Sometimes You Need Some Creative Failure to Spur You On - Ultimate Guitar, 26th March 2015
Though Manic Street Preachers' singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield's Pontypool, Wales accent was at times a bit difficult to understand, there was no mistaking the passion and focus he brought to his music.
As they're sometimes colloquially referred to, the Manics released their 12th album titled "Futurology" in July 2014 and it became their highest charting record - number two in the UK - since 2007's "Send Away the Tigers." Which all seemed to indicate that the Welsh band - Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore - has maintained their fans and have been heading in the right direction ever since their debut release titled "Generation Terrorists" nearly two-and-a-half decades ago.
"Sometimes they follow you a bit more than others, hah hah hah," Bradfield says. "We live in a number-crunching age now. Musicians are being forced to cower in the corner and ask for dole outs from multi-national companies that sell shoes and drinks and phones and apps. Bands are being reduced to sitting in the corner and just asking people for advertising money. So we're very aware of how music has been marginalized now and how music has been compromised to a certain degree."
Still, that hasn't lessened Bradfield's drive to create the best music he can. Here he talks about how he has done that and survived the changing tides of music.
UG: Back in the early days, you were listening to Guns N' Roses?
JDB: Yeah, we were kind of a strange mixture. I think all of us were into that post-punk stuff in the '80s. We were all into the Skids, Magazine and Wire but especially but some of the punk stuff like the Pistols and the Clash. Then as the mid-'80s broke, we started switching on to other stuff like the first couple of Public Enemy records and especially the first Guns N' Roses record, "Appetite for Destruction."
There really was a wide range of influences back in that period? Nick [Wire, bassist] was a particular metalhead. He was a big Rush fan, early-era Whitesnake. I kind of surfed on the fringes of some classic hard rock but Nick was a real aficionado of it. What I'm trying to say is I suppose we were all just furiously into music. But "Appetite for Destruction," it just really seemed different.
In what way?
It seemed to kind of destroy hair metal and bands like Warrant. It seemed to put the roll back into rock. It just seemed like this was a heavy rock band that was of early-era Aerosmith and early-era Stones. It had a bit of punk in it as well and there was an edge and an anxiety to that early Guns N' Roses stuff.
You liked that aspect of the music?
We'd been into so much stuff before that but when that arrived it just seemed like we could not ignore it.
Is it true you listened to that record and got your guitar chops together by learning all the songs?
I bought that record and I spent the summer learning the parts from that record. Not saying I learned them perfectly but I spent the whole summer of '88 just trying to get better on the guitar by learning that entire album.
You really dug the guitar stuff that was happening on "Appetite for Destruction?"
It was just amazing and I loved the idea of Slash and Izzy playing off each other. You can hear it in tracks like "Nightrain," "Rocket Queen" and "Sweet Child o' Mine" where Izzy is playing more of a Telly kind of backup rhythm to what Slash does. But sometimes Izzy is poking in there with stuff with licks and stuff and it just seemed like the roll was back into rock basically.
That two-guitar approach was embedded in you with Guns and the Clash?
Yeah, I suppose as a band we were quite irreverent from the start and we had that kind of indelible punk spirit and we were fighting against things. I suppose we were in attack mode from the very start. But it's quite ironic we still respected certain rock 'n' roll traditions.
The respect of certain partnerships in music whether it be Morrissey and [Johnny] Marr or whether it be Jagger/Richards or Brian Jones and Keith Richards or Mick Jones and Joe Strummer. Those pivotal partnerships in rock 'n' roll, we were kind of aware of that everything spun off of it I suppose.
What are your memories of doing that first "Suicide" single?
Well, we only pressed up 300 of "Suicide Alley" and it was self-financed. A genuine, bona fide indie single and about as indie as it can get. We had a little bit of money off our parents; just a few hundred quid here and there. We were expected to gather all the artwork ourselves. We recorded in a basement of a workingman's club or what they called a miner's institute, which was like a refuge for coalminers to go and read books because it was built with miner's money. So there'd be libraries in these places and dance halls and there would even be swimming pools in these places.
Sort of like a Union Hall in the US.
It was recorded in a disused miner's institute in a place called Cwnfelinfach. I remember recording it in the basement of that disused miner's institute. I remember everything about it: I remember being nervous and trying to replicate something off a Clash record.
You specifically wanted to mimic a Clash song?
Kind of the middle section of "Complete Control" with the suspended guitar going din din dindin din dindindin [sings the riff]. I remember Sean playing really fast and me being scared I couldn't keep up. I remember us asking the engineer to turn everything up all the time. And I remember us just feeling as if we'd made a record, which John Peel could play.
You have a lot of.
I just remember that. I remember all dressed in white jeans and black leather jackets. It was the indestructibility of youth I suppose.
