Nine Songs: James Dean Bradfield
It was always James Dean Bradfield’s intention to let his new record go untoured. “Perfect for the times, isn't it?” he jokes, assessing the prescience of his decision. “A non-tourable product?”
The Manic Street Preachers frontman wasn’t even actively intending to make a solo album. He could have enjoyed some rare, well-earned time off after promo duties for 2018’s Resistance Is Futile. And now, with Even In Exile ready for release and no shows booked, Bradfield’s plans had only extended to a few interviews, which should have provided the perfect opportunity to prepare for festival season and start tentative work on a new Manics album, their fourteenth.
Instead, well, you know.
Our conversation coincides with one of his first visits to Door To The River, the band’s Newport studio-cum-clubhouse, since All This started. “Somebody had popped in here a couple times for us to make sure stuff was fine, but it had that slightly damp smell about it. Unused.” And as someone so close to his bandmates, Bradfield still sounds a little shaken by the separation enforced by lockdown measures.
“Last Friday was the first time that I saw Nick since March, which is utterly bizarre. Before that, usually we haven't seen each other in a month at most. But that’s the first time I hadn’t seen him for four months, since the summer holidays when I was 10 or 11 years old or something. And I saw Sean for the first time the other day.”
But to hear him tell it, everyone in the Manics camp is holding up as well as can be expected. “I think everybody’s existentially active, aren’t they? Everybody’s existential button is on. You just get these very strange waves of… nebulous angst coming on. It’s the only way I can describe it.”
Fortunately, the seeds for his new project - a concept album about the triumphant life and tragic death of Chilean folk singer and activist Victor Jara - had a much less protracted birth. “It kind of fell into my lap, as Premiership football managers say.” The lyrics, provided by legendary Welsh poet Patrick Jones, an occasional collaborator with the Manics and brother of the band’s lyrical brain trust Nicky Wire, weren’t even intended for public consumption.
“Patrick was just doing an emotional exercise,” as Bradfield puts it. “Writing about somebody that embodied something that you couldn't question, somebody that was riddled with positivity and goodness. Thus, Victor Jara.” But, especially considering he’s been in the game for over thirty years, I was surprised to learn that from there, the process wasn’t as easy as simply welding those lyrics to a stockpile of instrumentals that the guitarist had kicking around. “I've always been quite intrigued by that - that writers, just like musicians or painters or whatever, sometimes write with no discernible ambition to publish what they're writing. They’re just writing because they enjoy it, or they're just exercising that muscle.”
“But y’know, I’m a singer, and except for the odd guest appearance of writing one lyric per [Manics] album these days, and a couple in the past, mostly my position is to write the music and let it be inspired by the lyrics that I'm given by somebody else, whether it be Nick, Richey or Patrick. And so I feel as if I need to justify my position as a singer to really let those lyrics inspire the music. I don't like the idea of having bits of music round in variable lockers and going “Oh this might fit that.” That would make me feel a bit ashamed of myself. I'm not saying that's the wrong way to work, it's just that I would feel as if I was cheating if I did that, for some reason.”
Although the album was recorded at the Manics’ Door To The River, Bradfield took this self-sufficiency a step further for Even In Exile. He plays nearly every instrument on the album, for what he calls a “very, very bargain bin Peter Gabriel kind of vibe”. Beyond his trademark arsenal of guitars - and, rest assured, the album contains some of his most fiery playing and intricate arrangements - he’s responsible for almost all of the keyboards and the double bass. “Of course,” he’s quick to note of the latter instrument. “My warm-up every day was ‘Love Cats’ by The Cure.”
The risk-taking nature of the record also allowed Bradfield to draw on a broader range of influences for Exile, with his musical diet of course encompassing Jara’s albums, as well as library music, modern jazz, and (whisper it) prog. In fact, the initial list of songs he submitted for this piece contained a song to go with each track on the album, whittled down on the fly to fit the format – with apologies duly sent out to The The’s “The Beat(en) Generation” and Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”.
