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Murder, Rebellion And Grief: How Chilean Rebel Víctor Jara Inspired James Dean Bradfield's New Album - The Western Mail, 1st August 2020

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Title: Murder, Rebellion And Grief: How Chilean Rebel Víctor Jara Inspired James Dean Bradfield's New Album
Publication: The Western Mail
Date: Saturday 1st August 2020
Writer: Ben Wright
Photos: S Mark Gubb

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Ben Wright spoke to the Manic Street Preachers star about the inspiration behind – and evolution of – solo album Even in Exile

As far as brave musicians come, they don’t come much braver than Victor Jara – just ask Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield.

Chilean singer-songwriter and activist Jara once described himself as a man “who will die singing the true truths”.

On September 17, 1973, that prediction came depressingly true.

Kidnapped at gunpoint, he was taken to a football stadium where soldiers crushed his fingers – to try to stop him playing guitar – before shooting him 44 times.

Weeks before he had been away from his homeland on tour – placing him at a crossroads of whether to return to Chile or to take the chance to flee.

That decision to return is something that both dumbfounds and draws admiration from Bradfield, whose new solo album Even in Exile is inspired by Jara.

The 11-track LP, with lyrics written by poet and playwright Patrick Jones, is steeped in tragedy, fear – as well as hope.

Bradfield ponders: “None of us have that experience of standing by your beliefs and ideals when they become inconvenient towards your personal safety.

“We don’t have that experience of really knowing if we really walk it like we talk it.

“I don’t know if I recognise this kind of conviction in myself.”

But that theme of sticking to your guns and staying true to your principles is a theme that has run throughout Bradfield’s life like blood on a battlefield.

As a teenager, the boy from Blackwood witnessed at first hand the aftermath and fallout from the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike – that decimated working class communities across south Wales and saw families pushed well below the breadline.

Coincidentally, it was around this time that two things would happen to an unsuspecting adolescent Bradfield that would prove crucial to the making of his new album.

The Clash would introduce him to the name Victor Jara for the first time in one of their songs.

And the other, rather less conspicuously, came when he was getting his hair cut as a teenager. It was the first time he would properly speak with the album’s lyricist – and brother of Manics bassist Nicky Wire, Patrick Jones.

“The first time I spoke to Patrick was in Ernie’s Gentleman’s Barbers in Pontllanfraith, when I was 15,” he recalls.

“He was already away in university, and he was about to go out to America and study there.

“He was like that cooler older brother who was into football and into (rock band) Rush – he was this cool-looking metal kid.”

The two hit it off instantly and it was the start of a lifelong friendship.

Fast forward three decades and the pair began working on an album, which began in the wake of a tragedy closer to home – the death of Wire and Jones’ mother Irene, who died in 2018 after a long battle with leukaemia.

“He started showing me lots of writing about Victor Jara and I asked, ‘What you going to do with all of this prose and poetry?’

“It was almost like a one-man abstract play and it’s quite strange. I wondered if he was trying to get it published and he was like, ‘No, it’s just a writing exercise.’

“I realised at that moment that Nick and Patrick had lost their mother, and their father had become ill quite soon after – and perhaps he was writing this stuff so he could be in touch with something that was unquestionably good.

“And that’s when I realised as well, that writers are just like painters and musicians.

“Sometimes in a week I will write at least four little pieces that I know will never ever see the light of day. I’m just writing them to find stuff about myself and because I like doing it.

“I didn’t realise that writers do the same thing – they write to exercise that muscle. Sometimes they write because they need it as an emotional exercise.

And with Manic Street Preachers having downtime after the release of their last album Resistance Is Futile, an idea and a plan was hatched by Bradfield.

“I was a tiny bit opportunistic about this because... I said to Pat, ‘Do you mind if I take this little file of stuff and turn it in a record?’

“He was very circumspect about it that saying, ‘I don’t think you can do that...I don’t think that’s possible’.

“But I was like, ‘Let’s just see’.”

Two songs later and it was clear that Bradfield’s nascent plans, and gut instinct, were well placed.

The first song out of the gate was the brooding ‘There’ll Come A War’ – a bleak sounding song of impending doom that would go toe-to-toe with anything off the Manics’ dark masterpiece The Holy Bible.

“If you think about the times you have had genuine fear in your life; you don’t become frantic, you become kind of still,” says Bradfield.

“Like when you’re young and you have your first proper fight.

“In that in true moment of fear, everything slows down and everything takes an eternity.”

