Faced with a new spin for Nicky Wire's lyrics, James Dean Bradfield has set about redefining his guitar playing and writing for the Manic Street Preachers' remarkable seventh album, Lifeblood. In his first-ever guitar interview, he tells Guitarist all about his love of weird tunings, his huge guitar collection and some surprising influences.
Sitting at the boardroom table of London's Sony offices, nervously and constantly cradling a Marlboro Light cigarette, James Dean Bradfield screws up his face and winces: "I swore I'd never fucking do it." Oh Lord, what's he done? Voted Tory? Bought a Fender Strat? Switched his football support from Nottingham Forest to Manchester United? The truth is more shocking than any of that. The reason Bradfield is so nervous is that he's agreed to talk to Guitarist. Given that Bradfield's proved himself one of Britain's finest rock guitarists of the last 15 years, it's a slightly baffling claim, but one his gentle squirming suggests is genuine. Manic Street Preachers' bassist/co-writer Nicky Wire has been badgering him to publicly talk guitar for ages it seems, his press officer certainly, predictably, needs no convincing ("he's a guitar genius!") but Bradfield himself - eloquent, but occasionally shy in front of an interviewer's mic - has clearly never been keen to talk up his playing status.
Maybe his change of heart has come about simply because 2004 is a time of change for the Manic Street Preachers. The band's seventh album, Lifeblood, heralds an overhaul - not just in the trios overall sound, but in the way Bradfield plays. Just as political sloganeering is largely out, so is huge rock riffing. Manics bassist Nicky Wire recently remarked how the band had "banned the powerchord" for the Lifeblood release, meaning JDB has adopted a more abstract, textural approach to guitar involving alternate tunings, hovering E-bow'd lines, Gypsy jazz acoustics and swift, deft arpeggios.
Which make might make Lifeblood sound rather restrained. It's not at all: in tunes such as 1985, Empty Souls and Glasnost, Lifeblood boasts some of the band's strongest songs since 1996's commercial highpoint Everything Must Go. According to Bradfield, Lifeblood isn't the sound of a band holding back; its the sound of one letting go...
"We've always been imbued with so many little rules and regulations," he reflects, "standing behind a manifesto that was stated so many years back. It's as if we've always been ashamed to say: we went into the studio and just got lost in music, Because, in a way, I think we've always insinuated that the lyrics were much more important than the music.
"With Lifeblood, I realised that the lyrics were much more representational rather than confrontational, less political. So I suggested we don't ignore our feelings, just for once in our lives? Y 'know, get rid of that little Manics censor in our heads and just enjoy playing songs. If the music overtakes the lyric, let's not give a fuck! Why should we?"
Lifeblood is still clearly a album, but there are definite musical, particularly guitaristic, differences...
"It was very different approach for me. I've been in the band since I was 15 [he's now 35] and I realise you have to play what's best for the songs. It's not a technical thing, its just finding the right mood. I've always been known for a certain style - the quote/unquote slashing barre chords of James Dean Bradfield, flicking up to the (Les Paul's) rhythm pickup for that Motorcycle Emptiness solo sound My playing has had quite a bit of bombast in the past, definitely. I'm not saying there's none of that on this album, but there's less. I realised that I had to re-design my guitar playing."
And what specifically caused that re-design?
"Writing Empty Souls. When I write something, usually everything's in my head straight away. With A Design For Life, I had the string part in my head immediately. For If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, it was the synth part. And with Empty Souls I had that main riff [he sings it] and we rehearsed it with playing that main riff on guitar. I just realised it was going to be better on the piano. And that happened for quite a lot of songs on this album. Suddenly, another musician was covering my natural ground as a guitarist. So, very differently for me, my guitar was sometimes the last thing that went on a track. For Empty Souls it was that E -Bow part, played on a Tele Custom, that goes all the way through. Past songs were different because I still had the main riff on guitar, but on Empty Souls my guitar now had to complement the main riff. It's been kinda strange for me
In terms of guitar style, how did you deal with that?