That still doesn’t stop an animated Bradfield waxing so lyrical, you’d think he’d picked twice as many songs. The passion and enthusiasm that has palpably infused every record in his career is abundantly clear as he explains what these Nine Songs (and the odd album, where he couldn’t decide on one song) mean to him. In fact, at one point, he even checks himself to apologise. “I listen myself sometimes, and fuck me, you could actually strangle yourself with some of these sentences.”
But to quote one of his earliest influences - the band responsible for the impressionable teenage Bradfield first hearing of Victor Jara, no less - give ‘em enough rope, right?
“When I was writing and recording the first part of “Recuerda”, the first track on Even In Exile, this song was in my head for the bits without the drums. Sometimes you don't know why something becomes an influence, but it just was.
“Fuzzy Logic came out around about the same time as Everything Must Go, and I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it. It was a studio in Cardiff which we used as rehearsal space, a demo space, and we'd used to record The Holy Bible, B-sides, “Suicide Is Painless” was recorded there. It was called Sound Space before that, but when we were there it was called Big Noise Recorders. And I remember the first time I saw Fuzzy Logic was there.
“I saw the album cover with Howard Marks on it, I saw the name Super Furry Animals, and I saw that they were what you would very much call a North Walian band, even though not all of them were from North Wales. So I was looking at this picture before I even heard a stroke of music and from the title and the cover, I had no idea what this band was gonna be like, especially with the name Super Furry Animals. And then looking at some of the titles, I saw “Hometown Unicorn” and I was like, ‘Fuck me, that’s a great title’.
“Nick put it on in the office, and we sat down and listened to it, and it was just a lovely, exciting moment of having almost a sense memory of what a band is going to be like before you even hear it. And it kind of fitted, except when this track came on. It always stuck out for me. There was something about it which could have almost been an offcut from Aphrodite’s Child or something like that. I love the fact that it was almost stuck in a bit of a prog world; it falls into an almost dreamlike flamenco position amongst all the other tracks on Fuzzy Logic. And Gruff’s voice in this sounds so surrendered to something.
“Nick was really on board straight away. Because he's always got this theory that if a band knows how to use a twelve-bar boogie, but make it sound not tacky, then they’re quids in straight away - they know what they're doing. And obviously “God! Show Me Magic” has got that. It’s a particular skill to take the twelve-bar boogie and make it yours, or not sound like a bar room band.
“People always get more than they bargained for when they ask those questions. We just keep all this stupid, inane shit in our head, so when we end up talking to other people, up you guys end up being the victims of us talking shit to each other!”
“I first heard The Bad Plus back in 2015, and I was switched on to them straightaway. It's as simple as that. I loved the way they sounded.
“I think they’re one band that are actually bucking the trend. Let’s face it, we all have the suspicion that a band's best days are over past the fifth album or so. A lot of us think, and a lot of us are told that it's hard for a band to resurrect itself, but they're going in the opposite direction - they’re becoming better as they’re going on. As they're closer to the end than they are to the beginning, they’ve become a better band.
“Sometimes, for me, the titles of jazz songs actually seem like an afterthought sometimes. But with them, their titles always seem to fit the music that they're making, which really impresses me, because obviously this there's no lyrical narrative there. So that's a hard thing to do. I feel as if there’s a bit more of a narrative that’s talked about, rather than just setting your instruments up in the studio, jamming and then giving it a title.
“For me, even if it’s bullshit and even if it’s not the truth, it might show that there's a discernible thread running through their psyche, where they're all thinking about having the same sensory perceptions when they're making music together. Which would be an achievement, because that's the fucking dream.
“I only really started getting interested in jazz because of Sean. He was playing trumpet in colliery bands from when he was about thirteen, fourteen, and he used to practice with Gwent Jazz Youth Orchestra now and again as well, so he started getting into it big time. He got drawn to jazz straight away because, obviously, there was an old miner that was playing in the band with him who was into a lot of jazz, a lot of Charlie Parker. So he started foisting these tapes on the show and saying “Now then, young Sean, listen to this then if you’re talking your trumpet seriously.” Sean would bring it home, and that would have the knock-on effect to me.
