'I'm Not The Overrated Bricklayer I Thought I Was' - Scottish Herald, 8th July 2006
Words and music by James Dean Bradfield. It's got a good ring to it. TheManic Street Preacher on releasing his first solo album and making the leap from artisan to artist
Words Teddy Jamieson
Ask James Dean Bradfield to say something into the tape recorder and instead he starts singing.
"It's not unusual to be loved by anyone, " he croons for a few seconds in his best Tom Jones as we get to know each other in the basement of his record company's offices in west London. It's almost too perfect a signifier to Bradfield's day job (he's the singer in Manic Street Preachers, one-time punky outsiders, now elder statesmen of guitar rock) and to his nationality (like Jones, with whom he once duetted, Bradfield is Welsh, though that and an ability to hold a note are probably as much as the pair have in common. The Manics were, after all, always more Llandudno than Las Vegas, more combat boots and eyeliner than leather trousers). Both his singing and his Welshness are much on his mind today.
We'll get to the Welshness later, but we're here this afternoon primarily to talk about music. Bradfield is just about to release an album, The Great Western, under his own name. In many ways it seems an unlikely development. Some bands are just solo acts waiting to happen - think Wham! or Destiny's Child. Some are full of people you dread might get that very notion - the one thing that could outdo the awfulness of an Ordinary Boys record is a solo track by Preston. And then some bands just feel so complete, a seamless jumble of limbs and voices and attitudes, that you can't imagine them being disentangled into their constituent parts. The Manics always felt like one of the latter. Even when their fellow band member Richey Edwards went missing in 1995 the rest of the group didn't dissolve - if anything they moved closer together.
Yet just 14 months after the band announced a two-year sabbatical Bradfield has an album written, recorded and ready to go. So much for a holiday. "I just realised after a month it's quite pitiful how bad a person I am when I haven't got music in my life, " he says. For a month he did manage to do nothing. "Just watched so much daytime TV, watched so many films, smoked so many cigarettes, ate so much food, pissed my wife off so much. I just became a complete p- really. I didn't start writing songs to expedite these bad feelings. I just did it because I missed it so much."
He's not good at relaxing, at least not unearned relaxing. "It might be a bit of work ethic from my dad, " he says, "because my dad refuses to retire. I think he knows how much of a p- he'd become if he didn't work as well."
Bradfield's dad is a head gardener. As for Bradfield, singing is what he does. The Tom Jones song should have come as no surprise.
Nor will The Great Western come as a surprise, to be honest. It's a confident album that doesn't veer too far from the late-period Manics blueprint, bar the odd sample. If you're in the mood for a skyscraping guitar epic the opening track and first single That's No Way to Tell a Lie should fit the bill. The chance to reinvent himself, to do that James Dean Bradfield reggae album or to go grime, has been passed up. "I can't wait for you to be my manager, " he says when I suggest he's missed an opportunity. "I had in my mind what I wanted to convey, something that was slightly outside the Manics. But I didn't want to do something which made people go, 'Oh my God he's always had a reggae element to his music, he's just never let it shine.'" Dressed casually in a white T-shirt that almost conceals the tattoo on his arm - the word freedom is just visible - Bradfield sits tapping endless cigarettes into polystyrene cups of cold coffee. He's 37 but looks young enough to pass for a chainsmoking cherub.
age (he wed Mylene Halsall in July 2004) must agree with him, though he doesn't think he's changed much as a result. The only significant alteration to life he's prepared to admit to is that he uses "Benecol instead of Anchor butter". He's been on press duties all day but he still looks fresh and relaxed, the epitome of the successful modern rock star. What would his teenage self make of the middle-aged person he has become? "'He should get in shape a bit, '" Bradfield reckons his 17-year-old self would say. "'Why don't you drink as much as you used to, you big jessie?'" Ah yes, Bradfield's drinking habits have been the source of some comment. His Manics colleagues Nicky Wire and Sean Moore - both married with children - have talked of living vicariously through their frontman. The singer was a regular feature in the bars and drinking holes of London during the late nineties. The question is, did Bradfield enjoy himself and his INTERVIEW success too much? According to that useful but not always reliable website Wikipedia, he spent much of the decade as a semi-alcoholic.
