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Victor Lap - Record Collector, September 2020

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Title: Victor Lap
Publication: Record Collector
Date: September 2020
Writer: Nick Hasted
Photos: S Mark Gubb

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Over three decades after the emergence of Manic Street Preachers, frontman James Dean Bradfield has recorded a solo LP tribute to Chilean protest-poet Victor Jara. Nick Hasted discusses Jara - and endurance, and Richey Edwards -with indie-rock's self-styled "bombastic old fuck."

It was his middle-aged Welshman's domestic rounds that led James Dean Bradfield to make his second solo album. Manic Street Preachers, the band he has sung and played guitar in since forming it with Blackwood schoolfriends Nick Jones (aka Nicky Wire) and Sean Moore in 1986, proved resurgent during the 2010s with three bright and bullish hit albums, offering nimble angles on all their influences. But this unexpectedly enduring band now operates like veteran athletes, and Resistance is Futile (2017) was followed by recuperative downtime. Settling into family routines in Cardiff with his wife Mylene and two children, but musically restless, Bradfield's resultant album Even In Exile pays tribute to Victor Jara, the Chilean poet and protest singer whose playing hands were smashed before he was shot by a Pinochet goon in 1973. As he'll explain, it also reveals profound shifts in attitude, which reflect back tellingly on the Manics' past. Yet its genesis began during quiet Sunday nights with family and friends.

Bradfield calls RC after daily exercise, soundtracked today by Pink Floyd's Meddle. One of his children interrupts a couple of times, to be gently answered by dad in Welsh. This sustaining domestic bedrock is fully entwined with a musical life which once seemed primed to self-destruct.

"As we get older, it gets a bit harder to create new stuff, and we've all got families," he explains of the Manics' latest hiatus (his 2006 solo debut, The Great Western, filled the break after 2004's Lifeblood). "I've got a routine," he says of this break, "and most Sunday evenings I go up from Cardiff to see my father in Pontllanfraith, by Blackwood where I grew up, then I drop back down through the valley to see Patrick Jones, Nick Jones' [Wire's] brother, a playwright and poet. I like my Sunday evenings listening to the radio, talking crap with my dad and then coming home." Jones also shared poems about Victor Jara and his circle, emotionally informed by the death of his and Nick's mum, and their dad's ill health. "After a while," Bradfield continues, "he started playing me this Jara compilation album called Manifiesto [1974]. More than anything I was struck by the music; it was like a million little crystals formed in my head. I couldn't believe that protest music could be so eloquent, gentle, and spiritual, much more of a plea, and had a spirit of reconciliation to it, too. I realised the musical soul at the centre of that story."

Bradfield has followed this example, the maximalist, throat-shredding Manics dynamo of old now favouring subtler singing. "You can never try and be too angry on someone else's behalf," he says of taking on the martyred Jara's story. Even In Exile also delves into unexpected aspects of Bradfield's sonic DNA, from the mournful cinematic beauty of Under The Mimosa Tree to the rasping glam-prog of Seeking The Room With Three Windows, which responds to an iconic 70s photo of Jan with another of the decade's touchstones.

"That song's about when Victor Jara went on the trail to try and reconnect with the indigenous cultures of the South American peoples," Bradfield explains. "And there's this amazing picture of him stood on top of Machu Picchu, with a poncho on, and a guitar, and his fist aloft. As soon as you see it, you think, oh my God, it's organic prog! Because on this trail of discovery, he's taken a guitar all the way to the top of that mountain. You tell yourself, don't think. Just channel something. Don't worry about pretentiousness. And immediately what came to me was Rush. I'm a massive Rush fan - and Nick and Patrick even bigger."

The lone Jara song on the album, La Partida, develops into a galloping Morricone-esque instrumental, like a rallying cry. "Yeah, that's because it was recorded by a bombastic old fuck like me." Is that on his business card? "Yeah!" he laughs. "Other words have been used. Brawny, bombastic, bilious. All the Bs for fuckin' Bradfield."

