Preacher man takes pilgrimage of his own
On his solo album, James Dean Bradfield missed the creative tension of the Manic Street Preachers, he tells Tony Clayton-Lea.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Manic Street Preachers came out of the Welsh valleys and made music that meant something to many people. They were fiercely intelligent firebrands inspired by The Clash, Situationist sloganeering and far too many European philosophers. The Manics were famous for several things, not least being their initial bloody-minded manifesto (long since shredded) of breaking up at the point of selling one million copies of their debut album. They became infamous for a while when their guitarist Richey Edwards carved the slogan "4 Real" into his arm with a knife; they became objects of sympathy when shortly afterwards, in February 1995, Edwards disappeared without a trace (he is now officially presumed dead).
As the Noughties arrived and settled, they then became something of an institutionalised rock band, still fiercely intelligent and philosopher-quoting, but lacking the risky vitality that made albums of theirs such as The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go standout classics. And then? Well, then they morphed into what the teenage Manics in their valley town of Blackwood would surely have derided - just another smart rock band writing, recording and releasing albums whose appeal has slowly diminished.
The Manics are now on temporary hold (an album is scheduled for release next year), and in the meantime and downtime some of its members are doing what thumb-twiddling musicians do - working on solo albums. The irony is not lost on band members Nicky Wire (whose debut solo album is released in September) and James Dean Bradfield (whose debut record, The Great Western, has just been issued). To certain people, solo albums are indicative of egos running riot, full of music "not suitable" for the band.
But for a group like the Manics (one of the few rock outfits of the past 15 years you could scarce term an "act"), it would seem that solo albums are rivulets from the same stream - similar thoughts and themes might be re-routed but they all blend, eventually and inevitably, into one.
And so it is that Bradfield is in Dublin, chomping on hotel food and surfing his way through a pack of cigarettes. Muscular, of compact frame and height, approaching 40 (he's 38 next February) he's a notably articulate man and a voracious reader. His album is a chip off the Manics block, but this time around there seems less weight attached. The themes are memoir/memory based, but with no oily sentiment for the listener to slip on.
It's a strange time for Bradfield - he knows he is thought of primarily as a member of a well known, fervently loved band, and he therefore approaches his "solo" duties with both circumspection and distance. It feels unusual, he says, discussing work that was undertaken without the presence and friendly tension of Wire and Sean Moore (the Manics' drummer). He is also mostly singing songs that he alone wrote the lyrics to (with the exception of one MSP song, Ocean Spray, all the band's lyrics have been written by Edwards and Wire).
"That is strange," he allows. "Right from the start of the Manics I invested so much time trying to interpret the lyrics of Nick and Richey. There were so many shared experiences and emotional connections with them that most of their lyrics were no problem to sing, but in effect I was singing by proxy. And yet I say that I owned their words, because of they way I phrased them and edited them into the song.
"Has there been a startling recognition of my own consciousness by singing these new lyrics? Er, no, not really. The only thing that surprised me about these new songs was that I looked at the past so much. And that connected in a strong way with the one thing my mother and I argued about when I was much younger - that I had no interest in the future, and hated talking about it. We'd have so many arguments about that - whether about me having kids, getting married or buying a house. But then I realised that with these songs I looked at the past quite darkly."
Perhaps he is happiest stuck in the present? He concedes he might be, albeit with certain conditions. You gradually realise, he implies, that you're unwittingly taught lessons by people through the years. Up until the age of 30, Bradfield says, he had a fiery arrogance, a hangover from youth that people in bands feel they have an inalienable right to. "You think you're indestructible and you can't countenance anybody else being right! But you gradually realise that these people, the ones who unknowingly taught you lessons, rarely ever get the credit.
"The most important thing I thought when I finished the songs," he admits, "was akin to a quote from Einstein - don't believe in regrets, life happens too quickly. And to be honest I didn't feel any sense of time lost or mistakes made."
There was also, according to Bradfield, no sense of feeling a solo record was something he had to do, but more a notion that it was what he was meant to. In an admirable display of loyalty, he says he felt no sense of liberation being without his fellow band members. "In fact it was the complete opposite - I missed them greatly, and I'm not saying that just to keep the Manics thing going. You can only be truly insulting to somebody when you have a really deep friendship. I missed that creative tension, and yes, I admit it again, I missed them."
The weirdest part of the solo work, he says, is playing the new songs live; camaraderie and friendship are there on stage, but the bass player and drummer are different people. Frankly, it seems as if Bradfield will be glad to get back into the Manic Street Preachers; his solo work is subtle, gentle and infused with everything (melody, sense of serious fun, very good songs) that many solo albums aren't. It's just that he seems curiously out of place in a solo context.
"The thing I've always liked about playing with the Manics is that we've sometimes perfected the art of falling apart yet somehow keeping it together. You're always aware that Nick is very possibly going to do or say something and you never know when it's going to be. And with Sean - I'm quite aware that he is disdainful of the mistakes I make. That kind of tension finds you, not the other way around. All I can expect of the solo gigs is that they will be different, and that's what I've found them to be so far.
"The Manics have a very partisan audience - some fans go to the left hand side of the stage because they're very much in thrall to Nick. But with this album and the gigs you very much feel that the audiences are there to see you, and so you feel a sense of responsibility you've never felt before. What are the audiences like so far? The only way I could describe them is that they seem curious - benevolent when they arrive. Not sure about when they leave!"
Bradfield has tried not to have any expectations. Ultimately, he says (and this seems to one of the primary reasons why a solo record was undertaken in the first place) he will try to discard some of the baggage he has picked up being a member of one of the most politicised bands in rock music. "I'm not sure whether I'll be successful in that," he remarks in a rueful tone. "I don't expect things to be at Force 10 all the time. Sometimes, I'm sure, things will be awkward, but I can deal with that. I'm very happy for there to be not just levels of curiosity but also some confusion."
Talk of whether The Great Western will be the only shot from the bows of the good ship Bradfield are dismissed by the news that work on the next Manics album will commence following Wire's own solo album duties. "That's all I care about after this. I will certainly be looking forward to being back with Nick and Sean."
He seems eager to return to the fold he's most comfortable in, then; the implication being that looking back is, if not for suckers, then most certainly for someone older than 37. And so we playfully ask the question: what would the 17-year old James Dean Bradfield say to the adult James Dean Bradfield about The Great Western? A quick suck of the cigarette, fingers through the hair, a look out the hotel room window. "I'm not sure, as I was quite musically schizophrenic when I was that age. I had quite a lot of old and obscure tastes - everything from Badfinger and ELO to John Cale. On a good day he might say, yeah, sounds good. On a bad day, he'd probably tell me to f**k off, which, when you think about it, is exactly the way it should be."