And then the project soon started to take off – with Bradfield immersing himself in the music and story of Jara.

“I was aware of Victor’s story from the kind of early ‘80s onward but I’d never really investigated his music that much, strangely,” he says.

“I first became aware of Victor Jara from a Clash song called Washington Bullets, which is from their album Sandinista.

“There was then a group called Working Week, a jazz collective from London in early ‘80s, who also wrote a song about him.

“You lead on to U2, and their song One Tree Hill, which mentions Jara. Simple Minds also dedicated Street Fighting Years to him as well.

“At his point you think, ‘Right I’ve got to find out more about this guy’.

“He was like an echo that kept coming up all the time.”

Bradfield, who as a teenager somehow inexplicably managed to teach himself how to play all of Guns N Roses Appetite For Destruction, then threw himself into writing songs.

When discussing Jara’s music, the Manics guitarist beams with enthusiasm and shows an encylopedic knowledge about the man some refer to as “the South American Bob Dylan”.

Among the songs that struck a chord with Bradfield was Preguntas por Puerto Montt (Questions for Puerto Montt), which draws upon the police massacre of 10 protestors at a shanty town in southern Chile.

“It’s is a song that is born out of murder and atrocity – but there is still is a lightness of touch to the music which draws it back from being filled with hate.

“Then you have a song like Manifesto, which was one of his last songs. It’s almost like a prayer to ambition and an enaction of hope.

“The music is just so much more delicate and ethereal than you would ever imagine.

“It’s an amazing – but it’s called Manifesto so it puts you off balance, because you’re expecting something so much more confrontational in tone.”

And the more you delve into Bradfied’s, seemingly at first unorthodox, inspiration for an album the more you realise of how it makes sense.

Album opener Recuerda references the unholy trinity of Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon and Chilean dictator Augustus Pinochet before Jones’ lyrics lament “Cofiwich when they drowned a community / when they buried a school / when they silenced a language”.

The striking parallels between Wales and Chile is something Bradfield later refers to as some kind of “psycho-geographic empathy”.

And there’s also similarities between Jara’s humble upbringings and Bradfield’s formative years in Blackwood – and how both musicians’ mums played a key role in their lives too.

“It was his mother who brought him up along with his siblings,” Bradfield, who paid tribute to his late mother on the 2001 Manics single Ocean Spray.

“Victor’s mother was a singer and guitarist – not professional, but she could play and sing. And eventually she teaches him to play guitar, which is a lovely connection and something that I’ve not really heard before.

“He was born in to what you might call a plantation family, which kind of means just peasantry class really.

“There was a very good chance that he would just be working on the plantation like a lot of his neighbours so very humble beginnnings.

“But he goes to university, dabbles with becoming an accountant and ends up directing plays and becoming a singer-songwriter.

“Basically, he ends up taking a path most would have betted against him taking.”

Bradfield also was inspired by Jara being noticeably different from other protest singers or musicians with a political message.

“He was much more inclusive and empathetic,” he says.

“When you think of the term ‘protest song’ or ‘protest singer’ your mind goes to a very particular aesthetic – someone who has planted themselves opposite their subject or their target square on and the song accuses or redresses and injustice.

“I liked the fact that people from outside of Chile are using him as inspiration because he’s an idea that refuses to die.”

Given the age of rage in the 21st century, and the divisive times we now live in, does Bradfield think people could learn something from Jara?

“Definitely... You do catch yourself thinking, ‘Wow I wish people actually had a bit more empathy for our possible future disagreements and listen to each other first’.

“Victor Jara gives you the chance to breathe and look back and say we’ve had successive referendums, successive elections where we not only battled the opposition, but we battled with the people on our own side.

“You don’t need opposition in Europe or Britain these days to have an argument. People that used to be seemingly on the same side, seem intent on destroying each other.

“Victor Jara is a warning isn’t it? When the left and right become so far apart there’s never a good result. When there’s polarisation between left and right, something bad always comes in the vaccum – someone always charges in and parks its tanks on that centre ground.

“You end up with a government that a lot of people don’t want.... that’s as much as I’ll say on that.”

As well as exercising his musical, history and political muscles on the album, Even In Exile also saw Bradfield turn the detective too.

He eventually managed to get in contact with Jara’s family after first tracking down someone from London who used live with the singer’s English-born widow Joan, who is now 92.

The family then managed to put the singer in touch with Jara’s daughters – before the two parties “touched base” with one another.

Was he nervous about what Jara’s family would think of it?