You released the "New Art Riot" EP in 1990 on the Damaged Goods label?
Yeah, but it was still all very, very indie. It was guy called Ian Ballard that would come to see us at gigs. We played in front of like 20 people in London - only our second ever gig in London I think - and he just came up to us and this was a guy that was into "MaximumRocknRoll"-era punk. Remember the old mail order international punk fanzine "MaximumRocknRoll"? He was probably into the Lurkers, the Members, the Circle Jerks, et cetera. Early Hüsker Dü and he was always on the lookout for bona fide what he called British punk.
He offered you a deal on Damaged Goods?
He offered to put out our next 12" and we jumped at the chance. It was kind of strange - that was our first misstep. Even though I kind of listening to it now, I remember us being disappointed with that 12" EP.
Why were you disappointed?
Sounds-wise and engineering-wise. It was cool but I think we just wanted the drums to sound a bit more real.
When you released the second single "Motown Junk," that brought a lot more attention to the band?
Yeah, our managers Martin and Philip Hall - they were brothers - came down to see us. They came down with a view to manage us because we'd been seriously sending letters off to everybody in London. They came down to see us rehearse in a schoolroom in South Wales and they asked us to play every song we had. So I suppose had roundabout nine, 10 songs at this point in time. So we played 'em all our songs and "Motown Junk" was the one they pointed out and said, "I like that one. That should be your first proper mainline indie release." Because up until then between "Suicide Alley" and "New Art Riot," there'd only been roundabout 5,000 records out there. "Motown Junk" to some people is the first proper single even though it's not. They pointed out that song was what we should record to be our first released single with them if they became our managers.
You did sign with them, right?
We went with them and went up to London and recorded it in a studio, which "Maggie May" by Rod Stewart had been recorded in. So at that point, that was enough to excite all of us. Even though we were irreverent and we wanted to lay waste to rock and roll history, we were still impressed with the fact we were in this old-fashioned studio where "Maggie May" had been done.
What was that like recording "Motown Junk"?
Yeah, that was just an amazing experience. I think "Motown Junk" was probably the first song where we actually could be the band we were inside our heads but "Motown Junk" was the time we heard it.
That's the first time the possibility of what you could sound like finally came through?
That intent and the intelligence coming through in the music as well.
You've described the Manics a couple times as irreverent, which may explain why you sang the lyric "I laughed when Lennon got shot" in "Motown Junk" because you obviously loved John Lennon and the Beatles.
Yeah, there was an inevitable regret there obviously. There was the irreverence there. It was kind of a really blunt, uncivilized and undiplomatic way of saying, "This is our year zero. We can't pay credence to anybody's legacy anymore." But of course you mix that in with the bluntness of youth and not having enough depth to be a bit more subtle and it ends up like that.
You wish you could take it back?
It is something you regret. I haven't sung that line for a long time now. I haven't sung that line for over nearly 20 years now.
In 1992, you recorded the "Generation Terrorists" album, which was done with Steve Brown who had worked with the Sex Pistols and Wham!
The main thing we chose him for was the "Love" album by the Cult because I was a massive Cult fan. No one was interested but I was into the Cult when they were Southern Death Cult and then they were Death Cult and then they just became the Cult. So the fact he produced "She Sells Sanctuary" and the "Love" album was massively important to us. Some Boomtown Rats records to be serious as well. He did some good stuff with Boomtown Rats and he produced what you would call more erudite, cultured pop records like "ABC." Stuff that was kind of interesting to us even though it was pop, it was still kind of interesting because it was a bit more of a critical faculty with those records. But of course, yeah, he'd also done some Wham! stuff too.
Steve Brown had kind of done it all as a producer.
This was a guy for want of a better phrase thought the song was the master for him. It didn't matter if it was the Cult, the Boomtown Rats or Wham! All he cared about was great songs and that kind of appealed to us I suppose. It was good to have somebody that could hold sway over us in the studio because we kind of had so many mad little ideas. We could have been one of that signed a record deal and never finished their first record if it hadn't been for him. At least he got it done and steered the ship. He kept on forcing us to write one more song.
He really understood that the song is king.
"Motorcycle" wouldn't have really kind of birthed in its shape and form if it hadn't been for him. Because we had the basic shape of the song but he made us add a middle section, which he cannibalized from one of our other demos. He said, "There's no middle section but I've gone through all your demos and you should use the middle section from this old song." Then we had the structure and then he said, "But there's still something missin'" and obviously he looked me and he said, "You play a white Les Paul Gibson. You obviously wanna be known for playing such a bold guitar because there's not many people play that guitar," he said. The only two he could think of was Steve Jones from the Pistols and Lindsey Buckingham.
