When Guitarist travelled to Cardiff to meet Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield, on the eve of the release of his band, 10th studio album, we found a man still in love with his chosen art form and ready to defend it against those who would herald its demise.
For a band whose breakthrough single back in 1991 ended with the cry "We live in urban hell/We destroy rock and roll", Manic Street Preachers have spent the best part of the last 20 years doing a pretty good job of fighting its corner. At the forefront of that fight has been guitarist and singer James Dean Bradfield. Fashions, trends and entire genres have come and gone since the band's formative years in the South Wales valleys of the late 1980s. But the Manics' quest to reach the homes of the many via the medium of riff-driven rock and blazing guitar solos has rarely wavered. "I suppose we were always a bit out of step," reminisces Bradfield.
Manic Street Preachers' latest album, Postcards From A Young Man, is a very different beast from last year's Journal For Plague Lovers. Where that album used lyrics from missing guitarist Richey Edwards [who disappeared in 1995] to revisit the dark heart of seminal 1994 release The Holy Bible, Postcards finds redemption in euphoric pop melodies and classic rock tones. In that way, it follows in the tradition of the Bible's follow-up, the mega-selling Everything Must Go. But the album wasn't entirely a reaction to its predecessor, as Bradfield explains.
"There were one or two of these new songs knocking around before Journal," he says, "including Golden Platitudes, which was written by Nick [Nicky Wire, bassist).
"What happened was that with Journal we were basically being Richey's backing band, because we were using only Richey's lyrics, so it was really the first time in Nick's life that he wasn't writing any lyrics for a record, where he was being just a musician, just writing music and playing with myself and Sean [Moore, drummer]. So naturally during this period, as well as playing in that backing band, he started creating a traffic jam of lyrics. So before we went on tour to America in September 2009, we started writing.
"It was a strange, schizophrenic experience, I suppose, doing the dark, tethered reality of Journal but all the while something else is gestating that has more of an escapist nature. That's always been the nature of the band though, there have always been two versions of us: there's the version that does Journal and The Holy Bible and there's the version that does Everything Must Go, Send Away The Tigers and Postcards From A Young Man."
The last time James spoke to Guitarist, back in 2004 [issue 257], the band had just released Lifeblood, a record he now perceives as something of a failure, but which represented the band's most experimental departure from either of those aforementioned approaches.
"My two first loves, guitarist-wise, were Stuart Adamson and Steve Jones," says Bradfield, "and I suppose my third great love was John McGeogh of Siouxsie And The Banshees and Magazine. There's a kind of netherworld between those influences, which Stuart Adamson kind of bridges, and Bill Nelson [Be-Bop Deluxe] does a bit as well. And Lifeblood does share some of those influences but in a colder, more austere way.
"I think that's why Lifeblood was perceived to have failed a bit, though, because if there were already the two versions of us that I've talked about, why were we trying to find a third? I always think it's interesting when a band goes against its nature, but do you really need a third version of yourself? I'm not sure. But it's helped the band stay together, whenever we've needed to escape we've been able to swap hosts, so to speak."
Talking of the band's need to rediscover their values in the aftermath of that release, Bradfield continues: "Lifeblood wasn't really boiling over with anything, whereas there's always been a certain grandiose nature to what we do. As people, we theorise too much anyway, be it politics or music or whatever, but to take that a step too far does affect your value judgment. I think we're at our best when we're 50 per cent stupid and 50 per cent pretentious. I think a song such as You Love Us works because it's bold and it's brash and it's just a bit daft. It has some pretension to reach beyond its own goals.
"But inevitably I think we remembered that we are a product of a working class, blue-collar culture in the valleys. We were a product of those valleys that were shaped by industry, by a culture of people turning the idea into the kinetic. If we take that physical, sporting element away from the music, and it doesn't bubble over or try to escape itself and become slightly grandiose, then we lose some of the exciting nature of what we are.
"We do come from a punk-rock background, but we also come from a very digested, pretentious, nerdy background too, and fusing those two things together is why we work sometimes... and sometimes it's why we fail, you know? In other words, if the song isn't working after half an hour of playing it together then we just dump it and move on. You need to have that rock 'n' roll edge to things that we always loved when we were young.
"You've got to realise that rock is nothing without a roll, that's why early Guns N' Roses were so amazing. They weren't just a metal band, there was a rock and a roll. And I think we lost sight of that a bit."
