Still striving, still searching and still evolving, the Manic Street Preachers are back with new album Rewind The Film. James Dean Bradfield tells Dave Owens how Wales has shaped their songs, the effects of middle age on the former firebrands and why this new collection is their most emotionally raw yet
A statuette of Aneurin Bevan sitting atop the mixing desk, surveying proceedings with poise and authority, is the first clue as to where you find yourself.
It’s an exact replica of the imposing statue of the founder of the National Health Service – once voted the greatest-ever Welshman – that guides daytime shoppers and nighttime drunks through Cardiff’s main Queen Street thoroughfare.
On the other side of the glass that separates the control room from the studio sits another Welsh hero.
James Dean Bradfield is at home in every sense, now living back in Wales after more than a decade in London.
The Manic Street Preachers’ HQ, where we find him, acts as the band’s recording studio and rehearsal space with a spacious upstairs lounge – a place to unwind.
Downstairs the picture is that of organised clutter as leads snake in and out of amps, mic stands stand tall and guitars take a moment’s respite in their racks.
Bradfield is propped on a well-worn wooden chair, letting loose the rattle and thrum of a unique voice that has been a clarion call in the rock ‘n’ roll trenches for almost three decades.
Acoustic guitar perched on his lap, he’s running through a stripped-back version of Show Me The Wonder, the lead single from the band’s latest long-player Rewind The Film.
Here the song, a hallelujah chorus of life-affirming horns on record, is laid bare of brass.
This sparse version is far closer in feel to that of the rest of the album.
On one wall there’s the set list from their climactic Christmas 2011 concert at the O2 Arena, where they performed all 38 hits from their singles compilation National Treasures during an epic three-hour set. Adorning another wall there are the 12 tracks that constitute Rewind The Film.
The two lists make a subtle metaphor for the band’s past and the present.
What’s certain is that these two years away have brought closure to the most recent chapter of their remarkable story, while the new album and a harder-edged Krautrock-inspired release to come next year herald a fascinating new future.
Relaxing upstairs, mug of tea in hand, Bradfield confirms the latest collection of songs is unlike anything the band has ever recorded.
“There’s only the one track that features an electric guitar and there’s just a solitary guitar solo as well,” he confirms.
“The new album is much more of an acoustic experience and by that I don’t mean that we’ve been gathered round the campfire. We’re not banging on tins and doing a hoedown.”
As a concept, Rewind The Film underlines James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore’s ceaseless adaptability and desire to recalibrate their musical boundaries.
It’s also by far their most collaborative affair, featuring guest appearances from Richard Hawley (on the title track), Lucy Rose (gracing Sullen Welsh Heart) and Welsh songstress Cate Le Bon (adding glacial vocals to 4 Lonely Roads).
Musically it brews a quiet storm of melancholic bleakness and folk-inspired beauty, while lyrically it’s as meditative as the title suggests.
Just as Generation Terrorists – reissued to great acclaim last year – encapsulated how it felt to be young and fierce and gloriously unreasonable, this new collection explores the treacherous territory of middle age.
While that hinterland between 40 and 50 forces acceptance and awareness of your own ever-encroaching mortality, it’s worth noting that this is very much not a midlife crisis album.
“There’s no doubt that if you’re still in a band after 10 albums – and we’re now on to our 11th and 12th – then you’re still living the dream,” smiles Bradfield, before cautioning,
“I’m not saying that in a smug way, I’m saying that realising we’re extremely lucky.
“Knowing that you’re still in a rock ‘n’ roll band at the age of 44, some people might view it as being preposterous, but it also gives us a real shot in the arm when we realise the basic reality of our lives and that annuls you from a midlife crisis, hopefully.”
Rewind The Film is a series of songs born from the band’s formative years in Wales.
It’s the heart, the hiraeth and home that provides this album’s lifeblood – who they are, where they came from and the people who have shaped their story – all fundamental tenets of those firmly entrenched in their 40s.
It’s a territory that Bradfield is happy to explore.