"For inspiration, I just went back to my favourite guitarists as a teenager. One of them was John McGeoch [of Magazine and Public Image Limited] - he influenced a lot of what I play on this album; also The Comsat Angels, The Chameleons. And (Fleetwood Mac's) Lindsey Buckingham was an influence. I've always loved the way he dips in and out of songs, spinning a little part and then dropping back into the song."
"When I realised that's what I had to do, I [hushed voice] let go of my ego, man. Seriously, your ego is something that remains hidden until it's challenged. You think you have no ego because you're all friends and you're pulling together to make a great record, until you've got to change the way you play. Then you discover you really do have an ego, It's like, but the big guitar solo is what I'm here for!"
Lindsey Buckinham aside, that influence of 'cold' post-punk guitar sound is strong on Lifeblood...
"I've always liked bands that sounded really European as opposed to American and it's something we've not done very much. If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next was like that. But the best band who ever did it was Simple Minds, on their early albums like Real To Real Cacophony and Empires And Dance. Charlie Burchill never gets a namecheck as a great guitarist. When you say Simple Minds, people just think Alive And Kicking. But his guitar on the earlier records was great, like a sub-plot to the melody. Sweat In Bullet, The American...amazing records."
All this might surprise many fans, as your main influence appeared to be...
"...Guns N' Roses! When Appetite For Destruction came along, I was like, Fuck! I spent a summer learning every single guitar part on that album and it just took over my life. Everything I played became louder, everything was manifesting more skill, more bombast, more pomp and suddenly I'd kind of forgotten about the players who I had originally liked. So this album involved a lot of going back for me..."
Going even further back back, James first picked up a guitar quite late, aged 13, in his final year at Comprehensive school in Blackwood, Wales, "when I formed the band". He recalls the acoustic guitar kept in art class. which the liberal teacher would let students strum. His long-standing friend and classmate Nick Jones (aka Wire) was another aspiring guitarist, bashing out primitive versions or Queen's Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Soon, Bradfield had shown Jones what a hammer-on was, for that D/Dsus4 Brian May riff, and he owned his own electric: "A Kay copy of a Les Paul, for £22 off Matthew Horton - three weeks' paper money."
"When I was kid I was really into long distance running and I was a good humper - I could lift heavy stuff - but apart from that, the guitar was the only thing I ever showed any natural ability for. I was quite average academically, but the guitar was the first thing I could really make mine." He checks himself with a quiet smile. "Jesus, I never thought I'd tell anyone this stuff..." Ah, the perils of doing interviews.
"I had one chord book. But I had no lessons. The biggest lessons I had were just watching players on (eighties live music TV show) The Tube, endlessly pausing the video to see where the guitarists' fingers were going. Doing that showed me endless stuff; like when you bend up the G-string while letting the E and B ring out. I'm sure I was like most people, just copying everyone I liked."
Soon, the Manics took flight. Taking their name from the phrase local tramps used for the busking Bradfield - "here he comes again, the manic street preacher" - James and Nicky joined with Bradfield's cousin and drummer, Sean Moore, and lyricist/rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards.
"We've always had natural roles in the band," Bradfield recalls. "Sean, because he'd been a trumpet player and was into jazz, was obviously going to be the drummer. It was obvious Richey
was going to be the spokesperson, the visual icon and a great lyricist - he just was. Nick was obviously a musician like me but he was tall - he had to play bass. And I was the only one who could really play guitar and sing so we just slotted into our roles."
The Manic Street Preachers arrived in a flurry of eyeliner, sloganeering and quasi-GN'R riffing in 1991, splitting rock fans down the middle. Politics and rhetoric aside, the Manics were clearly able musicians - particularly Bradfield - though their keenness to establish their own agenda meant, punk rock-style, that they slagged off just about anybody that might be competition.
