James Dean Bradfield on the Manic Street Preachers' new album
More than a quarter of a century into the band’s lifespan, the Manic Street Preachers are not about to slow down, certainly if this week’s release - their 12th studio album and second in ten months - is anything to go by. Inspired by hitting the road in Europe, Futurology is a storming, ambitious record that shows a band with plenty of creative juice still in the tank. Particular highlights include the martial “Let’s Go To War” and “Mayakovsky” and the anthemic “The Next Jet To Leave Moscow” and “Walk Me To The Bridge”, both of which scream future festival crowd-pleaser. In between those festival dates - Glastonbury, T In The Park, V Festival, Benicassim in Spain, Sziget in Budapest...GQ found front man James Dean Bradfield staycationing in London where he ‘fessed up about the Manics’ clubhouse, collaborations and unfulfilled steeplechase dreams.
GQ: The albums are coming thick and fast now - what’s happening?
Either we’re taking some sort of creative Viagra or we’re raging against the dying of the light, I’m not sure which one. Probably a mixture of both.
Were Futurology and last September’s Rewind The Film recorded together and split off?
No, but I was trying to figure out whether we’ve lost the facility to filter things out in our heads or whether some subconscious Jungian-Freudian thing happened. We started doing Rewind The Film after we played the O2, and I think something must have been scared inside us, thinking that’s a definite full stop - what are we going to do now?
It’s working out for you, though, right?
It is. Partly I think it comes down to the fact that we’ve got our clubhouse, our pretend youth club for the over-Forties in Cardiff - the studio. It’s divided into two parts: a downstairs studio; then upstairs is the pretend youth club, with the full SkySports package, the full BT Sports package, a punch bag and a lot of our vinyl collection.
So how often can you get away and go there?
[Laughs] Well, it’s where we go to work, to flush things out. Sometimes it’s just a vipers’ nest! Sometimes we just argue: about the Welsh rugby 15 selection, or the British and Irish Lions tour in New Zealand in three years time or Vince Cable selling off the Post Office for one quid. That’s the groundwork for being in the Manics, having days where we just sit and watch the BMW Classic from Frankfurt and then argue about stuff. In reality, we’ve got that space and I think we’ve realised that to not use it as a studio would be stupid because we’re always writing songs and we just love being there.
There are a lot of European references on Futurology - what’s that all about?
We started touring mainland Europe in late ‘91 so obviously we’ve seen Belfast change in front of our eyes, we’ve seen Berlin change unbelievably and parts of Belgium… every city in Britain we’ve seen change. I’d never been abroad before I was in a band, Actually, I’d been abroad once, I’d been to Bristol [laughs].
Are you well received in Europe?
It changes. Holland we always do really well in; Germany we do OK in; we were a household name in Finland at one point; Sweden we were genuine one hit wonders with “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”; Spain we do really well in and then you get countries like France, it’s bizarre we’ve spent so much time recording in France but we’ve never sold a record there.
There was always a romantic notion around how Nicky [Wire, bassist] and Richey [Edwards, guitarist, who disappeared in 1995) wrote the lyrics and you wrote the music - how do you do it nowadays?
I remember when Nick and me started writing songs: we were on the steps of Oakhill Comprehensive in 1985 and he gave me some lyrics called “Aftermath” about Margaret Thatcher. Then it evolved to a point where Nick and Richey sat writing lyrics together, literally opposite each other at a table like Smith and Jones, while Sean and me would try to find the centre of the lyric. Then I’d take a lot more control of the music in the mid-period, when Sean [Moore, drummer] dropped back a bit. After Richey went missing, it would be Nick sending me lyrics through the post with a collage, as clues. I still write about 70 per cent of the music but Nick has started writing songs on his own, like “Divine Youth” on Futurology.
You seem to have a taste for instrumentals nowadays.
I think there’s a subconscious desire where - and Nick is the worst but I’m a terrible sports nerd - I want to hear one of these instrumentals get synched into a sports programme on TV! “Australia” was the Nationwide goals round-up music for f***ing five years. “That’s No Way To Tell A Lie”, my solo single, was Match Of The Day “goals of the month” music for a long time. But, of course, the greatest sports rock’n’roll sync ever is “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac for Formula One.
After 25 years, do you actually argue about your music with each other?
We argue about bands that I like and Nick or Sean don’t like, but we tend not to argue about decisions on our own songs. I think the only time me and Nick had a little impasse was when he gave me two lyrics in general where they just felt like incantations of death and destruction; they were so bleak I was just like, “I don’t want to write music to them.” We argue about really pointless stuff, we rake over each other’s emotional coals all the time.
On the past two records, you’ve seemed keen to collaborate with outsiders from the band, where’s this urge come from?
One of the saddest - or rather most telling - things about collaborations is that our first was with [Eighties porn star] Traci Lords and none of us had seen a Traci Lords film. Can you imagine that happening now? Ever? But seriously, there are two simple things: I sing in quite a girlie register, let’s face it, so it’s easy to imagine a woman’s voice in our music. And, secondly, I’m 12 albums in - I know my voice can only do certain things, and if I can’t take other people singing on the track then I really have got a Napoleon complex. I’m short enough to have one…
Who are you listening to now?
I’m obsessed with the War On Drugs album, which I love; Gruff Rhys’ new album; last year I was obsessed with Russian Circles’ new album. I still get obsessed with a record and wear it out, but it’s happening less and less and I’m trying not to be too jaded, “Is it me getting older or is there too much gap year music out there? Are there too many kids thinking, ‘I’ve got a chance of doing two major release albums and then I’ll go and take an internship at Daddy’s company.’”
You’re a working-class band; does the amount of privately educated rock stars bother you?
Well, let’s get this out of the way first. When I was about 15, I became obsessed with the Clash - Joe Strummer was the man for me. And then I discovered that he was actually John Mellor, the son of someone who worked for the Government abroad etc. So that taught me a lesson in that it doesn’t have to be exclusively working class for it to be revolutionary or incendiary or exciting. And then, I loved Queen when I was younger and they were one of the most educated bands in the world. However, there is an imbalance now. You always had working-class heroes out there but now it doesn’t seem like there is any, and you suspect that it’s who people know nowadays. There are so many people successful in acting or music where you can trace their “in” to an industry through their parents. I understand, but it’s a bit depressing as well. I’m no class warrior, but the most primary thing is you’re missing a valid voice.
What would you think if you met your 20-year-old self?
I’d probably think that I can’t believe you let go of that dream of winning a bronze medal for Wales in the Commonwealth Games in the steeplechase! I really thought I could do it. No, I’d like to have kept a diary on our first tours to get some perspective.
What would he think of you now, 12 albums in?
Well, Nick and Richey had this slash’n’burn policy where they wanted to do this Year Zero thing like a roman candle burning once but brightly, just do one album and split up. But as soon as I heard “Motown Junk” it felt great to me; I thought, “I want to do this for ever.”
What’s next for the Manic Street Preachers?
We’ll have to take a break after two albums in the space of a year, but I think we’ve got a bit of a film soundtrack planned where we could just do it and we don’t have to be connected to it afterwards. Apart from that… Sean’s got three kids, Nick’s got two, I’ve got one, perhaps our kids will form the next Wilson Phillips