Following 2013's introspective Rewind The Film, James Dean Bradfield & co return with twelfth studio album Futurology flanked by a European sensibility and new edge. With a seamless reinvention, Rewind The Film's successor is unmistakably Manics, but not like before...
It was 1990, the Manics had just recorded their first EP The New Art Riot for Heavenly Records, soon to be followed by two, now career-defining singles, 'Motown Junk' and 'You
Love Us'. Shouting political rhetoric with a defiant middle finger to anyone and everyone, the Manic Street Preachers had arrived, emerging from their hometown of Blackwood, Wales, as self-styled 'generation terrorists' With antagonistic attitudes and androgynous band members, the Welsh quartet released their debut Generation Terrorists in 1992 with an overly optimistic sense of grandeur fueled by their claim it would outsell Guns N' Roses Appetite For Destruction and shift more than 16 million copies. [Listen to album opener 'Slash and Burn'...James Dean Bradfield channeling Guns riffs aplenty, right?)
Claiming they would disband after Generation Terrorists, it soon became clear when a cover of 'Suicide Is Painless (Theme from M*A*S*H)' became their first Top 10 hit, that they would continue, They went on to release Gold Against The (1993) and The Holy Bible (1994)
Following the disappearance of rhythm guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards in 1995. the Manic Street Preachers returned with Everything in 1996, preceded by the number two single 'A Design For Life.' Everything Must Go didn't just go multi-platinum - it established the Manics as bona fide superstars.
Their self-consciously dangerous image, leftist leanings, crunching hard rock, and outsider status made them favourites of the British music press and helped them build a dedicated following.
Fast-forward to 2011, and having just released a singles collection, National Treasures, the band plugged away in the studio, working on an ambitious project tentatively titled 70
Songs of Hatred And Failure. They soon realised they'd written too much material before deciding to release two very different albums. The first, a folky, almost entirely acoustic, emotionally raw effort entitled Rewind The Film (a remarkably understated success, featuring collaborations with Richard Hawley and Lucy Rose) appeared in 2013, and the second, Futurology, is fresh off the press and receiving some of the best praise the Manics have had in their 28-year career. Despite the albums being almost polar opposites, the material was recorded at the time in their Faster studio, Cardiff; Monmouthshire's Rockfield Studios; and Hansa Studios, Berlin - a studio which claims U2's Achtung Baby, and many albums from David Bowie (interestingly, one of Bowie's most notable albums Heroes was recorded there, and was also his twelfth) among its work.
Throughout their near-three decade career, Manic Street Preachers have developed a rare power to constantly progress, reinvent, and, crucially, stay relevant. With more than 40 singles and 12 studio albums, they have carved out an enduring career fuelled by their apprehension of the norm, and Bradfield's anthemic guitar riffs, making them one of the most beloved rock bands of recent times.
Nearly a quarter of a century after Generation Terrorists, who knew that the rockers from Wales would such an institution in the music industry? All the while without ever adhering to the mainstream and without losing any of that initial fire that made them such a dangerous, often outspoken, outfit. Times have changed, though, and Futurology defines the
Manics' adaptability, and their desire to redress their musical boundaries, this time channeling Krautrock influences.
James Dean Bradfield, although best known for his chunky guitar riffs and melodic Slash-inspired Les Paul soloing (think 'Motorcycle Emptiness", 'La Tristesse Durera') is no stranger to a Gibson J45, a Taylor 600 and one of Roger Bucknall's Fyldes. Bradfield notably played the BBC's Songwriters' Circle armed with his Taylor - and the morning after our interview, the trio (Nicky Wire, Sean Moore, James Dean Bradfield) is set to do something similar on BBC Radio 2's breakfast show before heading to Scotland for Tin the Park, and then to Benicassim the following weekend.
After a triumphant release week for Futurology, we met up with Bradfield to talk guitars and songwriting - oh, and Guns N' Roses.
James Dean Bradfield cuts a small figure, dressed casually in jeans and a blazer, and, like many players, he looks a little lost without a guitar in his hands. Busying himself by emptying his pockets of his mobile phone, Marlborough Lights, and some loose change, he quickly grabs his Gibson J45 (a 1971 model) and steps into shot for our photographer. Taking drugs was never a bad habit of mine - it was buying too many guitars," he quips, posing in a studio somewhere in Soho, London. "I can't buy them now, though - I've got a wife and kid"
The Manics are enjoying an Indian summer of creativity and, at the time of the interview, Futurology was sitting comfortably at number two in the mid-week album charts. "That's if we're not shafted by Dolly Parton," Bradfield laughs. "That's not something I thought I'd say... I think she's still riding the Glastonbury wave" The Manics weren't shafted by Dolly, and Futurology charted at number two - their highest-charting record in seven years.
