The Welsh rockers tell Ed Power about their largely acoustic new album.
Can a once notorious rock band grow old with dignity?
James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers thinks it possible. But you have to make peace with your age, says the 44-year-old. You have to accept you are no longer the person you used to be. “When you pass your tenth studio album, you cross a rubicon,” he says. “You are aware things have changed. You are at a point of no return - a good feeling and a scary one also.”
He is speaking as the Manics, an avant-garde punk group from south Wales, prepare to tour their 11th album, Rewind The Film. By their standards it is an understated affair. The instruments are largely acoustic, with Bradfield’s trademark riffs notably absent. It sounds like the start of a new chapter.
“You have a real tangible feeling that life has changed,” he says of the record’s hushed ambiance. “You are aware that most of the other bands out there are much younger. The culture is younger. It is completely different from when you made your first album. When you start making your 11th, 12th LP, you want to travel to places you haven’t gone to before.”
Hence the lack of rollicking guitar solos. Removing part of the Manics’ signature aesthetic struck Bradfield as risky at the time. He is thrilled with the results. “It’s amazing - once you take the big, egotistical rampaging beast that is the guitar out of the equation, it makes everything different.
“I almost feel guilty that I’ve been holding the band back all these years with my monolithic playing.”
He’s joking but only slightly. Bradfield is as proud of Rewind the Film as of anything the group has done in the past. “There are a lot of early soul influences - Sam Cooke and the like - in there,” he says.
It’s 23 years since the Manics formed in a one-horse mining village in south Wales. Originally the line up consisted of singer and guitarist Bradfield, bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire, drummer Sean Moore, and, on second guitar, Richey James Edwards.
A wan, haunted-looking figure, Edwards vanished in 1995 and is assumed to have taken his own life (he was proclaimed missing presumed dead in 2008). The Manics had just put out what many consider their best long player, The Holy Bible. In the aftermath, the group considered breaking up. In the end, they decided the best way to honour Edwards’s memory was to continue the Manics.
“The only time we really felt like splitting was around The Holy Bible and Richie going missing. There were three roads we could take. We could split, we could carry on under a different name, or we could continue as the Manics. Which was obviously the route we took.”
The other dark period was around the release of their seventh album, Lifeblood, in 2004. A departure for the Manics, Lifeblood featured synthesisers and was produced by David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti. Reviews were lukewarm; the band themselves didn’t know quite what to make of the record. For the first time in their career, they felt adrift. “It was a weird time for us,” says Bradfield. “Lifeblood confused our audience and confused us as well. In a big way we had to rethink things.”
They needed a break, he suspects. For the previous eight years, they had enjoyed almost non-stop success. It started in 1996, just a year after Edwards’s disappearance, with the chart-topping Everything Must Go. The 1998 follow up, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, did even better, with lead single ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ topping the charts.
Success, Bradfield believes, interfered with the band’s perception of themselves. Starting out, they had embraced the role of plucky underdogs. Now they were mainstream.
“It was exciting to have success with Everything Must Go, though it was bittersweet too, because of Richey obviously. We felt we were a big band, which is very different from a pop star. Then we got even bigger with This Is My Truth. The mega success was confusing. We became introverted and I thought we were too young to end up that way. “Along with that, people were offering us huge sums of money to use our songs in adverts. We come from a very definite economic and social strata. We never imagined we would be enticed by large sums of cash. It was unsettling.”
Ultimately, it was their belief in one another that kept the Manics together. “Sean is my cousin but he’s closer to a brother really. Nick has been my best friend since I was five. And I was close with Richey from a young age. We have gotten grey together, suffered loss together, had kids, gone through a lot of seismic events. Our relationship is built around empathy and, dare I say it, brotherly love.”
On their new tour, the band will perform six or seven songs from Rewind The Film. The setting will be acoustic. However, Bradfield is confident the Manics won’t fall into any clunky ‘unplugged’ cliches. “There won’t be any stools or beards on stage,” he laughs. “They’re definitely banned.”