Talking "Method" Recording and Youthful Delusions With The Manic Street Preachers - PopMatters, 15th April 2015
The Welsh group Manic Street Preachers are one of the greatest bands to have never been accepted by America. Their arguable masterpiece, 1994’s The Holy Bible, has largely been overlooked by American critics and anglophiles alike.
The album’s omission from the ‘90s rock pantheon is both shocking and somewhat logical. On one hand, its scorching, post-punk inflected hard rock was packed with enough deceptively catchy riffs to appeal to a large base of music fans. On the other, inviting songs about capital punishment, eating disorders, and the Holocaust into your ears probably isn’t something the average listener wants to do on a daily basis, if at all.
Those who have heard The Holy Bible are guaranteed to admit there’s never been anything else quite like it in rock music, even if the harrowing tales of former (presumed dead) Manics lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards don’t quite make for pleasurable listening. This April brings a once in a lifetime opportunity for those of us in North America who get The Holy Bible, or have lived it, or just love it. After a hugely successful series of UK dates in honor of the album’s 20th anniversary reissue last year, the remaining Manics—singer / guitarist James Dean Bradfield, drummer Sean Moore, and bassist Nicky Wire—are bringing The Holy Bible to the states and playing it in full. Before setting foot on US soil, Bradfield generously chatted on the phone with me about the newness of touring North America and being led by lyrics.
How did the decision to bring the Holy Bible tour to North America arise?
James Dean Bradfield: The Holy Bible did quite well on import in America. We did an American tour about seven, six years ago I think? We really enjoyed the experience. There’s no doubt, in terms of commercial success, we don’t mean much in America. So, coming to America still feels like a new experience to us, because we haven’t really toured America that much in our lives.
But, despite all that, we have had a lot of requests from a lot of people that had bought the record in America to come and play it there. We thought, “Hell. What’s the downside?” None of us are young, there’s no pretending that, and anything that feels like a new experience to us is good! Bringing The Holy Bible to America will feel like a new experience to us. I think we’ve only ever played “Faster” off The Holy Bible in America.
I was actually there at the last tour, for a couple of the dates.
JDB: Which show?
I came to the show in Philadelphia… (at World Cafe Live)
JDB: Ooh, there weren’t many people at that show [Chuckles].
There were enough! It looked pretty full to me.
JDB: (laughs) I think it will be a bit better this time, to be honest.
I was there and I was at the Webster Hall show in New York.
JDB: The Webster Hall show I really enjoyed. I mean, I love Philly as a town. The center of Philly is a great place to walk around, and the fact that it was the first multi-year capital of America makes it a fascinating place, so I loved actually being there, but yeah… I remember there not being many people in the crowd. But Webster Hall was a great show.
It’s remarkable I can remember those two gigs, because if you’d ask me about a concert I’ve done in Britain, it’d be hard for me to remember ‘cos I’ve played in Britain and mainland Europe so much. But, I’ve played in America so little that every show is quite a distinct memory for me.
The tickets for the UK leg of the tour sold out in minutes and the announcement of the North American tour was met with a lot of excitement. Has The Holy Bible’s gradual rise in popularity ever surprised you?
JDB: Not really. I kind of knew when we were doing it that there was something about the record. I knew I was part of something—with Nick, Sean, and Richey—that was going to have some kind of resonance. I knew it would be intrinsic to quite a high minority of people, if you know what I’m saying? There would be a very large minority of people that the record would connect to, and that it would mean something to them, it would be tangible to them. The album was so locked in to dissecting certain politics, certain events, certain histories, certain psyches, that I knew the record would mean something to somebody out there. For want of a better phrase, I kind of felt as if I was part of something that could become a cult classic, definitely. And then all that kind of rational thinking went out the window when Richey went missing (in 1995).
So I stopped thinking about the record after Richey went missing, because it was indelibly connected to something which was quite a traumatic memory. So I think we kind of parked The Holy Bible in our psyches somewhere when we carried on with (1996’s) Everything Must Go, and we kind of tried to protect him, we tried not to touch it. But then ten years later, we realized that The Holy Bible had sold so many more records post-Richey’s disappearance than it did while he was around. It wasn’t much of a surprise to me, but it kind of crept up on us because we tried to protect ourselves from analyzing it because it seemed like such a pure thing that we didn’t want to sully it with anything.
How has perception of The Holy Bible changed over the years? How do you think future generations will regard it?
