Q&A with James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers

Q&A with James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers

James Dean Bradfield has lifted the lid on his new Victor Jara-inspired solo album and revealed what's next for the Manic Street Preachers in an interview with Music Week.

Even In Exile, the Manics frontman's second solo LP and first since 2006's The Great Western (28,345 sales, OCC), is out today (August 14) on Bradfield's Montyray imprint, via The Orchard.

The collection of songs loosely trace the story of the life and death of Chilean poet-singer-activist Jara, who was killed days after the 1973 military coup led by Chilean dictator General Pinochet. The record's lyrics were provided by poet and playwright Patrick Jones – brother of Manics bassist and chief lyricist Nicky Wire.

"The story James is telling with this record on the life of Victor Jara, despite being about events over 50 years ago, feels as relevant today," said The Orchard's senior artist marketing manager Adam Saunders. "The principles of freedom, empathy and respect for others greatly speaks to The Orchard's mission."

Here, in a Q&A, Bradfield opens up on his new record, the recent reissue of the Manics' 1993 second LP Gold Against The Soul and plans for the band's 14th studio album... 

Jeremy Corbyn quoted Victor Jara on the eve of the last general election, which obviously didn't end well. I hope that's not a portent for my record!

James Dean Bradfield

How have you been getting on during the pandemic?

"Same as everybody else really, I think everything's OK as long as you don't try to think into the future too much. Once you start thinking about the future too much, that is when your head starts unravelling because things can just change in a heartbeat. So I should be sitting in the South of France at the moment on holiday, but I'm not and that's like lots of other people. But I've started working in the studio a lot and I've been doing some press. I was finishing the artwork for this record at the start of lockdown so I've had stuff to keep me busy. I've got two young kids as well, a four-year-old and an eight-year-old, so that's kept me busy."

What inspired you to make Even In Exile?

“I have this routine where I go up the Valleys every Sunday to see my dad and then on the way back I see Patrick [Jones]. He's a bit of an educational source, he was always that classic older brother that had been off and done things and he was cool. And he always shows me what he's writing. A lot of writers tell me that sometimes they know there's no earthly way what they’re writing is going to be published, but they just write for the sake of exercising that muscle, and Patrick was writing reams and reams about Victor Jara. It took me a while to reboot my memory as to the Victor Jara story, but once I did I started getting into this prose and the poems – there was even a little one-man play – and in the end I said to him, ‘So you're not going to try and publish any of this?’ And he went, ‘No, who the hell's going to publish this?’ And I just said, ‘Well, I'll give a go of trying to turn it into an album if you don't mind?’ because I knew all the reference points. And within two weeks of him showing me this stuff, I'd started two songs.”

Where did the album title come from?

"It's from one of the lyrics in the song, The Boy From The Plantation, and it kind of made sense really because people still sing his songs in wide open public civic spaces. There's one of the only annual festivals in tribute to Victor Jara in Wales every year up near Machynlleth. Last year, and even going into this year, you still had 5,000 people singing some of Victor's songs in Plaza Italia in Santiago in protest of the government's austerity measures. You still have artists like Calexico writing songs about him and so he's still a voice that bounces and reverberates and ricochets down the decades. So the phrase Even In Exile just fits it all because even though he hasn't been around for many decades in body, in spirit he more than endures. It's quite unbelievable, really. Jeremy Corbyn quoted Victor Jara on the eve of the last general election, which obviously didn't end well. I hope that's not a portent for my record!”

How different was it writing this album compared to a Manics record?

"With Pat I had to go through a lot more prose, whereas Nick is a bit more ordered. Nick's been writing lyrics since he was 14 years old and we know each other's rhythm. I'll add a word or take away a word and there's no preciousness between us about that editing process. With Patrick, there was a lot more of an explosion onto the page. Sometimes it seemed like poetry slipping into prose so the editing process was a bit harder because there was so much good stuff. So I had to try and discern what was going to work in a song rhythmically. But the biggest difference about writing to Pat's lyrics as opposed to writing stuff for the Manics through Richey [Edwards, missing bandmate] and Nick's lyrics is that the MO of trying to write a hit was not there. I didn't have that psychological barrier of thinking, 'We need the first banging single, then we need the second single, then we need the third mopping up single'. That kind of structure doesn't exist anymore anyway. But I've still got that institutionalised thing of trying to write four singles per album, whilst trying to have a title track on an album as well that stands above the other singles. So with this, that thing of trying to write singles was out of the way completely and I suppose that does free you up a tiny bit."

