James Dean Bradfield doesn't cope well when he's left to his own devices.
But when he and fellow Manic Street Preachers Nicky Wire and Sean Moore announced at the end of their 2005 tour that they were taking a two year break, the singer found himself in exactly that situation.
“I had all these plans,” he says. “I was going to learn a different language, build a guitar. I thought perhaps I could go and do some of the Silk Route in China, but it never came off.
“I just sat in the chair watching [sports channel] ESPN Classic for like a month,” he grimaces.
“Bad TV for me is just watching Fox News,” he explains. “I watch [American news commentator] Bill O’Reilly every day,” he laughs.
“He’s just such a perfect way to wake up. He gets your blood boiling and, even though I disagree with everything he says, I just can’t stop watching him because he’s so entertaining.
“Bad TV can also mean stuff like The Ultimate Fighter on Bravo, that’s really bad TV. It’s cheap as chips. And The Cookery Channel, that’s a good one.”
But it didn’t take long for the couch potato lifestyle to lose its allure.
“That first month sent me insane,” he says. “I became a completely dysfunctional, miserable person, completely uncommunicative and aggressive. I realised I’m an institutionalised musician,” he laughs.
“I’ve been making music solidly since I was 15 and I can’t really exist without it.”
Hence The Great Western, James’s unexpected foray into a solo career. Many side projects from musicians still in bands are often lesser versions of their band’s material, but James’s album is a pleasingly solid piece of work.
Of course it’s very Manic Street Preachers, and fans of the band will find it a sufficient stopgap before the next Manics album. But there are some differences, for example in the lyrics.
In the band this is normally Nicky’s area, with James’ only foray into lyrics being the 2001 Manics single Ocean Spray, which he wrote after his mother’s death from cancer.
“At first I found [lyric-writing] hard,” says James. “I realised that in [former member] Richey [Edwards] and Nick’s lyrics you hear the first line from a song and you know what the song’s about.
“They make grand sweeping statements, but then they’re writing from a complete position of understanding of the subject they’re writing about, whereas mine were different.
“Mine were sometimes thoughtful, and sometimes more exploratory in terms of actually admitting I’m not understanding what I’m writing about but I hope I get there in the end.”
Making The Great Western has been a breath of fresh air for James and he says the album, along with Nicky’s debut solo effort I Killed The Zeitgeist, out later this year, give the band a new lease of life.
Some might say they really need it. Last album Lifeblood, which was released in 2004, was their least successful yet, stalling at No 13 before quickly dropping out of the chart. At the end of the last tour even the band themselves knew they needed a break.
“With Lifeblood I was trying to find something new in the Manics,” says James. “I was always discarding the first or second ideas and instead working on the third. I’d lost perspective on what made the Manics good and that was our instinct together as friends and musicians.
“But we had a moment of clarity on that last tour. Me and Nick realised we’d been in the same band for 21 years and our audience had been coming out to see us all that time. We just thought, God, they could do with a break actually.”
Brought up in Blackwood in south Wales, James formed firm friendships with his cousin Sean, and Nicky and Richey at Oakdale Comprehensive School. As soon as he left school James kick-started his music career by busking on the streets of Cardiff.
“The worse reception I ever had was busking outside the park where there was a convention of 10,000 Mormons,” he recalls. “I thought it would be a good opportunity but, out of 10,000 Mormons, all I got was £1.”
Undeterred, he went on to form the Manics with Nicky and Sean, with Richey later completing the final line-up. After hitting the road playing various small venues around the country, they were signed by managers Phillip and Martin Hall.
The Halls were a huge influence on the band, and it was the late Phillip Hall who really took them under his wing, allowing them to stay in his house rent-free while he launched the band. James wrote the song An English Gentleman on The Great Western about him.
“He broke down the barriers between us in terms of age, class, and even some ideas,” says James. “To a bunch of Welsh oiks he seemed very hoity-toity at first. But he disarmed us with his charm and made us realise he had the same values, ideas and ambitions as us.”
The Manics became a huge cult success, releasing three albums, two of which went Top 10. Then in 1995 the band became the centre of one of the greatest mysteries in rock history when guitarist Richey disappeared.
Over a decade later he remains missing and has not been officially declared dead. The band even keep an account open for him, in which they put his share of the royalties. His legacy as the Manics’ most unforgettable band member is hard for the others to escape.
“Obviously he’s not as strong a presence as he used to be,” says James. “We have to hunker down and depend upon each other as three people. But part of being in a rock’n’roll band is always fiercely retrospective and you always see memories of Richey.
“His is an indelible presence, and rightly so, but, as time goes on, you tend to talk about the good things rather than the bad things.”
Despite his disappearance, the Manics went on to become one of Britain’s most successful and enduring bands. Of the four albums they’ve released since Richey’s disappearance, only Lifeblood missed the Top 3. Now, James and Nicky’s solo albums herald a new beginning for the band.
“I think the next album will be a more up front rock’n’roll album,” says James. “We’ve started writing already and these solo albums just seem to have opened up the possibilities in the band. I thought it was impossible for the Manics to be more open with each other, but we have become more so. It’s had such a positive effect.”