JDB: Well, I think there are two categories of records that kind of endure. I think there’s the one kind of record that people say transcends the time that it was recorded in, and it can be recalibrated and you can reimpose it upon any period, and then there’s the other kind of record that sums up the period it was released and created in. I think the second category is what The Holy Bible is in. I think it’s a snapshot of a certain psyche in the early ‘90s, it’s a political snapshot of the post-war era in Britain and Europe, and it’s kind of built in the steps of new Europe’s creation, to a certain degree. It’s not a timeless record, I think it’s a record that really sums up a distinctly different time period.
Do you think the internet has helped in building a larger US audience for The Manics?
JDB: To be honest, no. I am 46 years old and I’m not into delusion any more [Laughs]. I don’t think this (tour) is us re-engaging with the American market and hoping to break it, that couldn’t be farther from our hearts or heads. I think we’re just coming over for the experience of playing in front of an audience that has never really seen us play these songs. In Britain and Europe and Japan, we have played some of these songs in front of fans that we know want to hear them. In America, barely any of these songs have ever been played, and we’ve had so many letters over the years from people saying, “I’d love to hear ‘Archives of Pain’ played live,” or, “I’d love to hear ‘Die in the Summertime,’ I’d love to hear ‘ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforoneday…’.”
This is just a chance for us to actually have those people in front of us and hopefully make them happy! Which sounds like an anomaly from somebody that’s part of such a nihilistic, mad fucking record as The Holy Bible, but it actually will be quite touching for us to play these songs in front of an American audience that has never seen it before live. That’s kind of the deal for us, really. We have no delusions or illusions of having any kind of commercial success off the back of this experience.
I think it’s going to be a very cathartic experience for the people going to the shows. Just hearing “Faster” at those shows six or seven years ago was extremely cathartic for me.
JDB: Yeah, we don’t take any of this lightly. I think the one thing you gotta bear in mind when you actually take on something like this—which has become quite a popular thing in the modern era, people performing a “classic” album in front of a crowd—is you’ve really got to do the record justice. You’ve gotta play the record pretty much as close to how it sounded, you really gotta live up to how the record sounds in terms of emotion, in terms of physicality, in terms of intent, detail. You’ve really got to try and make sure that you don’t at all make any mistakes that kind of belittle the record, so to speak.
The thing you’ve gotta be aware of is that you’re being faithful to the spirit of the record, and the technicality of the record as well. Because The Holy Bible, in its own strange, fucked up, convoluted kind of way, is quite a muso album. It has quite complicated time signatures, there are lots of words interlocked into the drums and guitars, and it’s not something you can pick up and just play after one day’s rehearsing.
How hard was it to get Sony to release the album in 1994? Was putting it out through a major label a triumph in and of itself?
JDB: I’d love to give you the usual corny story, where the musician’s saying, “We fought tooth and nail with our hearts bleeding to get this record out on a major label,” but our experience was nothing like that. Our label, Sony, didn’t question the fact that it was obviously a record that was very dark and that didn’t have any natural singles on it—the lead-off single from The Holy Bible was “Faster”. The record company didn’t once question that, which is remarkable, really. We’re living in this day and age where record companies are even more conservative than they used to be. If a record doesn’t sell after one album, there’s a very good chance that you don’t get a second shot. This was our third record, and the record company never once questioned the artwork, the content within the lyrics, the way it was mixed, the way it was recorded—which was in quite a lo-fi way. And a lot of that has to do with our A&R man at the time, Rob Stringer, who is now the head of Sony in America. He gave us complete artistic freedom. So that’s a strange story really. When you’re hearing people talk about such stuff, talk about the battles they go through with the record company, about how there was just some kind of insipid censorship within the record company—but our experience was utterly the opposite. So, there’s no sob story there.
It could never happen today, I think.
JDB: No, it wouldn’t, and to be honest it didn’t happen as much back then either. We just had somebody that was extraordinary in charge of the record label, and that was Rob Stringer. He had a vision for the record too, not just us. Not all band stories are the same, I don’t think.
I read that the record label had offered you a luxurious studio setting to make what became The Holy Bible, but you turned it down and opted for recording it in Cardiff’s red light district.
JDB: We’re talking about 1993, 1994 here, and that was kind of standard practice back in those days. You go to a residential studio and you record a record. Residential studios back then were really lovely places to create and record. But we knew that it was just wrong for the music. Especially with the lyrics that had inspired the music. We knew that it would be a wrong decision to try and create this kind of music, which had threadbare emotions and hard political intent and acute observatory historical references in it. We knew that if we ended up trying to create this music somewhere in Surrey, England, which had four poster beds and every technical specification you could wish for, there would be something slightly off-message about that.
