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Interview: James Dean Bradfield - thegap, October 2004

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Title: Interview: James Dean Bradfield
Publication: thegap
Date: October 2004
Writer: Markus Unger

I’ve only heard two songs of the album so far: The Love of Richard Nixon and Empty Souls...
Oh good, the rest is crap anyway (laughs).

Imagine a person in a record store who is holding Lifeblood in his hands. How would you describe the record to him?
Oh, gosh, not an easy question...I would say kind of melancholic, northern European rock.

What songs should he listen to first?
I’d say Empty Souls, To Repel Ghosts and Solitude Sometimes Is, because they represent the album best.

The album was partly produced in New York...
Yeah, Emily, Solitude Sometimes Is and Cardiff Afterlife.

How was working with Tony Visconti? What kind of producer is he?
He kind of dug us out of the hole we got ourselves into. I think we realised the process of making music, that we’d over-thought it, we over-intellectualised the process of what we do in the studio. And he kind of retraced our steps to the simplicity of the best things of what you do. I think he just made it clear that, he said ‘Look, you’ve done this before, you’ve done this before, you’ve communicated to so many people with the song ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ and what you’ve to try to is trust your instincts, you got to trust your first idea. If the first idea fails then try the second, but trust your instincts. And as an engineer he was strange, I haven’t really worked with an engineer that is so...interested in the purity of capturing sounds. We worked with so many young engineers and they put the microphone through a dustbin and then the sound of the dustbin through another microphone and then, you know, the sound of that microphone through a storage cupboard and then you have your drumsound. And they would use twenty microphones to make a drumkit. Whereas he would just use four microphones for a drumkit and he would be so simple, the sound would be up in five minutes. And the purity of his engineering I was really interested in. His philosophy was ‘In my judgement these three songs are realised when they’re perfect, and now what you gonna do is trust your first ideas and not look for perfection or performance but just believe in the perfection of all the parts in the songs that you created and recorded in the most puriest sense possible and don’t overthink everything. And it was strange because we came back and he retaught us the basics and the principles of what being in this band is about, he taught us those principles so well that we felt as if we could stay and continue with another engineer because he almost restored us, he did that so well.

So it was planned from the beginning to just record three songs with him?
Yeah, the initial plan was ‘Let’s just go and do four songs’ and just see what happens and when we realised that, like I said, he made us realise so many things, he restored us in such a simple way, but in the right way, so we realised that we really have to go back to a different person to actually carry on with the same things.

Was it an inspiration to be in New York as well? Because in the past you’ve also been quite critical about the US.
People always think we’re such an anti-American band and yes, if you look at some of our lyrics I think there is some pretty fierce judgement, but it’s a love/hate-relationship, you know, so many of my favourite things have come out of America, some of my favourite musicians, my favourite writing...whether it be Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg, some of my favourite films. So even if you are a critic of America inevitably it’s a love/hate-relationship and to be honest it was great to be in New York for us, it was great to be in a place where no one knew you and you have a completely different backdrop, it was all about creativity, about nothing else. You know, we weren’t near anyone of our families, we weren’t near our manager, we weren’t near any of our fans and it was almost a pleasure to be there.

What was the studio like, was it like some place of museum, as Tony Visconti obviously worked with a lot of famous people.
No, it’s not the studio where did the old stuff with Bowie and Marc Bolan, the place he’s working is not a place he is historically connected with, he’s only been working there for the last four years. It was Philip Glass’s studio, so you saw Philip Glass walking round, saw all of Philip Glass’s assistant musicians walking round. It was kind of strange. But it was a very small studio and you had a view of New York - I just loved it, I loved the experience. The only thing I found really hard was that New York is one of the most anti-smoking cities in the world and I couldn’t find any restaurants or any bars that I could smoke in and it was just a tiny little smoking room in the studio which I was the only person I used, so that was the most awkward thing.