He said, "If you're playing that guitar, you've got to make a statement with it. You obviously want to so you've got to come up with a riff for this song." So he locked me in the studio for two hours, went away, and when he came back I had something. So that's just a snapshot of what he gave us.
"Stay Beautiful" and "Love's Sweet Exile" had some really nice solos on them.
There was a lot of workin' on solos, hah hah. Because the solos in my head hadn't quite caught up with my ability at that point. I had to be able to kind of sing the solo in the head and then practice it along with the guitar and transfer what was in my head to the guitar. Do a good day to a day-and-a-half practicing before I attempted it in the studio. I suppose the ideas in my head were a couple of feet in front of my hands. But I got there.
How would you describe the "Generation Terrorists" album?
The record's not perfect. It's dated but I kinda like the fact it's flawed and it's dated. It shows we were around in a very specific time that bears no relation to the present day. It shows how long we've been around. That's a snapshot of how much he pushed us and he kind of tried to - how could I put it? - he tried to channel into our kind of vision.
Who would you bring up as particularly influential guitar-wise in this early period?
I could go to Slash but I won't because everybody knows of my love for Slash so I'll go somewhere else. I think two other people need to be credited first so I'll give you two guys: John McGeoch from Magazine. He had an atonal way of interpreting rock 'n' roll. So he would still bring a lot of rock and roll swing to what was I suppose post-punk music but he would put an atonality in there. A dissonance in there that would make you realize you were listening to a new version of rock and roll that wasn't just about dancing. It was also about putting little jagged edges on the music. He was what I would call an avant garde rock 'n' roll guitarist to a certain degree. A tiny bit like Robert Fripp but not as I suppose as blisteringly technical but him. But he just had a good way of skewing the vision of rock 'n' roll.
And who is the second guitar player?
Then the other guy that really, really captured my imagination beyond belief and who I suppose was my biggest guitar teacher at the start was Stuart Adamson from the Skids and Big Country. He was an amazing guitarist and obviously he's not with us anymore.
Those are two guitar players you really don't hear mentioned much.
In terms of lead playing, they were the two people I remember just trying to learn their solos roundabout 1985 to 1986. They taught me a lot just by playing their records in my bedroom and trying to learn their solos.
Who did you listen to after that?
After that, I suppose it was Slash and Steve Jones from the Pistols really had a big effect on me. I was aware of how much power they channeled through their guitar. Steve Jones had a basic plan how he played but he did it so well. There are so many records that wouldn't sound like they do today if it wasn't for how Steve Jones played on "Never Mind the Bollocks." Just the aggression and power he channeled in such a concise and a very kind of ordered way in a strange kind of way. That really affected me.
Certainly that kind of guitar playing became important with the Sex Pistols.
And that kind of power Slash could channel through the starting chords of "Paradise City" or the downbeat chords of "Nightrain" or those very first chords of "It's So Easy." Just that way of damping all the other strings and playing certain strings and having your sound and knowing as soon as you hear that first chord on "It's So Easy," you know it's Slash playing. As soon as you hear that first chord on "God Save the Queen," you know it's Steve Jones playing. I think that's probably the most important rule I was ever taught really.
What's the most important?
It's not as important to be as technically gifted as you can be as it is to have an identity as a guitarist. If somebody played a chord and you know who that guitarist is, that's a very, very, very rare thing. If you think of "Won't Get Fooled Again" - duhdnn [sings first riff] - you know that's Pete Townshend or if you hear the start of "This Charming Man" by the Smiths and even though it's arpeggios, you think, "Who is this guitarist? I want to know who he is." Some people can do it with an initial chord at the start of a song and it's a very rare ability. So between those four guitarists - I could name so many more - they taught me a lot.
You bring up Pete Townshend so did you go back to players like Jimmy Page?
I was at the NME Awards and we had an award for Best Reissue of the Year of "The Holy Bible" from last year. I was caught up in the room backstage where you have your photos done with the award and Jimmy Page had just accepted an award before me. I was caught in this small room with Jimmy Page and it's probably the second time I've ever met him.
You did talk to him?
We said hello and immediately I asked him a technical question about a track. I remember there were two Zeppelin songs I was trying to learn when I was young, which were the two easiest ones I thought: "Out on the Tiles" and "Misty Mountain Hop" obviously because it's so easy but it's just got such swing to it. I asked him a question straightaway and said, "Sorry, Mr. Page. I've always wanted to ask you this. This sounds like a really weird thing but the line on 'Out on the Tiles,' is that got an octave pedal on it? Or was it just you and John Paul Jones following exactly the same notes?"
What did he say?