I suppose, in our youthful, delusional state, we thought there should be some kind of “method” recording, our version of method acting. We should immerse ourselves in a shitty environment to try and replicate the edge in the music. And that’s what we did. We hired a studio which we had used before in Cardiff, which was kind of in the red light area, and had no mod cons. It was a very, very monotone kind of experience. And we decided we wanted that kind of utilitarian vibe to try and rub off in the music, I suppose. It all sounds pretentious and I wouldn’t want to repeat it all now, but we were young.
The Holy Bible is actually what got me into post-punk music. I realize the musical approach came from being influenced by post-punk at the time and it serves the lyrics well. Was there ever a thought that, in choosing that style, you were going to be in complete opposition to what was trendy in the UK at the time, i.e. Britpop? Did you feel there was a need to go against it?
JDB: No, I think our music’s just always been led by the lyrics. That’s given credence and truth by the fact that I need lyrics in front of me to write music. Nicky and Richey would always give me lyrics, and 99% of the time I would always write music with the lyrics in front of me, and I would try and let the lyrics inspire the music. I was being given lyrics like “Yes”, “Of Walking Abortion”, and “Archives of Pain”. Looking at these lyrics, there were twists and turns in there. There’s some kind of indecipherable, fucked up iambic pentameter in there, and I knew that these weren’t normal kind of lyrics, they weren’t even normal for us, really. And I just knew that the music had to twist and turn and convulse with the lyrics, as the lyrics were themselves. So it’s really as simple as that. I love the lyrics, and I remember being given “Die in the Summertime”, and I remember being given “Yes” very early on, and thinking I must follow this muse that Richey created. Richey had written 70 to 75 percent of the lyrics on this record, and I was being given this stuff and I just knew I had to follow his direction. Otherwise I’d be betraying the lyrics themselves.
I don’t really think we were reacting against anything. I think we were just so secluded and so self-insulated against what was going on with the start of Britpop and stuff that we didn’t even pay attention to it. Again, it’s that delusional state of just thinking that you’re right, and I think that’s the place we were in. By the time we’d finished mixing “Faster”, we still thought it could be a top ten hit, that’s how fucked up and deluded we were! [Laughs] Everything was led by the lyrics and they still are.
But we came out of the back of The Holy Bible and of course we wrote “A Design for Life” and Everything Must Go, which kind of got co-opted into Britpop. We never intended it to be as such. But we didn’t care by then. I think we just wanted the music to breathe, and we just wanted to try and drop some of the subtext that had been written around the band. It’s a funny journey from The Holy Bible to Everything Must Go. If you listen to “Faster”, then listen to “A Design For Life”, I think you can see how much a band can change in the space of one album. “Faster” and “Design for Life” are the two lead singles off two separate albums, and it was merely two years between them. And it just goes to show how much a lyric can influence a musician. When Nicky gave me “A Design for Life”, I just felt a certain freedom in the lyrics, I felt a certain sureness in the words that were being written. They wouldn’t have to be understood, they were just stating fact and emotion. On The Holy Bible, despite the nihilism and despite the misanthropic bent, sometimes the lyrics are so pleading to be understood. Whereas on Everything Must Go, they’re just breathing and stating the facts.
In the liner notes of the tenth anniversary edition of The Holy Bible, the album is described by Keith Cameron as “a triumph of art over logic”. This description has always struck me, and I was wondering whether you, as the creators, feel it is an accurate statement?
JDB: It’s always nice when somebody else says it, because you can never say that about what you’ve done yourself, because it makes you an arrogant fool if you make such a statement about your own record or book or film or piece of furniture—whatever you’ve created. But I can see some kind of logic in that statement. I don’t really think a band like us, that comes from a very left wing area and place in history, ever expected to write a song like “Archives of Pain”, which talks about capital punishment and talks about it within a song—openly questions it and openly investigates and doesn’t condemn. I don’t think a band like us, from a working class area in South Wales, were ever meant to write a lyric like “Faster”, that has ambitions of overcoming everything with the power of your own will and your own self made intelligence. And I don’t think that would be married to that post-punk influenced music. So there is a natural ridiculousness of us coming from South Wales, from a very working class, proud area; actually doing a record like this was nothing anyone expected. We didn’t either. So I kind of accept Keith’s statement, and Keith is one of the best music journalists Britain ever produced, so I’ll stand by his statement. It’s always better when somebody else says it.
I guess that’s what critics are for!
JDB: Yeah, and other stuff too [Laughs].