The new solo album by James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers is as good as anything the band has done. But, he tells Neil McCormick, he is nagged by self-doubt
"Most interesting bands start as an idea," says James Dean Bradfield. "It's not really about music; it's dark science. To rely on something intangible can be disconcerting, but you get a lot of power from it. There's serendipity involved, telepathy. It's voodoo."
Bradfield is vocalist and guitarist with the Manic Street Preachers, one of Britain's best-loved bands, a spiky gang of punky, Welsh ideologues who rose through the '90s Britpop boom to become stadium-filling anthemicists.
Bradfield is by some distance the most accomplished musician in a band whose gang mentality and cohesive character make them more than the sum of their parts. His intense love for the Manics is evident in everything he says about them. Yet he has just recorded his first solo album, The Great Western (released by SonyBMG next month), a subject on which he seems, by contrast, curiously ambivalent. "It feels very strange doing something outside the circle," he admits.
Bradfield's hesitant, self-questioning demeanour ("I really hate the paralysis of analysis; that's when it all starts to unravel for me") suggests he is not at all sure he has done the right thing. "I wanted Sean [Moore, the Manics' drummer] to play on the record," he says, "but he is unbelievably loyal to some indefinable Manics spirit, whatever that shining light might be."
Bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire, meanwhile, has made his own solo album, to which Bradfield contributed, as Wire has to Bradfield's. It will be released in September. Which prompts the question, why make a solo album when you have a perfectly good band available?
The answer lies in the Manics' almost doctrinal character. They are a band much given to manifestos and polemical statements, defining themselves by often quite arbitrary rules "We practised denial-ism," says Bradfield of the early Manics. "We believed in keeping things tight and clean - no bagginess, no fun, no smiles, no laughter, no love." The group were disappointed with their poppy seventh studio album, 2004's Lifeblood. "It was as if we had almost fallen out of love with rock music."
But, rather than quietly address their problems, they announced a self-imposed, two-year hiatus. It has proved too long for Bradfield, who was back in the studio within months. "Music was an itch I couldn't scratch. So it was either make a solo record or join a bar band."
In my column last week, I asked if anyone has ever made a solo album - while still in a band - that was as good or better than the band's work. A huge music fan (with a trainspotter-ish fascination for rock marginalia), the question has Bradfield stumped. "That doesn't bode well," he mutters. But, for all his self-doubt, he may actually have done it.
A juicy pop-rock belter full of cascading melodies and criss-crossing harmonies, The Great Western is certainly an improvement on the Manics' last outing. It sounds very much like the Manics, but there is a quality of joyfulness that may surprise.
"In terms of backing vocals and melodies, a lot of it is quite florid," says Bradfield. "There's a certain bounce to it that would be almost morally wrong for the Manics."
It is an interesting interpretation of the concept of morality but it suggests, despite his reservations, that Bradfield has been liberated from his group's ascetic ethos. "I felt as if I could get away with things, which is lovely, really."
Bradfield has never been a lyricist in the Manics, instead writing melodies to the words of Richey Edwards (Manics polemicist-in-chief, who disappeared in 1995) and Nicky Wire.
"Doing the solo album, I backed myself into a corner. To be quite truthful, I do wonder if I have enough to say."
Curiously, it is in the shaded areas of uncertainty that Bradfield has found his own lyrical voice, writing an emotional, highly personal and literate set of songs centred on his complicated feelings about his relationship with Wales and England.
"I moved away from Wales as a young man, but I have been drifting back over the years. It's quite horrible sometimes, the intangible sense of something calling you, and not knowing what it is.
"I was drinking in a place in the valleys a while back and got to chatting to an older bloke. He said, 'Don't forget, the mountains will never let you go.' That's not something wistful; it's really true. It fascinates me how you can change so much as a person, but there can be something inside you, a small spot you can never eradicate, which can be something as simple as a landscape, which affects the way you think and feel."
Bradfield believes he and Wire's solo adventures will add some "light and shade" to the Manic Street Preachers, but I don't expect he will be fighting for the inclusion of his words. If anything, the solo experience has only made him more conscious of the comfort and support he finds belonging to a group. Performing shows with a band of hired hands has proved "a tiny bit upsetting".
"Live was always going to be the hardest bit," he says. "I must have played over a thousand shows with the Manics. I used to love it when Nicky and Richey, without even looking at each other, would both jump in the air at the same time. It makes you feel as if you're an unstoppable force.
"Now people are looking at me and thinking, 'Right, you're a songwriter are you? Engage me then. Come on, show me what you got.' That's hard."