James Dean Bradfield: Everything must go
James Dean Bradfield, leader of the agit-rockers Manic Street Preachers, talks to James McNair about his nostalgic solo album
When the Welsh act Manic Street Preachers announced a two-year sabbatical in April 2005, their singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield soon missed making music. So, while other rock stars might have taken happily to the golf course, he found himself teeing up his debut solo album.
The only problem was that, after two decades (and counting) fronting the Manics, Bradfield had grown used to a steady supply of lyrics penned either by bassist Nicky Wire, or the band's former rhythm-guitarist, Richey Edwards. Writing the lion's share of the group's music has always been a cinch for Bradfield, but the credits for the Manics' seven studio albums say that only "Ocean Spray" (a song about his mother's death from cancer in 1999) has words by him.
It was with some trepidation and a few teething problems, therefore, that Bradfield tackled a whole album's worth of lyrics for his solo project. "I thought I was going to have to call Bernie Taupin [Elton John's lyricist]," he jests. "The first four songs I wrote on my own were rubbish, but, once I came to terms with delving into my past, and convinced myself that it wasn't a tacky approach, things got much better."
As the title The Great Western suggests, the train rides between Cardiff and London that Bradfield regularly undertook while making the album were a catalyst. This was, after all, the same journey that he and the fledgling Manics had often made when their world was young. With Bradfield, now 37, retracing he and his bandmates' steps, the resultant record is a somewhat wistful, yet typically demonstrative, glance in the rear-view mirror, its lyrics touching upon the philanthropy of the Manics' late publicist, Phillip Hall, and the still unresolved disappearance of Edwards, who has been missing, feared dead, since 1995. The Great Western also finds Bradfield grappling with his relationship to Wales, its pull on him now stronger than ever.
Fittingly, the singer and I have met in Cardiff, in Bute Park, to discuss all this. Swarthy-looking in his white V-neck T-shirt, Bradfield chain-smokes Marlboro Lights and fidgets with leaf-litter when questions are delicate. He baulks at nothing, though, and is warm, self-effacing and genuine.
We talk about émigré syndrome, about how Wales, for the young Manics, was all about getting away. "We were desperate to escape what we thought had shaped us, but disowned us," Bradfield says, "but now I'm in thrall to Wales and it's strange and befuddling to be playing catch-up.
"There's a place I go drinking in the valleys where I know some of the old guys," he continues. "They'll say [he adopts a broad Welsh accent]: 'Where have you been, then?' And I'll say, 'Japan', or wherever. One night I was leaving the bar, and this old bloke said: 'Don't forget the mountains will never let you go.' He delivered it like a line from a horror B-movie, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a bit true."
The anecdote chimes with a song on The Great Western called "Which Way To Kyffin?" On the face of it, its lyric is a tribute to the celebrated landscape painter Kyffin Williams, but Bradfield says it is also about, "living half of your life in Wales and half of your life in England, and that thing of always travelling home. For me, Kyffin Williams' paintings are the best way to describe Wales and my feeling towards it". Bradfield expands: "His work is quite dark and there isn't much extracurricular detail, but they sum-up that sense of gravitational pull a place can have."
As an owner of some of Williams's work, the singer was thrilled to visit the octogenarian painter recently at his home on the island of Anglesey. "He's very old-school and he's not in the best of health. After an hour or so my conscience got the better of me and I thought we should go, but he wanted me to stay and talk.
"I've always avoided that argument about modern art versus more traditional painting, but Kyffin Williams had the best rebuttal of modern art I've ever heard. He said: 'My work is about being somewhere that makes me create, on the spot, by spontaneous combustion, but these bloody modern people... they see something, they feel something, and then they have to go and think about it for a week. If things are that self-conscious, is it true expression?'"
You only need listen to The Great Western's flagship single, "That's No Way to Tell a Lie" to realise that Bradfield's music owes as much to spontaneous combustion as Williams' paintings do. Few singers are as passionate or as gung-ho, and his intuitive, emotive guitar-playing never sounds premeditated. He talks about the music of his favourite Welsh artists (John Cale, Badfinger, Super Furry Animals and the like) sounding like it was "dug out of the side of a mountain". That earthy immediacy is something Bradfield has always aspired to himself, nor is he afraid to write Mount Snowdon-sized choruses.
Bradfield was born in Pontypool in 1969. His carpenter father had wanted to call him Clint Eastwood Bradfield, but his mother, a bookmaker and keen darts player, vetoed the idea.
"My dad worked for the council and he was the head union official for his yard," says the singer. "When Margaret Thatcher came on the TV he'd actually start spitting, but other than that he was a very placid bloke." Bradfield's mother, on the other hand, was "a very combative matriarchal figure" who had been thrown out of grammar school for fighting. "I was extremely close to her, but we argued a lot. She watched Question Time religiously, as we all did. I loved the theatre of politics, but with the miners' strike on our doorstep it went from being entertainment to something that had a terrible effect on people that you knew."
While Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards were finishing off degrees at Swansea University (Wire read politics; Edwards history), the 18-year-old Bradfield spent a summer labouring, busking, and learning the whole of Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction note for note. "I loved that way of practising the guitar," he says. "Nobody telling you what to do except Slash."
Other bands he learned from included The Smiths, The Clash and Magazine, and by 1988 Edwards, Wire and he had begun to make a proper go of things, releasing their debut, self-financed single, "Suicide Alley". The Manics' classic, band-as-gang line-up was fleshed-out by the drummer Sean Moore, a cousin of Bradfield's who had lived with the family since his own parents' divorce.
Given their backgrounds, and Wire and Edwards's degree choices, it is not difficult to understand why the Manics were highly politicised from the get-go. Not every young band would choose to spend a Friday night listening to the Trotskyite Labour politician Derek Hatton give a talk, but Bradfield recalls himself and Wire doing just that.
"I was buying Living Marxism at the time, which on reflection I'm a bit embarrassed by. We'd seen our Clash clips, and we knew exactly what kind of band we wanted to be. We sat listening to Hatton, but there was a stench of something we didn't like. I remember Nick nudging me and saying: 'Look, he's wearing a Pringle top!' That designer-label thing wouldn't matter so much now, but it mattered to us then. We got up and left."
As the touching Great Western song "An English Gentleman" partly documents, another, far more constructive, rite of passage came when the Manics' late publicist Phillip Hall and his brother Martin travelled to a school in Newbridge, South Wales to see the fledgling Manics rehearse. The Halls were interested in managing the band, but The Manics were wary.
Bradfield says: "I remember this horrible, uneducated tin-pot feeling of 'we're the four horseman of the Welsh apocalypse, and we're going to take these posh English fuckers apart'. Philip looked and sounded different, but he had an incredibly disarming smile and he talked openly and wisely and that shot through my inverted snobbery. Up until then, we'd been stupid enough to think we could do it on our own, but Philip made us realise we couldn't."
Taking the Great Western line, the band soon relocated to London, where Phillip Hall's philanthropy extended to letting the Manics live rent-free at his house. Further, his financial investment of £45,000 helped lay the groundwork for such future Manics successes as their No17 hit, "Motorcycle Emptiness", and their No8 album Gold Against The Soul. When Edwards disappeared, however, it shook the band to its core. Bradfield was almost driven to alcoholism while making the Manics' attendant third album, The Holy Bible.
A skinny, good-looking and opinionated self-harmer, Edwards had quickly become a poster-boy for a certain strand of this world's ever-disaffected youth. On the morning he vanished without trace, he and Bradfield had been due to fly to the US on a promotional trip. "Bad Boys And Painkillers", the only track on The Great Western with lyrics written by Wire, remembers him.
"I still think it's hard for people to have total empathy with what happened with us and Richey," says Bradfield. "Most people lose a family member, but when you lose a friend and you're in a band with him and you still see him in the videos, everything is so fucking magnified. It's like it says in Nicky's lyric, 'My head imprinted with your face'. Even Richey's voice I can remember more than my mother's, which is kind of upsetting, really.
"A while back some idiot, in Cardiff of all places, said to me in the street: 'Hoi! Richey was worth more than the three of you put together.' People try to affront you with the memory of Richey and it can nearly work sometimes. They try and get you to defend yourself and therefore take something away from him. It's like some kind of trap in The West Wing."
Remarkably, the first record The Manics' made without Edwards saw the band expand its fan-base. Everything Must Go reached No2 in 1996. And some light relief was ahead for Bradfield in the shape of his 1997 collaboration with Kylie Minogue on her Impossible Princess album, as he fondly remembers.
"It was a particularly warm summer and the producer was very excited that she was singing in hotpants. Her voice reminded me of [the late R&B legend, and wife of Stevie Wonder] Syreeta Wright, and I knew she could carry any song, but I nearly destroyed her career. The album still sold over a million copies in Australia, though; my sense of pride made me chase that number up! It's great to see Kylie on the way back, by the way. God bless her. She still looks great."
While Bradfield plays shows, in support of The Great Western, with Ed Harcourt on keyboards, Wire has a solo album in the offing, too. But the writing of the eighth Manic Street Preachers album is also underway. What can we expect from it?
"Another anthemic, guitar-driven record," says Bradfield. "Someone once said you can tell when the chorus of a Manics song is coming, because a big fucking flag gets planted in the floor. I used to feel embarrassed about that, but it was something we learned from bands like The Clash and Guns N' Roses. I think we've finally come to terms with who we are. We're planting the flag."
It may be that the enduring quality of Bradfield and The Manics' music has something to do with the fact that they have remained fans, as is evidenced in Bute Park today. "Look - Nicky just sent me this," says Bradfield, removing a shot of Exile On Main Street-era Mick Jagger from his bag. On the reverse there is a new lyric by Wire for him to read.
"We're recording here in Cardiff at the moment", the singer confides, "and we still get a huge buzz when we hear new stuff played back. For me, those steps to the control room are still the best ten steps you can make. I don't walk them - I hop, skip and jump."
'The Great Western' is out now on Columbia records