As the title of track one on the new Manics album suggests - you can take the rockstar out of Wales, but...it’s the only place James Dean Bradfield feels at home.
I’m out oddly early for a Saturday. It’s a crisp, late summer morning. And there, walking his dog just like anybody is James Dean Bradfield, enjoying a bit of Cardiff park-life. The Manic Street Preachers front man could choose to live anywhere but seems happiest in Wales. I’m a huge fan. We’ve met a couple of times when I’ve been reviewing and managed to get backstage at gigs. But the interview...I’ve never had a chance to make it happen. So I have to seize the moment. I make polite conversation and hint about a possible interview. “I’ll sort something out...October time,” he tells me. As we part company he turns back and says “I won’t forget!” But let’s be honest. He’s rock royalty for heaven’s sake. Will it really happen?
A few weeks later, with a little help from his PR people, I get the phone call. Bradfield has fulfilled his promise. I caught up with him just as he took a well-earned breather after a BBC Maida Vale session where the Manics had played a bunch of their biggest songs in front of a roaring crowd.
How did the Maida Vale session go?
James Dean Bradfield: Brilliant. We’ve played Maida Vale a few times. We’ve done sessions for Tommy Vance, Jackie Brambles, Mark Goodier and Steve Lemack. This is our sixth or seventh time and it probably feels like our best so far. I feel like we’re on form and we’ve got a spring in our step!
Rewind the Film. Can you tell us a bit about the new album?
Once you’ve got to the 11th album it’s like ‘Crossing the Rubicon’! We’re 44-years-old – there’s a bit of ridiculousness about being in a band at our age. We’re realising there’s a bit of folly and we’re also dealing with losing things - be it the culture we grew up with or the people we grew up with. So there’s a reflective, gentler and melancholic approach. There’s gentle brush strokes on there - it’s not quite the spiky rock‘n’roll that we usually are.
What about the influences?
Me and Richey (Edwards) had always wanted to do our version of Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen - something mellow, something cold and detached. We soon realised we’d never be able to do another Nebraska. But for once in my life I wanted to do something acoustic based. I think there’s a bit of Neil Young on there. There’s also a bit of Troubadour influence there too, a group from Llandeilo that I really like...One of the new tracks, Builder of Routines, is influenced by Troubadour.
So, how do you find out about these artists?
I listen to the radio a lot - lots of different stations. I heard Troubadour for the first time on Bethan Elfyn’s show on BBC Wales, I also heard Little Arrow for the first time on there. I listen to Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on Radio 6. That’s where I’ve heard a lot of the music I’ve bought in the last year or so. I read a lot of music press too to keep my finger on the pulse. I’m always in and out of Spillers music shop in town. When I’m in Spillers I’ll sometimes ask what’s new. I’m exactly the same as I was when I was 15. I like to buy s*** loads of records. Spillers Records has a special vibe to it.
You recorded most of the album at your own studio in Cardiff. What kind of process is involved? Does your base double up as rehearsal space?
It’s an inspirational place where we hang out, watch sports, talk about politics, argue and also work on a few ideas. We sometimes just like to listen to music as we have vinyl there too. We do demos there, rehearse, record...It’s a place that’s very valuable to us. It’s enabled us to stay in Wales, the studio almost feels like a member of the band now.
You’ve worked with many of your fellow countrymen including Tom Jones, John Cale, Gruff Rhys. It was Cate Le Bon’s turn on the new record with the haunting track 4 Lone Roads. How did that come about?
Cate was our first idea of who we wanted to sing the song. There were only two names in the hat - Nina Persson from the Cardigans and Cate. We chose Cate because we were big fans and we’d never worked with her before. Sometimes as a musician you know if something’s going to work and I knew immediately that her voice was the one. We went with our instinct and we were proven right.
Have you got any other artists on your wish list?
I always jump at the chance to work with John Cale. He’s long been one of my heroes. He always drags you to a place which is interesting and challenging. I just love the fact that he was in one of the most influential bands of all time. It gave me the window to the world and made me believe that I could do it too. He’s from the Swansea area and he’s been hugely inspirational. Whenever I meet up with him or whenever I’ve worked with him there’s an amazing mixture of fear and excitement, he always keeps me on my toes. I think we’d always love to do something with Morrissey too because he was so big to us when we were younger. He challenged everything, he challenged the Royal Family and challenged orthodoxy itself.
What kind of child were you and what’s your earliest memory?
Mute, bland and an angel up until the age of six my late mother would say. I’d spend a lot of time staring out of the window. I’m lucky to have had such a nice upbringing and a lovely relationship with my parents. I’d have small arguments with them but there was never that generation gap. I always turned to them for support and they were always there to support me. Without blindly following them I also adopted a lot of their political views. I always engaged with living in the Valleys and was in awe of the nature that was around me. One of the luckiest things that ever happened to me is being born where I was. It’s a different story when you’re a teenager though - that embittered phase when you want to escape. But then when you get older you want to return. Wales is very inspirational to me. I go back home a lot and like to go for walks on my own. Well, I take my dog with me. You’ve got to take a dog, I guess, or you just look like a weirdo.
You really are proud of your Welsh-ness aren’t you?
Yes, my mum was immensely proud of being Welsh too. Some of my happiest memories are from Wales. Wales is a complicated place that I love - I owe it more. It’s where I’m from and the only place I feel at home.
We heard a bit of the Welsh language on Journal for Plague Lovers. Do you think the Manics will ever record an entire song in the Welsh language?
My Welsh is getting better but I’m still at the ‘tipyn bach’ stage. When I was 5-years-old I’d sing Welsh songs in the choir. I wanted to learn Welsh at school but there was only four of us and I think there needed to be five...It’s a bit like that scene out of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest where McMurphy struggles to land the votes. Singing in Welsh would be a big challenge for me, I need to be able to know the song and to be able to let go...My Welsh language skills are very limited so it would take a long time.
You played a few shows in Australia and New Zealand to tie in with the Lions’ Tour in the summer. Welsh sport is enjoying an impressive spell at the moment isn’t it?
I’m a massive rugby fan...we’ve won the Six Nations in 2005, 2008, 2011 and again this year, - it’s amazing! It’s also nice when people come to me when I’m abroad and ask about Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey. We’ve got a lot of sportsmen to be proud of, the boxers - Nathan Cleverly and Joe Calzaghe. We’ve also got great cricketers amongst us too like Simon Jones who won the Ashes. And, with Cardiff and Swansea invading the Premiership it’s not just the rugby. It’s very heart-warming; there’s plenty there to nourish our sports fans!
It’s been a busy year what else have you got planned?
Well, there’s another record out at the start of next year - a more confrontational, harder edged and rockier sound. Our twelfth record will have a kind of European/mainland, krautrock feel to it.