Manic Street Preacher embarks on an unusual cinematic venture...
James Dean Bradfield has always been a music fan.
The singer's interviews have forever been peppered with pop culture references, with nods towards artists, albums, and films that inspire him.
As frontman with Manic Street Preachers he's been able to achieve most of his ambitions, to embark on everything from plangent acoustic fare to visceral post-punk confessionals.
Yet he's never worked in cinema... until now. James Dean Bradfield recently sat down with director Ben Parker, a rising British auteur whose new film The Chamber required a score.
The guitarist agreed, and promptly set to work. The film's premise is pleasingly simple: a submarine upturns in the Yellow Sea, leaving its four occupants trapped. When it emerges that not all of them can escape, the pressure quickly rises...
A sharp, concise film, the subtle shifts in mood and tone are echoed in that ghostly, deeply affecting score. Clash got on the phone to James Dean Bradfield to find out a little more on the project, and what Manic Street Preachers have been up to this summer.
How did this project come about? Did they contact you?
It was pretty simple - just through some mutual acquaintances, someone we both knew. We just had a chat, basically. I met with Ben and really got on with him. If you meet with someone and it just doesn't click then you don't bother. It's like being in a band, really - you want to be around people who you get on with. I've always lived my life by that rule: if you meet somebody and you get on with 'em, and you share certain sensibilities, then it's game on.
How advanced was the film before you came on board?
I was given the script about two years ago, I think. And like everything, you work off the page. I just got it straight away, got the characters, I could tell the relationships between each of them. Each person was different. And I just thought, that's just cool. There's this confined space, the sub-plot comes to the surface pretty quickly, pardon the pun, and I just thought: I think I can do it. Because, obviously, I haven't got a lot of experience in this field. So I just looked at it all, and thought: yeah, I can do it.
This is quite a departure for you, who are your inspirations in writing for cinema? Are there any composers, or particular soundtracks you admire?
I go back to when I started playing soundtracks when I was young. I think the first one I ever really got into was Rumble Fish, by Stewart Copeland of The Police. Rumble Fish is a Francis Ford Coppola film, and that was just through actually loving the film. I went along and saw the film and I loved the film, it really grabbed me. That was probably my first soundtrack. After that, it was the Birdy soundtrack by Peter Gabriel - the classical nature of it, I thought it was a great soundtrack. And then… Will Sergeant from Echo & The Bunnymen, the guitarist, had an album called 'Themes For Grind' which was supposed to be an imaginary film - which I loved! I suppose when I was young those were my touchstones, and they've kind of stayed with me.
There's no way I can talk like a seasoned campaigner, it's my first one. But I suppose there's lots of things in just records and bands that I like that actually bleed into what you might call soundtrack music. But I remember listening to 'A Farewell To Kings' by Rush, and there's like this watery drum sound at the start of that track, and I always remember thinking: wow, that would just be amazing in a film! And that was one of the inspirations for a sound that runs through the film. So I think you grab things from where you can find them, really.
Did you set aside a specific time-frame to work on this, or was it more piecemeal?
I think the initial foray into it was… usually my job is to write music to lyrics that Nick has given me, in the band. And usually my main impetus, my main emotion, is I want to satisfy the band, and I was to present them something that excites them. Or which they feel has interpreted the lyric, kind of thing. So being landed in a different where you have a different boss, so to speak… I still like within the band I'm trying to please the boss - when he gives me a lyric I want to write appropriate music to it. And so with this, I suppose immediately I looked at the director as the boss.
So, initially, I set aside a week and I just started doing stuff, pinpointing scenes, and started doing demos for a week, and presenting them to Ben. It felt like an audition, really. Not that he ever said as such. I just wanted to see if I could do it. So then we set aside two and a half weeks after that, in fits and starts for about three weeks. That's how long it took. Which is kind of average, from what I hear. It's an average amount of time - if you're not Hans Zimmer! That was it, really.
I think that initial week was doing what were essentially demos, and that was the most important part for me: actually showing him that I could tap in to the narrative, the mood, the whole nature of the project, and prove to him that I could do it without too much effort. And we did it all in our studio back in Cardiff, so that was nice. I did it on home territory, which was quite comforting.
There are huge shifts in mood in the film, was that something you needed to capture in the music?
I remember watching… It's probably silly, but one of the first times I was ever struck by how something can be quite powerful within a movie, and be quite minimalist but still work, was David Lynch's The Straight Story. It's very linear, and I actually think he did the soundtrack, so for me that was a little touchstone for the down moments, for the more reflective moments, where the emotions feel as though they're decomposing, and you've got to try to take everything off the bones of the music.
Much of the film is set on a submarine, how do you go about reflecting that sense of claustrophobia?
You have the physical irony of having a short, slapback, metallic, reflective surface, where things are happening, but then you've got the Russian Doll-esque nature of then being stuck within a vast ocean. So you've got basically sounds that both trapped and feel as if they want to go further. And I suppose that's one of the tricks that you've got to try and learn, I suppose.
Did you work with an engineer on this?
Loz Williams worked on this, a local boy from Newport that's engineered a lot of our stuff since the year 2000. And then there's Dave Eringa, who I've worked with since 1992. The bottom line was, it was new for me. I was kind of nervous, I'll freely admit, and there were certain challenges. So I wanted to work with people who knew me, and who knew how aggressive I can get when I'm floundering about, trying to achieve something.
This is entirely instrumental, did you struggle to switch off that instinct to write a vocal line?
