A little mystery in a band's evolution can reel in even the most cynical music press. But in the case of the Manic Street Preachers, last year's eerie disappearance of their troubled guitarist-lyricist Richey James - anorexic, alcoholic, drug abuser and self-mutilator - is more tragedy than mystery. Especially since the group, who hail from a small town about 30 miles north of Cardiff, Wales, was already mourning the death of their manager from cancer. "The only time we've been in Rolling Stone in the last three years is a little footnote saying, 'Rhythm guitarist in Manic Street Preachers has gone missing,' " singer-guitarist James Dean Bradfield is saying in a downtown hotel room prior to tonight's gig at the Horseshoe.
"That kind of mythological viewpoint is an easy kind of foothold in a new territory and, unfortunately, sometimes it is a marketability factor by some people, which is quite unsettling." James vanished from a London hotel Feb. 1, 1995 on the eve of the band's American tour. His car was discovered four days later. To this day, his fate remains unknown. "I never catch myself thinking that he's dead," says Bradfield, who adds the prospect of Richey showing up on his doorstep tomorrow is truly frightening.
"I'd be very surprised. I'd be very scared and shocked and completely bewildered. To be honest, I don't really think about it that much. It's too scary to think about now. "The only thing I would hope is that if he is alive, I just hope he's happy. I don't know if I really want to see him again because he's too scary. He's not my best friend anymore." Bradfield also says he and his two other bandmates had no other choice but to carry on Manic Street Preachers as a trio.
"We've all known each other other since we were about five years old, and what people don't understand about what I call 'The Richey Thing' -- which may sound a bit cold -- is that it was all much more personal than professional. At the end of the day the things that we miss is like, 'I won't be going out for a drink with him anymore or I won't be buying him a birthday present anymore,' they're the things that I find hard to deal with, but actually kind of carrying on and recording an album with some of his lyrics, to me, was the easiest thing."
After the five numb months following James's disappearance, the three remaining Preachers wound up going to France to make their fourth album, Everything Must Go, for which they had already written seven of the 12 tracks. Ironically, it has turned out to be their most successful release ever. The first single, A Design For Life, has sold 200,000 copies in Britain and their UK tour was completely sold out. So now that the band has finally made it to America -- they begin a three-week tour with headliners Oasis on Tuesday in Chicago -- there is much anticipation, even fear. The Preachers' last album, The Holy Bible, didn't even get released in the United States or Canada.
"It's the first time since we started as a band that we know that we'll playing in front of audiences that potentially don't know any of our songs whatsoever," says Bradfield. "And that's really scary but it's quite liberating in a sense as well. Just in terms of it does feel as if you can start again and at the age of 27 you don't really expect to get that chance."