“I wasn’t, no, because we weren’t playing with facts on the album – this is not like some Hollywood movie that feels as if it needs to rewrite history.

“We took a lot of care and time over it.

“We had some nice correspondence, they were very complimentary and very accomodating. They were very pleased that someone is still taking inspiration from their father and carrying if forward.”

What does he think the Chilean singer himself would have made of his album?

Bradfield says given Jara’s folk background and a suspicion of rock ‘n’ roll, he “probably would have hated it” before adding with a self depricating chuckle: “There I’ve already given you the line; I can see that in bold print now ‘Victor Jara would have hated this record’.

“But I want to make this clear, this record is a European and an outsider’s take on Victor Jara and his legacy. I was never going to go down the route of trying to co-opt Chilean musicians, rhythms or instruments. I don’t want to get in that argument of appropriation.

“But I hope that I can bring his story, and his music to a new audience – because that’s the way I discovered him through other groups and artists.”

The other element I wonder, is what was it like to working with Patrick Jones – given that Bradfield has spent the past 34 years with Jones’ brother Nicky in the Manics?

“It’s really strange because I’ve got a long history with Nick,” he says.

“I remember seeing Nick for the first time when I was five years old in Miss Elizabeth’s class in Pontllanfraith.

“We have been writing songs with each other since we were 15.

“I remember the first lyric I ever had off him, which was called Aftermath. It was about the Miners’ Strike and it was set in stone the way that we worked with each other even then.

“He would give me the lyric and I would see if it would inspire music.

“That seemed like the normal way to do stuff – he would write and everything drove from that lyric: the music, had to be inspied by the lyric.

“I remember going back to him saying, ‘I need a few more lines’ or, ‘Do you mind if I chop this up?’

“After that he gave me a lyric called Anti-Social. So from the age of 15, it was already quite malleable between us.

“If I ever asked for more lyrics, he’d never be affronted by it, he was like, ‘Yeah I’ll give you some more f******g lyrics; don’t worry about that boy’.

“So, that’s a lot to contend with for when I go to write with somebody else.”

Despite Wire being more of a lyricist with pop-sensibilities and Jones being a bit more “free form” – Bradfield says it was clear the two brothers are cut from the same cloth.

He says: “They both have the ability to write those killer lines, which rock ‘n’ roll needs.

“Whether that’s like ‘libraries gave us power’ in A Design For Life or ‘It’s lungs upon your tongue, rivers of us join and run’ in the song The Boy From The Plantation.”

So are there any plans to tour the album? Or maybe even chart new territory in Chile?

It would appear not.

“No,” says Bradfield honestly. “When I started doing this record I wanted it to be a standalone thing.

“I just didn’t want to get in the way of my day job in the Manics, which is still the most important thing to me musically.

“I didn’t want to spend this time doing a record and then say, ‘Okay now, I’m going to tour it boys can you wait for me’.”

In the meantime, Bradfield has had plenty of time to think during lockdown as well as pick up, what he says is an “embarassing” new hobby.

He says with a slightly nervous chuckle: “It’s slightly nerdish and embarassing – compiling crosswords.

“None of that cryptic bollocks – just straight on clues mostly around music. My first one was a David Bowie one.

“How has lockdown been for me? Lots of intermittent existential pangs; a lot of stairing into the middle distance. And lots of not believing anything I read or see or hear.

“I don’t mean that in sceptic consipracy kind of way – it’s just that’s there so much information out there I just stopped taking it in.

“I retreated into my family bubble.

“Starting reading lots of things that were in the ‘not-yet-read’ pile.

“Started listening to lots of records that had piled up.

“Started exercising again – stopped caring again about the way top half of me looked.”

However, the prospect of a new album from the Manics is still at the forefront of his thoughts – despite all the work that went into Even In Exile.

At the age of 52, there’s nothing remotely jaded about him, displaying the same determination and passion when the Manics – clad in tight white jeans and t-shirts with spray painted slogans on them – burst onto the scene espousing nihlism, sex and politics.

Even the mere mention of his day job prompts excitement in his voice.

He says: “Nick and Sean are such loud and strong, heavy players, and that’s the kind of musician I am.

“I find it hard to be a different musician. When they come onstage, ‘I hope you brought you A-game motherf*****r because we’re not turning down for you’.

“They are suprisingly heavy, heavy, tough musicians. And I like that.

“I’ve tried playing onstage with other people and I find it hard to have that same connection.”

