have so little investment for quite a while now and sometimes when you thought you were having investment from the EU, sometimes it would amount to some fucking street art.
“Safe to say I’m never going to vote Tory, never going to go UKIP and you know, you take your pick from the rest. I think I’m like a lot of people, I want people to work for my vote, I want people to actually be held accountable for my vote and I know a lot of people like me who really feel that they want their vote to count for something for the first time in 12 years.”
Clearly, it’s not just the beautiful cross-dressing bassist Mr Wire who has strong opinions on the subject, drummer Moore recently joined Twitter and has been sharing a lot of brilliant political posting and here we have Bradfield giving us a valuable insight into the state of the nation, but Wire remains the chief lyricist with Bradfield, who penned the words to 2001’s ‘Ocean Spray’ after his mum passed away, says he tries to get at least one lyric on every album.
He says: “I try not to connect what I’m doing in the band with family life. I’m not the biggest fan of emotional incontinence. We all have the ability to be emotionally incontinent but I try to keep away from that. I always try and get one lyric on an album and we’ll see if it passes. I should think it’s quite easy to spot.
“I’m very well aware that, musically, I’m very capable of emotional incontinence because we are quite anthemic. And with the guitars loud and the choruses loud, you knew that at least 3/4 of journalists were very disdainful of that and I was very confused by that – I actually like it when things meet, when the kinetic and the cerebral meet. You need to bring some emotion to the table, you need to bring some expression to the table, you need to bring an opinion to the table, you need to bring something memorable to the table and a lot of music just basks in that oblivion of opaqueness. It’s almost this middle class snobbery by the broadsheets that you shouldn’t give it to the audience on a plate, but sometimes I like spelling it out with a guitar and saying ‘follow us’ and I’m not as suspicious of that MO of music as a lot of journalists and audiences are. That’s where the truth lies for me. It’s gotta be a good mix of everything. You can’t just have an arched eyebrow and analyse everything all the time. Sometimes you gotta let the fuck go.”
He reveals that the new album ‘wears its rock influences on its sleeve’. “Nick has given me some amazing lyrics,” he says, “that absolutely sum up the political situation that we’ve been talking about. And I’ve fallen back in love with the middle 8. I’m writing a lot of middle 8s.”
While the new material won’t be ready for the Bristol gig, fans can expect all the hits. “We never shy away from playing Motorcycle Emptiness, A Design For Life, You Love Us, I still love playing them, I do. Thom Yorke will always balk at having to sing certain songs he’s done a hundred times before, I won’t. I’m a bit more of a knucklehead. I’m not so fussed on playing Sleepflower, people ask for that a lot and Masses Against The Classes is a bit of a vocal shredder, but I just really do love the reputation of playing a song and knowing that people are going to go ape shit. I get a real kick out of it. That’s the balance in the band. I’m in the middle going ‘come on baby, let’s rock!’”
See Manic Street Preachers live at Bristol Sounds on Thursday 22 June. More info and tickets priced £37.50+bf, available at Bristol Sounds website. They also play Kendal Calling in Cumbria, Mad Cool Festival in Spain and Live from Times Square in Newcastle this summer, among others. More info on their website or find them on Facebook and Twitter.
All words by Laura K Williams.