Despite their relative anonymity in the U.S., thousands of fans abroad would clamor for the opportunity to share a couch and more than a few giggles with James Dean Bradfield. James was in good spirits and spoke for quite a while on this unseasonably hot autumn afternoon, the last day of the Manic Street Preachers' brief, topsy-turvy tour of America.
In the two weeks since the band landed in America, they had experienced the troubles they've come to expect from previous attempts to visit this continent -- "The curse has returned," remarked bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire during technical glitches in the middle of their penultimate performance (also in Los Angeles at the Troubadour). Familiar though this bumpy road was to the band, it became much more than laughably unpleasant when Bradfield was struck with laryngitis right at the start of things, forcing a cancellation of their second sold-out show in New York. Consulting a specialist, Bradfield was treated with cortisone injections which, due to his inexperience with steroids, affected him with "God-awful mood swings." Nature got in on the fun when Hurricane Floyd prevented the Manics from getting out of New York and making their Boston show on time, thus resulting in another cancellation.
After that, however, everything seemed to settle down and fate left the Manic Street Preachers alone. They are about to complete the tour, head back home to Wales (London for Bradfield), and have no other commitments save to plan their "Manics Millennium" show at Cardiff Stadium for New Year's Eve. A sense of relief is evident on James' face as he greets me for a chat.
Lisa: In reference to the laryngitis that caused you to cancel several shows on this tour, are you still feeling a bit under the weather?
James: Yeah, a tiny bit, um...(clears throat and rubs his neck). Kinda throaty. It's been the touring for fourteen months, so it's a general kind of lethargy, and kind of systematic breakdowns are occurring...you know.
Lisa: Well, now that you've toured the U.S., what can you say about your American audience and fans?
James: Um...well, kind of for a start, we can't really say that we've toured the U.S., but what I can actually say about what we've done at this time is...I don't know. The audience we get are kind of always going to be of a kind of anglophilic stock, and they seem to really cerebralize everything. Whereas in Britain, we have this split audience -- well, not really split in half, but there is this one minority part of the audience which are very kind of obsessive about the lyrics and what actually propels the music, rather than the other way around. In America, our audience is very small, and obviously that is our core audience at the moment. They're very...too much...cerebralizing everything and looking for hidden content.
And, you know, it's just not as physical as Britain. You know, it's not quite as combustive. But that's what it's like when you're starting out. We haven't really got an audience here.
Lisa True - but you've been around for quite a while. Do you think there's some sort of problem in the translation, so to speak, of your lyrical content here in America?
James: Not so far. The people I've met -- obviously, the people I'm going to meet after concerts are people that bother to hang around and there's going to be more of a chance of things translating to them because they're going to take more time over it, if they're going to wait around to meet us. But so far, it does seem as if things written down are translating into people actually buying it, that kind of way.
If you're talking about a wider realm, then yes, that tokenism isn't really there with us. I mean, if you look at songs from Rage Against the Machine, where you've got things like, "Fuck you - I'm not going to do what you told me" - there's a lot of rebellious tokenism in there. Whereas a song like If You Tolerate This is very much more involved in terms of its history and its basis in European history. So there is going to be a lot of miscomprehension of some of our songs, but the people actually here at concerts seem to be taking it on board just as well as anybody in Britain would.
Lisa: About If You Tolerate This, which was inspired by the Spanish Civil War: do you guys see anything going on now, any sort of movement or individual crusade, that would inspire you to write something hopeful about this time, this generation?
James: Um...no, not really. The one thing that you would look towards, really, is South American politics. But I really don't know enough personally about politics around the world. Things are very much more politically involved now, and that was a romantic war, the Spanish Civil War. It was a war which was very much about clear-cut ideals, whereas if you look at things which are happening at your own doorstep, it's much more, problematic. There are schisms within the schisms...talk about the INLA and the RUC and the IRA - you know, you've got three organizations there, some of them deemed legal, and some of them deemed illegal. And I think that's why you never see songs written about things like that situation because its much more complicated than writing about something like the Spanish Civil War, which was much more romantic because it was just good against evil. So I think that's why you don't see songs about things like that these days, because everything's just much more politically involved. There is a big difference.
Lisa: So what are the kinds of things that are inspiring the lyrics being written for the next album?
James: We haven't got a clue at the moment because we haven't really started writing. I mean, we're too scared to write an album because it would pretty much be self-obsessed at the moment, you know, like (sing-songy) "Another city, another town, shake more hands..." It would just be really self-obsessive and childish. And I think before you actually sit back and write songs which are going to be taking in a wider realm of what you see, you're gonna actually have to withdraw from the stupid little plastic bubble that you live in when you're touring and stuff. So we try not to attempt to write that many songs when we're on the road because it won't be representative of anything which isn't just bullshit, really.