Bowie's in there, too, inescapably lodged after a lifetime's listening. But mostly, when Bradfield's voice sinks into unaccustomed intimacy, we are in the deep traditions of Leonard Cohen's The Partisan and his affinity with the Fascist-murdered Spanish poet Lorca, and early Dylan protests. Though no one Jara song has become common currency, and his nine albums of reclaimed Chilean folk songs and urgent poet's broadsides remain relatively obscure, Bradfield points to his body of work's spreading reach. "Please remember Victor Jara," The Clash pleaded on Sandinistats Washington Bullets, and songs by bands from U2 to Calexico have done so.

But the Christ-like facts of this singer's martyrdom, when his guards mocked the playing hands they'd smashed and he sang anyway, ask deep questions of protest music's potency, and limits. "How far can that so-called indomitable spirit take you, in the face of military intervention?" Bradfield wonders. "How far can a song take you? We need all these songs, but when the time comes, against the barrel of a tank, will it be enough?"

What does it make Bradfield think of his own job, knowing Jara took it so fatally far? "Unimaginable," he shudders. "That's what If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next is about, really. That song was a mirror turned onto the generation that we were, saying we can sing songs of protest and songs of empathy and songs with historical content to show our appreciation. But we can never know what it's like to sacrifice for a belief. We can admire it, and wonder at it, and look at it in absolute horror, too, especially in this case. And also, you can finally look at it and go: I don't want to know what that feels like."

Even In Exile's The Boy From The Plantation gives human warmth to Jan's tale, recalling how he learned to play on his mum's guitar. "I love the idea of those objects channelling through him," he says. "In our studio we've got the old desk from Rockfield, which recorded parts of Bohemian Rhapsody, Simple Minds and Echo & the Bunnymen records, and I love the idea of all those things channelling through the desk." The politics so crucial to the Manics' music also had family roots, as the teenage Bradfield soaked up values from the miners' strike, and his mum. "My dad was a roofer and carpenter and trade union rep, into the nuts and bolts of trying to protect workers' rights," he says. "I'm really close to him. But my mum was quite political, in a deep way. She finally lost patience one day and used language that was quite shocking about how Pinochet and Thatcher were perfect bedfellows, which is the first time I was aware of Chile. She despised the Tories. She would say, 'Just catch the way they look when they think you've turned away. They just don't like us as people, James.' And because I loved and trusted my mum so much, I started to believe, then realise the truth in what she said."

This conviction was a proud seam running through the Manics' work, blasting past Britpop to hit No 1 with If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Nat's tribute to Welsh Spanish Civil War fighters in 1998, then blowing Westlife off the top in 2000 with The Masses Against The Classes, with its sleeve's Cuban flag, slashing Stooges guitars and Clash-like moral attack. Part of Even In Exile's admission is that, faced with the destructive tribalism in our current politics, Bradfield no longer wishes to be so certain. Where, then, does The Masses Against The Classes' provocative agitpop fit with his feelings now?

"I don't know! I find it really hard to judge where it sits now. Because I don't recognise where we were. I don't recognise anything. I don't know how anything speaks to now. The lack of nuance in public discourse is utterly beyond my comprehension." The blowtorch conviction with which he sang The Masses Against the Classes 20 years ago has also changed.

"Absolutely. That's not a bad thing, especially at my age, let's face it. If you're 51 and you're still dealing in absolutes like you did when you were 23, there's something deeply flicking wrong. And then somebody will come along and say, well, that's why you're not exciting anymore. And I'd take that on the chin. When it comes to voting, I'm much more interested in the centre-ground than perhaps the group would lead you to believe. I think Nick and Richey were, too. I think we know what we felt. But it's harder to be in touch with that now, isn't it?"

The Manic' Cuban expedition in 2001, meeting Castro and playing in Havana, was the closest Bradfield got to Jara's Che-idolising world of Latin American revolution. He soon knew he was in over his head.

"I remember all the way through making this record I would think of Cuba now and then, and I would think of the moments of inspiration I had while I was there," he reflects. "And then the moments where I couldn't get on board with it politically, too. It was a fracturing experience. I'm so glad I was there, but I didn't know how to deal with it as a musician. Holidays in other people's misery. Everything does seep in and haunt you, doesn't it?"

Looking to the future, Even In Exile's chastened nuance could transfer back to the Manics themselves.

"Perhaps we should be a bit freer with the Manics," Bradfield agrees. "You don't have to worry about trying to have an album with four singles on anymore, do you? For better or worse. To be a bit fairer to ourselves, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next is much freer in its bearings than people would realise. And something like the song Send Away The Tigers is, too. It's a song about downfall. It's not a song about trying to win anything. So those bearings definitely loosened a long time ago."

