In 1991 the Manic Street Preachers emerged from the tiny Welsh town of Blackwood and embarked on a mission to save the world. Armed with guitars, an outsider's attitude and a barrage of non-stop political rhetoric, the Manic's climb to stardom has been a long, weird trip. The original plan was to release 'one huge album' and split up, but it didn't turn out that way.
Playing the self-styled role of 'Generation Terrorists'- lyricist and guitarist Richey James defined the band's attitude when he carved '4 real' in his arm during an early interview - the band played devil's advocate to a Britpop and acid house soaked '90's England. The road wasn't an easy one: in 1995, following a prolonged period of depression and bizarre episodes (including onstage self mutilation with a knife provided by a fan in Thailand) James' car was found abandoned. After a week's absence, he was officially pronounced missing presumed dead.
But the band played on, and a year later Everything Must Go confirmed the Manics as superstars in Europe, winning the band three Brit awards and major critical and commercial success. After a US tour with Oasis blew apart, thanks to the duelling Gallagher brothers, the band returned to the studio and 1998 saw the release of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, another multi- platinum global smash.
2001 started well for the Manics: with new album Know Your Enemy in the can the band found themselves playing in Havana to a huge crowd that included long time hero Fidel Castro. As lead singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield told Pierre Meshine in London, things are going ok...
Selector: It's been a huge decade for the Manic Street Preachers. What would you pick out as your defining moments with the band?
James Dean Bradfield: It's quite easy I suppose I remember playing The Horse & Groom' my first ever London gig in Great Portland Street upstairs in a pub. That was the first one because we felt that we were the 'Welshies', some kind of Valley Boys coming up to London where we could actually take it to the big smoke and compete with the big boys. That was the first thing I always remember. Also seeing ourselves on TV for the first time properly where we did Motown Junk and then after that, I suppose The Holy Bible. We did three nights at the Astoria with The Holy Bible and I think they were three of the best gigs that we ever did. Obviously the third night at the Astoria was the last gig Richey ever did with us. It was an amazing night: we smashed everything up at the end and we just felt as though it was the end of something but the beginning of something else. After that I suppose it's having our first number one. I mean, it was a song called If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next and it was number one! For us that was a massive achievement. After that it was the Millennium Concert (in Cardiff) we played at, and after that was the gig in Cuba. It's quite easy for me to reel them off really.
What memories do you have that give you goose bumps?
Well, I've never been asked that before ... we were doing some demos that ended up being on Everything Must Go, and Richey and I we were driving back from the studio in Surrey on the way to the hotel. I remember him saying Small Black Flowers (off Everything Must Go) was his favourite song that we'd done down there. That was the last time that we ever talked about any of our songs and what we were doing. Of course the morning after that he went missing.
What happened to the Manic's goals and direction in the early 90's?
To be honest it's the same old stuff that you read in all the press about us. What we actually said was how we felt, and that was that we wanted to sell 70 million records and then we wanted to split up. We wanted to completely like dominate, like flash on the scene and then just fall apart like a dying star. We wanted to leave like this perfect album like Never Mind The Bollocks' by the Pistols or something - we failed!
Does it get easier making albums?
Well, if you're on your sixth album and it doesn't get easier then something's wrong! The way we pushed the album was no rehearsals, no strings. They were two rules that we had and we stuck by them. Recording the album was just so easy, I mean really, really easy. I might look back on that and decide that it was too easy but I can only talk about now and the fact that we're on our sixth album and all our first ideas seem to be the right ones. It's all like added up to make it one of the best experiences in a studio.
Where did you record the new album?
We did half the album in Spain and half in Wales. We've had these little rules and regulations for the Manics and one was that we didn't ever want to record in the sun because we felt that it would make us sound too relaxed and too happy. But for once we broke that rule! I mean, we were in Spain...I know it sounds trivial but those things really matter to us. In the end we realised that although we were really happy and relaxed it didn't really rub off on the songs anyway!
How long did you spend on recording the album?
The way that we recorded the album was quite strangely structured. We'd write four songs then we'd go in the studio and record them and then take a month off, then write another four or five songs and go in the studio again. So the whole year we just spent going in and out of the studio as we wrote the songs. There are lots of other people on the album that contributed, like David Holmes who did additional production on three tracks and (legendary UK producer) Mike Hedges did some production on a track as well.
How did the David Holmes hookup come about?
Well it was kind of a natural progression from that fact that he'd done two remixes of You Stole The Sun From My Heart and If You Tolerate This. It was quite strange because when we got the re-mix back from You Stole The Sun From My Heart we realised that if we'd had that re-mix before the album came out we might have put it on the album instead of our version. So it made sense for him to do some additional production because he was obviously keyed in to us and we trusted him as well. After we got those remixes back we made the decision then that we'd like him to do some stuff on the next album.
How would you describe the subject matter on the album?