The revitalised band also seems to have rediscovered the work ethic that saw them put out their first three albums (one a double) between 1992 and 1994. Postcards From A Young Man is their third since 2007's Send Away The Tigers. Bradfield thinks it was almost inevitable.
"I think we rediscovered what it was to be in love with being in the band again," he says. "If you're going to be in a band as long as we have then you're going to have blips, but with Send Away The Tigers we really rediscovered what it was like to just get in a room and play together. You've got to let your instincts take over, and once we let our instincts kick back in and stopped being so precious about the process of recording, we fell back in love. We can't get enough of being in a band at the moment.
"But there's another thing feeding into the impetus that we've had: journalism has always been really important to us, but these days, more often than not, a music journalist will talk to you about the state of the industry and not about the music you make. So many commentators want to tell you your industry's fucked rather than talk about the music, and I think we felt as if we were defending the art form of the album on this one. That definitely sounds overly earnest and a bit pompous, but we did feel like that. We don't want to talk about digital platforms or the impact the global village has had on music, we just want to make an album that knits together and sits in the landscape like it used to.
"When I was young, Never Mind The Bollocks had as much of an effect on me as Guernica had on people. Let It Be had more of an effect on people than the fucking Mona Lisa did in the Renaissance, and music used to have that place in the cultural landscape, so there was a subconscious thing about trying to defend the album as an art form, perhaps even rock music, albeit with a pop edge. We don't want to talk about digital platforms we just want to make music, and if we're fiddling while Rome burns then so be it."
Defending rock music as an art form is not a new fight for the Manics: in the indie-obsessed early nineties it was the glammed up Welshmen who argued rock was the only genre to which they could be true.
"It was for us," James reaffirms, "and this is a continuation of that. Rock music is still vital, it can still turn on a part of your brain which has perhaps laid dormant.
"But going back to our early days, it was a South Walian thing back then. Certain parts of the UK, such as the Black Country and South Wales, were very much driven by heavy rock. We were jealous of Public Enemy, that's why we tried to fold them into our philosophy at the start. We knew we couldn't be that, but we knew there was something vital there that we needed to be a part of, whether it was just consuming their albums or wearing their badges.
"So many great records have had that impact. Infected by Matt Johnson [as The The] had as much impact on me as reading Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. And Matt Johnson was the one who made me read Nausea in the first place. If Matt Johnson could inspire me with his music and his way of expressing certain malcontents in his music and turn me on to a book that inspired him, then it's a brilliant way of circumnavigating knowledge and culture itself. And music used to be the best way of circumnavigating all things."
Looking back to debut album Generation Terrorists and the sleeve notes that attributed a quote from the disparate likes of Karl Marx, Chuck D and Valerie Solanas to each song, circumnavigating culture is something the band have long been about.
"There was always a misconception about that," says Bradfield. "There's an inverted snobbery where certain people think it's vulgar to talk about influences or wear them, literally, on your sleeve. But so many of those quotes were put there to articulate an idea we were trying to finish, you know? If you don't quite get it, then go to this and someone more erudite than us might be able to explain it for you. It wasn't some kind of reading club, where we were saying, here, look what we like."
With some of the great outpourings that have passed for Manic Street Preachers song lyrics in the past, it's little wonder the band looked for ways to make them as penetrable as possible. And it's a great wonder that Bradfield was ever able to set them to such memorable, sometimes even radio-friendly, music. In the early days he would be handed pages of words by Edwards and Wire, but even though he's recently set music to both men's lyrics again, the process has evolved somewhat.
"The bedrock is still the same in that Nick'll give me a lyric. He'll talk about it two weeks before to give me a heads up and a title - titles are the things that get me going, I don't know why - and then he'll give me the lyric. But there are certain things that have changed, and for the better I think. Say on Your Love Alone Is Not Enough [the first single from Send Away The Tigers] he wrote the words and half the music and then I finished it off. That was really good, because that's what me and Sean used to do.
"And then on this record there's Golden Platitudes, that Nick wrote in its entirety, which is a great song. That was strange for me, being just a guitarist - and a singer, though I'm used to that - because usually when I write a song there are so many little bits on the guitar that I lean towards straight away when I'm writing a tune. So actually having to come up with guitar parts for somebody else's tune is a new experience for me. The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever is Nick's song as well, and that was also really interesting, because he just said he wanted a Stonesy vibe. So I went to the guitar, detuned it and did what I thought he wanted straight away. No one's ever come to me before and said, This is what I want from you as a guitarist, and that was a really good experience for me."