"It's a nice feeling though; its the second album we've released in the space of a year. It's good to know we're still in the game. Were not deluded, you know? We know we're not the band that sells as many records as we did on Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. We've never had a midlife crisis; being in a band keeps that at bay," he laughs.
Claiming, nonchalantly, that one of the Manics' biggest hits (If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next') is "just five or so simple chords", he shrugs off any prowess that I hinted at. It's about what you do with the chords that matters, though. He's sitting picking away guitar licks and detuning (by ear) throughout the interview, punctuated only by a few mouthfuls of Coca Cola and a couple of Marlboroughs. I've only ever heard one other player solo (in a rock music medium) on an acoustic the way that he's doing right now - Slash.
Bradfield is a huge Slash fan, but we've not brought the subject up just yet. Firstly, I need to get his attention as he's currently playing the naughty schoolboy by hanging out of the window to get his nicotine rush.
"Is that a bit o 'Civil War?" he says, stubbing out his cigarette, as I play the intro to the Guns N' Roses track on his J45. "Try and do any of Appetite For Destruction on acoustic, and its fucking hard. He [Slash] does gigs with Myles [Kennedy, vocalist] and plays it all acoustically, and it's perfect. It astounds me. He must've been using 8s or 9s [strings] - if he wasn't, that's depressing!"
"A bad review hurts you just as much as the joy a good review gives you," he equals, when I mentioned the rave reviews Futurology has been receiving this week. Rough Trade hosted an in-store the evening before our interview, in which the Manics treated 200 fans to Futurology and The Holy Bible tracks. Bradfield has played the record store many times in the past, often with his acoustic, including when Generation Terrorists was released in 1992.
"In terms of being in a band, I didn't feel I had to go and play record shops back in the 90s. When an opportunity comes through now to do something at a record store, it actually feels more pressing and that there's something you can do. Not that playing a gig there will save them, but there's something more symbolic there. I've always supported record shops, simply because I love buying records - and that's the best way to support them."
With 11 festival gigs left to go this summer, Bradfield is reminiscing about some past - although we're not mentioning Glastonbury, despite a monumental set of "hit after hit" as described by the BBC at this year's bash. "Some festivals do annoy me," he quips. "You'll have some amazing live music playing, and then there are people only bothered with roasted fucking vegetables on a food stall playing Bombay Bicycle Club through a shitty radio.."
The Manics head to T in the Park the day after our interview, and he's still not got a set list. Funnily enough, it took the Manics 10 albums (and countless hits) before feeling comfortable with their live sets.
"Up until Postcards From A Young Man, we never felt as if we had enough songs to do a balanced set. We always felt like we were struggling to put together a really balanced set list. It wasn't until we were doing the Rewind The Film tour that we actually felt that we had enough songs between singles and classic album tracks to choose from - which was weird for a band on its eleventh album. Now, we do feel that we can represent so many different periods of the band within a set list."
"I think when you choose to play a song acoustically, you pick one that obviously connects with people, but also one that's quite simple in its construction. Slash is one of the only guitars players who can sit down and play electric parts on an acoustic and not fuck it up. Transferring your electric sensibility to an acoustic one is a notoriously hard thing to do. I look for something that I can strip back to its barest bones and it still communicates the essence of the song. Most music I've written with the Manics has been on acoustic guitar. Strangely, even The Holy Bible, which is bizarre because it is really riff-based. [Another Slash similarity as he, when asked about Appetite For Destruction, claims he wrote many of the tracks with his acoustic.] It was written on an acoustic back in my parents' house in Wales. By then, I had the confidence to write a riff on an acoustic guitar and I knew that it would transfer to an electric guitar."
The guitar he's referring to here is a Fender F-5-12. With a puzzled look, I ask why he'd choose a 12-string as one of his first L guitars. 'I know, right? I still play a full take on k a 12-string and go "aaah",' he answers, shaking i his left hand in the air, mimicking the pain of grappling with a 12er.
In an organised turn of events, Bradfield pulls out his glasses and reads from a list he's prepared noting his entire acoustic guitar collection, complete with dates and notable tracks each guitar was used on.
