They've gone from dangerous outsiders to Brit winning, stadium-filling rock stars: so why do the Manics still feel like they have everything to prove? Andy Jensen talks to James Dean Bradfield...
James Dean Bradfield is Sitting in a hotel room, explaining Why the Manic Street Preachers chose to play their first gig since the millennium in Cuba. "It wasn't part of some grand plan," he says. "A friend of us ran through the new album and pointed out that there were four different references to Cuba on it. In The Convalescent, there's a reference to a Cuban athlete, and it's in Let Robeson Sing and Baby Elian, Freedom Of Speech Feed My Children
touches up on it, indirectly. So Nicky said 'Wouldn't it be brilliant to do a first gig there?'"
"It felt good because people tend to think that we, like Cuba, have antique ideas, and there is this idea that our career has based on glorious failure. It goes back to us saying that we were going to sell 20 million albums when we did the first album, saying we were the greatest band in the world, and then Richie disappearing, etcetera. And I suppose you could use the term glorious failure for Cuba as well."
The Manics transition from glorious failure to Brit Award-winning, multi million-selling, stadium filling, radio-friendly rock band has caused no end of controversy since the release of their last album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. Melody Maker ran a debate on the topic, "Have the Manics sold out?" People talked about their weight, their age. their "man at C&A" image, and old fans expressed their disappointment at their first album written and recorded purely as a trio. In short, with Know Your Enemy, the Manics once again have everything to prove.
The result is somewhat of a return to the noisy punk roots, although it sounds nothing like either Generation Terrorists or The Holy Bible, and is the most varied album of their career. In many ways, across its 16 tracks, Know Your Enemy is a "something for everyone" album. For the hardcore fans there's the guitar-heavy rock of
Found That Soul, Intravenous Agnostic, Dead Martyrs and more. For the newer fans, meanwhile, who like their Manic Street Preachers to be a bit mare melodic, there's ballads like Ocean Spray, the pop of So Why So Sad, the 60s feel of Let Robeson Sing. James Dean Bradfield explains what he thinks is the heart of the album: and it's the guitar-heavy stuff.
"I'd say that there's one thread which is running through the album," he says: "the harder songs, Dead Martyrs, Found Soul, Freedom Of Speech Wont Feed My Children, My Guernica and Intravenous Agnostic - I think that the backbone of the album. Then you have much more satirical stuff as Miss Europa Disco Dancer. Its the first time we've been satirical, and there's songs as Let Robeson Sing which are very 60s issues. My favorite songs on the album are Let Robeson Sing, Freedom of Speech...and Intravenous Agnostic."
Does it feel good to have dropped some of the more heavily orchestrated elements of the last album and get back to playing rock 'n' roll? "I think so yeah." he says. "It always feels good to release the first single: Faster, Design for Life, If You Tolerate This...they all felt good. And this time, to start the album out with something like Found That Soul, makes you feel a bit more ready for battle, ready for war. When we finished the touring after This Is My Truth...I think that we all felt a bit jaded. We were all a bit levelled by the criticism we got. The press were saying that we were becoming out of touch with our roots, playing all these festivals, going for the money...
Was there any truth in those accusations? "I don't think so" says James. "I don't really count myself as a millionaire at the moment and I don't think that I'm necessarily out of touch with the principles that I started out with. But when you hear this criticism all the time you start believing it to a certain degree and after the last tour we definitely felt weaker than before. But doing the Millennium show and Masses Against The Classes made us realise that it doesn't take much effort to regain your drive really. After the Millennium show we decided that we were going to start on the album in March and that we weren't going to do it the same way as the old albums. Most the time bands rehearse before they go into the studio, and we thought, for once, why don't we just go directly in the studio, without rehearsing? 80-90% of the songs had only been played something like three times before we started to record them. The one basic rule has been to keep it physical and more instinctive, where
the other albums were a bit over-thought.