Before lockdown, the band trialled a few new songs at their studio – named Door To The River – on the outskirts of Newport.

“We’ve started doing a few demos. The last week and half and so I’ve come to the studio and started putting a couple of sketches down.

“The floodgates look like they are opening for Nick in terms of lyrics.”

He remains coy about the direction of their next album, which will be their 14th, saying things will take shape once bassist Wire and drummer Sean Moore put their stamp on it.

He also is excited about the prospect of finally being able to play live again.

The band has two dates pencilled in for December at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena – the first a free concert for NHS workers and the second will see all profits go to the charities connected to the health service.

“Who knows when anyone will be playing any gigs? I just know that when we do, it will be nice not to have to overthink anything.

“Five our biggest songs will be at the start next setlist we do – it will be just like there’s no subtlety going on here.

“Just bring your dancing shoes, get mashed, get hammered – it’ll be like the Ramones for the first five songs ‘1-2-3-4-5’.

“I can’t overcomplicate how straightforward I feel about that. I just can’t wait for it really.”

A track by track guide to Even In Exile

It starts off with Victor Jara-esque acoustic guitar before launching into a stirring Manic Street Preachersesque melody. This is hairs-on-yourneck stuff as Jones’ lyrics references the tragedies and injustices of Aberfan, Tryweryn and Chile’s disappeared. Bradfield’s “ahh-ahh-ahh” backing vocals are as stirring as any male voice choir. It mixes past, present and future – and may just be the most uplifting sounding thing he’s ever committed to tape.

The Boy From The Plantation
Discordant minor chords reminiscent of This Is My Truth era Manics, soaring strings and another example of Patrick Jones’ poetic brilliance. It’s full of words that you get right into even on first listen before you understand them. The chorus features Jara’s full name – Victor Lidio Jara Martinez – something that Bradfield first balked at when he saw them. He says: “I thought, ‘Wow, you expect me to turn that into music you f ****** g nutter’. “I saw that as a challenge and thought, ‘I’m going to turn that into a chorus and I saw why he did it because there’s such a great rhythm to his name. “So that was good instinct from Pat.”

There'll Come A War
The first single from the album and it’s a stripped-down affair in a similar vibe, musically at least, to Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt. “It was one of those songs, the more you put on it, you realise it didn’t need it,” says Bradfield. “All it needed was one violinist and me on the piano and double bass, some drums and that’s it.”

Seeking The Room With The Three Windows
A four-minute instrumental with a cinematic quality to – something you can imagine being on the soundtrack to the Motorcycle Diaries, the 2004 film biopic about revolutionary Che Guevara.

Thirty Thousand Milk Bottles
Bradfield says Jara never liked the term “protest singer” but preferred the term “revolutionary song” – and this tribute to the families of those murdered during Pinochet’s brutal era certainly sounds like the latter. George Harrison-style guitars blend effortlessly with a harpsichord as a marching style beat pounds away.

Under The Mimosa Tree
A melancholic, fragile yet beautiful instrumental that sounds like something from the Manics’ 2013 album Rewind The Film.

From The Hands Of Violeta
This sounds like it was recorded on a starry night overlooking the Andes – and is about Violeta Parra, a composer who was a key inspiration to Jara. Bradfield says: “She was a singer and artist in Chile at the time who went into the outback of Chile and collected lots of Chilean folk songs. Actually recorded them in her head to make sure that they would not disappear from the cultural landscape. She was a painter. She became quite famous in the Spanish-speaking world – and she was an inspiration to Victor Jara.”

Without Knowing The End (Joan’s Song)
A song about Jara’s widow Joan, who has fought tirelessly to get justice for her husband as well as for those also murdered by Pinochet’s regime. In 2018, eight retired Chilean military officers were sentenced to 15 years and a day for Jara’s murder. Musically, this song has another of Bradfield’s heroes all over it – Simple Minds.

La Partida
A cover of the Jara instrumental song, with Bradfield’s version sounding cinematic in its scope.

The Last Song
Album lyricist Patrick Jones knows how to write a lyric or two that stops you in your tracks – and as openers go they don’t come much stronger than this: “Bondaged citizens make the best revolutions.”

Santiago Sunrise
“You’ll never cross the river / if you’re scared of getting wet.” Sparse sounding and Bradfield’s vocals sound like they were recorded in an echo-y and darkened room. Similar to There’ll Come A War, this has something unnerving about it – but also, among the wreckage, whether that be in 1970s Chile or the 21st century – it channels Jara’s message of hope for the future.