Manic Street Preachers were arguably the biggest UK rock band of the 1990s and are still going strong today. On a brief sabbatical from the band to record a solo album we caught up with frontman James Dean Bradfield to talk about the future of the Welsh rockers, how he feels now about the disappearance of bandmate and friend Richey James and why they went to Cuba to perform in front of Fidel Castro.
What triggered you to write a solo record?
I’ve been writing songs with Nick (Wire, MSP bassist) since 1986 and we just realised we had to have a break. As much as anything we had to give the audience a break. But within the first month off I realised that I was going crazy, potting plants and cleaning out the cleaning products cupboard. Seriously, it was horrible. I realised I couldn’t not have (puts on self-mocking comic accent) music in my life man. So it kinda came out of boredom, frustration then anger which eventually turned into writing again.
You’re playing solo shows at the V Festival - is that intimidating?
Yeah, playing a festival will be odd. I mean as a band we never really liked them. We’ve always managed to engage the audience but I think with other people it’s gonna be a challenge, it’s gonna be hard. I’ve had to teach a band the album from scratch.
Do you think the Manic Street Preachers are still relevant to a younger audience?
I’m not gonna pretend we’re connected to a youth market. But when we toured last time we’d definitely picked up some new fans. It’s a mixture of that and the people that have been buying our records since 1990.
Can we expect more from the Manics?
If me doing the solo thing and Nick too (Wire is readying a solo album) doesn’t make us stronger as a band, I’d be gutted. We’ve known each other since we were born. The next Manics album is coming along well and I reckon it’s gonna be really rock ‘n’ roll.
The band have never shied away from rock ‘n’ roll posturing - at the beginning of your career you said you’d split up after one million selling album? What happened?
We kind of went Plan B. We realised we couldn’t be the Sex Pistols and then we tried to be The Clash and we couldn’t do that. But you know, at least we always failed on our own terms. I mean we set ourselves the most ridiculous targets and we failed. I mean we did say we’d self-immolate on Top Of The Pops which is quite a high benchmark in rock ‘n’ roll terms (laughs), but obviously that was never gonna happen. If we hadn’t broken those promises we made to ourselves we wouldn’t have got Holy Bible, If You Tolerate..., Everything Must Go etc... You know, I’m glad we didn’t split up.
Richey disappeared in 1995 - does he remain in your thoughts a lot?
I mean obviously things do fade with time. Shortly after he disappeared there was a lot of speculation in the press all of which was rubbish. I know we all bought in to rock mythology. But what’s really annoying is when people try to possess the notion of Richey and they think that they understand more than we do as a band. I think the rock press tried to turn him into some sort of perfect hero and he was much more interesting than that. Regardless of his search for something perfect, whether it was the perfect girl or the perfect cup of tea, he was much more complicated than that. He had a deep creativity and intellect and that’s what made him a pleasure to be around. But he was a difficult character. But difficult and creative people are a privilege to know.
How did the Cuba trip come about? And what was it like meeting Castro?
In a strange way it was like our first trip to America. We’d played the record company game up until 1995 and we just felt the only places we could go that weren’t gonna be really commercial were China and Cuba. And we couldn’t do China ‘cos Wham had already done it (laughs). The only thing that really disappoints me is a picture of me shaking hands with Fidel Castro, because I really didn’t want to do that. That’s when I realised we’re just a bunch of rock musicians. I’d never want to shake any politician’s hand really. It just says to people “you endorse everything I stand for”, which I don’t. I was inspired by the people we met out there. A lot of people were at peace with themselves - not in a corny b******t way - they just seemed civically proud. They were friendly and hospitable, the flipside, of course, is that there’s not the freedom there should be and people are force fed things. And yeah, the poverty in Havana was extreme. I mean the first thing a revolution is supposed to do is get rid of the symbolism of the gun and the gun is still everywhere as a symbol. It was a really strange experience.
I remember watching the Manics at the Reading Festival in 1992 and Nicky throwing his bass into the crowd at the end and hitting a security guard. Did you have to make a fast exit? What happened next?
I can’t remember running that fast. I remember getting the train home in time to see Match Of The Day. I remember Nick throwing the bass and, of course, not meaning to hurt anybody. But yeah, I can remember it hitting him and then him turning round and giving this look. And it doesn’t matter how much bravado you’ve got, no one is gonna fancy their chances against a team of security guards. I remember me and my manager talking to the head security guard and just pleading with him that there was no way in the world that he meant to do that. That was a great festival though, our first. I always wanted to play Reading more than Glastonbury because it had that kind of rock history and there was a real indie thing that year as well. There was Nirvana, Public Enemy, Butthole Surfers, stuff like that. I remember seeing the Surfers it was f***ing brilliant they had this woman onstage naked and she stood over a bottle and just p****d in it. I was enjoying the gig up until then. Things were more rock ‘n’ roll in those days, I guess, I remember J Mascis (frontman of seminal grunge rockers Dinosaur Jr) talking about Richey self-mutilating (In 1991 Richey gained notoriety when NME journalist Steve Lamacq questioned the Manics' seriousness. In response, Richey took out a razor blade and carved "4 Real" into his forearm). He said: “That’s nothing man, I know people who’ve tried to chop their own heads off.” Yeah, it was an extreme time. People spent years and years together making the music they loved so they genuinely gestated in an environment where the music they made and the people they hung out with shaped them. Whereas now, everyone seems very ambitious from the word go.
What are you listening to these days?
There’s this new band called The Horrors that I’m really into. They’re not quite signed to a proper label yet. But they’re like The New York Dolls and early Birthday Party. It’s kinda gothic, a bit experimental but also kind of glammy. Their single was called Sheena Is A Parasite. I just think they’re f*****g brilliant. I heard at one of their gigs the lead singer goes insane. I like the idea of someone being so out of control. Other than The Horrors I really like Ed Harcourt’s new album. He’s like the British Tom Petty.
Are you a football fan?
Football is fairly low down on my list of priorities. I go and see Luton now and again when they’re playing a Welsh team - whether it’s Swansea or Cardiff. But football is based on hate and enmity. I’ll support England in any other sporting event if necessary. I even supported England in the rugby World Cup Final...and that’s big for me. My sporting hero of all time is Martin Johnson. Michael Owen lives in Wales, his parents are from Wales he’s f***** Welsh. Owen Hargreaves came through the Welsh FA system and you f****** stole him off us. Heh, but you might say, you can have him back.
What’s your favourite Manics record and why?
I think it’s Everything Must Go. It was our first record post-Richey and there’s some of Richey’s lyrics on there. I just think it’s a great record.