Not that James was confident about this method of working at first. "I said to James that we shouldn't rehearse any of the songs this time." says bass-player and lyricist Nicky Wire, "and he was a bit frightened by that. But as soon as we went into the studio we did Let Robeson Sing and Intravenous Agnostic in a couple of days, so I think he quickly realised that it was a much more exiting way of doing it."
"The important thing on this album was to trust ourselves. We don't have to do everything 50 times to make it work. Not rehearsing meant that we incorporated the rough edges."
Instead of recording all the songs in one huge session, the band worked out a procedure to keep the material and spirit fresh. "We'd write three or four songs," says James, "record them, and then go away from the studio for 2-3 weeks, record again and so forth. In total we spent 14 weeks recording and we recorded 26 Songs all together."
And it wasn't the only change in their working methods: "There was a few changes," confirms James. "On Ocean Spray. I wrote the lyrics as well, for the first time. Then Nick wrote the lyrics and the music to Wattsville Blues, which he sings as well. He plays guitar and I'm playing bass on it. I'll be playing a double neck bass and guitar live since Nick is just singing, so that'll be interesting."
A double-neck? TG tell if hes joking or not. Nicky Wire, meanwhile, enjoyed trading places and getting to play some guitar. "It was very exciting," says Nicky. "I've written some songs over the years, but never anything that the band has done. We were in Wattsville and had nothing to do, and James asked me if I had anything. I played him this demo and it just seemed to fit With the spirit of the album, really. James has written some lyrics this time and Sean has been playing his trumpet. I play guitar and James has been playing some bass. The whole idea of changing things seemed to fit really well."
In the early days, of course, it was rumoured that James played all the guitar and bass on the albums. Did he play much bass before? "Not a lot," says Nicky, "but he has played some bass, especially the lead, 'Peter Hook-like' stuff [the b-lines for Baby Elian and Royal Correspondent are very reminiscent Of New Orders Hooky, so I guess we can presume that James had a hand in those]. But we seem to switch things around more. I often play the guitar during rehearsals. And the fact that I'm not that good, can be a good thing. In general I'll say that we trust each other a lot more these days, we let each other do and play whatever we want."
Little Known Manics Fact #1: drummer Sean Moore and James bought their first guitars together on the same day. Nicky Wire gave James his first guitar lesson. It wasn't long before the pupil was out-stripping the teacher.
More of a guitar album than the previous one, and featuring lyrics and bass playing, James Bradfield must have been
working hard this time around. "No, not really," says James. "I realised that on the arrangements to This Is My Truth...we decided to replace the guitar bits with other instruments, so on this record I was really looking forward to playing a lot of guitar. It's not hard work me, I enjoy it. This is the heart of the band: this is how it all started out: the guitar and the lyricism. So it is nice to go full circle and sort of come back to it.
Two apparently apposing musical schools have always been represented in Manic Street Preachers Guitarist James Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore the side of musicians; Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards the punk agitators/non-musicians. How do the Manics balance these apparent opposites? "I think that it is Still important to keep the punk spirit in mind," says Nicky (and you're tempted to say, "Well, you would say that, wouldn't you?"). "But Obviously after six albums we have become a lot better musicians and we're able to record things a lot quicker"
In his book Everything, biographer Simon price notes that despite the Manics' early reputation as punk tearaways who can't play, even play, even on their most early demos "James's guitar playing is clearly already more than competent. Technically it isn't showy, but neither is it primitive. If anything, it is more complex than the early MSP singles - raising the intriguing theory that they pretended to be less musically competent than they were...They could have made Bohemian Rhapsody if they had wished, but they chose to make White Riot instead." He quotes the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley's response after one of their early gigs: "Very good, in fact too good... How do they do all those squiggly guitar bits?" Did James ever have to 'unlearn' as a guitarist, from time to time?
"No, not really," he says, after mulling it over, "'cos whenever we've written a song we all know what style its going to be and what we are going to play. So it doesn't come to the point where you think. 'I'm going to try to play a bit crappy on this.' You're sort of locked in with the song and it tells you what to do. But the crappy aspect is there a bit on this on this record, definitely, 'cos we didn't go for many takes."