In fact, before I’d even started my MP3 recorder, we’d spent an enjoyable 20 minutes revisiting the forgotten Cardiff venues of our youth through the frayed gauze of nostalgia.
The frontman and I were born just months apart so share a live music education of evenings spent voraciously seeking out nascent gig-going experiences in the Welsh capital’s bars and clubs, observing the miscellaneous indie menagerie of Birdland, The Guana Batz, The Alarm and The Hoodoo Gurus at The Square Club, Neros and The New Ocean Club – venues that now only exist in our memory.
“Birdland!” Bradfield had exclaimed on my mention of the peroxide punks’ name.
“They were our Sex Pistols. When we saw them we thought there was another band like us,” he recalls of the Birmingham firebrands whose flame burned brightly but briefly in the late ’80s.
The citadels of our adolescence may have long since disappeared but, as the songs on Rewind The Film demonstrate, the memories of childhood still burn vividly for the Manics.
Take the spirited Show Me The Wonder and the beautifully-filmed video paean to the workingmen’s clubs that framed their early life – shot by film-maker Kieron Evans.
With the lyric “we may write in English but our truth remains in Wales”, it’s a love song to their youth, evoking wide-eyed wonder at a world that is yours to discover.
It certainly resonates with Bradfield.
"It’s a song about feeling that there is something in the world waiting for you. That initial exposure to whatever makes you who you are.
“It’s also about science versus religion, that neither can explain the intangible, like how Keith Richards is still alive and why he still has the best haircut,” grins the singer.
“It was Nick’s idea to do the video (which stars Welsh actor Craig Roberts) in a workingmen’s club in Porth.
"As soon as I walked into the place I immediately felt at home.
“I wanted a pint of Wrexham Bitter and a bag of pork scratchings, then to sit down to listen to some songs.
"It was amazingly evocative and I wish I could have just stayed there and had a lock-in until two o’clock in the morning.”
Craig Roberts in the Manic Street Preachers video Show Me The Wonder Craig Roberts in the Manic Street Preachers video Show Me The Wonder
Warming to his theme, it seems Bradfield has hit a rich seam of reminiscence.
“I hadn’t thought about it but my mum and dad met in the ex-servicemen’s club in Pontllanfraith.
"My mum said that my dad kept looking over his paper all the time, until she went over and said, ‘Are you going to keep looking at me or are you going to ask me out?’
“The ex-serviceman’s club was about 200 yards away up on a hill in the distance and, of course, Friday and Saturday nights you would have bands and singers in there and it would echo down the whole street.
“I’d sit on the wall of the tyre service building opposite my house and listen to these acts singing ‘Voulez vous’,” he croons, momentarily and amusingly lapsing into Benny from Abba.
“It was magical and there were some amazing singers.
"It was almost like a village echo chamber. I loved it. I’d sit there on a weekend with my legs dangling way off the floor listening to these people singing songs.
“So my formative influences come from sitting on that wall and when I was older drinking in these clubs at a time when you can already see the fantasy of what your band is going to look like, even though you don’t know who’s in the band and you can’t explain how all that manages to become real,” recalls the singer, who worked as a barman at the Newbridge Memorial Hall between 1987 and 1990.
“All that results from meeting amazing people and growing up in an amazing environment and all of us having amazing parents basically.”
The parallel video to Show Me The Wonder is the bleak shade of grey that is the title track Rewind The Film. Soundtracked by Richard Hawley’s reverberating vocal, it’s a grainy, almost monochromatic short showing the workingmen’s clubs as many are now – in ruinous states of disrepair.
“It’s a huge metaphor that everything moves on and you lose people, you lose things, you lose culture, you lose ideals, you lose your sense of identity,” says Bradfield.
“That’s the same for everybody.
"We’re not explaining something that’s unique, but Rewind The Film talks about a generation of people that you had an indelible amount of love and affection for.
"Those from whom you hope you’ve learnt something and that you’ve transmitted some of their goodness and that their values have survived.”
