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James Dean Bradfield, Revolutionary - The Western Mail, 28th May 2004

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Title: James Dean Bradfield, Revolutionary
Publication: The Western Mail
Date: Friday 28th May 2004
Writer: Patrick Jones


He's known him since he was boy, long before he became famous as the lead singer of the Manic Street Preachers. Poet and playwright Patrick Jones even has a brother, Nicky Wire, in his band. So who better to quiz James Dean Bradfield on music, fame, politics, Welsh heroes and the making of their new album...

It is a strange feeling interviewing a friend and five minutes into the conversation we both burst out laughing at the awkward tone of my questions and the over-sincere message of James' answers.

As with politicians, I must declare a vested interest as I have known James Dean Bradfield for nearly 20 years; I first met him in a local barbers where there was only one haircut on offer, I listened to him play guitar up a mountain, in a burnt-out shed and pestered him to teach me the chords to Freebird by Lynnrd Skynnrd.

So I have watched him and the band, the Manic Street Preachers, grow from scowling glam hate rockers to considered poets of the human condition. So it is a good time to catch up and chat with this 30-something, softly-spoken Ryan Giggs lookalike who I would choose as one of my guitar heroes alongside Alex Lifeson and Randy Rhoades.

And that's where we begin - where many adolescent ungirlfriended young men begin, with guitars and heroes.

"I suppose the two people who meant the most to me, who inspired me, who made me believe it was possible to say something with a guitar were Billy Bragg and The Clash - they gave me a sense that I could do it," he tells me.

"And, after being the kid in school picked last for football teams, it meant a lot to me and I started busking and writing songs with Nick (Wire) and believing in the band we were to become.

"Any band with something to say artistically, spiritually or politically will make their own rules, use their own language to express what they want to say."

In a time when George Bush is struggling to find his weapons of mass destruction I venture to ask if the guitar, the pen, the paintbrush, the stage can change the world, can become weapons of mass construction.

"I think the targets have changed," he tells me.

"In 1988 the targets were easily defined - we hated Thatcher, Major, all Tories in fact, the Royals and factory bosses and we wrote songs that addressed those issues and attacked our targets.

"I always felt as if it was US and THEM.

"Yet today, it seems a lot greyer, a lot less defined into the good and bad guys.

"Maybe it's age and being more considered or, in reality, the targets, issues etc have blurred into a vast morass."

So I ask James, "Where are the great works of art today? Anything revolutionary is either silenced or bought by the establishment.

"Where's Orwell, Camus, Picasso, Rothko. Ginsberg?

"All we get is a light being switched on and off."

And he agrees with the sentiment.

"Yeah, I know. As a band we wanted to be revolutionary but as you get older I think it's more about finding those moments of clarity, personal revelations when confronted with a book, a play, a song or a painting."

Now I've got to know about any recent moments of clarity my friend has had.

"I saw a film by Gus Van Sant called Elephant which is based on the Columbine massacre and I just thought it was a brilliant artistic statement.

"It hit me, provoked me and made me think in a different way.

"Another film was La Haine. Musically, I would say the Public Enemy album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was the last thing that did that to me.

"I'm so sick of all these American bands' obsession with high school anger and boredom. You just get Slipknot and the rest going, 'The world is shit, shit, shit'. Nothing changes, nothing is questioned. There is no universal truth in the music."

James passionately defends his beliefs as we move on to The Manic Street Preachers and how their next album has developed.

"I just think we've realised that we love melody and that all the best songs we've ever written and those that we have listened to are just great pieces of music. And so with this album we've embraced it and made a sort of elegiac pop record. Of course the guitars are still there. There's a song called Solitude Sometimes Is which has this beautiful free flow to it and another track, 1985, conjures up so many images of aftermath, of the miners' strike, of personal memories and societal struggles. It has a great lyric by Nick and I just felt I had to do it justice with the music.

"Then there's The Love Of Richard Nixon which was sort of inspired by Bowie's This Is Not America.

"And Nick is always developing as a writer and finding new images, new ways of saying so it's been an exciting time and I really enjoyed just being in the studio, creating.

"I'm just inspired by great poetry, great words and have to reflect that greatness in the music.

"As a band I think we seem more at ease with ourselves, with each other, with the music and also, with Richey (Edwards) and how we remember him and what he meant to us.

"And we feel we do it in the right way in the human way as Nick does in the words to Cardiff Afterlife.

"It goes, 'And yet I kept my silence and the memories are still mine'.

"In that song we sensed the breaking of our lives."

James is a bit of a workaholic and when he's not creating riffs and melodies for the band he's producing or collaborating with others.

"Sometimes it works, sometimes not. I loved working with Kylie, with Tom Jones, with 808 State and producing a young band Northern Uproar.

"Again, I love creating and being in a studio with a guitar is just my ideal place."

I have press ganged James into a few collaborations and to put the record straight, it's not because he's a rock star or a mate - it's because I genuinely love and respect his work and always felt as if I wrote in a similar way to how he played guitar.

"I did the music for your plays The War is Dead, Long Live the War and Unprotected Sex in about four days.

"I just sort of bounced off the script and certain words drive the sounds and atmosphere to create the sounds.

"But I enjoy doing soundtracks as I don't have to worry about putting the words in so it's a nice bit of freedom, except I have to work with you."

Just banter as David Brent would say - he loves me really!

Moving on to belonging and a sense of place, James spends a lot more time in Wales these days.

"I feel as if my Welshness is personal and started off with a sense of awareness and always being aware of something happening, something political, something dangerous something to think about I suppose.

"As I said, a sort of US against THEM attitude which has fed my mind since an early age.

"I have always felt very engaged in the political and environmental landscape of Wales and as a kid dreamt of working with the Forestry Commission and just being by myself off in the forests and then getting older and feeling there was a real need to think about politics and how it related to your own life."

"Patriotic?" I ask.

"Really, like with sport. I feel very passionately about Welsh sport, especially rugby, and I just cannot believe our apathy with regards our national sport.

"I just cannot understand how people can smile at the camera after we have lost convincingly.

"It's sometimes just an excuse to get pissed, put funny hats on and paint your face.

"At the moment it doesn't seem that losing hits us hard enough."

Moving on then to his Welsh heroes. Who are they?

"RS Thomas, Carwyn James, Pete Ham from the band Badfinger, Rachel Roberts the actress and John Cale (another collaborator on the film Beautiful Mistake). I admire how he did his own thing and is still finding new directions for his music. I like that."

I finish on a sort of Desert Island Discs type question asking, "If you had only one bookshelf that could last you forever what would you put on it?"

After a considered pause he says, "It's my Napoleon biography by Frank Mclynn, Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus, Lonesome Traveller by Jack Kerouac, The Keys To My Neighbours' House by Elizabeth Neuffer, a statue of the Arms Park (in Cardiff) made from the debris fro the Arms Park, given to me by my mother and father and a photo of my mam and dad getting married. Yeah, that's it."

I thank him for his time, remind him to turn up at Hay for our talk tomorrow and say good bye.

And I'm reminded that the angry young lad who used to play guitar in my dad's shed has grown into a thoughtful, sensitive, still angry (more focussed though!!) man.

He's a revolutionary, the kind of man who I'd pick to have on my team.