Lisa: In an interview several weeks ago, Nicky said that he hoped that America would see the Manics for what you are. What is it that you hope for American audiences to see?
James: I think basically what Nick was going on about was that in Britain and in Europe, there's a lot of baggage that we carry around with us that is kind of notably and indelibly all tied up with us. There's the Richey thing, and...well, it's part of our history, and it's part of a history that we're proud of. But to have it actually be remembered as our recent past - something which is completely unreconciled in an emotional sense -- is very draining. It would be nice to kind of be free of that in just one place in the world. It would be nice to have your history, which is still very much up in the air, not confront you all the time, because it's something you have no idea how to sift through, how to make sense of it.
So I think what Nick means is that it would be nice to be seen as just three individuals, and not be kind of...(firmly) not overshadowed, but almost stalked by what other people think is the memory of something they don't really know anything about.
Lisa: Do you think that you succeeded in presenting yourselves that way?
James: Well, in Britain it's staring to happen now, definitely...Coming here, there's still kind of what you would call a visible minority --
Lisa: All of whom know all about the past.
James: (laughing) Exactly. The ones who know all about the past are the ones making themselves very visible and very audible to us. Still, we're kind of in the same situation.
Lisa: How do you three differ as individuals from the entity that everyone perceives the Manic Street Preachers to be?
James: We've been covered in the press for the last ten years now, and I think we've become quite cartoonesque in a way. We've always been really honest, and I think it's almost become indiscernible what we are. But you can almost easily sift out the truth from how we're described in print now.
Obviously, there's a lot of bullshit there, but pretty much everybody knows that Sean's an obsessive-compulsive loner who indulges in retail therapy. Everybody knows Nick is an obsessive-compulsive, house-proud, cleanliness freak who also loves being married and has got a really healthy home life. And everybody knows I'm a bit of a whiskey-soaked, kind of cliched single man, so... I think everybody kind of knows the bare bones of our personalities through press now, just because we've been around for so long...We're the elder statesmen (smiles).
Lisa: Can you tell me a little about your upcoming single, Masses Against the Classes, and how that might represent the changes you are looking to undertake on your next album?
James: It doesn't, really -- I mean, to be honest, it is irrelevant as a sign post, I think. It's a song that's not going to be on any albums; it's just a busy...it's almost kind of a childish thing.
You know, The Clash, who are our favorite band, they released so many singles in Britain that never got released on albums. They probably got on albums in America because all that stuff gets added on, but in Britain, you know, stuff like White Man in Hammersmith Palais and Complete Control and Clash City Rockers were meant to be one-off singles, a bit more flippant. Sometimes it's just nice to do something that doesn't affect the preceding tracks, et cetera, et cetera, and it's nice to do something where you're not actually promoting an album, either. (chuckling) You're not doing it for the fans, man, but you're actually doing it for yourself, and hopefully you'll just get a tiny bit more fun out of it. This is a bit more off-the-cuff, and not representative of anything that we do in the future.
Lisa: Have you found that the type of individual who is a Manics fan has changed with the newest album?
James: No, just the actual just...range. Not the actual person, but the actual range has changed. Obviously, there are so many more people who want to come see us now, in Europe. They have a vague notion of some of the lyrics, and a song like Design for Life will really get through to them; they'll know what it's about. And If You Tolerate This will, too.
But like, you know, the nether regions of some our material...(giggling)...they'll just kind of perhaps skip over. They just wanna come see us live, have a beer and some chips or a hot dog, and actually kind of manifest or have a more physical expression of what they can't articulate. Which I completely empathize with, because I've always felt as if it's easier to actually express myself physically than in an articulate sense. There's very much that audience there now, which a lot of people would call perhaps a jock audience, which I don't necessarily...I don't see it as being that simple.
Lisa: Exactly, because your music and your lyrics are definitely not stereotypically appealing to that kind of an audience. You're not Limp Bizkit or Kid Rock.
James: Yeah, that's different - that's sport rock, that is -- it's sport metal. (laughing) But we have got much more of those atypical males coming to watch us now, watching Nicky on stage in a dress wearing make-up. But they don't seem to have any problem with it. There's a lot of a kind of reconciled confrontation going on there.
But there's still that very visible minority of Manics fans who very much hang on to every word and are willing to question and persecute the manner with which you present yourself. It's still a very large minority in our audience that sees themselves as the sort of "keeper of the flame," so to speak.
Lisa: Who was your model of success when you were first starting out, and do you feel you've come anywhere near that?
James: Um, The Clash were - it was obviously The Clash for us. First off, it was the Pistols, and we realized that we couldn't even come near that blueprint. You know, Greil Marcus [former Creem and Rolling Stone editor and author of the 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, about the punk movement throughout history] described them as being a phenomenon, and they were. After them, it was The Clash.