It’s no surprise that he then adds: “Part of Rewind The Film is an outpouring of love to our parents.
“What you have to remember is that we came out of the nest in a very strange way, because Nick was wearing a dress on stage at the age of 16-17, I was wearing my mum’s blouses, Sean was wearing big jackboots and had a fringe like Bobby Gillespie and (former guitarist) Richey (Edwards) was just looking like he was from a different planet.
“We wanted to be The Clash but didn’t have the requirement you needed to be proper punk, we didn’t have a generation gap with our parents – we all had brilliant relationships with our parents.”
The press release for the new album states: “Rewind The Film is a meditation on mortality”.
It’s certainly true that The Manics have faced down death more than any other British group in history – losing their then co-manager and mentor Phillip Hall to cancer in 1993, the disappearance of Richey Edwards in 1995 and Bradfield’s own mother passing away in 1999.
“I had an amazing relationship with my mother,” he confides.
“It got a bit sparky sometimes but it was incredible and I have an amazing relationship with my dad still.
“Sometimes, though, I do wonder about writing Ocean Spray (the Manics’ 2001 single which references the drink Bradfield would take into hospital for his mother as she bravely battled cancer).
“While I’m not saying it was an abstract way of writing about your experience of losing your mother, I do sometimes wonder about the wisdom of writing that song.
“I remember a bizarre moment when we were playing in front of 10,000 people in Turkey.
"We played Ocean Spray and the crowd went mad. It didn’t upset me but I thought ‘this is a bit weird’. After, I was thinking ‘why did the crowd go mad to Ocean Spray?’ and Nick said ‘maybe they must f****** love it’ (the drink). I’m not overplaying it but I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know if that felt right’.”
Ruminating on the death of Phillip Hall, the singer admits they were lucky they were left with the music industry legend’s brother as manager.
“Phillip’s death was devastating to us but we were fortunate in the fact that Martin and Phillip both managed us.
"Phillip was obviously a legend in the music industry but his younger brother Martin was co-managing us and, while we lost one of the greatest managers of all time, we were left with his brother – one of the best managers of all time. Through terrible tragedy we were aware how lucky we were.”
One of the tracks on the album, As Holy As The Soil, sung by Nicky Wire, is a song of deep and honest loss – about the Manics’ omnipresent fourth member, Richey Edwards, the band’s talismanic rhythm guitarist who was officially presumed dead in November 2008.
“The older you get, the more perspective you have on it,” says the singer of Edwards’ disappearance on February 1, 1995. “I remember feeling very angry at the time.
“When something very bad happens you do get angry. That’s your initial response and when I was young I didn’t quite deal with the anger well. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t here, I kept saying ‘where is he?’ I was angry but really distraught.
“The only new thing that comes up in your head is that if Richey was around now he would have absolutely slayed people.
“In terms of how branded everything is, how branded bands are, he would have been disgusted by it.
"He would have been so completely angry about some things it would be like having an assassin in the band,” Bradfield laughs.
“It would have been the perfect time for him to have been a musician, a lyricist and a quote machine. You wish he was still around so we could just set Richey loose on them.”
Does Bradfield ever wonder what would have happened to the band if Richey hadn’t disappeared?
“That is one of the hardest questions of all. I remember when we were doing demos for (first post-Richey album) Everything Must Go and he really liked Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky, which is one of his lyrics.
“There wouldn’t have been irreconcilable musical differences, it wouldn’t have amounted to that because we’re way too close for that, but his vision might have been a bit more extreme than ours post The Holy Bible album.
“I know that on the record after The Holy Bible he wanted a certain amount of robotic automation coupled with an organic approach, which might not have resulted in total agreement in the band,” Bradfield laughs.
“What it would have meant is that there would have probably been some seriously off-kilter moments on Everything Must Go.
"Instead of this band suddenly just breathing and becoming a bit more musical.
“The one thing I don’t doubt about Richey is that he wouldn’t have countenanced a midlife crisis.
"I think he would have been like Nick Cave – he would have kept going and not been scared of becoming a caricature.