No, not at all. I think it's kind of helped that with the Manics we've got quite a lot of instrumentals in our back catalogue, with B-sides etc etc. And, to be honest, one of the hardest parts of being in a band - especially a rock band - is you over-track, and you get everything breathing the way you want it to be… because you're dealing with lead weights in rock, you're dealing with heavy substances, and you've got to try and make them float, sometimes… which is hard.
And sometimes when you've actually got the tracks one of the hardest parts is actually throwing a fucking vocal on it and trying to make it sound good. Because you've got the tracks sounding great, and then the vocal can just make the entire thing sound awful, sometimes. Not because of the vocal line, or because of anything, but because the frequency of the vocal just pisses over everything. So sometimes it's a relief not to have that challenge of actually having the intrusive, EQ nature of the voice just shit over everything. And that was kind of a relief.
And it's something new, as well. Have you had offers to do soundtrack work in the past?
Yeah, a couple. A couple. But this is the first time that I'd actually looked at the script and enjoyed reading it, as you would a mini-novella, or something. And that was quite relaxing for me - I didn't question any of it, so that's a good sign. Obviously meeting Ben was really cool - I connected to him on a chit-chat basis. The first time I met him he came to Cardiff, he came to the studio, and it was just free and easy. We had a lot of touchstones we touched upon musically, and film-wise. It's one of those things where everything just fell into place. The time was right, I suppose.
Did you work on editing the music to fit the scenes, or was that left entirely in the hands of the director and his team?
No, Ben was pretty much in charge of that. He was very much pro-active in terms of having his bullet-points in terms of the film, and then when we thought we'd finished he would say we needed something extra. And I think it's the essential truth of doing a soundtrack, really. You've got to succumb to the director - that's what I think, anyway. Everything within reason you've got to listen to the director, and really try to imagine the pressure he's under, and try to imagine how attached he is to everything, especially since it's somebody who's built it from the ground up. So that is the bottom line. That was an interesting experience for me, somebody setting me tasks and really telling me 'yes' or 'no'. Whereas in a band sometimes you can have a grey area.
It's a different forum, as well. What were your reactions to seeing it on the screen for the first time?
I came out and saw it for the first time at FrightFest. I found it really easy to switch off, to be honest. I've never been one of those people. A lot of musicians can't listen to a record because they hear certain things that a producer or engineer has put into place, they can hear edits, or over-tuning on a voice. I've never been one of those people that can't shut the curtains and just enjoy something. I know lighting engineers who can't go to a gig without looking at the lights the entire fucking gig. I'm not like that. If I make a record then I try not to listen to it in a tactical sense. I try to just sit back and enjoy it.
So, I just switched off that part of my brain and watched the film. And I just really, really enjoyed the film. Now and again the music popped through the ether, and I thought 'I could have done that a tiny bit better'. But apart from that I just really enjoyed the experience. It was cool.
Will this get an official release?
I think so. Although I have no idea!
Would you do this again?
Absolutely. If the Manics timetable allowed me to. There's no way I'm looking for this to take over from my main job. I suppose as we get older the gaps get a little bit larger, and it's nice to think that I could punctuate those gaps of Manic inactivity with this, definitely. I mean, I've got something planned already. So we'll just see if I can not fuck up and get through it.
It's intriguing to note that it's been ten years since your solo album 'The Great Western' was released… so every ten years you have this itch to do something different!
(Laughs) Oh yeah, this is a gun for hire, though, this is not solo. I'm just an adjunct to the main event.
Obviously the Manics crafted the official single for Wales' European Championships campaign earlier this summer, and that must have been a real thrill.
Yeah we did. I think the Manics always broke the rules because we were gigantic indie nerds when we were younger, we were those snivelling idiots in school, we were those kids. And those kids are not supposed to be into sport. We broke the rule by being massively into sports. I've been going to see Wales since I was 10 years old, and it's been a long fucking painful road! I've been away see us get walloped 6-1 at the San Siro, I've been to Eindhoven's ground and we got walloped 7-1, there.
I've seen us play games against Finland, Iceland… just terrible, abject performances. I was at the Wales vs Romania match in the mid 90s where it all just went wrong. So for this to actually happen to us is a novelty - as the lyric says, Pele scored his first ever World Cup goal against us, that's how long ago it was we qualified for a major competition. So I think we always had that dream, and it was always this real impossible dream, to actually write a classic football song for the Welsh football side if they ever made it. We're 47, so there's a tradition of people trying to write football songs, and the chance finally came along.
I think about five games into the qualifying process I began thinking that it was going to happen, and Nick had already started writing the lyrics. To be honest, we were just greedy: we wanted to be part of the joy. That was the main thing.
It was certainly very joyous. As a Scot, I was extremely jealous!
But you've had your time! I remember Archie Gemmell scoring against Holland, I remember the single from that, as well. Scotland always had amazing games through the years. The bottle will spin back towards you again, I'm sure.
To finish, is this down time for the Manics right now?
We've got a couple of dates in Japan, but we're just trying to write. That's it. Nothing, really, except for that. We're just trying to write stuff that just excites us. Same as usual, same memo.
Well, in fairness, it’s worked pretty well so far.
(Laughs) I know, I know… this’ll be our 13th album so we’re just going at our own pace, and we’re just trying to make sure that we’re doing our best. We say this year by year, but you can’t release a dud when you’re making your first album, and you certainly can’t release a dud when you’re releasing your 13th album. It gets a bit scary as you get older, but it’s cool.