How well do you think your first solo LP, The Great Western, holds up now?

"I purposely haven't listened to it since I last heard it, which was round about seven years ago. Nick was playing bits of it in the studio because he tends to go over a lot of old records. He listens to them for frame of reference to see where we were at, which makes sense to be honest. I tend not to, but because Nick is so in charge of doing all the archives and reissuing stuff, he's always trying to put things into context. So I haven't heard it since Nick was playing a couple of tracks off it about seven years ago. And I purposely didn't listen to it when I started this record because I didn't want to be spooked out by its shortcomings."

What prompted that record?

"Exactly the same as this one – Nick and Sean saying that we had to take a break."

That break seemed to rejuvenate you as a band, coming on the back of two of the less heralded Manics LPs...

"Absolutely, I mean, the elephant in the room is [2004 LP] Lifeblood. It is called Lifeblood, let's just say it! There are a few journalists that really like Lifeblood, which I always find reassuring and alarming at the same time, but after Lifeblood we knew we’d lost our way a tiny bit. We’d internalised everything too much and become a bit too questioning. We were just suffering from large doses of paralysis through analysis really. So we took a break after Lifeblood, Nick did his solo album [I Killed The Zeitgeist], I did my solo album and we did [2007's] Send Away The Tigers, which was a massive rebirth for us. Nick used an analogy about having to reconnect – you can’t reconnect with your audience if you can’t reconnect with what you originally were – and I understood that. So we went back to that guitar-driven, anthemic rock that still had undercurrents of punk and rock classicism, with a strong pop conscience and an ability to write about politics and not make it seem dogmatic.”

The Manics' second album Gold Against The Soul was given the reissue treatment earlier this year, have you had a chance to reappraise it?

“Obviously, when you sit through the entire remastering, you're forced to reappraise it. Just to go and sit there and hear somebody try and make you sound better for two days is a nice experience. I've gone back and listened to the record and re-linked some of the visuals and some of the memories and it's definitely made it more interesting for me, because Gold Against The Soul was a bit of a classic second album. Slightly after the initial rush of feeling indestructible and feeling nihilistically bang on message with the first album, a lot of bands lose their way with their second album and we did a tiny bit, but that doesn't make it any less interesting. Whenever [Wire] works on a reissue, it’s so completist, it’s really worth buying. Every shit cassette tape I've given him, he's kept. Every little bit of paper where I've rewritten lyrics out and edited some stuff out, he's kept it all, so when it comes to the reissues they are so complete. There'll be a little cassette tape of me doing an acoustic version of La Tristesse Durera in a hotel in Hull or something. He's got every demo that you could possibly wish for and he's done an amazing job on Gold Against The Soul."

Have you come around to [Gold Against The Soul opener] Sleepflower yet? 

"[Laughs] What is it with that fucking song?! I only just realised when we were reissuing it that there's a lot of the tow of Richey Edwards in that song. A lot of that lyric is just how he saw life and how he spoke. I don't know how many of those lyrics are Nick's as well, but that song feels like the philosophy of Richey Edwards to a certain degree where sometimes he just felt very defeated, but in a romantic kind of cuddly sense, just giving in to melancholia. But it's obviously given an anthemic edge, which I'm not quite sure whether Richey was ever happy with. I suppose the big thing is it's quite a fucking hard song to play. Unless you play it early on in the set, where you've got enough power in reserve to play it at a steadier speed, then it's quite easy to do. But if you play it anywhere above the 15th song in a set, where your muscle memory is lacking and the lactic acid is building up in your limbs, a bit like an athlete in the last stage of a marathon, then it's harder to play. It's a bit of a beast to play, I suppose is one of the reasons why I always sigh. But yeah, Sleepflower is something that will get called out by the front row of every gig for the rest of our living days, definitely."

How happy were you with the most recent Manic Street Preachers album, 2018's Resistance Is Futile?

"I was happy enough with it. I suppose the narrative for that album was that we were trying to come to terms with the confusion of where we are. It feels as if this [next] album is a bit more pointed. It feels like it has a bit more of a vainglorious end to it, I think."

Lastly, what else can you tell us about the new Manics album. Should we still expect it next year or is that subject to change?

“It's subject to change, like everything. We've started demoing and hopefully myself, Nick and Sean are going to be in the same studio space together soon. I've been in the studio doing acoustic sketches of some new Manics songs and, of course, I'm excited about it like all artists usually are! But I really am because we still haven't let go of ambition."

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