The other significant event that took place in between Lifeblood and the emergence of the reinvigorated Manics was the release of Bradfield's [and separately Wire's] debut solo album. But it didn't prove to be a case of wish fulfilment. "I think Nick benefited from the solo experience more than me," says James. "I think I missed the motivation of having to please Nick, Richey and Sean, that was the bottom line. I missed bringing something to a band who've been friends pretty much all my life. I missed walking in and playing something to them for the first time and them saying that they liked it. I realised that that has always been my biggest motivation in the band."
And despite Bradfield's virtuosity, there is evidence throughout Postcards From A Young Man that this is a band record. "There was one different thing we did on this record as well," explains Bradfield, "because Sean was having a kid and Nick had just had one and we couldn't all be around at the same time. So I would come in and just lay down an acoustic demo to a click - just vocals and acoustic guitar-and then Sean and Nick would come in and listen to what I'd left: The Descent, Hazelton Avenue and A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun, they came in and listened to my demo and Sean just played along with that. And I discovered that Sean is probably better without me being there saying, Do this and do that. It changed the direction of Hazelton Avenue, which was originally written as a half-time, Thin Lizzy kind of thing, but he brought it right down to almost a shuffle and it was much better for it. I love Sean's drumming and there's not another drummer I want to work with, because he just helps the vocals so much it's unbelievable."
Hazelton Avenue is a song really driven by its riff, so was that how it began? "Yeah, it did. I knew what the song was about, I knew the feelings that were manifest in the song and I knew the time and place that the song was about. It was just about the flip side of giving in to the glossy consumerist moment, which we all can do. It was just one of those days when Nick was wandering around looking at art and stationery in a well-heeled section of town, and it's just about giving in to that. To think that great things can come out of boredom, and when I was writing the riff, I wanted to convey that idea of him just wandering around stroking stationery for a couple of hours. That's a strange thing to write a song about, I know."
Postcards is an album that has most in common with the band's nineties output and Bradfield acknowledges that the gear he gravitated towards generally reflected that fact.
"I'm not going to pretend there's any great innovation on Postcards," he says, "there's just lots of classic-rock signatures, lots of pop songs, but we're in thrall to our first musical loves: early Queen, ELO and Mott The Hoople. It might not be innovative but it's very evocative, so therefore the only tricks that were used were some altered tunings, a mandola, which probably comes from a Waterboys memory of mine, but otherwise it really is just lots of amps and lots of guitars. Not the most exciting thing to say in the world..."
Well, you are talking to Guitarist...
"I think I'd got into the habit ofjust using my trusty old steeds for awhile, but I started dragging out guitars I hadn't used for years...Are we in Guitarland here?"
Yes, and we can stay as long as you like.
"There was a '62 Strat that I've never got on with. I bought it because it looked amazing, one of the only times I've ever done that. It plays nicely, but I'd never managed to get any results out of it. Before this record I was looking through the lock-up and I thought, It really is wasteful that I've got lots of stuff here that I've bought and never used. The things I really got out of the locker again were the '62 Strat, which is just amazing, and my old Burman amps. I had an obsession with those when I was younger because where we recorded Motown Junk [their 1991 breakthrough single] there was a Burman amp in the studio and I'd never come across an amp that sounded like it - it was called the Poor Man's Marshall. There was the Gretsch White Falcon, which was a wedding present from Sean - which I'm sure his wife was thrilled about - and I'd never had a good result out of that, but I discovered it sounded amazing through a Vox, so I used that on a lot of things. There was also a black 1980s Les Paul, which I had the pickups changed in. I had one of the Angus Young pickups put in, and a Seymour Duncan in another position. Suddenly it was a new guitar again.
"Another one Sean bought me a couple of years ago for my birthday was one of the Burns Brian May guitars, and I'd never got on with it. But there's a guy here in Cardiff who deals with a lot of the Fryer pedals, and he does the one that does the Brian May thing when you use two Vox amps with all the tones turned down and put the splitter box in... Turn the Fryer box up full and you've got as close to 'the' sound as you can get.
"I used that a lot: the All We Make Is Entertainment solo, the solo on (It's Not War) - Just The End Of Love, Hazelton Avenue I used it on A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun as well but with a different set-up. So suddenly a guitar I'd never got on with I did, strangely enough, using Brian May's set-up. How did that happen?
"My first ever amp I bought, an old transistor amp, I started using that a lot more. Oh, and a John 5 Tele, which I said I wanted last time I spoke to Guitarist. Sean bought it: he's a drummer who buys guitars! And I used the Blackstar Artisan, which is a fucking great amp, and a Watkins Westminster. Say you're using an Artisan and a Marshall 900, you can put the Westminster in the chain and it comes through the middle of the other two and sounds fucking beautiful."
