When Richey Edwards fled from London's Embassy Hotel one February morning in 1995, he left behind a legacy, a myth, and a band of childhood friends who carried on without him, achieving greater success in the ensuing years than they'd had with their "minister of propaganda" in the fold. The lyrics were split between Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire (singer James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore co-write the music), and although the two shared a similar nihilistic worldview and appetite for high and low culture, Edwards' words were also informed by personal suffering, from depression, anorexia, alcoholism, and self-mutilation. In 1994, The Manic Street Preachers released their third album, The Holy Bible, with lyrics written entirely by Edwards in the midst of a downward spiral. The result is one of the bleakest records ever made, its music and artwork matching the horror of its poetry.
Shortly before his disappearance, Edwards penned a few songs for the Manics' next record, Everything Must Go. As far as the public knew, that was all he wrote, but the band's latest album, Journal for Plague Lovers, proves otherwise.
Just ahead of their first North American tour in a decade, Bradfield discussed the reasons why the band decided, 14 years later, to put music to the lyrics Edwards left behind, and why it's taken them so long to venture across the Atlantic again.
James Dean Bradfield: I think you get that urge to come over to America to try and conquer it when you're a very young musician, when you're about 21, 22. Round about 10 years ago, we were 30 and we were selling lots of records in Europe and Japan and we were happy to concentrate on that. We didn't see any welcoming signs coming from America, and I don't know if much has changed on that level, I'll be honest about that, but we wanted to come back because it's as if we're playing a new territory again. Also, the last time we had a real chance in America was when we released The Holy Bible—people started getting interested in the record and then of course Richey went missing. So we felt that there was a bit of symmetry, that perhaps it would be easier for some people to actually connect to this record.
I imagine that the success of Send Away the Tigers, and perhaps receiving the NME's Godlike Genius Award, gave you free reign to make an artier record. Did it facilitate using Richey's lyrics too?
Definitely. If Send Away the Tigers had been a failure, and we had followed a failure with Journal for Plague Lovers, I think people would've seen it as quite a cynical move. They would've looked upon us as a band trying to be the band we once were. But, in effect, Journal for Plague Lovers followed a very successful record so that gives the move in itself a bit of credibility. Our record company wanted us to do a more commercial record and we didn't, we did a record that's very much in its own niche and doesn't have any singles on it, so in a strange way, this is the only time we could've released this record. It was the perfect opportunity to do this, to put music to Richey's lyrics, in a very tasteful way. There was nothing about it that could actually forward our career; in fact we may have even lost ground that we gained with Send Away the Tigers.
You were concerned that this might be viewed as an exploitative move?
There will always be a section of the audience that thinks what we're doing is wrong, that we should leave the memories of Richey intact, that we shouldn't impinge upon his legacy or his myth or whatever you wanna call it. I'm very aware of that and that didn't bother us, to be honest. We had these lyrics that he betrothed to us in 1995, just before he went missing, and we knew him well enough to know that that was a very tactical move. We kind of vaguely know that he planned his disappearance; it wasn't a spur of the moment thing, so the fact that he gave us these lyrics just before that made us realize that he wanted something done with them. He didn't give us three novels, he didn't give us essays, he gave us lyrics, and obviously, if someone gives you lyrics, they want to music put to them. For years, we had these lyrics in our drawers and we were kind of scared of them. We had to face up to the fear of actually following through on the responsibility we had towards Richey.
That's a lot of pressure.
Yes, it was a pressure that he put us in that position. There are so many other emotions that we had to go through before we could even think about reconnecting with anything that Richey wrote in a creative way. But once we got into the studio, we realized the wisdom of doing the record. We knew that this was the last time we could be in a band with Richey, the last time we could ever have that feeling where we were creating something with him again. And when you get that feeling back, when you get your whole band back, you don't really care about somebody else's opinion. It's an experience that's very unique
How did you reconnect with these lyrics?
Down the years, we would all get the lyrics out individually at home and look at them, and from 1995 to 2005, they almost seemed insurmountable. As pure literature, sometimes I thought, "I don't know if I can put music to them, I don't know if I can sing them," and then something just changed in my head. I got the lyrics out one day and I started getting musical ideas straight away. I didn't have any fear when I was reading them, and I didn't even care if I didn't understand some of them, I was just intrigued. They hooked me for the first time.
Why do you think that happened a decade later?
I think we had dealt with the issue internally as much as we could. I personally had come to an impasse where I didn't really care about any conjecture or myth or sightings or rumours or what you might call the b-movie-fication of Richey's myth. All I cared about was seeing his words and realizing that there were things there that I thought could make brilliant music. Sometimes you've gotta admit that you can't get closure on something or you can't have catharsis. Sometimes you've just gotta, as they say on The Sopranos, it is what it is, and my mind had actually got to that point: this is what it is, it's never gonna change, stop pussyfooting around—if you wanna be creative with these words and you want the privilege of working with Richey again, then you've gotta put aside all that psychobabble and just go for it.
Are you ever annoyed with the British press for incessantly reprinting the "4REAL" photo?
Oh no, I could never be annoyed with that because, to be brutally honest, Richey knew exactly what he was doing when he did that. He knew it was an iconic image in the making, he knew that the mere actions were shocking in themselves. I'm not gonna go as far as to say that's what he would've wanted, but I don't think he would've ever complained.