"It was kind of a schtick, but we were honest," Bradfield recalls. "When we came through there
was nothing in the NME about lyrics, about music of substance, it was all just taking drugs and
getting off your face. We were a little Welsh Presbyterian about it all, very pious. We were working class and believed people shouldn't do that: you must fight, educate yourself, don't lay your brain to waste with a fucking Joe Bloggs top and a little pill! We couldn't accept that music was about these consumerist tokens, the clothes you wear. So we diverted attention away from our musicianship, because the music was very much a vehicle at that point. We hid behind stuff, I admit. Music Is Obsolete - we did say that (sigh) a couple of times..."
Since then, the Manics' musicality has flourished. Their debut, Generation Terrorists, and follow-up, Gold Against The Soul were solid, slashing starts, while The Holy Bible, their 1994 third album and now re=released in 10th anniversary form, remains a breathtaking salvo of lyrical and riffing complexity. Everything Must Go (1996) - the first album after Richey Edwards' disappearance in 1995 - added grandeur and production sheen, birthing hits such as A Design For Life, Kevin Carter and Australia. They've released two more albums since, and had two number ones - 1998's If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next and 2001's Masses Against The Classes. Add a well-earned hits collection, Forever Delayed (2002), and you have some career for a group who promised they'd disband after one album.
It's a cliché that musicians always claim their new album is their best. But when Guitarist asks James Dean Bradfield what he thinks his finest guitar/writing moment is, he shoots straight back: "The Holy Bible. We were having slight diminishing returns with (second album) Gold Against The Soul, compared to the first album, and with The Holy Bible we risked everything, including having a record contract. I remember recording IfWhiteAmericaToldTheTruthForOneDayIt'sWorldWouldFallApart thinking there was no-one making music like that.
"The next highlight was A Design For Life. It was everything we'd been trying to write for a long time, but were perhaps too nervous too distilled into three succinct parts. If we'd tried
to write that when we were 18, it would have been a whole page of stuff. At that point I knew we'd learnt how to edit ourselves."
It's as if you've 'edited' your guitar playing since, as well. There's some lovely arpeggio playing on Lifeblood, as on Glasnost. Are you fingerpicking that?
"No, it's played with a pick. I don't play with my fingers at all really, unless on acoustic. I think it's an inadequacy all rock guitarists are trying to overcome. Especially if you've seen people who can really do it - I remember seeing Leonard Cohen playing fingerstyle on the Whistle Test and it was just beautiful. But whenever I've tried that in the studio there was always something missing. It's not something that sounds convincing from me. I think got to be your natural style, or you've at least got to go away and study for six months. When I do it, it just sounds like a technical exercise - I'm not expressing myself properly with it."
But since This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, is it fair to surmise that you've written more on acoustic guitar?
"Yeah. It was the time I first started messing around with tunings too, which is always nicer on acoustic. Because I'd been working with (producer) Mike Hedges a while by then, and he directed records very much towards the vocal. I tried to sing a bit slower and consider it more when I was writing. Before, I think I often thought the vocal was something I could sort out later. But after Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth I concentrated on vocals a lot more, and writing on acoustic seemed to help that."
Some of the tunings you've since used are unique: where did they come from?
"It was The Stones originally. And then just messing around with it, sometimes just getting it wrong. I'm not being disingenuous here, but what's that chord that's an A, but with the middle
note dropped one note? Major seventh? Right, well one day - only a year ago - I just tuned my guitar wrong and that G string was a note lower But right away I realised it was a brilliant tuning to write to, Pure mistake."
"And that's how I wrote Empty Souls, how I wrote I Live To Fall Asleep too. On another song, You're Tender And You're Tired [from This Is My Truth] I wanted these harmonics in the chorus so I tuned my guitar just for that. Again, I realised it was great for writing and up with My Little Empire with that mad tuning. If you try that in standard tuning, you'll have a heart attack."
Have you ever written a riff or progression, and then found it difficult to sing over it?
"Oh definitely. Sometimes I've resented putting vocals over the music too, especially on The Holy Bible. And there was something about Kevin Carter that I really didn't want a vocal to go on it. And as soon as I put the vocal on, I thought it sounded like shit."
You're in a tough position though - singing and writing music for some uniquely structured lyrics that are nearly always the work of someone else in the band...
