Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield tells Paul Smith why the band always have a message to share.
"We are a different band again; it's like there are two versions of us. That's been confusing for us sometimes and it's been confusing for our audience sometimes, but I think whenever we get bored with the one version of the band we just go in and become the other and that's just been great for us. It was never by design, it just happened that way." Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield is the first to accept that over the course of 20 plus years and ten studio albums his band from Wales have flitted between different styles and tones. At times they have been dark and intense, whilst other periods have seen them exude a more classic rock sound, yet whatever the incarnation they have always managed to hold on to their fans.
The band's latest album Postcards From A Young Man, following last year's Journal For Plague Lovers, sees those extremes hit the highest differential since 1996's Everything Must Go lifted their mood from the depths of its 1994 predecessor The Holy Bible. In both cases they have followed up darkly poetic offerings with a much cleaner and more commercially friendly release. The approach worked wonders for them the first time with Everything Must Go, bringing them the sort of mass appeal that somewhat belied their altogether punkier origins. Bradfield recalls how that came about. "I think up until them we were almost like a cult band on a major label," he recounts. "Everything Must Go was our crucial fourth album - which I think more often than not is the best album from all bands - and it just came to the point where we managed to distil everything down in our writing. We wanted to make any little bits of what you might call a message easier to understand ourselves, let alone the audience, so rather than trying to tell somebody something in a full verse of a song, we'd do it in one line of a song. I just think we became more of a musical band at that point and people therefore understood where we were coming from. Suddenly where before people were like, 'Oh they're a bunch of mad fuckers from Wales,' they then thought, 'Ah they're a bunch of made fuckers - but we kind of understand them a bit more now!"
Much of that was a necessary move for the band to make from a somewhat overpowering and claustrophobic period. Bradfield can clearly see parallels with their new release, which follows an album written entirely using entrusted lyrics left to them by their missing (presumed deceased) friend and band member Richey Edwards. He explains, "When we came off the back of Journal For Plague Lovers it was just like coming out the back of The Holy Bible. It had been such an intense and disciplined experience that we just wanted to let the music breathe in the next set."
The result is an altogether more accessible album with its moments of orchestration, gospel choirs and plenty of rousing choruses. Despite the return of an obviously more commercial sound though, it still manages to beat a Manics heart that Bradfield puts down to the way they tailor their lyrics, which can have quite an angular edge, to music that has a lot of mainstream rock elements to it. Does the band ever feel any pressure to revert back too their original more rebellious punk though? "It's funny, you've asked the question in a converse fashion, do we feel pressure to keep those punk roots in there and I would say 'yes', you've hit it on the head actually," Bradfield responds. "People always think that we feel pressured to make things more radio playable and put strings on there, but I don't feel any pressure to do that. But yeah, I do feel sometimes if there's not enough political songs on a record - and there only needs to be three or four - it's as if we're betraying our slightly punk roots kind of thing."
By way of example, the anthemic new track All We Make Is Entertainment is an attack on the lack of support the (now ex) UK Labour Government gave to manufacturing industries, with the selling off of resolutely British Cadbury brand to the American Kraft company being the last straw for the band. The undertone of the title becomes clear given that explanation. Whilst they have remained true to such social and political songwriting motivations, Bradfield expresses his surprise and disappointment that latter day bands don't feel the same passion: "It is kind of amazing and it puzzles me that we've had two wars and the longest and deepest recession in Britain for a long time, but no bands are writing any songs about it. None at all," he says. "Don't get me wrong, I don't think that when a band makes an album every song has to be political, I just mean perhaps there could be one song on there that tackles one of these subjects. I don't want to sound pious or fucking pompous or earnest about it, but it truly staggers me that this generation do not write songs about those things. We were always just the opposite; perhaps we're just really strange people, but we always try and react to things such as how we feel ourselves and the present year that we're living in."
As the band prepare for their first live dates in Australia in over ten years, Bradfield promises that they will play a set that encompasses all eras and personalities. "You know how you get lots of bands that won't play their favourites, won't play the audience's favourite songs? Well we've never been that band," he laughs. "I do kind of believe in the Springsteen-esque kind of entertainment ethic where people have paid to see you, so you go out there and you give them the songs that they want to hear. The one unchanged thing about being in a band whenever you're confronted with how the music industry has changed is that playing live is still the one thing you're still completely in control of. You're still standing on the same stage that David Bowie stood on, you're still standing on the same stage that The Clash stood on and you still actually feel as if you are part of rock'n'roll tradition. You feel as if you're part of something which is lineage which is is kind of rare these days, so I just love playing live."