"I could get quite emotional about this, but I won't," he says, unfolding the A4 sheet. "My mum and dad bought me the Fender as an eighteenth birthday present. I still use it on lots of records - its got a Guns N' Roses sticker on it, too," he laughs. "It was all over Generation Terrorists and even The Holy Bible, tucked away on one of the tracks. It was on Send Away The Tigers, Journal For Plague Lovers...It was £100; my parents bought it from a local club act. I remember sitting in the front room of the house and my mum and dad had parked the car opposite the front door and they walked across with this guitar case. It was amazing - they had gone and bought a 'proper' guitar. I saw it and thought, 'That's amazing', but then I tried to play it and thought, 'Oh shit!' After about a month, the strength in my left hand was getting there and it was a really good exercise actually. My first guitar was a Les Paul copy electric which was really bad, but if you keep playing on a bad guitar, when you play on a good one you'll be much better than you expect after the tough love of the bad one."
Bradfield's guitar inventory makes for envious reading. As well as his 1973 Gibson J45, he's got a Gibson L (bought for around £300 by Manics' drummer, Sean Moore), a Lakewood D12, a Guild JF65-12 with flamed maple sides and spruce top, a Cole Clark Fat Lady, Cole Clark Angel, a Taylor 414CE and Taylor 614CE (Bradfield uses the Taylors and Cole Clarks for live work due to their pickup systems), a Crafter archtop with a Kent Armstrong lipstick pickup and L.A. Baggs Element, and a Fylde Orsino which he uses for all lead work. His J45 (bought from Fat Rick's in Fulham in 1997) is his most trusted guitar, though, and the one with which he wrote the Manics' number one singles, 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next' and The Masses Against The Classes'.
"I was supposed to meet my guitar tech at Fat Ricks one morning but I'd gotten absolutely hammered the night before - properly drunk, you know? Still drinking in China Town at 4am drunk...I went in at 9.30am and I felt horrible. The J45 was the most money I'd spent on a guitar in a long time because I think Everything Must Go was doing very well and, er, I was still drunk. I played it and remember just thinking, 'Oh, that sounds amazing'. I bought it and then very quickly wrote 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next'. I very rarely buy a guitar if I try it and it doesn't feel manageable immediately. You've got to make a connection with a guitar straight away."
"I bought the Fylde from Forsyth's in Manchester, which is a great store - I'd be so depressed if that ever closed down. The next time I went into Forsyth's they asked how I got on with it, and the Fylde has subsequently been on just about every record since, for all of the lead stuff. Its a very clear sounding guitar, which is why I chose it for that job. The Cole Clarks just came about by serendipity, I guess. We'd done an Australian tour in 2010 and a guy turned up who was a designer for Cole Clark and gave me two free guitars - which is always nice. Its kind of like someone telling you that they love you! Actually, I really liked them because of the pickups in them - they playing, and have lots of warmth. If a guitar's definitely fill a gap. They're great for live got warmth, you can always build on that. I used them a lot on Rewind The Film for tracking on some songs. A little secret weapon, you know? The Lakewood I bought when we were just starting to record Generation Terrorists and Steve Brown [engineer] wanted me to track some of my electrics with an acoustic. He made me go to a shop in Guildford and we only had a certain budget, but he thought that guitar sounded good. Again, I've used it throughout my career. Sometimes, it'll stay in the lockup, but then I'll think, "I'll give the old Lakewood a go". I've got no snobbery about guitars; I got lucky with the J45, it is my best acoustic, but the Fylde definitely brings up the rear. Although you can just get so lucky with an acoustic guitar which costs next to nothing."
Bradfield smirks a little as I ask him about his appearance on the BBC's The One Show the evening before our interview. Something tells me he'd rather have been elsewhere, but when they asked him about how he writes songs, the look Nicky (Wire, bassist) and he exchanged gave away more than any words could.
"We'd never sit down in a room together and go, "Dm7, yeah, that's it". It just wouldn't happen. Nick and Richey would sit across the table from each other and write like that, but I never could. Sean and I would write some music together but we'd still not be sat facing each other - he'd be around the house or something, we'd just in orbit of each other. We all couldn't be closer [Bradfield has known Nicky since five, Sean since he was two] but I just couldn't do that trade off thing. A lot of stuff I've written from Nick and Richey's lyrics has just come from me absolutely loving them and then it bringing something out musically. 'Europa Geht Durch Mich' [Futurology] was a bit like a 'Faster' [The Holy Bible] moment because I kept looking at the lyrics and with 'Faster' I went through 20 drafts of the music to get the song and in the end its so simple, but its all about the riff. I looked at 'Europa' and just knew that after five attempts at the music I was trying to over complicate it and I just left it alone for a bit and knew that it just was going to come and be four chords - and it was."