He said, "Yes, it's just me and John doing exactly the same thing." I had this mad theory and this is just stupid but I thought the guitarist from Hot Chocolate, this band from the '70s, based his whole sound from the way the guitar and bass sound together on "Out on the Tiles." If you listen to some old Hot Chocolate hits, there's always an octave below. He's always using an early octave-izer kind of pedal and I always had this theory the Hot Chocolate guitarist was stealing his entire sound from "Out on the Tiles."
You said that to Page?
I said that to Jimmy Page and he just looked at me as if I was a complete and utter, f--kin' mad deranged fool, hah hah hah.
Who else were you listening to?
I remember playing along to "Toys in the Attic," the album's title track, which just goes duhduddidddle [sings riff] and that's just a brilliant thing to learn when you're 17. Those early Aerosmith albums are just f--kin' amazing. So already I've quoted three more guitarists who have really influenced me. I could go on to so many guitarists, which taught me the way to go. And more than anything just the way they sounded so committed when they committed stuff to vinyl.
Describing what those classic players did as committed is really true.
It was just very, very committed. They were very strident and there was a lot of strut and swagger to what they did, which I find is missing these days. Just because something struts and it swaggers, it doesn't mean you have to be macho. If you just think of any track off "Toys in the Attic," it's just f--kin' amazing. Brilliant. Especially the way Brad and Joe played off each other.
You've listed "Beck's Bolero" as one of your favorite instrumentals so I'm guessing Jeff Beck was one of the guitarists you were listening to?
To be honest, I heard a few tracks off "Beck-Ola" and "Truth" on this rock show when I was young that used to be on Radio One. But I didn't really get a copy of "Beck-Ola" and "Truth" until '92. As soon as I got into him, it was just absolutely amazing. Their version of "Shapes of Things" and "Plynth (Water Down the Drain)." Just absolutely stunning and an amazing band. It's one of the great lost lineups isn't it?
You're talking about the Jeff Beck Group?
I think it's Carmine Appice [James means either drummer Micky Waller or Tony Newman] and Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck. I wouldn't say that Jeff Beck never recovered but he never played in such a furious rock 'n' roll way since those records. You listen to "Blow By Blow" and it's great and I love it. But that thing where he's aware he's the only guitarist in the band and he's got to try and fill the gaps where he's playing lead with little chops on the bottom strings, I'm always attracted to guitarists who put a little different vision on that rock 'n' roll scale. Jeff Beck did do that along with John McGeoch who I referenced earlier.
Jeff Beck was the master of that.
It's the sound of those records and the way the voice is battling with the guitar, I just love it. I'd say that's missing a bit from modern rock 'n' roll. Whether it be Axl battling against Slash or Johnny Marr battling against Morrissey or Steve Tyler battling against Joe Perry or Rod Stewart battling against Jeff Beck. It's an important dimension to rock 'n' roll.
Why do you think you don't have those kinds of vocalist/guitarist battles happening much anymore on modern rock albums?
I think because everything is a bit more co-opted now and everything is a bit more diplomatic. Musicians are so much more aware of their place in the world as being co-opted by brands. They have a chance to [promote] a certain product whether it be an iPhone or a f--kin' sports drink. I think musicians are taught from an early age now that there's a fine line you must tread if you want to be accepted in the world. So I think that bleeds through into the way you record your music. Things become tamer.
There's also the idea that all those Jeff Beck Group and Magazine albums were recorded on tape and everything is now done in Pro Tools.
I think producers and Pro Tools have become much more powerful within music tonally in terms of controlling what a musician does. It's so easy to find the most perfect fit now. It's so easy to find the thing that fits on the radio whereas we didn't used to care about such things I suppose. Bands used to thrive on tension - let's face it. Whether it be Aerosmith, the Pistols or the Clash but you don't hear that so much these days do you?
There was that great tension between Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that fueled those bands.
Even if there wasn't tension, they'd still try and outdo each other. Today, if there's tension in a band, they split up. They're such polite people now that they just can't deal with tension. So it's, "I can't live in this environment. I'm gonna go away and form a splinter project." Bands used to tough it out with each other. They'd go, "F-ck you. F-ck you" but c'mon, they'd still make a record. I think that old-school kind of half-flight blue collar attitude has died away with the homogenization of everything I suppose.
On the second album "Gold Against the Soul," you began what would be a long relationship with producer Dave Eringa. Why have you called this record your least favorite?
Umm, one of. Despite my love of guitar and my adherence to the art of guitar licks, riffs and soloing, I think even though there are some great solos and some good riffs in that record, I think that's what the album is pretty much dependent on. I think the other songs are not as good as they could have been. Nick and Richey [Edwards, rhythm guitar] when he was around kind of admitted saying it was a classic second album.
In what way?
It was slightly hollow. I think we're a band best following our own lead. We're a band best following an idea or we have a little mini-manifesto before a record. With that record we didn't. We just kind of knew we had to do a second record and keep the momentum going and we fell into that very cliched trap. So I think, yeah, the record has some good guitar work in it but it's not enough. It's holding up a bit of an empty fortress.
