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Manic Street Preachers - Rip It Up, February 1999

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Immediately you are struck with cliché 1. As with all famous people, he's the bloody wrong size. You expect a solid Welsh hard man and you get, at around 5'5", a permanently stubbled face remarkably unlined, someone almost cherubic.

Also, James Dean Bradfield fidgets a lot. One gets the feeling it's because he's not allowed to smoke here in the Sony boardroom. "You're not allowed to smoke in there," he says, "you set the alarms off. I've already had that running battle."

Then there's cliché 2. Whenever you talk to a person from Wales the conversation invariably turns to the similarities between our two countries, which extend far beyond rugby.

"There's a similarity but there's one big difference which is the lack of cynicism here," says James.

Really? Of course, he's willing to admit that he's only been here two days, but "generally, the sense of optimism and lack of cynicism is just, you know, strange." Strange indeed, as anyone who's actually lived here lately will tell you.

And as you'd expect from the Manics, he's quite willing to talk at length about the Welsh being tied down but their history, their recent socioeconomic pressures, the removal of their traditional industrial base and how a country like Wales can find it's identity in sport. Sound familiar?

But hey, this is rock'n'roll. We want to hear about the record This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, and how it feels now, six months down the line and already over a million sales. So how does he feel, listening back to the record now?

"It's really strange to hear a band that was so relaxed. We just sound really confident. Its one of the first records where I can't here much anxiety on it, in terms of playing. I didn't realise how calm and assured we were, and the lack of tension in our own songs. Its like everything's reconciled in those songs. Very strange."

Strange too that in terms of public response it has more than equalled its breakthrough predecessor.

"The single, Design Life, never got to number one, it was number two. Tolerate is our biggest selling single ever. It's also the first time we've got top fives around Europe, and it's the first time after that the album's debuted at number one in those countries. It's really strange because we were all really nervous about releasing 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next by the Manic Street Preachers off This is My Truth Tell Me Yours," he laughs, "because we didn't quite know how people would respond to it."

By taking a deep breath before they asked for it, on would imagine. "I don't think we particularly went for a safe bet. We were all a bit worried."

The question, what was it about that single that provoked such a response.

"A couple of funny things happened in Europe promoting Tolerate. We were doing interviews in Belgium and the journalist would be all really, you know, earnest, saying 'thank you for writing a song about these children of Belgium', about the whole paedophile thing that happened, And its like, 'wait a minute, that's a bit heavy - it wasn't written about that.' But in that strange sense it was nice the song was applicable to a lot of things, even though it was about something very definite."

It is, says James, something the Manics are always aware of. "You always want to be universal: you want to stick to speaking your own language, but one day you want to try and hit something very definite."

But, to put it politely, part of the reason must be that James' phrasing is so, well, unique. You can listen to something like Motorcycle Emptiness and "you can't understand a fucking word I'm singing."

It's true.

"There are so many lyrics in that song that people just completely misunderstood," continues James. "I listen back to some of the early records and it sounds like I'm speaking in tongues. There's one lyric in Motorcycle: symbolic dreams unorthodox myths, and somebody thought it was syphilitic scenes and other ducks dreams."

Bloody hell. With fans like that, who the hell needs music critics. But maybe the fact that the lyrics are often indecipherable that has been part of the Manics appeal.

"Especially in the early days when Richey didn't pay any attention to syntax, rhyme or meter," laughs James.

Though things have changed now, with Nicky Wire being solely responsible for all the lyrics.

"The difference is, a lot of things are resolved. The songs used to be real questions and answer diatribes with no answer at the end of it really, and now songs like Tolerate, if that had been written five years ago it would have been completely unresolved and much more nihilistic and much more convoluted, much more convulsed in every sense."

James believes that without Richey, the lyrics have become much more concise. It's a matter of knowing how to achieve the right results.

"If that song had been on the Holy Bible it would have just been a complete malaise of like, you know, four different strains of meaning, and you wouldn't have had a clue what was going on. Which is why I enjoy that album anyway."

Did he ever have to actually ask what was going on?

"There was only ever one or two songs where we had to dig into, perhaps find our own meaning. Usually I knew what was going on. Its because we all grew up with each other, we all read the same things, we all watched the same things, listened to the same things. We all had a lot of shared history, so a lot of the stuff was easily recognisable."

In pop music it is a relatively strange arrangement, the Elton John/Bernie Taupin approach of providing a complete set of lyrics to be put to music.

