On the eve of the release of his debut solo album, Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield tells Oliver Hurley how he finds it impossible to not write songs, what's so great about Gordon Brown's crumpled jumpers, and why he's only happy when it rains...
Manic Street Preachers singer and guitarist, James Dean Bradfield, is currently in the midst of perhaps the least successful sabbatical ever. After the Manics' last UK tour ended in April 2005 - and following a total of seven studio albums, a pair of compilations and 30 singles that have made the top 40 - the band decided to take a two year break. Bradfield lasted 4 weeks.
"Myself and Nicky [Manics bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire] have been writing songs with each other since 1985. And we thought 'Jesus Christ, we've been going for so long now, we really need to take a break and get some perspective," explains Bradfield "I realised after a month that I was going to be the worst person in the world at not doing anything whatsoever. I was an absolute annoying prick when I wasn't being involved with music and I just realised that not writing any new songs was going to be impossible. It would have been bad for my health."
In order to both save his health, and avoid notching up yet another Manics broken promise (remember when they swore they'd sell more records than Guns N Roses and then split up? Or vowed to set fire to themselves on Top Of The Pops?) Bradfield channelled his energies into debut solo album The Great Western. It's a warmer, more obviously personal record than much of the Manics' output, and offers an almost uplifting melancholia that's inspired, says Bradfield by Badfinger and John Cale's solo albums.
"I just liked the way those records sounded, like they'd been dug up out of the earth, dusted off and there's something beautiful standing in front of you. I wanted to make something with a bit more of a murky, 1970s vibe to it" So he didn't consider this as an opportunity to explore an entirely new musical direction then? "I didn't actually think I was going to make a grime album or something like that. It wasn't like [adopts comical pseudo-American twang] 'Oh god they censored this influence in James Dean Bradfield for too long." So while The Great Western sits comfortably next to Mancis records such as 2001's Know your Enemy and 1996's platinum selling Everything Must Go, the lyrics are something of a departure. Bradfield had previously only penned the words to Ocean Spray, about his mother's death. "I realised I didn't have the dark hour of introspection that Richey [Edwards - more of whom later] always displayed in his lyrics. And I didn't have the broad sweeping gestures of the way Nick writes. Once I got with the fact that I couldn't do what they do lyrically, I became much more relaxed about it. Some of the lyrics might seem mundane but you can make the mundane seem quite beautiful and poignant sometimes, and I just had to have the belief that I could do that."
If there's one overriding theme to the album, it's that of the pull that Bradfield's native South Wales continues to exert on him since he first moved to London in 1994, even the title is inspired by the Paddington to Cardiff train journey. "I've started splitting my time 50/50 between Wales and London. It's almost like a sense of repatriation. It's weird: initially you want to escape where you come from because you feel there's nothing left there. As soon as you leave you always want to go back. I've got seasonal affective disorder but in reverse. I do feel much happier when there's a low cloud, grim mountains and this promise in the air. That's the happiest I feel."
Although the Manics referred to their hometown of Blackwood (Bradfield is actually from Pontllanfraith) as a 'shithole' in early interviews, Bradfield says now that, in some respects, they were lucky to have grown up there. It was certainly a significant factor in shaping the young band. "Quite a lot of relatives worked in the pits, some worked in steel and a lot worked in building, and all those things were being torn apart when we were 15 or 16. It definitely felt as if there was a societal shift. I realised that I had lots of people in my family who had a linear tradition running through their lives that satisfied them and it was being ripped apart. It did politicise us.
Moreover, much of the Manics early press dismissed them purely on the basis that they were from Wales. "there were lots of headlines like You Sexy Merthyr Fuckers and The Boyos Are Back In Town. There was a story about a Scottish record shop saying that as a principle, they didn't stock records by Welsh bands because they're always shit. We had an immense chip on our shoulders because of all those things but it actually made it easy for us to define ourselves by what we hated. Because we felt a lot of people hated us."
He firmly believes that "there's something darkly melancholic and inward-looking about Welsh people" and quotes Richard Burton on the subject: "Show a Welshman a hundred exits and he'll chose the one marked self destruct." Perhaps as vivid an example of this as any is that of Manics' own Richey Edwards who - following a history of alcohol abuse, eating disorders and self-mutilation - walked out of the Embassy Hotel in West London prior to a US tour in February 1995 and hasn't been seen since.
"You soon find out, when people ask you the great 'what if?' question, that it does nobody any good. I hate the idea of the way wilful mythologising reduces people to something they weren't. I just think Richey's intelligence got in the way of life, completely and utterly." Before Edwards was admitted to private Roehampton clinic in The Priory in August 1994, he spent just over a week in an NHS psychiatric hospital in Whitchurch, Cardiff. It was, sighs Bradfield, woefully inappropriate.
"It seemed like they had the minimum amount of care and the minimum amount of observation as well. There never seemed to be anything that brought any comfort to them except a nurse's uniform and some pills. I'm not trying to make it sound like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest but the actual aesthetic of the place would grind the most optimistic person down. That seems like a really simple starting place to me: if somebody is obviously in the throes of despair at some point in their life, to have to be chucked into a place which just reflects despair is almost violently perverse. Because actually it smacks of 'This is as good as it gets. Just be thankful that you've got a bed and four walls.' The difference between that kind of care when you pay for it and the public domain care is beyond shocking."
Bradfield admits that, over the years the Manics have made "massive mistakes." He cites being photographed while shaking hands with Cuban leader Fidel Castro as one. "No matter how many good things he's done, he's definitely done some bad things too. And, at the end of the day, what dies that photo say except for, 'I endorse you?'"
One politician he does seem happy to endorse though is prime minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown. "I love Gordon Brown," he enthuses. "He is a true intellectual, he really cares about the Labour party and he finds politics exciting, which I like in him I think Labour could win the next election but it would be very close to a hung parliament. What scares me more than anything is that, for a man who had the promise of greatness like Gordon Brown, perhaps it's been fucked up for him. I hate the idea that he might have to school himself in the dark arts of having to paint on a smile and pay attention to the tie that he's going to wear and get his hair cut. I hate the thought of Gordon Brown being degraded like that I like the idea of us having a crumpled jumper-wearing prime minister."
As for what's next for the Manics, they've already started preliminary work on a new album, which will be released in the first half of next year - following the 'official' end of their two year break, of course. It will, promises Bradfield, be "much more aggressive, more rock 'n' roll" And after that? "I find it hard to envision us splitting up. Myself and Nick have been best mates since I was five years old and with Sean [Moore - Manics drummer] being my cousin, we've known each other since I was two. For us to not actually be making music together would be too bizarre. I think if nick turned into some mad indie film director and we just made music for those; that would be what the Manics are then, It feels like, once you're in, you're in."