True or false? "I've actually got to be a bit macho about this, " he says. "I was never about to become an alcoholic. I was just a really good drinker. Never get happy, never get sad, never get violent, never fall down. I was just too good a drinker. And I still drink, though nowhere near the amount I used to."
Music, though, is not being rationed. He's not the only one who's given up on the sabbatical.
Wire has also recorded a solo album and the trio have just started working on a new Manics album. Bradfield says he feels pretty relaxed about the prospects of his own solo effort. "I'm not constantly asking for radio updates, " he says. "I'm not asking if the video is being played. If it sells two copies I'll be disappointed but I haven't set a mark for it."
That he's recorded an album at all is something of a turn-up. While Bradfield has always been the Manics' vocalist and the man who writes the tunes, he has spent the last 20 years singing other people's lyrics - Wire's or, more testingly, those of Edwards, whose subject matter veered from his personal preoccupations of anorexia and suicide to the Holocaust.
Bradfield is sometimes pegged, along with Moore, the band's drummer (and Bradfield's cousin - they shared a bunk bed for much of their childhood) as the artisans, while Wire and Edwards are, or perhaps in Edwards's case were, the artists. The only Manics lyric Bradfield has turned in during his tour of duty so far is Ocean Spray, a song inspired by the death of his mother.
But now here's almost a whole album of songs (there's one Wire lyric and a Jacques Brel cover in there too) with words and music courtesy of Bradfield. What does he think anyone listening to this new album is going to learn about him, I ask. He thinks for a moment then says, "Perhaps . . . perhaps that I'm not the kind of overrated bricklayer that I thought I was."
Many of the songs were written on the train between Wales and London. He splits his time, he says, almost 50-50 between the two places.
Between his past and his present you could say, but it's not as reductive as that. He might have been desperate to leave Wales when he was younger, but now the pull of the homeland is getting stronger. "I've started drifting back to Wales and I'm really perplexed as to how you can change so much, " he says, thinking back to how keen he once was to escape. "But there's a blind spot inside you, a calling that is kind of embarrassing in a way. I get quite fearful when there are not enough mountains around. I start getting agitated."
There aren't many of those in London, I say.
But presumably Wales will have changed too.
"Yeah, we've got internet cafes and everything now, " he says. Cheeky bugger. No, I mean it must be a very different country than the one he knew as a child. "It's completely different in the sense that I don't actually know what people do for a living any more. I was counting up how many people in my family lived down the pits . . ." - he corrects himself quickly - ". . .
worked down the pits. Lived down the pits?
I'm really overplaying the card there. But I had quite a lot of uncles who worked in steel and stuff and when I go back now and ask people about their jobs you never get the traditional answer any more."
When thinking about the Manic Street Preachers it's important to remember where they came from. Their background was south Wales, industrial Wales, working-class Wales, a Wales buckled and fractured when the band were in their teens by the fallout from the miners' strike and the impact of Thatcherism.
Bradfield grew up in the town of Blackwood in Caerphilly, near Cardiff - what could be called Old Labour territory, replete with Old Labour values and morality. His father Monty was a "chippie", a carpenter and a union rep.
"He was always perplexing, my dad, because he had a reputation of being a terrible fighter, " Bradfield says. "But I never really understood it until I was about 11 years old.
Me and my mum and my dad were walking back late at night and there was a policeman getting beaten up and he ran 100 yards to get in this fight to save the policeman. It was just like watching the Tasmanian devil. He was a really placid character [normally]. Really traditional, but also broke the mould by doing so much housework as well."
Monty Bradfield had to cook dinner for his son since his wife would be out working in the bookie's she managed until late in the evening.