"I had a bit of an insecurity complex, from when I was 15 to about a year and half ago. I always felt the need to analyse our lyrics, interpret them, make sure I understood everything and, if I didn't, then clear up the meaning with Nick or Richey. I would spend a good day with three lyrics before attempting to write any music."
"But then I thought, I've known Nick since I was four years old, I've been writing songs with him since I was 15: there must be some tacit understanding between us? So on this album, I'd just read a lyric through once, get a first impression, and start writing straight away. Even if I didn't understand everything, I'd start writing. Big difference for me."
With the long delay since the last full album (2001's Know Your Enemy), did you just pick up where you left off, or are you finding it harder to write new songs as time goes on?
"No. But after Forever Delayed, we knew we just had to take a break. We went through a natural starvation process: I told Nick not to give me any lyrics for two or three months. But I never want to stop writing songs: the most exciting thing for me is getting a lyric off of Nick. And the day I stop wanting those lyrics is the day the band finishes, probably."
Is this album going to be one of your hardest to replicate live, guitar-wise?
"We've been rehearsing and it's sounding fine. I've got quite good motor skills. The only thing
I don't like doing is my own pedals. I remember someone from one band who shall remain nameless who told me, You should be ashamed of yourself: a man's got to look after his own pedals. I was like, Fuck off try going out there, you play two guitar parts, sing everything, jump around -which you don't fucking do, by the way - and be the frontman as well. Prick! If I'm not doing my own pedals it's because I've got quite enough to do thank you..."
Do you think the Manics have had sufficient credit for your live and playing performances?
"Well, I used to have a chip on shoulder about certain other Great Live Bands, because they just stand there rooted to the spot looking at their fretboard. And there's me going mental, Nick's going mental, and it was them who'd get a Best Live Band award? But early on there was a thing with us live that was like the art of falling apart. We wouldn't try and simply recreate the records, we'd play too fast, but I used to like that about it. But I've let go of that a bit...I'm enjoying the detail of the music a little more, to be honest."
Five days later, we meet Bradfield again at Bermondsey studios Music Bank, to take photos and for James to detail the guitars he's using. Only problem? Bradfield is, on the sly, an absolute guitar maniac, owning "about 80" instruments, most of which are currently here in storage until rehearsals begin the following week. Bradfield takes it upon himself to nimbly scale the piles of flight cases, pulling down guitars he wants for the photo-shoot while cursing himself as he goes for not selecting a particularly juicy vintage SG, Junior or Tele. He busks versions of Kevin Carter, My Little Empire and Tsunami on a vintage Martin acoustic (his "writing" guitar) to demonstrate each song's tunings, while waxing lyrical about every instrument, nearly all highly covetable, pulled from its case, Predictably, his famed cream-white Les Paul Custom - signed by the Sex Pistols' Steve Jones on the back ("and I'm such a sad c*** I had it laminated immediately" he laughs) - is first out the box. Rest assured, JDB is still a Gibson man at heart.
"Oh yeah, Strats always seemed like a slutty guitar - too easy! It just lets you play it, doesn't let you discover anything about it. I sound so old now but when I see young kids putting on a Les Paul and saying, Awww, it's very heavy, I just think, Ponce! You feel you have to drag the music out of Les Pauls.
"If you put heavier strings on, it's even better. You have to fight it, they're much more confrontational to the player, but I think that's good. I like the fact they're like ballast on-stage and when you jump back down they nearly take your shoulder out. I love all that..."
As he's having his photo taken, he chats about how the first 'solo' he learned was the melody of Del Shannon's Runaway, demonstrates how his favourite soundcheck tune is Lonely Is The Night by eighties rocker Billy Squier, and then knocks out a dead-on unplugged rendition of the guitar solo coda to The Stone Roses' I Am The Resurrection. Just how much, one wonders, would he have actually told us if he were not 'reluctant'? As the cab arrives to take us back into town, James Dean Bradfield - still babbling about wanting to test-play a John 5 Telecaster - reveals the real reason for his reticence.
"Even though it was his idea," he squirms for a bit again, "Nick's going to rip the piss out of me for this..."