Would you say you redeemed yourself on the third album "The Holy Bible"?
Exactly. It was a rearguard action against ourselves to a certain extent. We knew we'd failed ourselves and fallen into the biggest rock 'n' roll cliche in the world: the difficult second album. So I kind of think to create something that was borne of a big idea I suppose. Sometimes you need some creative failure to spur you on.
You brought back Steve Brown from the first album to work on "The Holy Bible"?
No. Oh, yeah, only on one track called "She Is Suffering." We convinced ourselves it could be a gothic "Every Breath You Take." How deluded we were because it's probably one of the worst tracks on the record. No, this was recorded in a little redlight area in Cardiff, which has since been demolished in a tiny, little studio [Sound Space Studios] on a 16-track machine. Whereas on the first and second album we'd had all the trappings of being a newly-signed act for Sony, we just felt we had to strip ourselves and disavow ourselves of all those trappings of being a signed act to a major record label.
A return to basics in a way?
We came back to Wales and worked in a very, very low-rent kind of demo studio. We did a record in a demo studio basically. There's a hyper-reality about the lyrics. There's also I suppose not a seediness so much but there's a representation of the dark side of life and this studio fitted all those bills. We'd worked in this studio before and we'd done some B-sides with a guy called Alex Silva we'd formed a relationship with and we did most of the record with him.
This more organic approach really worked for you?
It was definitely the best thing we could have done. We actually recorded on smaller tape; we didn't record on conventional tape. We recorded on tape you'd use for demos usually and recorded on very small 16-track decks. Working within those limitations made everything so vital.
You just celebrated "The Holy Bible"'s 20th anniversary by going out and playing the entire album live. Did you have to go back and listen to the original songs and figure out how to play your own music?
I think you hit the nail on the head. A lot of people expect it to be hard on a different level for us. People expect it to be quite emotional because of Richey's subsequent disappearance but we've dealt with so much stuff internally within the band and we dealt with that since it happened, which is a long time [on February 1, 1995, Edwards disappeared in what has now been regarded as a suicide due to severe drug addiction]. We've been within that situation so to actually play the songs are good memories for us. So the actual difficulties to play the songs were not emotional. They were just purely technical for me.
It was a challenge to relearn your guitar parts?
In its own way even though it's regarded as an album, which has a bit of indelible punk spirit in it, it's quite a muso [musician's] album. There are some awkward, little time signatures on there and the drums are very much linked in with the guitars. The bass is very much linked in with the guitars too and the bass is not always on the bass drum. There's a lot of post-punk chords and effected bass on there, which weaves in and out of the music. And it's quite a muso little record really. I'd say it's a post-punk album influenced by bits of Rush. It's a very kind of infused album, which as soon as you stop concentrating it all falls apart. So there was a technical challenge there and it was a technical challenge to sing with that ferocity at the age of 45, which I was last year.
You tend to focus on learning all the guitar parts and not thinking about getting the vocals right.
I make sure I look after myself on tour to be able to sing all those things. It was technical but I loved the technical aspect of it. I really did.
In 1996, you went back into the studio to do the "Everything Must Go" album, which was the first album without Richey Edwards. Typically you played all the guitars on record previously?
Yeah, Richey not being around didn't change my role in the studio at all. So, yeah, you'd be right in saying that. It changed in many other respects but in the studio was probably the one place where it didn't change it at all.
The production of "Everything Must Go" was fuller than "The Holy Bilble" in terms of strings and synths and that type of thing?
Yeah, but the playing was still very, very live. We went out to a place called Gomfornt in north France with Mike Hedges [Cure, Bauhaus] who produced some of our favorite records in the post-punk era again. He had used to working with putting orchestras on top of post-punk music. He had done it with Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Mighty Way, and the Associates and were thrilled to work him. Because we wanted to work with him on "The Holy Bible" but he was working with somebody else at the time.
You jumped at the chance to work with him on "Everything Must Go?"
He lived in France and we went over there to work with him and pretty much it was all played live. We just made sure we left the spaces for the orchestras. We made sure we had the idea of initial arrangements in our head and then somebody else would come in and finish those arrangements or sometimes add stuff. But we just left spaces there. We knew there was space there for the orchestras because when we were writing the melodies, you could kind of hear it there straightaway. I remember Mike Hedges' M.O. for the record was that he wanted it to be produced very much live.
That was the approach on "A Design for Life" in terms of leaving holes for the violins and violas?
Absolutely. I think 50 percent of the arrangements for "A Design for Life" were already there in my head and moreso on "Everything Must Go," the track. Once you're aware you leaving space for something, it's very easy to make it work. It's very easy to just leave space there and just be confident in what's in your head.