Such softening of old rigidities suggests new angles on the Manics' long history. When they ram-raided a grateful music press in the early 90s, spraying slogans and, in Richey Edwards' case, carving up his arm with the words "4 Real", it was built into their manifesto that they wouldn't last. Like a punk Mission: Impossible, debut LP Generation Terrorists (1992) effectively declare& this band will self-destruct after this message. Yet they are now among their generation's most resilient survivors. Does Bradfield think that determined endurance is a result of Edwards' disappearance in 1995, making giving up unconscionable?

"It's a difficult question," he says. "I don't know. It's well reported that Everything Must Go [1996's two-million-selling commercial breakthrough] became what it did because of Richey going missing. Richey saw the next record as being this mash-up between Nine Inch Nails, Screamadelica and Berlin. I didn't want to do that record. And we'd never had that experience in the Manics before. And we never did, because Richey went missing. And it's interesting to think, how tense would I have become? How tense would Richey have become? I remember having a vague conversation, saying, 'That's pretty out there, Android' - we had nicknames for each other. But I couldn't have made that record. And I don't think Nicky and Sean wanted to make that record, either. So, it's a question that stretches into the future, isn't it? With four, does it become harder to agree with what the sound of your band is? Perhaps there was a small sign that it would have. I think Richey wanted the music to be more experimental and confrontational. He wanted music that sometimes challenged people to turn it off That could have led somewhere brilliant. But I am obsessed with melody and musical movement. And Nick doesn't care to admit it, but he's pretty obsessed with melody, too. So perhaps it would have been harder to be 13 albums in, with four of us."

Even In Exile also considers Victor Java's widow Joan, a dancer and activist in her own right as well as a keeper of Victor's flame. Her understanding of him doubtless differs from the musical hero Bradfield lauds. Richey Edwards' disappearance and legally presumed death, and the feather boa-draped mic set up to insist on his absent presence at every Manics gig, similarly gives a mythic core to their lasting appeal. The fragile human source of such a legend - the flesh and blood reality of a lost friend - perhaps connects Joan Jara and Bradfield.

"Yes, I'm aware of the mythological version, the icon version of Richey," he says, "and what people think the Manics could have been if he'd still been around. I'm sure Joan Jara would have the same thing. Because people always become slightly sainted, don't they, if they pass? Trading your heroes for ghosts [quoting Floyd's Wish You Were Here lyric about Syd Barrett], and sometimes one of the reflexes you might have is: he wasn't a saint; he was a person. Richey's much more interesting in real life than the version people hold of him."

Bradfield's voice goes softly fond as he remembers the real Richey's qualities: "He had much more of a sense of humour than his lyrics ever give off, was much more self-deprecating, and also much more into his sport than you'd realise. Fucking loved rugby, fucking loved boxing, and the dichotomy in a fight like Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler, the artist and the butcher. And I think he wanted the butcher to win. So much more interesting, and more soppy. So, when he stepped into wanting to write songs, and you look at his bookshelves, you'd touch on something like A Season In Hell by Rimbaud, Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, and you both got it. Then he'd go off-piste with Torture Garden, and stuff I couldn't get into. But sometimes he'd just put on Taillights Fade by Buffalo Tom, an amazingly soppy, yearning indie song. And other times he'd listen to stuff which was unlistenable. But, you know, a lot of the time, you'd go out and talk about why Dai Bishop from Cardiff was a great fucking scrum-half in the pub with him. That's an image of him that people just won't understand. So much more flawed, much more perfect in real life. And I'm sure Joan Jara would know Victor Jara wasn't a saint, he was just a person, and there were probably moments in the house when he didn't want to change a fucking nappy, just like all of us."

As to the dead man at Even In Exile's heart, it tries to show that his music goes on, past his executioners and their values. Jara's songs were sung at Santiago protests even as Bradfield finished his record, which brims with hope.

"If it affects you that way, I'd be fucking ecstatic," he says. "Because it felt like a tightrope. I didn't want to be vicarious, I didn't want to be exploitative, and I didn't want to be misinformed. So, if that's its effect, I tell you what: at the age of 51, I'm much happier than you'd ever realise."