As it’s quite some time since the last studio album: over what period of time have the new songs been written?
The oldest song on the album is a song called Fragments which was probably written two years ago but the bulk of the album was written the last 14 months. I think the reason why we took such a long break was...myself and Nick, the band just started as myself and Nick, we started writing songs when we were about 15 and then of course Sean and Richey joined very soon after, and we just felt, I’m 35 now, as we’ve been writing songs for twenty years and we needed to make a break from that. Because I think that’s just a natural point where...you don’t fall out of love with what you’re doing, you don’t lose enthusiasm for it, but your judgement becomes impaired and we just felt as if we needed almost to not write songs for a while and then just feel so badly the need to write, that it’s almost bursting out of us. And that’s what we did really: get to the point that we were frustrated that we weren’t working and then we started again.

Was it difficult then to start writing again?
No, because - like I said - we almost starved ourselves, so it was not difficult to start again, it was like ‘Thank God’. It was a self-imposed exile from songwriting, just a couple of months, and when we started again it was very very easy. We did the right thing.

Where there any main guitar influences for Lifeblood like John Frusciante for Know Your Enemy?
Definitely. When we started recording the album I realised that, say a song like Empty Souls which has the piano riff...first of all this was the guitar part, the part was written in my head and I realised that it sounded better on a piano, so I gave lot of the guitar part to the keyboarder. And I just realised that I just didn’t wanna play rhythm guitar. If you listen to our past records I've just be playing a lot of loud chords over the music and it just didn’t feel right for these songs and I just didn’t want to be a guitarist that pops in and out of the songs and I wanted to be a guitarist who is helping the song, that is playing the right things for songs and I kind of went back to John McGeoch, he has been the guitarist in Magazine and he used to be the guitarist with PIL, with John Lydon for a while, and he became one of my main influences because he was a guitarist that didn’t seem to have much ego, he would just play in the right places, he would play what was right for the song rather than saying ‘I wanna play, I wanna people to hear my guitar solo’ and also there was a kind of coldness to his playing I like.

What’s the story behind the cover artwork?
We like hiding behind the anonymity of an image, I think we like standing behind the music more. Once Richey went missing we became less confident in a visual sense or the visual aspects of ourselves as people and it’s just easier to let a concept or an artist do the talking for you rather than pose for a picture and try and look your best, at our age which is quite difficult (laughs). We just wanted to make the interconnection between the songs and the lyrics with a visual image I think.

Why did you choose Lifeblood as title?
We chose Lifeblood because the lyrics are much more introspective, a lot of the songs are about loss, dealing with tragedy of loss. And a lot of the songs are about how indefinable it is that there is a human spirit that goes on, that death is still so important and the way that we comprehend it and continue after tragedy hits us or death, the way we comprehend it is incomprehensible. Or a song like Emily, which is a song about Emily Pankhurst, who was one of the Suffragettes, who campaigned for the women’s right to vote. She sacrificed her body and mind for her belief. And we just wanted to make a connection between the humanity in the lyrics and the visual image and the title.

The last question is for the football expert James Dean Bradfield. Austria is playing Wales in the World Cup qualification [March 26, 2005 in Wales & March 30, 2005 in Austria] - any guess how the match will end?
Our manager Mark Hughes is gonna manage Blackburn Rovers and he only has two games left for us, and that leaves us in an awkward position. I think when he leaves it’s gonna be hard for our players to believe in themselves, to think that they can actually qualify for the World Cup, because the results so far haven’t been good for us and of course we’re playing England. Austria is quite a good side at the moment and to be honest, it’s gonna be hard for us. It’s a bit of a grim outlook for us...I wish I could be more optimistic.

So will you come over to Austria and watch it? You could link it with a European Tour?
I went to Italy once for an Euro qualifier but I think we were beaten 5-1 and the last time I went to see Wales abroad was Holland and we lost 6-1, so I have some bad experience. I think the one good thing about the Austrian team is that you’ve changed your kit...the kit looks much more Austrian I think, so I think you have much more of an identity at the moment.