What did you think about the collection of songs that made up the greatest hits album "Forever Delayed" in 2002?
I think roundabout 2002, I can definitely sense our direction is gonna be hard to find sometimes. Because we'd already outlives most of our peers in terms of how many records we'd done. I think a sense a break would come sooner or later where we had to realize a plan, a manifesto or concept is not always readily available to you. You've just got to wait for 'em to come like I said earlier. We always operate best as band with a plan. Even if it's something as simple as you wanna make a record that's kind of pink in color is like "Tamla Motown" played by Van Halen. Sometimes that's enough of an idea. You've got to have just a little template kind of thing. Already by 2002, I can sense that we might have to just lay back from living in the band constantly to actually find a direction.
Where did song like "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" come from on the 2003 covers album "Lipstick Traces (A Secret History of Manic Street Preachers)"?
I started by saying we all started out as indie kids and then we graduated to punk and then to Guns N' Roses and we blew or heads away kind of thing. But before that, I can say my first musical love was ELO. Then after that it was lots of Burt Bachraach stuff that was played on British radio all the time. Whether it be "This Guy's in Love With You" or "Raindrops Deep Fallin' on My Head" or "Walk on By," I always knew a Burt Bacharach song when I heard it. I always knew he'd written it so I started delving into his stuff from quite an early age.
They are remarkable songs but you don't really associate them with the Manics.
I suppose sometimes some of these covers can seem to look to a new arrival to us quite misplaced within our oeuvre so to speak. But I think we always subconsciously have this thing where it's the only time we have genuine, unbridled fun in the band. We have a bit of a philosophy in the band that music shouldn't be funny and that you should take it seriously. It should make you wanna feel euphoric.
The band tends to be pretty dark.
You should always try and avoid the fun in music. I don't know if that makes sense to you but kind of it does to us. Doing these covers, it's always us saying, "OK, let's drop the party line. We'll just do something for fun's sake." Where we've done something like "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" or "Wrote for Luck" by Happy Mondays or "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You." Whenever we've done these things, it is just us steeping outside of the politburo and stepping outside of the kind of Oval Office and stepping outside of any kind of politic and just saying, "This is just for fun. This is just a little holiday." And it's kinda good to do that sometimes.
You knew about the Four Seasons so were you listening to other American '60s pop bands like the Beach Boys?
Absolutley. With the Beach Boys, I was a massive fan of "Surf's Up." That's my favorite Beach Boys record just because of the song "Long Promised Road." Then there would be stuff like "Cry Like a Baby" by the Box Tops. Always absolutely loved that because Alex Chilton who was in the Boxtops. Stuff like Sandie Shaw and "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me" because my parents were always playing lots of records in the house so I was very aware of all these kinds of records. I always loved just a great pop song and they somehow seemed organic as well. These records we've quoted, we can call them pop songs but there was still something a bit more human about those records I think. I was an absolute massive Motown freak.
In 2004, you worked with Tony Visconti [David Bowie, T. Rex] on several tracks from the "Lifeblood" album.
For obvious reasons, we wanted to work with him. We were thinking of people like Bob Ezrin and people who had done some of our favorite records in terms of Alice Cooper and all of that. Obviously Tony has done so much stuff with Bowie and Thin Lizzy and also he did stuff with the Ivys, which were a band I loved from Wales in the '60s. Probably some of his tracks were some of the best tracks on the album because we only did three tracks with Tony. The rest of the record is not as good because of the thing we were talking about earlier.
What was that?
That thing of playing everything live to a certain degree had kind of vanished from the band at that point. We had this theory, which didn't serve us very well that we played live so much that we wanted to try something else. We wanted to chase the third idea instead of the first or second idea. For us the rule had always been, "If a song didn't work after a certain period of time then just drop it and close the coffin lid on it. It's dead" kind of thing. But on "Lifeblood" we kept chasing the third or the fourth idea so there would be one of us in the studio working to a click track and then somebody else would come in and add stuff.
You didn't like working that way?
We did it as a different approach and it didn't work. I think that's why that album didn't work. We kind of disconnected from that thing of being organic and being in the same place when we made the music. We tried a different approach and it didn't quite work. Interesting when you listen to it. Some journalists over here obtusely say it's their favorite. Perhaps they just say that to piss me off. But it didn't work and as I said earlier sometimes you need failure to spur you on to make a better record sometimes.
Was it a different experience for you recording your solo album "The Great Western" in 2006 where you were writing all the lyrics and had total creative control?
I enjoyed it but I think I missed the intensity of being in a band. That little bit of tension that can be there sometimes and the tension that arises from everybody being so passionate about something. I missed the intensity of also trying to impress each other. I was only trying to impress myself and perhaps I found just trying to impress myself is not enough. That's why I love being in a band I suppose.