“He’s a big Charlie Parker fan, he's a big Duke Ellington fan, and you know, that’s enough for me, I'm thirteen years old, Sean's fourteen, and he's trying to try and copy bits of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker around the house. Which is a bizarre little picture; you go from an old miner, a big old guy - and he was called Dai - passing on these jazz tapes to Sean, and that having an effect on me. Which is lovely. I think it’s a lovely, benevolent act of consequences. And you know, it's the way things happen, it’s how things get influenced.”
“To a certain degree, Rush were absolutely despised by the music press, but metal was massive in the valleys of South Wales. I’d say it was the predominant working-class male’s choice of music, metal and hard rock was gigantic in the Valleys. Nick and Patrick were massive metalheads, and since I was best friends with Nick in school, sometimes he was trying to foist his choices upon me. So again, I became influenced by somebody around me, simple as that.
“I can understand why it’s confusing for people to think that Rush were an influence on us, but they were always a band who were using their imagination, but with power. They weren’t shy musicians. The power and the ideas were constantly in collision with each other, which naturally interested us as people.
“I think they liked it because it was conceptual, too; the lyrics were a massive part to Rush. Now, you've got the argument about Ayn Rand, the cult of the individual – was there this slightly right-wing element to Rush's philosophy? I don't buy into that at all, I really don't. And it was especially confounding for people to chuck of a lot of accusations at Rush, then to find out that Geddy Lee's side of the family settled in Canada as part of that diaspora after the Holocaust. So that ruled that out.
"But the NME was always chucking that at Rush, and of course when you're fourteen, fifteen, you're not gonna really make sense of that anyway, are you? Ayn Rand? The cult of the individual? Is it right wing? I don't fucking know, I'm 15 years old! But lyrics like “Red Barchetta”, which is a very prophetic lyric, you've just got to listen to him about the symbol of this car. It's almost like this forbidden pleasure that his uncle has.
“There’s lyrics on Moving Pictures or A Farewell to Kings which some people may not connect with. But you listen to it when you're young and you’re hearing a lyric that’s trying to talk about how people's talent can be blighted by thwarting the peripheral surrounding conspiratorial masses against people's ambition. And that's described as a little sapling struggling for the sun, because the oaks are blotting the sun out.
“That’s a lovely metaphor for a fifteen-year-old to listen to, that the big trees are spoiling the sun for the small trees. It's welded to shiny prog time signatures, but it's not lumpy music. The guitarist Alex Lifeson is like the missing link between Jimmy Page and Andy Summers from The Police. He's a guitarist that's been inspired by the ‘70s, but he's got a hint of modernity to him as well.
“It's just the cut and thrust of this power trio, going beyond what a trio could ever do in music. And then they welded it to like a perfect pop song like “The Spirit of Radio”, which was like, ‘Fuck me, this prog rock band that deal in pretty dense concepts have had a massive hit now!’ it was just that overarching ambition, and that welding of what ‘70s rock was, with the scientific, digital modernity of what the ‘80s were gonna become. It was an interesting collision.”
“John Cale is an addiction I'll never kick. Most of the stuff like Rush is too, and of course, I understand that John Cale and Rush don’t naturally sit next to each other, but John Cale was a gigantic signpost of hope for me when I was young.
“I had a copy of White Light/White Heat, which Sean had bought actually. He was a year older than me, so he was he was going to Cardiff from the valleys a bit more than me, because he was allowed.
“I understood who The Velvet Underground were, because I’d heard “Waiting for the Man” and “Venus in Furs”, and I understood that they were the most important group that there ever had been, because I’d started reading NME and Melody Maker and Sounds by then. So I put the record on, trying to figure out why this band was so important.
“There was a song on White Light/White Heat called “The Gift”, and it’s one of those accidents I remember. It's a song where it narrates a story over a monotonous Mo Tucker beat, and it's a story about how a man mails himself to his girlfriend as a present, and she puts a drill through the box and she kills him accidentally, trying to open the box.
“The left and the right speakers on our stereo at home were a bit dodgy, and sometimes you had to wiggle the wire on the right speaker to make it work, with the faint danger of getting an electric shock. But it's one of those songs where everything is panned so radically, and only the left speaker was working, so I was left with this version where I could just hear the narration.
