Penning his very first soundtrack to the movie The Chamber was both a liberating and a challenging experience for Manic Street Preachers' James Dean Bradfield. He tells David Owens about the process of being taken out of his comfort zone...
The Force was most definitely with James Dean Bradfield when he started writing his very first film score.
Despite repeated offers to pen a soundtrack through the years, the Manic Street Preachers ' frontman has finally taken the plunge with submarine thriller The Chamber.
As well as channelling the atmospheric spirit of the classic films that touched his life when he was younger, such as Rumblefish and Birdy, it was the very first movies he went to see at the the Maxime Cinema in Blackwood that acted as the touchstones to inspire him.
“I remember the first two films I ever saw – Star Wars and Herbie Goes Bananas,” he recalled.
“I can vividly remember the queue for Star Wars. It was the first time I had seen a queue of more than a 100 people, besides Santa’s Grotto at Christmas. It was a big shock.”
It appears that this impromptu jog down memory lane has unearthed some unique memories.
“I also remember before Herbie Goes Bananas there was a short film called Grizzly, about a grizzly bear. It was quite gory, which I think was inappropriate for such a young audience if I remember rightly,” he laughs.
The musician explained how his mum actually worked at the cinema – which was reopened in 2014 – albeit for two days, quickly discovering a career front-of-house wasn’t for her.
“She worked at the cinema for two days,” said the guitarist. “I think she couldn’t deal with serving people popcorn, she wanted something that electrified her brain a bit more.
“But fair play they’ve done a great job of reopening the Maxime in Blackwood.”
Coming to score The Chamber thanks to a mutual friend – and hitting it off with the film’s director Ben Parker – Bradfield said it was time he took the plunge and accepted the offer.
“I’d been offered a couple of things down the years and I’d chickened out citing that old nugget, that ‘it didn’t feel like the right project for me’.
“I knew there was a bit of a quiet time coming up for the Manics. I probably had talked myself out of doing things in the past. This time I thought it was about time I bit the bullet and did it.
“So Ben and I met up, we clicked and really got on. More importantly, I sensed that I could take direction from him. I don’t mind having a boss. I don’t mind it when people say they don’t like something or they want something done in an exact way.”
Described as a ‘claustrophobic’ thriller set on a stranded submarine off the North Korean coast, the film follows the crew of a research submarine and a team of special forces who commandeer the vessel to search for an object on the sea floor that is in danger of falling into enemy hands.
The singer entered the process of writing the soundtrack with a mixture of excitement and “the tiniest bit of nervousness”.
For a musician famed for his band’s anthemic songs and the odd stratospheric guitar solo, penning a soundtrack was an altogether different discipline.
However, asked if he enjoyed that freedom, Bradfield said: “That’s when your preconceptions start getting shattered. You think that there will be so much more freedom writing a soundtrack and, actually, I’d say 70% of the experience is actually showing a lot of restraint.
“The irony is that directors don’t actually like too many notes,” he laughs. “You’ve got to then rein yourself in, you’ve got to show restraint. It’s not just a case of verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus.
“You have to leave a lot of space and less notes, while finding the rhythm of the scene.
“I thought back to listening to Birdy written by Peter Gabriel and Rumblefish scored by Stewart Copeland of The Police, of musicians crossing over into soundtrack work.
“I listened to so many soundtracks when I was young – from Once Upon A Time In America to the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, where I realised that space and restraint was very important.
“More than anything, the prime motivator was trying to reflect the feeling of claustrophobia of being trapped in a very small submarine with the gigantic behemoth of ocean outside.”
And how did he try to achieve that, by locking himself in a confined space with guitar in hand, I wondered, tongue planted firmly in cheek?
“I plumbed the depths of experience of being on a submarine once, when me and my wife went on a city break to Hamburg. I’m joking by the way, but we did have a tour around a decommissioned Soviet submarine in the city about 10 years ago.
“That, of course, has nothing to do with trying to recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of a submarine.