So your musical skills never gets in the way of getting the raw feel? "No, not on the harder types of Songs. But on a song like Miss Europa Disco Dancer it was bit like that. We wanted it to sound a bit more like Chic than Wham. On that song I had to stop myself a bit."
Did the more fucked-up, atonal, new wave style of The Holy Bible pose problems to the man who learned to play by copying Slash and learning Exile On Main Street from start to finish? "No - I also grew up with Magazine, The Clash, some Wire albums, and crappy punk bands like the Saints. I learned to play guitar through that so I was always familiar with the style. I can understand that people take trumpet lessons but I cant see why you need guitar lessons, unless you want to be like John McLaughlin."
The Slash influence has been well documented: but who else influenced his playing when he started? "First of all, Steve Jones from the Pistols and John McGeoch from Magazine. The it was Slash, but I'd say my all time favourite is John Frusciante from the Chili Peppers. I saw him play live here in London and it was just brilliant, it's the best thing I've seen in a long time. He did Modern Love by David Bowie and Neighbourhood Threat by Iggy Pop, just him alone with an acoustic guitar - fantastic."
Another much=praised left-field guitar hero is featured on Know Enemy. But James Bradfield and Kevin Shields didn't even meet..."What happened was David Holmes co-produced three of the album tracks - Convalescent, Dead Martyrs and Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children - and Kevin Shields plays on Freedom Of Speech... I didn't meet him at all: David produced some additional stuff and took the tracks away with him. It's kind of ironic: you associate Kevin Shields with very noisy guitar, but he's actually playing some very melodic bits on that track."
Know Your Enemy has one strand of influences that you might not expect to hear on a Manics album: 60s pop. There's musical references to bands like The Small Faces and The Who as well as American icons like The Beach Boys and even Fleetwood Mac. James explains: "It's very West coast 60s, that's true. I've got such a massive record collection, and now I'm 31, I think it just all comes full circle. I can't stop it. I was always a massive fan of The Band and love the American Pebbles box set collections from the 60s. You mentioned Pete Townshend - to me the most Townshend-esque thing is on Wattsville Blues, which is Nicky playing the acoustic guitar."
Then there's the sound of a 12-string Rickenbacker on The Year Of Purification. "Yes, the sound of Roger McGuinn. Actually it is the exact same guitar I used for If You Tolerate This...I've used about 12 electric different guitars on the album, the main ones being an old Gibson 325, a Gibson Custom and a Telecaster Custom."
Little Known Manics Fact #2: When they first signed their deal with Sony, James went out and bought the thing he most wanted: a white Les Paul. It cost £800. The same night, live at the Marquee and at the end of their first ever encore Love Us, he smashed it to pieces.
The opening track, Found that Soul, seems to be about finding faith in yourself again - is that how you feel about the Manic Street Preachers now? "It's a song about becoming, not resigned, but come to realise that you can find the spirit within yourself. It's directed against a culture in which people are finding gurus, new religious prophets and so on."
Where can the Manics go from here? "I don't know," shrugs James. "I've been talking about this with Nick, I think that if we kept writing songs until we were 50 we could still find a million things to say, but I don't know if we could find ways left to say them really, which is interesting. I definitely think that we'll be doing a greatest hits next, and then we'll see. I definitely feel that we are closer to the end than the beginning"
Because you're worried about quality slipping? "I don't know. When I look at my favourite band, The Clash, they did six albums, and then they did one in the end, which wasn't really a Clash album, I subconsciously feel that seven albums is enough for a band and maybe it's because of that. It's definitely something we talk about. I feel that, regardless of how this does, we'll be faced with the decision of whether not to quit."
Nicky Wire doesn't agree. "I think that we can make a record really, really quickly again." he says, "'cos I think that we've found a way of recording really quickly, I think we could have an album out within a year even though we'll be touring. That would be an achievement."
The band's guitarist and frontman laughs: "Well, Nicky and I agree on most things - you've found the issue where we don't."