“I'm listening to this voice, and I'm thinking ‘Fuck! That accent is from round about 40 miles from here!’ Then I started realising that John Cale was in The Velvet Underground - he was a Swansea boy, which is a bit more than 40 miles - but I’d been told that The Velvet Underground are the year zero for music, and a Welshman was in there!
“It was a massive, massive sign of hope, because, we’d been taking a kicking in the press at that point - nothing cool was deemed to have come from Wales, ever. Even the music press was quite blasé about it, saying that Wales is just a musical wasteland. So to actually know that was a real sign of hope. I subsequently got really interested in everything John Cale ever did, almost as a mark of complete respect for him being the pathfinder for us all. I'm thinking in such dramatic terms when I'm a kid and all that.
“I got Slow Dazzle, Helen of Troy, Fear, and then Paris 1919, which was the one that struck me. “Half Past France” absolutely killed me, and “The Endless Plain of Fortune” killed me too. I absolutely loved the idea of speaking about the characters in a song like that with such conviction, but not with many nuts and bolts of fact. He’s convincing you that he's in that colonial past, just by talking about it. I love the drift of the music. It was solid, but it had been dragged away into the sea of time by an unnatural force, it was just the way all that music made me feel.
“Then I found out that somebody out of Little Feat played on that record, and that led me down another wormhole. I’d been really into music from when I was about 12, but it was brilliant when I was fifteen, sixteen, because you went down so many wormholes about books that are referenced in records, who the other musicians on record were, producers, engineers, where the artwork was, where the studio was. It’s amazing. I've gone on to be a massive, almost chronicler of John Cale’s work, just for my own benefit.
“I’m a big Lou Reed fan as well, but I don’t feel the need to choose between Lou or John. I suppose in people’s heads, “Venus in Furs” is what The Velvet Underground should have been all the time - his songwriting, with John Cale’s inventiveness, and then the organic nature of Sterling and Mo. The limitations of choice that they put upon themselves in the way the rhythm section was playing, that’s what made it amazing.
“I think it’s true for all of us - the scarcity of choice in what we had to work with made everything even better, because you had to be inventive.”
“I kind of know John a tiny bit, and I hope he wouldn't be upset if I said that. Just like when we say we hear a bit of the church background in lots of music that we all love, I hear a bit of John's church background in the way he plays piano. Always, every time. Especially if you go into a West Walian Church, a Welsh Nonconformist or Methodist chapel, they'll play in a certain way, and I hear that in his playing. It’s so distinctive, and I hear Welsh chapel in it. But it’s really weird that you can hear John Cale’s fingerprints all over Desertshore and The Marble Index.
“I've been in the studio sometimes, and you'll hit something where you want the song to be unsettling, and you either find it or you don't. If you try to be unsettling, if you try to make the chords more unsettled and darker, it sounds false. If you find those chords naturally, like when we were doing “South Yorkshire Mass Murderer” - I found those chords and I built the song around it - it came naturally. But I know what it's like to try and make things sound darker, and it’s almost like trying to inject a bit of horror into a Carry On film.
“So unless it comes naturally and you build a song around it, don't try. Whereas with Nico, she always finds the chord which shouldn't exist. She always finds the melody that shouldn't be going over that chord, or she always finds just the right degree of monotone to express something. It’s a real skill, especially on something like “Janitor of Lunacy”.
“And you realise Nico’s voice, her perspective, her ability as a musician - there’s something very particular to it. Obviously, she's not really what you would call an expansive musician, and she's not malleable. She's not somebody who’s going to turn to different styles, but she's utterly unique.
“I like The Marble Index - I almost admire it more than Desertshore - but Desertshore has just a bit more musicality to it. I love the fact that she’s discernibly herself, and nobody else can do it. I think the only person who can really get close to her voice is perhaps Cate Le Bon. She can do that thing where she can just lie down her emotions and sing something, and it can be quite unsettling for you. She can stand down the emotions in her voice it seems, and just sing something and you go, ‘Well, that’s put me off balance a bit’, which is a really fine skill. I always love the way that she unsettles me straightaway.