“More than anything, a big part of the process is getting the visuals, the rough cuts, in front of you.
“A lot of the soundtrack is down to soundscapes and atmospherics, rather than writing melodies. Sitting with the film and seeing those images, that’s what inspires you.”
Filmed in Wales, with production taking place at Ffilm Factory 35 at the Sony Technology Centre in Pencoed, the soundtrack was recorded at the Manics’ Faster Studios before the band moved out at the tail end of last year.
Enlisting Manics’ in-house engineer Loz Williams and long-time Manics’ producer Dave Eringa, who also helmed Bradfield’s one and only solo album The Great Western in 2006, these trusted members of the Manics’ camp acted as both security and a safety blanket, helping the musician through a process he was unfamiliar with.
“We only work with people we like,” said the singer. “You’ve got to have a shorthand language in the studio because you’ve got to enjoy working.
“I’ve always been like that whether it was working with Steve Brown on the first album or Mike Hedges on Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth – you’ve got to enjoy each other's company.
“But the actual demands of the director take you out of your comfort zone and that’s why you need people around you who understand the pressure and demands you are under.”
As to whether he will do this again – Bradfield is adamant.
“Did I enjoy it enough to do it again? Completely. It’s an absolute that what I do with the Manics is what drives me, but if I had the chance it would by no means discourage from doing it again. I absolutely loved the experience.”
Facing the future – Manic Street Preachers and beyond
At various points over the years, the Manics have ploughed their own particular furrows, going off to do their own thing.
There was Bradfield’s aforementioned solo album as well as collaborations with various artists including 808 State on 1996 single Lopez, a remix for the 1998 Massive Attack single Inertia Creeps, writing Some Kind Of Bliss for Kylie Minogue’s 1997 Impossible Princess album, I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone with Tom Jones on 1999’s Reload album, producing both Northern Uproar’s debut album (1996) and the 2004 Johnny Boy single You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve, as well as various collaborations with poet Patrick Jones including 1999’s Commemoration & Amnesia, 2009’s Tongues For A Stammering Time and, most recently, last year’s Before I Leave track from the poet’s play of the same name, recorded with Nicky Wire.
Wire himself also recorded his own solo offering I Killed The Zeitgeist in 2006. As for drummer Sean Moore – the famously shy and retiring Manics’ sticksman appears content to spend time with his family, drive cars and head to the hills for hiking expeditions.
So did Bradfield have to gain approval from the rest of the band to record the soundtrack?
“If I said to them I was doing the soundtrack to the Iron Lady, they’d say no,” he laughs. “And I obviously wouldn’t entertain doing it, but as long as there’s nothing in the story that Nick and Sean would disagree with then it’s fine. I obviously also wouldn’t do anything that would ever get in the way of the Manics.”
Given Bradfield’s enjoyment of the experience, this brought up the subject of the rest of the 48-year-old’s career as a songwriter, collaborator and a member of the Manics.
Could we expect to see the Manics still leaping around the stage in their 70s like the Rolling Stones – or did he never allow himself to look that far forward?
“Well there are three questions that brings up – whether you still want to do it, whether the band is still alive or whether your audience is still alive.
“Things like that never enter our heads. I can force myself to look 10 years ahead and say, yes, the band will still be here, but the biggest thing is that sometimes bands break up not because they’ve run out of ideas but because they’ve run out of love for what they do.
“The art of going into the studio and making a noise is an amazing job. The best job out there. It’s the job I always wanted to do, but sometimes you’ll feel s***, sometimes you’ll feel tired, sometimes there will be tensions surrounding the band, or within the band, sometimes you’ll have some bad news as a band that makes you feel like not carrying on.
“But if you actually just want to go to the studio and write with the other band members or want to make a noise with them to see what happens, if you’ve enough love for that process, then that will carry you through those really bands times. And for me I’ve never come close to not wanting to go to the studio with Nick and Sean.”