"Send Away the Tigers" has been described as a combination of "Generation Terrorists" and "Everything Must Go" but even heavier. Would you agree with that?
And it's even more live than those records. It's very much more of that thing of basically playing off the ground as our cousins in the State say. Playing off the ground and if it feels good, don't f-ck with it too much. Just do your overdub on it or overdub your backing vocals.
You recorded your vocals separately?
More often than not the vocal would go on after but I'm still there in the studio singin' and kind of trying to push things along and Nick and Sean were just so on form on "Send Away the Tigers." I would have to make sure my guitar takes were quite precise because Nick and Sean were just taking one or two takes on "Send Away the Tigers." They were very much in the pocket. That's why that album's so good. It really was done in quite a big studio in Ireland [Grouse Lodge] a lot of it and we were just prepared for it; we were just ready. We were just playin' kind of that kind of open rock 'n' roll again I suppose. There was space in it but it was also quite guitar-laden too. We weren't scared of reaching the upper echelons of the musical scale and kind of screamin' a bit again in an anthemic kind of way.
Is "Underdogs" an example of an anthemic screamer?
Yeah, and I think the title track "Send Away the Tigers" lopes along and then it explodes. It sometimes has this commanding leadness in the verses and then suddenly it springs into action in the choruses. This is dynamic on that record, which just came because we'd been frustrated with the failure of "Lifeblood."
The "Journal for Plague Lovers" album was based around lyrics Richey Edwards had previously written. Was this an homage to Richey?
We were just talking about "Send Away the Tigers" and apart from America we'd had a lot of success with "Send Away the Tigers" 'round the world. The lead single "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough" with Nina Persson from the Cardigans on it had been a hit around Europe. "Send Away the Tigers" kind of felt like a comeback record really along with that single. So I suppose we felt like we banished a couple of demons by having a hit in Europe again with that record. We didn't want to do that cynical move of trying to follow-up "Send Away the Tigers" immediately.
That's when you thought about using Richey's lyrics for the next album?
It just came into our heads Richey had left us these three booklets of lyrics, which were all pretty much identical before his disappearance. We'd always been scared to try and attempt to do anything with them because we didn't know if we could mainline into that aspect of Richey represented in his lyrics. But I think of us said to the other, "I've been looking at those lyrics lately. I've been kind of apprehensive about them for a long time but I've actually started seeing musical shapes in there."
There just came a point when revisiting Richey's lyrics felt like it was OK?
I think we'd all been doing that and it just felt like the time had come for us to actually do that. I suppose it was an honor and a bit of duty to do something with them creatively because Richey had obviously been a friend and he was a lyricist along with Nick in the band. He had obviously left us these lyrics for a reason. A lyricist doesn't leave you lyrics to just look at or put them on your wall and put frames around them. Your lyricist leaves you lyrics probably one day to put music to them. I think we subconsciously were aware that one day we would have to try and honor some kind of spiritual debt to Richey by trying to attempt to put music to some of these lyrics and that's what we did.
We brought in Steve Albini to work on that project?
Yeah, we did. We'd all been aware of Big Black when we were young and Shellac. We were very much aware of so many records he'd worked on whether it be the Auteurs or "In Utero." Just the sound of his own records, the Shellac records, is pretty much his calling card because that is his sound and that's the sound he tries to bring to other bands. I think that was one way of going through the lyrics and seeing there was an actual might you say nihilistic or darker, a dark melancholic side to the lyrics and we just felt Steve Albini's sound would fit that. We had to know that frame Richey's lyrics, we'd have to help ourselves as much as possible with the artwork and with the actual engineering of the record. I think that was the right decision definitely.
On "Rewind the Film," you made a record with no electric guitars on it. That was just another attempt to try something different?
Yeah, it's our 11th album and even when Richey around I remember him saying in 1993, "It would be great if we could do our version of 'Nebraska' by Bruce Springsteen" because he was a bit of a closet Springsteen fan and I'm a massive Springsteen fan. Even back then, "GN'R Lies," we all loved the idea of one day having an anomaly in the racks of the shops. Where you see "GN'R Lies" and you think, "I'll try that" or you see "Nebraska" and you think, "I'll try that" even though it's just mainly acoustic. We liked the idea of following that tradition, which is ironic again I suppose for a band that were trying to kind of break it [tradition].
Then it wasn't just an excuse to be different for difference's sake?
It had always been there and had always been a long held, little ambition of ours. It's something you want to see if it fits you - you want to see if that coat fits you. You want to see if you can represent something, which still has depth but more tenderness. I think every band wants to try and do that one day. Every band - if they go on for longer than three albums - end up wanting to do that.
You're probably right.