Sue Bradfield liked a drink, had been expelled from grammar school for beating someone up, was the county secretary of the women's darts league (she once beat Eric Bristow's girlfriend Maureen Flowers) and loved arguing about politics. "Nothing puritanical at all about her but nothing ignorant, " says Bradfield. "I love that mixture, man. They know how to live life but they always try to learn something."
By the timehe was 17 Bradfield was working as a labourer Monday to Thursday.
On Fridays and Saturdays he'd go busking "and in the evenings I was pretty much writing songs and sending Nick and Richey the odd GBP10 to pay off their gambling bills at university." Oh, and Sundays he had a bar job. He knew about work, but by the mid-eighties many around him didn't. Working-class Wales wasn't working any more. The mines were closing, the steelworks were closing, south Wales seemed to be closing down. "Everything we had been told was good or valued in our life had been destroyed, " Bradfield recalls.
"Just like lots of places in Britain had been destroyed. And obviously we had Thatcher. I remember my mum and dad banging on about it. My dad literally used to spit when she came on the TV."
At college he'd see people he knew from the Oakdale pit on restart courses. "They'd be trying to teach them how to use computers and of course some did but most were like, 'I don't want to f-ing do this.' Just seeing those blokes with big hands . . . and people being impatient with them: 'No, you've got to do this.' It seemed well beneath anybody's dignity."
Dignity is a very Manics word. For all that the band emerged kicking and screaming in a blur of mascara and guitar riffs there was always a sense of working-class articulacy and aspiration about them. Intellectual aspiration, that is. Few other bands could get away with - or even think of writing - a line like "Libraries gave us power", which opens their numberone hit Design for Life.
The suspicion that greeted them in the predominantly middle-class music press when they first emerged might have had something to do with this. They never conformed to the preferred model of working-class wide boys who could spend their interviews talking about going on the rob (a la the Manics' contemporaries the Happy Mondays). The Manics didn't allow for a conflation of working class and deviancy so beloved of the NME and Melody Maker at that time. Better copy, you see. "You can liken it to why the Tories have their conferences in Blackpool, " Bradfield says when I raise this theory. "They love having cheap holidays in other people's misery and they feel slightly dirty about it. It's almost thrill-seeking."
But actually, he thinks, the extreme response that greeted them in the late eighties and early nineties was more down to their nationality. It was their Welshness that people struggled to get their head around. "As soon as we started getting a bit of attention we started realising how Welsh we were because everything was based around us being Welsh. And there was a famous record shop in Edinburgh that said, 'We don't usually store any records by Welsh bands because they're all so bad. They're definitely beyond the pale when they're Welsh and they wear eyeliner as well.'" This antagonism was also something of a boon, he says. It gave the band something to kick against. "We had so much to aim at. When you actually feel isolated anyway, when you feel you've got no friends outside your own country, it's a great power you can use because it defines you. People hate you because you're Welsh, people hate you because you're punk and you think the government hates you. You just feel defined by what you hate and what hates you and that was good for us."
The Manics wanted to be the Clash when everyone else wanted to be the Stone Roses.
When everyone else was wearing flared jeans and Inspiral Carpets T-shirts the Manics looked, well, as one of their own manifestos said, "like nothing else on Earth" - androgynous, angry, otherworldly, a gang. They always had been. "Nick was my best friend, " says Bradfield. "Nick was the only person I talked to about music and books and such. And even just girls. He was never a big pub type and neither was I at that point. As soon as I left school I just seemed to drift a bit. I didn't make any new friends in college and Richey definitely always stuck out in a crowd. None of us were the best rugby players, none of us were the coolest kids in the class, none of us really had girlfriends. Except Sean, the w-er."
For a while there they probably qualified as the most hated band in Britain. Interviews, gigs, all seemed to end in warfare. Edwards famously carved the legend 4 Real into his arm with a knife when one interviewer (DJ Steve Lamacq, fact fans, then a journalist at the NME) accused them of being fake. As the frontman, Bradfield often had to spend gigs dodging bottles thrown at him onstage. He didn't always succeed. Yet he says none of this bothered them at the time. "We felt indestructible to be honest, " he recalls. "We started to revel in the way we looked and the way we were together. We were the only people who understood each other. It was almost the feverish passion of speaking in tongues."