“I had to sing “Janitor of Lunacy” live with John Cale, because he was in charge of a Nico retrospective on the South Bank, for obvious reasons. And I gotta tell you, it was fucking hard. I was trying to sing “Jaaaaaanitoooor of luuuunacyyyy” and I’m thinking, ‘Fuck, I sound like an idiot!’
“I was sharing a dressing room with Mark Lanegan for that gig! The last time I’d seen him was Liamgate, when we were on that tour. So, I walked in the dressing room and there’s a sign on the door saying. ‘Mark Lanegan and James Dean Bradfield’. I hadn't been told that, and I was like, ‘Wow, okay… this’ll be interesting’, and it was really nice! We had a big conversation about Jeffrey Lee Pierce, because they were friends and one of my great lost-soul albums is Wildweed by Jeffrey Lee Pierce. We had a really, really good conversation for like two hours in the dressing room, and he was really sweet after I did the song.
“That was one night where I really did need a bit of confidence from somebody else, and he was really cool to me, so that was a memorable day, for many different reasons. He’s another one of those people that I love being around, but it's slightly awkward. You don’t wanna walk with him, because it looks like that film Twins with Arnie Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito!”
“George Benson is one of my shock hero dudes. The only way I can sum up George Benson is just, fuck, I wish he was the mayor of my town. He always seems like such a fucking dude whenever he talks, whenever he does interviews. He seems so magnanimous, so openhearted, but he’s got steel in him too, and his talent was so pure. He was so amazing.
“The first single I ever bought was “My Old Piano” by Diana Ross, but I remember being really turned on by “Give Me the Night” by George Benson too. I had a copy of that, and I’d seen the video, with somebody on roller skates by the seafront, but I was really confused, around about 1978, ’79, I nearly became disco boy!
“Then about two years later, I saw George Benson playing guitar and I was like, ‘Fuck me, he's good.’ I started going back and buying all the second hand bits of vinyl of his in Cardiff, whether it be White Rabbit or Shape of Things to Come, or Beyond the Blue Horizon, which is the album this song is from. I always loved this one, “Ode to a Kudu”. The only clue I got to what the song is about is that I think a Kudu might be an African antelope.
“He’s one of those musicians that I connect to for no earthly reason, I just love the flow of his playing. If you listen to an album like Shape of Things to Come, you can see he’s trying to connect into a future, again. He loves and respects the tradition of jazz, and all the standards, but especially in this period of the mid-seventies, he's always trying to inject a bit of future into it, and always just really overreaching what he should be doing, which leads to really interesting stuff.
“I always feel a real connection to George Benson as a guitarist. I don't know why, I can't explain it, I can't give you any other explanation. I do a lot of practicing to his stuff, and then I just give up, because he’ll fucking go off somewhere where you cannot follow.
“I tried to say hello to him once in an airport, and I had to fight every emotion in my body not to do the Alan Partridge thing, you know? The “Dan! Dan! Dan!” scene - “Hey George!” And I really wanted to say hello to him, but I didn’t.”
“I think Have You In My Wilderness is a brilliant album. I can’t actually believe that it isn’t cited as a modern classic yet.
“I was attracted to it because the cover reminded me of “The Shuttered Palace”, by Ellen Foley, who was the original woman who sang on Bat Out of Hell. She was going out with Mick Jones from The Clash - this was another wormhole I fucking went down - so if you see “The Shuttered Palace”, the production credit on that album is “Produced by: My Boyfriend”, which is fucking brilliant. So for some reason, the tone of the cover reminded me of The Shuttered Palace, which means nothing at all.
“I remember seeing the vinyl for Have You In My Wilderness in Spillers in Cardiff, and I think I’d heard “Silhouette” on the radio, and I took it home, and thought it was amazing. “Sea Calls Me Home” is a great song, “Lucette Stranded on the Island” is amazing. It feels like a musician who’s completely in command of her space.
“I have no idea what kind of person she is. She seems like an enigma, and I like that sometimes. The idea that you can listen to a record and know nothing more about the person after you’ve listened to it lots and lots of times. I like that mystery. She only lets you know what she wants you to know, which I love.
“Have You in My Wilderness is the only album I’ve got of hers, and I almost don’t want spoil it by hearing any of her other records, I’ve tried to preserve that a tiny bit. It’s weird that I haven’t followed it up at all, but this one’s a classic. It stands next to Paris 1919 for me.”