And I think in Britain, we've managed -- I have to be a tiny bit arrogant and say I think we've superceded some of their achievements in Britain. But the thing that was unique about The Clash was that they managed to embrace international politics and take it broad. They seemed to actually be able to mold what they were saying in their songs to different parts of the world as they played it. I don't think that's something any other group's done except for Public Enemy perhaps.
I think it's very hard to actually approach what they did in an international sense. I think domestically we have, but internationally [The Clash] are still pretty much unchallenged, except for Public Enemy, who've managed to actually transcend language barriers and become relevant in other countries. That's quite an achievement.
Lisa: I know you've composed for theater [Nicky Wire's brother, writer/director Patrick Jones, commissioned music from James for his play Unprotected Sex, now on stage in Cardiff]. Have you ever thought of composing for film?
James: Oh, yeah. I very rarely think outside the realm of being with the band and my ambition with the band was always to like, you know, do a Number One single, do a Number one album, and then do it again and again somewhere else. (laughing) But after that, I've always had this thing in my mind where I'd like to just try and do an Oscar-nominated soundtrack...(grinning) Not exactly win - I'm kind of hedging my bets, so...just an Oscar-nominated soundtrack. (laughs)
Lisa: Yeah, keep it realistic.
James: I'm keeping it realistic for once. (laughs)
Lisa: So, in terms of composing, who are your influences and who inspires you when you compose - are they different from when you're writing music for the band?
James: Early on it was...kind of really strange - it was Stewart Copeland. I just really love the soundtrack he did for Rumblefish - that was amazing. There's not many other things I've liked of his besides that to be honest. And obviously, there's all the stuff by Ennio Morricone - everybody likes him. But it's just those two, really. I think if I can do something as good as a Morricone or the Rumblefish soundtrack, I'd be happy with that.
Lisa: Do you often think about the kind of individuals who are in your audience and what they are internalizing, how they're being inspired by what you're saying?
James: Yeah, I do. The ones who are at the front, you always think there's too much significance, in terms of the way you're performing it. The people at the front especially - dare I say, a lot of the girls - could be embroiled in too much of the significance of the way you're performing it, whether you're feeling too much pain or whatever. So sometimes you do feel like toning it down a tiny bit. Them in the back...(grinning) You don't worry so much. But the ones in front -- it's that physical thing, where you can actually see it in somebody's eyes and you're worried about the accountability. When we do songs off The Holy Bible -- say we do a song like Yes, and we kind of always do Faster -- and there are certain lyrics in there when I sometimes think perhaps I shouldn't be putting as much into this line as I could.
Then again, you get the flip side with a song like Design For Life, where it's got the lines "we don't talk about love/we only want to get drunk." You see the boys bouncing up and down in the back [flails around on the couch], and you think, "They think it's just a drinking song..." (smiles ruefully)
Lisa: If the world were to wake up tomorrow and say The Manic Street Preachers are the greatest band around, what would you do?
James: I would feel fine, except for the fact that we don't sell any records here, so I would feel as if it was false. But if we sold records here, I would be fine with it.
I think we are very realistic, you know -- we have quite meritocritous virtues within us, and to actually be called the best when we don't sell any records in the biggest country, we'd feel that bit of falsehood, really.
Lisa: So America still very much feels like the biggest thing to overcome?
James: Um, only when you ask questions like that. (grins) It's something we just haven't focused on, because as soon as you do, it'll destroy you, because you focus on it and start writing songs for it.
Lisa: And that's not what you're about at all.
James: Exactly. It's destroyed lots of bands in the past, but you know, the reason why it's destroyed so many bands is why it probably has such a morbid fascination for musicians, too.
Lisa: Right - who can do it and who can't.
James: Yeah, exactly, and you can say you've got the most interesting chapter, but you can't say you've got the best book until you've sold that last record, you know.
Lisa: Are there any musicians or musical acts that you guys think about collaborating with or want to now?
James: It was always our big dream at the start to play with Public Enemy when they were at their peak, that kind of thing, just because it would've been sort of bizarre to have a couple of stupid, Welsh, small-town hicks collaborating with New Jersey power players. (laughing) That's one thing we were on about. But since then, nothing really. (grinning broadly) I know Nick would love to have Courtney - Courtney Love - to sing on a track.
Lisa: Ah -- how do you feel about that?
James: Yeah, I'd be fine with that - I love her voice anyway. I'm not sure that I'd actually want to be there when she's recording it... But Nick would love to have her vocals on one of our songs. But I don't even know if she knows of our existence really, so...
Lisa: But you guys did Glastonbury together.
James: Yeah, but she levitates in a different stratosphere. We played the Big Day Out with her in Australia, and there'd be a 50-yard walk to the stage for her, and watching her it did appear as if she was just literally levitating. And she's got kind of all-weather limousines and stuff...(grins and shakes his head) Which is very impressive, at the end of the day.
Lisa: Yeah, she's like the Pope.
James: (laughing) Yeah. But better.