It's pretty varied. Let Robeson Sing is all about Paul Robeson, the political activist from the 60's or late 50's, whose life was pretty much destroyed by the CIA. So that's almost like a political love song. It's a song written with a lot of affection, which is something we wouldn't have done in the past. Then there are songs like The Convalescent which is very much a list' song, it has the lyrics that invite you in to be in Nick's own world. It points out the little trivial things, the pivotal things, the important things that kind of hinge his life together like a personal manifesto. Then there's a song like Watchful Blues which Nick wrote about the fact that after we won the second Brits the only story that the Mirror could do on him was "Why does this millionaire rock star live in a terraced house in Wales?" They printed a big picture of his house, printed the address and they casually destroyed his little bit of happiness. The fact that he lived really privately in a nice little street and he'd lived there for years ... they actually destroyed that for him, they couldn't find any dirt on him so they just printed a big picture of his house - so that's what the song Watchful Blues is about and again its just far, wide and ranging.
What about Miss Europa Disco Dancer? It's a bit of a departure for the band was it fun to record?
It was, I've got to admit it. I know that people don't really equate us with having fun in the studio or having fun at all. But it was fun, it was the first time that Nick had given me a lyric which seemed very much satirical and just quite playful as well. One of the first singles that I ever brought was My Old Piano by Diana Ross and I wanted to re-create that Nile Rogers kind of vibe. But I've since been told that some journalists, usually German, say "so it sounds like Club Tropicana by Wham Ð ya!" so I'm not really sure what it's ended up like but it was fun to do.
You played a gig in Cuba last month. How did that come about?
Well, a lot of people seem to think that we've always got a grand agenda behind doing stuff but that started out as a very simple idea. We were playing an album to one of our friends when it was just about finished and he asked us about the handful of Cuban references across the record. There's a Cuban references in Let Robeson Sing, The Convalescent and Baby Elian just a handful but it struck us and we thought 'Hey why don't we do our first gig in Nirvana!' It was literally like that, a kind of off-the-cuff conversation. Our manager was there and he said he would see if he could make it happen. We all thought it was just a laugh, but he came back to us and said that we could do it but it would be lots of work and we'd lose lots of money. We just decided to go for it. If we get an idea then we act upon it, which is like the way we conduct ourselves in the studio doing the album.
And you met Fidel Castro at the gig. How did that go?
Well I could have done with meeting him after the gig instead of just before the gig but there you go. We were chaperoned in to a room and he was just sat there. I was a bit like 'well I don't know what's really going on here!' and the first thing that I noticed was that his trousers were pressed so that the seam was right down the middle of his trousers. I always used to do that and Nick, Sean and Richey always used to take the piss out of me, calling me a mummy's boy and saying that it wasn't cool to have a seam down the middle of your trousers. So the first thing I noticed was that Fidel had trousers like me. Then he started talking to us and he was so sharp and warm and witty, which goes against the grain of what people might see him to be like an earnest, staunch, po-faced dictator. I mean you could say that it's PR or whatever but I can only tell you my first impressions. He'd ask questions like "What is the relationship between Wales and England?" and we'd respond playfully with "ummmm" and the fact that he was aware of that tension between England and Wales or Scotland and England or whatever impresses me. I mean he's what 78, 79 and so with it: you get the impression that George Bush Junior doesn't even know where Wales is, so the fact that he asked sort of playful questions like that just really impressed me. Then he started telling us that he wrote speeches and how the rhyme and meter never actually came to him until he actually did the speech live, and he was asking if it was like this with lyrics. It's just cool for an old man to be asking questions like that. I suppose the biggest highlight was when I said to him, towards the end, that it was going to be loud so he'd better wear earplugs. He came back with a line that Chuck D has been trying to write all his life and he said, "It could never be louder than war". The next day he told us, "You remember last night when I said that it could never be louder than war it was!" How did the crowd receive you in Cuba? When I went on stage I made a conscious effort not to look up at the balcony and see Castro, because that would have made me fall apart. I just remember knowing that the crowd wouldn't know any of the songs so we were out of the comfort zone. Usually people are standing up, going mad and they know at least some of your songs but we didn't have any of that in Cuba. Some of them were up out of their seats and doing a little dance and it just reminded me of a quaint 60's gig. The atmosphere just got better and better and better until people felt that they could just stand up and just get in to it. I don't mean in any kind of political sense but they were just sat there first of all, thinking who are these people and what do they stand for and what do they sound like. As the gig went further and further you just found people getting out of their seats as a natural reaction and thinking 'Hey these guys are good!', so it felt like a 60's gig in a strange way to me.
How can you top that experience what's next?
Well I don't want to be seen as some sort of show pony event band: 'you've seen them at Millennium Stadium now come and see them in Cuba and then Mars!'. I really would be relieved now just to do some ordinary tours now.
What are your hopes for Know Your Enemy?
I never really think about things like that. There was a lot of bad press around the end of the last album, some journalists were saying 'Well you are all about 30 or 31 years old, don't you feel as if you are becoming slightly irrelevant and that you have no right to sing some of the songs that you are singing?'. So perhaps I would like to think that this album disproves that. I'd like to think that just because I may have just turned 32, that doesn't mean anything really and I hope that I can prove that when people listen to the album.
What do you think Richey James would make of this album and where the Manics are now?
Well I don't know about the album but I can always spot a song that I know he'd really like. I mean a song like Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children, he'd really love that song. And Intravenous Agnostic: he'd love that. It's just as easy to spot songs that perhaps he wouldn't like as well. Perhaps he wouldn't quite get a song like Miss Europa Disco Dancer.