“He would have carried through his vision, whereas I didn’t think we could have gone anywhere else after The Holy Bible as I thought we would become a caricature. We would have become goth horror – you can only go down deeper into that abyss.”
Bradfield is, of course, astute enough to realise that Edwards’ disappearance has provided an endless source of mystery that continues to envelop the band.
“And it’s not nice to be part of it,” is the singer’s response.
“There is a kind of terrible irony there, because I remember I bought into the whole enigma of Arthur Rimbaud, the poet, when I was young. One of the only books I’d given Richey that he hadn’t read was Seasons In Hell by Rimbaud, the book that created this interesting myth around the poet.
“We also loved Joy Division, obviously, and like every Joy Division fan at the time we would delve into what Ian Curtis stood for and what happened to him, but to actually become part of some kind of rock ‘n’ roll myth is not a pleasant experience.
"So there is a great dollop of irony there.”
The legend surrounding the Manics could be seen as both a blessing and a curse.
While it forever maintains the band’s iconic status in some eyes, in others it no doubt perpetuates the time capsule image of the kohl-eyed, shock-haired revolutionaries speeding out of the Valleys, fuelled by boredom and alienation.
An eye-catching lyric in the song Builder Of Routines from the new album perfectly summarises how the band themselves feel.
It reads “So sick and so tired of being 4 real” – an obvious reference to the occasion when Edwards carved the words “4 Real” into his arm in front of shocked NME hack Steve Lamacq – which suggests the Manics appear to be suffering the burden of their own legacy.
“The hinterland between 40 and 50 is so difficult to navigate for a band like us,” admits Bradfield.
“This band is built on disappointment and resultant nihilism and anger, but sometimes I feel we’re kept in this prism of having to be the young punks forever.
“Back then we were like ‘f*** it, we are going to create something new and be a shining light’, which in hindsight is insanely deluded, but at that age you feel indestructible and bulletproof, but you grow up and you have your family and you’re not bulletproof anymore.
“Now we’re allowed to write the songs where actually a bit of our joy and, dare I say, sense of wonder comes out in the music.
“It doesn’t all have to be about this sepia picture of the Manics in 1992 where we’re saying ‘destroy everything’ and we’re looking into a camera like we want to kill everybody.
"That’s not going to be what we’re about anymore.
“I think it’s the way that music gets judged,” he sighs.
“Music has always seemed indelibly to have lost something when youth has been extinguished, but it’s not the same in film and painting and writing. I think that’s the battle we’re fighting in terms of how we should be perceived.
“So that line is obviously born out of frustration and the lyric is talking about the fact that if you’re a writer like Phillip Roth you seem to be writing your best books when you’re hitting 50 or if you’re Saul Bellow then you’re writing your best book when you’re 50.
"Or if you’re Martin Scorcese you’ve made your best film at 50 and Kurosawa and Billy Wilder made their best films when they were older; and the same goes for painters. Francis Bacon was hitting his peak at 50.
“That’s not allowed when you’re musicians, unless you’re Bob Dylan.”
Despite their standpoint, the closing track on Rewind The Film – 30 Years War, a rallying cry against the legacy of Thatcherism – suggests there is fire in their bellies yet.
“This thing of not giving voice to the nihilism and the anger inside you started way back in ’99. And it carries on and carries on, but sometimes you let slip, like 30 Years Of War – it’s not bile but it’s a constructive rebuttal of mistruths down the years.
“It was the perfect storm of Hillsborough, of the Miners’ Strike, of collusion in the media. Sometimes that voice still comes out but mostly it’s looking to praise the good things in the world, not just destroy the world like when we were 20 years old.”
So given their obvious estrangement from their glitter-punk past, have we seen the last of Nicky Wire as a strutting bass-wielding peacock resplendent in feather boa and leopard-print?
“Oh no, of course not,” exclaims Bradfield.
“He’s been swimming, skipping and exercising a lot. His calves are looking in very good shape.
“I hope to see him back in a skirt very soon.”