“I’d done a lot of songs on the album which were very start and stop, because of the slightly prog nature of what I was doing. Tracks like “Under the Mimosa Tree”, which is instrumental and very lower-case “soft”, and “From the Hands of Violeta”, which goes slow, fast, slow, fast etc. And I was doing “Without Knowing the End” - obviously I had the lyrics off Pat, but I did a first version of the music, and I thought it was fucking awful.
“I realised that I’d momentarily lost the ability to just put my foot on the pedal and get going. I felt like I couldn’t write in a straight line anymore – I was going off-piste and doing this and that. So I thought, ‘Well, what records should I do to get myself back into that frame of mind a little?’ And the two pills I needed to take to get myself in that straight line were “Sorry Somehow” by Hüsker Dü, and the album ...For the Whole World to See by Death.
“Even though they didn’t really play anything straightforwardly - there would be dips and little hollows - they’d then put their foot on the gas and just go for it, and I just love the conviction of what this band did on this one record. I keep going back to it because I love the sound of it, the transition they’d made from being a funk band to a punk band, which you can hear a tiny bit. I love it being that moment in time where they never really recreated anything like this ever again, whoever produced and engineered it did a great job as well.
“For a conviction shot, there’s certain records I’ll use as prescriptive measures for myself, musically and this is one where I’ll put it on just to sort my head out. If I need to clear my head and think of nothing, I’ll put on Doppler by R. Seiliog, which is music that seems to empty my mind in a brilliant way. And this is a prescription I gave myself when I was struggling to write music that needed to show conviction, and a straight line that didn’t stop from start to finish.
“Again, there’s an air of mystery about this band. There’s no other record you can buy by the band Death that will ever match this one. This was their one shot, I think. This was the only record of any consequence they ever did, but I know it’s gathered its cult status along the way. Please don’t tell me it’s a tragic ending and they’ve ended up messed up or something.”
“It’s interesting, isn’t it? You hear this, and you see all of these subdivisions of what music is in record shops - whether it be hard rock or easy listening, which this is always deemed to be. Up until the mid-nineties, “easy listening” was always used in such disparaging terms, and that always really confused me, because by then I knew Burt Bacharach was always seen as the crown prince of easy listening. But he’d done so many songs which I absolutely loved, which is why I ended up singing “Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head” back then.
“Whenever I thought to myself ‘Why are people down on easy listening so much?’, I always thought the answer would be ‘because it’s that shit muzak you hear in lifts.’ But great easy listening stuff is not the stuff you hear in lifts! The stuff you hear in lifts is the stuff you hear in lifts! And when it came to Mike Flowers Pops doing “Wonderwall”, in a strange way, that almost made it a bit more accessible to people - God knows if Mike Flowers actually liked that music, but Noel [Gallagher] had given it his stamp of approval as well.
“There’s one thing I’ve been obsessed with all my life, and that’s melody, so of course, easy listening was always going to be a hotbed of appreciation for me. I went down another wormhole when I was about fifteen, on a mission to find out about The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and For a Few Dollars More soundtracks. Everybody knows what Ennio Morricone did, and then I found out that Ennio Morricone had employed Alessandro Alessandroni, so I went off down that wormhole.
“Alessandroni was part of I Cantori Moderni, which was a small group formed, again, through limitations of choice. They didn’t have the budget for a massive orchestra and all the musicians they needed, so they had to become much more inventive with it. I suppose that’s why those soundtracks are all the more organic and spooky.
“I started finding lots of his records around the world on tour, and I loved the actual melodies on these records. I love the passages of time where you get a coda and you always come back to it, but the melody is so important, and melody in general has always fascinated me. It’s one of those records where it is easy listening, because it does soothe my soul, and it teaches me how melody can still connect to my emotions in a discernible way, which I don’t understand.
“I don’t know what button it presses. I don’t want to know what button it presses, but it still makes me feel like either something is at an end, or something is possible. That’s the two emotional buttons I have which music can mainly switch in my head. His music does that to me, and that’s all I need to feel or know.”