There is a curiosity there: can you still be powerful with tenderness? There's the second part of it as well. We were on our 11th record and we were all over 40 at that point and we've all got children and we've all got families and we wanted to show we're not in denial. That there is a different way of showing the same feelings but in a different way at a different age. We realized we can't write "Motown Junk" anymore or "New Art Riot" or "Faster" from "The Holy Bible." We wanted to show if we're gonna pay the price for being a bit more mature and taking the criticism for that then we'll turn it to our own advantage.
Your acoustic guitar playing on "Rewind the Film" was really good.
I like explosiveness and finesse on the guitar but I also like it to be tight. I think the only person that gets away with not being tight sometimes is Jimmy Page. He can turn sloppy into an art form especially on "Physical Graffiti." But before then, he was always obsessed with being quite tight and then suddenly on "Physical Graffiti" you see it getting a bit looser. But with acoustic guitar, you've got to know what you're doing and I just didn't want to strum away and flail away and have that little frequency just flapping in the wind.
You were some of your acoustic guitar influences?
I'm a big fan of the way Peter Svensson from the Cardigans plays acoustic guitar. It's very concise; he knows what he's doing; and it's not a texture. It's kind of in your face. It's there and you can hear it. It's not indefinable and it's not vague. I always loved the shape of acoustic stuff on Leonard Cohen records as well. It's not a texture; it's intrinsic. So that's kind of how I feel about the acoustic guitar really. Yes, of course, it's lovely to have that guitar in the middle between the left and the right speaker sometimes binding things together. But I think sometimes people sell the acoustic guitar quite short in terms of its ability of what it can do. I wanted to have the plan for what the acoustic guitar would do. I didn't want it to be just aimless and flimsy.
You recorded two albums at the same time?
We started out on this cycle of two records - "Futurology" and "Rewind the Film," which we recorded at the same time - and knew we would record two albums in the space of a year. We said, "OK, if people are going to assault us with the inevitability of commercial concerns and if people like Spotify are going to try and strangle our business, then we need to know what our ambition is for this plan of releasing two records in one year." So we wanted to know we could sell 100,000 records - 50,000 of each of these two records in one year - and we did. It's a strange thing to bring up but I think you've got to be aware of the world we live in now commercially. You can't spend forever in the studio and spend as much money as you want. You've got to work within the framework of this savage commercial landscape we live in now.
That being said, you did go to Berlin and recorded at Hansa Studios [David Bowie, U2]?
Yeah, we did but we only spent two weeks there. But the rest of it was done here in our studio. It was a great albeit schizophrenic experience to work on two very distinct records, which were two distinctly different records at the same time. It was a really great creative time for us and it was a great commercial time for us as well because we got to tour so much off the back of those two records. In Europe and not in America unfortunately. It was kind of nice to know a plan could work commercially and creatively for a bunch of old f--kers like us, hah hah hah.
Talking about the US, you will be touring in America, which must be exciting.
It is actually. There's no doubt it - we are a strange, little anomaly to most of the American market. There are a few people out there in America like Rolling Stone that see we're a band that never made it in America but have some significance. But there's no doubt we are a band that can walk down any street in American and pretty much go unrecognized. It's kind of nice to come and play these gigs and see people desperately coming from areas to see us. Pretty much these gigs will be sold out and of course sometimes there's only 1,500 capacity each night or 1,200 capacity.
A lot of bands would love to be able to sell that many tickets.
But we are believe it or not humble enough for that to be nice for us because America always feels like a new country to us. We've been there many times but not that many times and it's kind of nice having an audience in front of you that's waited 10 years to hear "Motorcycle Emptiness" again. Perhaps age has mellowed us and that kind of thing doesn't matter to us. Seeing that gratitude of somebody who's waited to hear "The Holy Bible" is lovely for us. It really is and it means a helluva lot to us. Perhaps like I said getting older and having families has softened us.
Can you give a shout-out to Ultimate-Guitar fans and would-be guitar players out there?
I can only just come from my experience. For me, my best teacher was the record I wanted to sound like. Of course, it's a really valuable experience getting a teacher that can teach you things but I never had that. My best teachers were like I said Johnny Marr, Steve Jones, Stuart Adamson, John McGeoch and Slash. I just replayed that record over and over again. I scratched the tracks with the needle just going through the same passage of a solo from "Out ta Get Me" off "Appetite for Destruction." I went over and over "This Charming Man" by the Smiths until I scratched it to hell but I learned the guitar part. And to me, your best teachers give you lessons for free. The ones you're trying to sound like and the ones you're trying to emulate. The ones you're trying to sound as intense as and the ones that are as articulate as they are. They're always your best teachers.
Best of luck in America and play all the good notes.
Hah hah hah, alright. Cheers.
Interview by Steven Rosen