So the famous Marshall JCM900 still gets a work out?
"Well I was actually using a Marshall 900 combo. A lot of people don't get on with the 900 because they think it's a Warrant 'Cherry Pie' amp, and they do have a bit of top-end fizz to them, but if you tame them they sound really good. I've seen people struggle with the 900 because if you turn it up too much you've got to control it, but that's what I love about it. "Other guitars were a '68 330 I hadn't used for years, a '78 white Thinline Tele I hadn't used for years - I'm really ashamed that I let them languish there. "But the one thing that always stays is my original '90 white Les Paul through the 900 with a BOSS Hyper Fuzz with none of the fuzz settings, but with the gain setting up. That's still my sound."
And the band are taking that sound on the road again in September and October for a mammoth UK tour. The sterile atmosphere of the country's arenas, it seems, is a thing of the past for a guitarist so in thrall to rock's romance.
"We just want to pretend that it's the seventies and play theatres. I think in this day and age, when you're being told that all tradition is dead, it's one of the last things you can do that hasn't changed. It's still the most old-school rock 'n' roll experience you can get, because you're playing venues where David Bowie and The Clash played.
"I've played big venues, we could have done a six-date arena tour instead of a five-week theatre tour but... Don't get me wrong, I loved the experience of playing the Millennium Stadium on New Year's Eve, but it doesn't get much better than playing Bristol Colston Hall or a venue like that - it gives you that 'Footlights' feeling." What's that journey like for an artist, from tiny club to the Millennium Stadium?
"It is weird: when we played the Millennium Stadium, just across the road is a venue called the Square Club where three people had seen us in 1988. I don't know if I'm switched on enough as a person, or conscious enough as a brain, to know what the difference is. I just know that when it goes perfectly, playing a gig in front of 2-4,000 people is an irreplaceable experience. You can't get close to it!"
Looking back over a 20-year career now, does he hear their influence in new music?
"Not at all, no."
That's rather interesting, isn't it?
"I don't think I hear our influence in any new bands, but it doesn't upset me, I don't need the accolades. But it's kind of weird. Nick said once that maybe people don't want to take on the mantle of being the successor to Richey, to bear the brunt of all those problems on their shoulders and take a journey into the inner dark realm of oneself and subsequently end like it ends. No one wants that challenge.
"All musicians now are friends with each other, and to be bluntly honest I've never wanted to be friends with musicians, ever. My dad didn't hangout with carpenters when he wasn't at work. So we never looked to hang out with musicians, we never looked to have a bearing on the way other bands sound. I suppose we were always a bit out of step, and we had the underdog status of coming from Wales, where there was a bit of a cultural vacuum, so we just had a scattergun philosophy. We felt like the world was trying to destroy our community, so we wanted to go out and destroy them. And I think from that day on our stall was set out.
"We're not a muso band, either, I don't think I'm engaged enough in the technical aspects to inspire other musicians, I don't worry about chords and stuff .." So, what's your favourite chord? "(Laughs) I dunno!"
Perhaps one reason no band has followed faithfully in the footsteps of the Manics is the idea that no band could do what they do as well as they do it themselves, even after all this time.
"10 albums feels like a benchmark," confesses Bradfield. "I suppose that's why there's an undeniable hint of nostalgia about the music and the title of the record. It's rich in its own history. I read somewhere that the average lifespan of a band is one-and-a-half albums, so to get to 10 feels momentous. And it feels momentous to have gone through certain things and still absolutely love what we do.
"So it does feel like a benchmark, but I do see it going beyond that. I do. If you tell me to try and envisage a time without the band, I imagine that will be the first time I ever go and see a shrink. To try and make me live without it would be bad news, I would turn into some gibbering wreck.
"I have a lot of respect for journalism and music journalism, and even a bad review will teach you things about yourself. But the one thing journalists never tap into is that they can never know what it's like to be given a lyric and to see it as a challenge. Take Faster or A Design For Life, to think If 1 fuck this up I've fucked something up that's really important. Because they're two amazing lyrics, they both crystallise a feeling that's in me but I could never articulate. So if I fuck this up with the music, it's my fault, they'll never get out there the way the message or idea should be out there. And the excitement of getting it right with your friends is something that a cynic should have to experience to get some understanding, because it's a brilliant experience."