MU Classic Rock Award winner James Dean Bradfield looks back on his life as Manic Street Preachers' frontman
Since they stormed out of South Wales in the early 1990s armed with electric guitars and spitting agit-prop anthems, the Manic Street Preachers have consistently surprised critics with their huge commercial success and capacity for reinvention. From brandishing a post-punk sound when indie shoegazing dominated the music scene to their phoenix-esque recovery after the devastating loss of lyricist/guitarist, Richey Edwards, the Manics have never settled for what is expected of them.
The recent release of their eleventh studio album Rewind The Film has astounded critics once again. Setting aside the guitar-wielding ethos of their anthemic rock, Rewind The Film is a soul-searching, more acoustically-led album that is laden with emotional gravitas. Honest and raw, at times fragile, and at others defiant, the album sees the Manics once again embrace change head on.
The album marks another departure for the Manics as it features three guest vocalists, Lucy Rose, Cate Le Bon and an inspired collaboration with Richard Hawley. Bradfield secures the bedrock of the Manics' sound with his rich, soaring vocals, and his songwriting skills still pack a punch despite a departure from full-on electric to a gentler acoustic feel - a move that, according to fellow band member Nicky Wire, required him to do "cold turkey".
The Musician caught up with Valleys-born songwriter, guitarist and vocalist to ask him about the new album and life after 22 years in the music business.
The Musician: How did the decision to make an acoustic album came about?
This is our eleventh album; when you get to your tenth you feel as if there's an undeniable passing of the Rubicon - it's a subconscious thing that happens to you as a musician, if you're lucky enough to get past your tenth album. That's the first part of the story. The second is that we're in a rock'n'roll band and we're all 44 years old, we've all got families. I think we decided to explore that and to explore the fact that we're a band who doesn't even recognise the industry we're in anymore. When Richey was around, up to The Roy Bible, he'd never downloaded anything, never had a mobile phone. We were releasing 7-inch and cassette singles - it's changed beyond recognition. The album's also about the nature of feeling older and losing that indestructible armour that you have when you're young.
Was the songwriting process different with Rewind The Film?
Something shifted when we wrote the first single from Send Away The Tigers [Underdogs, 2007]. The gestation of that song was kind of strange because Nick came in with a song three-quarter formed and all I had to do was write the chorus. The tectonic plates shifted for the better and we all had the confidence to come in the studio and lay down things ourselves, and let each other come in the studio and add to it. I'd say 75% of the band works on collaboration in terms of Nick giving me lyrics and me writing music to them, and 25% of the time it's changed. I think it's opened it up a bit.
An arching theme of the album is the inevitable conflict that comes with middle age. How has being in your forties and having a family changed your approach to songwriting?
We don't feel that a family man feeds into the subject matter of being a band, but it does change you because it taps into that feeling of not being indestructible anymore. Sometimes when we haven't done a gig for a while, we miss the band and sometimes when we're away, we miss our families, so it's a healthy tension. It hopefully means we're balanced people. If you don't look at the landscape around you, you won't be writing songs that are true to yourself.
Do you think reaching your forties has provided you with the liberty to dip your toes into different musical waters?
There's a dichotomy there. There's freedom in the studio, but you get it out into the commercial landscape and that freedom disappears. We're all aware of the record industry shrinking. There's a liberation in the studio where you feel like you can do anything you want to do, but that disappears when you get out on the road because you realise that this is a generation that is a bit more lifestyle-based. They're just as likely to queue up outside an Apple store for three hours as they are to buy a record er go to a gig.
How do you think this different cultural landscape affects the way bands work?
I think it's wrecking the potential of certain bands. There was a misconception that the Internet was going to be a benign influence on the music industry. I never bought into that. It wasn't and it isn't, because at the end of the day being on a major label was the best creative environment for someone like us. It let us get to the The Holy Bible, which was when we truly hit our stride. I don't know if we'd be allowed to get to The Holy Bible now. When I was a rabid record-buying music freak (I still am), and I found a band on their first album I was thinking: "Wow, what are they going to be like on their third album". Conversely, the fake democracy of the internet has closed down the potential creativity of bands to exist beyond two records. It's almost a bit like a gap year approach to music where there's not enough at stake. When we were starting out it felt like everything was at stake.
How did the collaborations on Rewind The Film came about? Were the songs written with those singers in mind?
They weren't written with those singers in mind, but they were written with those genders in mind. For Lonely Road there was only ever one choice and that was Cate Le Bon. Rewind The Film was originally Nick singing the verses and me singing the choruses. One night I was busy working on the track and Richard's name just came into my head and I knew straight away it would work. With Lucy Rose, I said to Nick that I wanted a female voice on Sullen Welsh Heart. It gave the song some light and shade. It was liberating having someone else sing our songs. I'm not being self-effacing or disingenuous, it really was a relief.
Although less bombastic, Rewind The Film feels as emotionally raw as The Holy Bible.
The song Rewind The Film has an especially brave lyric that Nick wrote. It deals with the loss of a cultural landscape, the loss of an historical landscape, the loss of people that you've grown up with or who have influenced you, and it deals with potential loss. Not the kind of stuff that gets played at parties! It's an emotional, raw song, which was another factor in getting Richard Hawley to sing it. He was strong enough to take the emotional hit. I didn't want Nick to sing those lyrics, and Richard brings a wry old warrior resonance to it.
How do you account for the Manics continuous creativity?
We just love being in the band. We like playing together, we like impressing each other, helping each other and being with each other. I met Nick when I was five years old, Sean is virtually my brother and it's just very easy for us to be around each other and shake off any tensions we have because we know it means nothing. When things click musically it's probably better than scoring a goal. It's that excitement when we feel like we've got a kinetic connection. That is just glorious and we're always searching for that, whether it's Design For Life or Rewind The Film.
When did you first join the MU?
You're asking an old man! If my memory serves me right it would have been in the 1990s. We were gigging regularly and doing TV appearances and by then we were just starting to get our heads together. I also realised you get a lovely diary, and I've used it every year of my life since.
Have you ever used the services?
Thankfully we haven't had to. We've been unbelievably lucky. Nobody has ever refused to pay us or reneged on a deal.
Do you think young people are interested in unions and politics?
People understand what a union is once they've needed to access the services of a union, when they're in trouble. I understood what a union could do for you because my dad was a union rep at the local yard. He was a roofer and a builder. So I understand the basic charter of any union. The political waters have been muddied for this generation. Post-the Iraq war it was harder for people to stick their colours to the mast, Conservative or Labour, because everybody saw that the third way with New Labour drove them towards the centre. Politics really breeds on choice: parity of choice or disparity of choice. It becomes vibrant when it's oppositional.
The Manics have always been political with their music. Do you think there's enough politics in music these days?
The notion of the protest song has died away a little bit. We've had two wars and two economic crashes and I don't see that many people have written about it song-wise. In the mid 1980s you had people like The Redskins, The Men They Couldn't Hang, McCarthy - people who were trying to write about politics. It was marked when Plan B did Ill Manors in that it sold much less than his previous record because he went off base. He was talking about the politicised environment of north London and people said: 'We don't want to hear it, we want to be entertained,' which I thought was tragic. It was a brilliant record.
Could there be another Manics coming out of Blackwood?
Not another Manics. I don't think we've ever inspired many bands and I'm fine with it. I just hope that politics could feed into music a bit more. We don't feel an album is complete until we've written about the political landscape around us. When politics feeds into music it can be truly inspirational.
What do you think the young Manics would say to their present day counterparts if they could see how you have evolved over the last 22 years?
My younger self would probably say to me: 'Cut your hair and lose some weight!'