Enduring political passion and new musicality penetrates Futurology, and Bradfield couldn't be happier that its something of a redesign from the norm. Its still the Manics, though, and they're still roaring what they care about (culture, alienation, boredom, and despair) but call it what you want, it's just testament to their persistent desire to make music that matters, and that's relevant - only this time with a Teutonic narrative.
"We've always been a strange bunch of people and I think that's represented in how many different turns we taken in the band. Were obsessed with sport, and it definitely wasn't fashionable for indie kids to be into that Futurology is a new version of us and I think ei...../ that stems from when we formed the band - my biggest inspirations were The Clash, Guns, and Public Enemy. Richey was into Killing Joke, Sean was into Kraftwerk, and Nick was into Whitesnake and Rush. We all started feeding off each other's influences and it's not simple to try and represent all of that. A lovely electric track sounds so great when there's an acoustic tracking really tightly. I think that's one of the most undersold aspects of what an acoustic guitar can do if you're in a rock band. Obviously, The Eagles used to do it a lot. Also Led Zeppelin. I loved Jimmy Page's acoustic playing because it was slightly unhinged. There's something about him that welcomes a certain messiness in his playing and he won't be self-conscious about it, but then he'll tighten up and turn it into something which is much more melodic. The intro to Over The Hills And Far Away' captured me straight away - I fucking adored it. All the stuff over Led Zeppelin III was pretty much tutelage for me as an acoustic player. I also loved Johnny Marr's acoustic playing - especially later on with The Queen Is Dead. Ben Watts is another guy whose acoustic playing I love. Lindsey Buckingham, too - his playing really complements his electric playing; so I suppose that's the thing for me. I love electric guitar players who have that acoustic sensibility."
A lot of the Manics' 'music was written in alternate tunings, and when writing in France in the late 90s, alternate tunings saved Bradfield from a bout of writers block that threatened to leave him unable to ever "write another fucking tune again!"
"I'm no good at remembering them," he says picking up the J45, detuning it and playing some tracks from the 1998 album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. "The strings might snap but let's do this," he laughs as he plays 'My Little Empire'. "I remember being really bored on This Is My Truth because I was trying to come up with one of a lot of songs and I'd been round the houses; we were in France and I thought Id' never write another fucking tune again. I gave it one last shot, and I messed around with the tuning which made the chords more inspirational to me and I came up with 'My Little Empire' The usual way, isn't it?" he questions, strumming the open chords to the song. "They [alternate tunings] make the moment come alive when you try to write. Open G is one I use a lot too. I remember trying to write 'Tsunami' with that oriental reference point. I was just messing around with the G and nothing was coming out and I had this inkling that if I changed the top string, something would happen. I tuned the top E [a D in open G tuning] to C because I heard the echo sound in my head and then the music for Tsunami' came out of that. It's not something you can learn, it's not innate - it's just messing around with it. I was there on my half day in France, so pissed off that I hadn't written another tune for the record, and Pd been playing guitar for four hours - if you're not bored after four hours, you've passed a certain test. If you really love playing guitar and if you play for four hours then something will happen - perhaps you've not got to be married or have kids at the time," he jokes. "I was lucky enough to have those years when I could just play music for four hours and wait for things to come - and enjoy it. Now things have to come a little quicker because I've got a more rounded life, thankfully, otherwise I'd be a psychopath. Just write the tunings down - there's a track on Rewind The Film called 'Manorbier' and I can't remember the tuning. If someone can listen to that and work it out for me that'd be fucking great," he laughs.
Its pretty clear that just being in the Manics is all the inspiration Bradfield needs. Why would he want to let that go? Bound to Nicky and Sean with "dare I say, brotherly love?" he jokes, it's not time for them to hang up their boots just yet. With Futurology creating such a stir nearly 30 years into their career, and with Bradfield's somewhat humble realisation that they're no longer the teenagers who made Generation Terrorists, not just literally, but musically, t Manics still have so much to say - and despite now all being 45, they're still as urgent and thrilling as ever.
"If you feel like the expression is not as it used to be, then don't do it anymore. I don't feel that now. I don't drink on tour now, but there was a period of 10 years when I'd get drunk every single night. I can't do that anymore - but that's fine. I still go out on tour and sing and play as hard as I ever did. Being in a band was such a dream and it takes so much effort to get people to listen to you and to get to a certain point, if you're not enjoying it when you're there then don't do it. If there's no sense of wonder, then you should stop. Why would I ever want to stop being in the Manics? It's what I've always wanted to do and I still fucking love it."
'We'll come back one day, we never really went away,' Bradfield sings on Futurology's title track. 'One day we will return, no matter how much it hurts.' They've done just that for nearly 30-odd years - a longevity that'll no doubt continue.