"I can thing of a couple of other example, Rush. Geddy Lee was the singer but Neil Peart the drummer wrote all the lyrics."

Which reminds you of the Manics personal musical history. Formative influences were, after all, Guns 'n' roses and Hanoi Rocks.

"Hanoi Rocks were more Nick. For me, when I was younger there were two albums during the late eighties/early nineties that I couldn't stop listening to were Appetite for Destruction and It Takes a Nation of Millions. They were two completely different albums, but what I liked about both of them was that they stood for a lifestyle, and that was something that we were lacking at the time. We were living in a vacuum."

Does he remember where he was the first time he heard the opening riff of Sweet Child O' Mine, we ask.

"I remember when I learned to play it. It was like, 'What a guitarist I am.' A towering achievement of the intellect."

You can easily forget that James plays a white Les Paul, the icon of everything un-hip, guitar-wise,after Peter Frampton brandished one on Frampton Comes Alive.

"I feel like such a dickhead."

You get the feeling he really ain't comfortable talking about guitars. "I got one because of Steve Jones, and Mick Jones had one as well. My main one is signed on the back by Steve Jones. We were at the same festival as the Pistols when they reformed, and I got him to sign the back. He's going 'What the fuck is this?', he's talking to somebody and he's going 'There's a lot of cunt's around today in't there?' and I'm going, 'yeah'."

Once a Sex Pistol, always a Sex Pistol. But we digress. It's curious, given the band's notorious fear of flying, that James has volunteered to endure the travel, only to suffer inane questions about guitars. Is it because his fear is the most mild. Hell, no.

"It fuckin' did my head in once I was on a flight and they were showing that film Alive. I'm fuckin' serious, it was on a Virgin flight to Los Angeles. I couldn't fuckin' believe it."

And it seems it will have been worth it.

"I can't wait to do this Big Day Out thing. I've never seen Hole. I wanna see Marilyn Manson do Beautiful People, that's one of the great lost metal records of all time, it's absolutely brilliant. There's loads of stuff at the Big Day Out that I haven't seen live."

Yes folks, it's simply a booking snafu that saw them off the bill in Auckland.

"We said 'yeah, we'll do the Big Day Out' and somebody went ahead and booked it and we said 'are you sure there's not something else we've already arranged?' and there was. Basically we've got a new record deal in America and I had to go over and there and do loads of press."

Ah, America. After their universal acceptance in Europe and other territories, America remains the last unconquered land and it remains the only real conundrum (apart from Richey) which surrounds the Manics. Even when talking about it James seems to be trying to convince himself of two different ideas at the same time.

"I don't even think about it. To have insane dreams and ambitions to crack America is for really young bands. We had that on the first album and got rejected. Ever since then we've always been really guarded about it. We're just not stupid enough to actually pin anything on breaking America."

Fine and dandy. Yet at the same time he evinces a belief that without America, the band's ultimate reputation can never be as great as their heroes.

"I think every band needs it in terms of their place in history., I don't think any bands seems, when you look back, quite as good if they haven't got success in America, and I don't think we'll get any. It's the whole thing you grew up with, the Clash, the Pistols and stuff." He trails off there and any attempt to argue that the band have already, with the bleak despairing beauty of the Holy Bible, the valedictory glory of Design For Life, and now the unruffled beauty they have achieved on This is My Truth., is met with an embarrassed shake of the head.

So, is this press thing, particularly considering the sheer volume they have done post-Richey, getting to be a bit much. No no no, not at all, James is quick to reassure.

"There was a point where we gave away so much of ourselves. Especially post Richey. We were in a catch 22 situation: if we didn't talk we knew more than we were talking about. So inevitably we ended up talking loads about it. I think that was the only time we were a bit pressed out."

Do they continue to ask about Richey?

"It still comes all the time. All the time. Especially in Europe. Richey's like, omnipresent. I suppose it's really strange, I'm so used to being asked about it I talk about it without even thinking about it."

On the positive side, it means you've always got something to talk about.

"Yeah. Makes you realise what a fucking dull bastard you are."

Which is, patently, a load of bollocks. The Manic Street Preachers, as typified by James Dean Bradfield, have become quite simply one of the most important rock'n'roll bands we have. They have learned humility the hard way, and with that they have assumed a sort of common grace unknown to most of their contemporaries. The only problem is, the closest we got this time was a small guy sitting on a couch.

"Nothing personal," says James. We understand.