Travelling by first class train between Wales and London James Dean Bradfield did a surprising thing: he started working on his first solo album. The resulting record taps the Manic Street Preacher’s growing affection for his roots in the valleys.
Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield currently splits his time between London and Cardiff, an arrangement that necessitates a regular commute along the Great Western line. All those rail miles had an unexpected benefit. Confined to a table in the first class carriage, Bradfield began to scratch out the words that would seed his first solo album.
“Once I’d written three lyrics on that train I just thought, ‘This is where it happens,’” says Bradfield, a swarthy 37-year-old with a bonecrusher handshake and gentleman’s manners, reclining in a fug of Marlboro Light smoke in his Morrison Hotel room.
“It’s self-perpetuating, I suppose,” he continues, “I don’t think it’s something I’ll be able to escape for a long time, but I have to get out of the habit of paying first class, ’cos it’s getting expensive. It’s the one extravagance I give myself, because I always get the nutter on the train on that two and a half hour journey, chasing me down the carriage if I move.”
The train in question has a lot of history for Bradfield and his Manics comrades.
“The Great Western is the railway itself,” he explains, “a typically unromantic train journey, you don’t feel as if you’re following in anyone else’s footsteps, but it was just the fact that you want to escape the place when you’re young. I was mostly travelling with Richie and Sean on that train journey and it did feel like an escape route, like Colditz. When you’re young, things feel that dramatic. And when the place starts dragging you back it does feel like a new frontier again, it’s that old adage of you’ve got to leave to come back.
”And for such hulking great vehicles, trains can be strangely womb-like, their movement lulling the passenger into a meditative state.
“It’s always that thing… Sean Penn was friends with Charles Bukowski before he died, wasn’t he? And he said the greatest thing he ever taught him was…”
The uncommon thought on a common thing.
“Yeah-yeah-yeah – that thought about, ‘Is the ocean beautiful? Then why is it beautiful? Why do I wanna walk up the mountains, I’ve got better things to do.’ It’s not, ‘I feel free like a bird’, it’s something different.”
For Bradfield, the environment that spawned him exerts as powerful and mysterious an influence as long-time musical totems such as The Clash, Joy Division and Guns N’ Roses.
“There’s a pub in the valleys and there was a guy who said to me as I was leaving, ‘Going back to London are you?’” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah’ and he went, ‘Don’t worry, the mountains will drag you back.’ And I always thought it was like a line from The Hills Have Eyes or something, but there was something very true about it. Having an empty mind is really valuable sometimes. You always feel this fascination with modern life is having to be engaged all the time, playing with things and talking to people and exchanging ideas, but Nick summed it up best when he said the best ideas he’s ever had have just been on his own.
“That’s the reason why I’ve been drawn back to Wales more and more. When you’ve the proposition of a mountain in front of you, it’s the only time you feel confronted by something and you just can’t think anything about it, you just look at it. It’s something intangible. It’s an offer you can’t refuse, kind of thing. I’m not a religious person, but there’s something essential there that drags you back.”
Bradfield articulates this feeling most explicitly on The Great Western’s closing tune ‘Which Way To Kyffin’.
“It’s about that Welsh landscape artist Kyffin Williams, he’s like 84 years old, I went to see him, and his paintings are the only thing that describe the feeling. They’re better than words. I like the fact that Kyffin Williams is always painting things and finding beauty there, but he’s always finding the darkness as well. He’s always waiting for the life to die in his pictures to show the life there, it’s not picture postcard poetry.
“I’m sounding really up my arse now, but I remember reading Nausea by John Paul Sartre when I was young, and there’s a bit at the end of the book where he’s talking about the roots of a tree in a park, and finding something so evil and insidious in it. I absolutely love dead trees, they’re the most fuckin’ beautiful things in the world.
”Well, notwithstanding the luminous work of pastoral poets like Hopkins, the unsavoury side of nature – parasites and diseases and dead tree stumps – is just as compelling.
“You’re a weird bastard, you are."
“The first poem I ever, ever liked was by Gerard Manley Hopkins. He’s very florid and stuff, but there was a poem about a grave, and I just loved it. He’s an amazing poet. And Emily Dickinson sometimes writes about nature in a different way, she talks about: 'The morning was wistful, damp and still… I felt as if my life had been shaved and fitted to a frame'. That’s just fuckin’ beautiful. She was a dark motherfucker on the sly, old Emily.
”The question that’s gone unasked thus far is of course why James felt compelled to release a solo album after almost 20 years inside the close-knit Manics coccoon. The answer is relatively straightforward. The band needed a break, but the man needed to work.
“It’s true, I’m an institutionalised musician in the best sense of the word,” he admits. “I found something I was natural at, I enjoy, I’m engaged in, and when I stop doing it I’m dysfunctional, basically. The only thing that makes me palatable to my friends and family is me being normal when I’m working.
”So why call a sabbatical on the Manics in the first place?
“At the end of that last tour we thought, ‘Fuck, it’s another winter tour, all these people have come out to see us in the pissing rain.’ And we thought that for them to come out for another year, it’s gonna have to be really worth it, for them and for us. And we realise because we’re disingenuously almost like a little youth club, because we all grew up with each other, there was no one around us to say, ‘Don’t release a record for two years, just take a year off and don’t write any songs and make yourself ravenous for it.’ And that’s what happened really.”
Also, the last Manics record Lifeblood slipped under the radar somewhat…
“That’s very much the phrase that we used too! We actually had some good reviews for that album, whereas the album before we hadn’t. It was quite a weird experience for us, we still don’t quite know what that record is. The only thing I understand about it is that it’s very introspective for a Manics album, I don’t think it’s as aggressive as some of our other records. I don’t mean aggressive as in speed metal, I just mean, there’s always a tiny bit of emotion bubbling over in a Manics record, and that one you feel as if you’re invading its privacy when you listen to it sometimes.”
It was certainly a grower, but ultimately this listener found it a more coherent piece of work than the dense and sprawling Know Your Enemy. If anything, I thought it the perfect January record.
“I’m glad you said that actually. January is not a good album to make probably, ’cos no one quite knows what they want to do in January do they? When there’s no sense of rebirth and yet everything is being reborn around you, you feel just like, ‘I’m being left behind again!’ January, February, March, that’s my favourite time of year. Nick always wants to make winter albums. We always want to do Nebraska. We’ve never got around to it, but we’ve always wanted to make the ultimate winter palace of an album. I always think of Everything Must Go as an autumnal record and The Holy Bible as a bleak mid-winter record.”
Didn’t they once conceive of a bleak Nebraska type record where every song would be about a different city?
“You’re doing a weird one today, you are.”
Excuse me again?
“You’re touching on the Manics murky underbelly. I only gave those lyrics back to Nick last week. There was ‘Cardiff Afterlife’, which ended up on Lifeblood, ‘Tokyo Hole’, ‘Leeches Over Havana’, I can’t remember some of the other ones. It’s the only time he’s given me a set of lyrics and it didn’t work out for me, except for one song. That Nebraska type album, that’s what Lifeblood was supposed to be. I never talked about it but it’s the only time I’ve ever been given a set of lyrics by Nick and didn’t connect with them. And they were all paintings, see, they were this big, and I only just gave them back to him, I carted them from London down to Cardiff. I always felt a real sense of failure, cos literally the first time in my life I had to call him up and say, ‘I’m just not getting it.’”
Maybe the words found their complete expression in the way they were done, as paintings.“Yeah, perhaps they felt too whole, the way he’d given them to me.”And as El Cohen said, there is a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in.