In some ways the music came second in all of this. When they started their second-hand riffs and watered-down situationism seemed less important than their spiky look and spiky tongues (they gave great interviews). By the time they got round to recording an album (Generation Terrorists) they had acquired a poise and a sheen, and they had their moments on record - the huge, desolate ache of the single Motorcycle Emptiness was always my favourite - but it wasn't until they released Everything Must Go in 1996 that they began to reach a larger audience. By then, though, everything had changed.
InFebruary 1995, on the eve of an American tour, Richey Edwards walked out of his London hotel room and disappeared. His car was found a fortnight later on the Severn Bridge. His parents have never applied for a death certificate and a body has never been found. His absence has been a constant presence in the Manics story ever since. In conversation Bradfield never makes a fetish of his friend's name. He brings him up without prompting, flitting between past and present tense when he speaks. He talks about how hard it could be to sing Edwards's lyrics and how, when he mastered it, especially on the thorny, clotted, dense words full of dread and desperation Edwards wrote for The Holy Bible, released the year before he disappeared, he felt he had maybe earned his stripes as a singer and was no longer the frontman by default.
Edwards's disappearance, though, obviously affected his friends. On the press notes for The Great Western, Bradfield says his solo project has made him lose "a bit of my insecurity".
This anxiety is one he traces back to Edwards's disappearance. "I think my insecurities kind of extended from the period when Richey went missing, " he says. "And the strange thing when something like that happens is that people actually like to almost set you at war with the person who's not here any more. People like to cast aspersions that he would not have wanted you boys to carry on if he could see what you're like now. So when people pit you against the memory of somebody who was a friend that's hard. And that happened quite a lot. People say he was worth more than all of you put together and all that kind of stuff. Of course we know the worth of Richey and we value it higher than they do, but not in the terms that they do."
It was a charge increasingly levelled at the band as they began to rack up number-one singles through the nineties. But it never made sense to Bradfield and the rest of the Manics.
"We know Richey would have loved a song like If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next [the band's take on the Spanish Civil War that reached number one in 1998], " he says.
There were other losses too. Their mentor Philip Hall - the subject of a new Bradfield song, An English Gentleman - had died of cancer two years before Edwards's disappearance, then in 2000 Bradfield's mother passed away. "The darkest moments I've ever had were when I realised that life doesn't transcend to anything, " Bradfield says. "There is no cinematic moment when somebody dies or disappears, whether you reduce that to a Vauxhall car left at the Severn Bridge or just being in a hospital. There's no camera, there's no redemption. It doesn't feel as if the soul transcends. You try to speak to someone when they're not there and nothing happens. That's the darkest I've ever felt, when I realised it was just the here and now. That was impossibly grim."
To make a film of the story of the Manic Street Preachers - to take in all its darkness, all its glammed-up grit - you would need to splice together Ken Loach and Pedro Almodovar to direct it. (Bradfield's not sure about Loach. He recently saw Carla's Song on TV.
He wasn't impressed. Ken's lost it a bit, he reckons. ) It would be a long, wild, dark film and at the moment there's no obvious fade-out.
"To be honest I can't imagine the Manics ending because we are such close friends, " Bradfield says. For the last week now he and his bandmates have been back in the studio starting work on a new album. "It's hard to imagine us not playing music any more. I can imagine it changing. I can imagine Nick becoming some mad film director and us making music for his dark Welsh yakuza film or something. But it would be a really weird moment if Nick and Sean and myself ever said we're not going to play music together."
Theirs is a lifelong friendship, theirs are ties he feels would be impossible to break. "Once you're in, you're in, " James Dean Bradfield reckons. It's a design for life you could say.
James Dean Bradfield's single That's No Way to Tell a Lie is released on Monday on Sony.
The Great Western is released on July 24.