Manic Street Preachers – Orwellian Times

Welsh rock band The Manic Street Preachers released their fourteenth studio album, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” in September 2021.  In August, we spoke to frontman and guitarist James Dean Bradfield about the new album, his guitars, his love of Rush, Gary Moore and Abba, and focussing on the present instead of the future.

Tekst og livefotos: Anne-Marie Forker

– Hello Anne-Marie!
– Hi James! It’s a pleasure to interview you today. I was a teenager in the ‘90s and I’ve been following the Manics for a long time.
– Whereabouts in the fair island of the Republic are you from?
– I’m from Belfast. But most people think I’m from the South – I think it’s because of my family and I lived there for a while.
– You don’t have the same high-rising terminal as a Belfast resident.
– No – I think I lost that after school.
– Ah, okay – pleased to meet you.
–  You also. So how has lockdown been for you? How have you been able to work with the band?
– It’s been the same for me as for a lot of my friends, for all I know, it’s informed me with way too much perspective, or something which feels like perspective.  It’s been incredibly existential in terms of deconstructing memory, deconstructing hopes for the future, and just replacing it with nothing but uncertainty, so what lots of my friends and people in my family have learned to do is to try and live in the moment instead, and try not to look too far into the future, and to try not to reinterpret the past, just try to use the memory which is there in your head, ‘cause, well, I think the past, present and future has become so open to interpretation, I think you’ve just gotta stop, you’ve just gotta live in the present. So, that’s what I’ve come to, and beyond that [sigh], it was… I suppose being in the band was a bit of a saving grace, because the one thing that solitude and isolation can do is that it can foster you with a great optimism to write something, if you feel as if you’re isolated that’s the only way I can put it, you feel as it you must write if you’re isolated, you feel as if you can write if you’re isolated. So that proved useful with lockdown, and there was a piano in my house which we’d just acquired and that, for the amateur wannabe auteur director in my head, it felt like serendipity… you know, that this piano had just come to us, just before lockdown.
– Good timing.
– Yeah, it was good timing. Some kind of serendipity, basically. So, I just got to working ,writing, being amongst the family, and trying to teach the kids, and just trying to be part of a functioning family that was inward-looking all the time. Just trying to write all the time. So, the same as a lot of my friends really, and like I said, the biggest thing that came from it all was just trying to live in the present, y’know, try not to look into the future, because, it’s the hope that kills you, really.
– That’s well said.  So, when it came to working with the band, how did you manage that? Did you meet by Skype or something?
–  I think we are probably the only band that didn’t do one Skype meeting during the whole of lockdown. We never ever once shared a screen experience with each other.  We’re very old school in terms of calling each other by phone.  I still find the telephone an incredible invention and I like it.  I prefer it, I prefer it to screen time. I just don’t like that, that thing, of what the screen does to your face.  It’s just fucking awful.  I can’t stand it, and Nicky is worse than me.  So, we exchanged texts and talk on the phone all the time. Myself and Nick talk at least once a day, every day, unless we’re on holiday. So that’s very strange for people who have known each other since they were five years old. [laughs] I think that’s quite a strange kind of intensity. But we were posting stuff to each other in terms of Nick was sending me lyrics via email or sending stuff via post.  Sean I were talking by phone, and then I’d come into the studio and just record a couple of sketches on my own or with the engineer, and I guess it was quite easy to distance in the studio because we’ve got our own place. There were ways around it, but at certain points I just wasn’t allowed to travel so I was just doing little acoustic demos the old-school way on a little tape cassette, and putting it in the post.
– Cool! Post is old school as well these days.
– Yeah, and also just recording on a little cassette is quite old school as well, so I was scrabbling round to see if I had any blank cassettes. In the end I had to send off for some but there were ways around it. I think it was the same for everybody. The possibility of actually not interacting, and seeing if an idea was real, whether you’d be a carpenter, whether you’d be working in an office, or whether you work in a pub. You don’t know if something’s working until you’re actually there in the situation. So, we had this bank of songs and we didn’t quite know if they were working until the end of last summer, ‘cause you know, lockdown ended last summer, and suddenly we were allowed to come back in the studio, albeit in a distanced fashion. We were allowed to come back in the studio, and we started working on the songs straight away, so that’s what happened.

– You were also very productive then, with releasing your solo album (“Even In Exile”) as well.
– Thankfully most of that was finished before lockdown started. All the recording was done.  I was just about to start mixing when lockdown started. That was done at a distance anyway, the mixing process, so that was fine. I was just getting mixes sent to me and making alterations. Um, the artwork was pretty much finished before lockdown started. So – thankfully – the nuts and bolts of the solo record were mostly finished before lockdown, so it was possible to put it out. That was a stroke of luck definitely.

– Were there any songs on “The Ultra Vivid Lament” that were completed before lockdown or were they all done post lockdown?
– “The Secret He Had Missed” was a song we wrote and demoed in 2019. “Orwellian” was written and demoed in January 2020, and there was something else that written round about then too. I think “Still Snowing in Sapporo” was done quite early on. So they were the three songs that were done before lockdown and then the rest came after.
– That opening track, it’s been in my head all week, it’s such a great melody (“Snowing in Sapporo”).
– Yeah, it’s the one song that definitely feels as if it’s a good dose of retro MSP but interspersed with the present. The verses are so isolated and so, almost prosaic, kind of thing, that they almost feel quite modern, the verses, but then the choruses come with that kind of Manics-esque rush of emotion. So, I think that song probably epitomises us now and us then, if you follow me.
– Absolutely. Where did the title for album come from?
– It came from Nick. Nick spent a lot of time in West Wales, that kind of seems to be his secret spiritual home, West of Wales. I think that’s in Nicky Wire’s soul, “West is Best”, even though he’s an East Walian like me. He spent a lot of time over there, and when he was over there at the start of lockdown he got caught up in it, and then, at the end of the first lockdown, in summer, he went over there.  And he was spending time, just on the beach, looking towards the fair isle of Ireland, I suppose.
– Sounds wonderful.
– He was looking out into the distance and taking a lot of photos and I think he was struck with that moment of being amongst all the beauty but not quite being able to touch it, because there were certain rules, you know. How long you could go out for a walk on the beach? Is it exercise? How long could it be before you went back home, to East Wales? Was it okay for him to just have a swim in the sea? Did it count as exercise? Was he allowed to have a walk on the beach for more than twice a day, that thing of being amongst beauty but actually not being allowed to participate in it was something which was quite a strange experience, and it seemed to heighten the sense of the beauty which is around him, which is all around you in West Wales, obviously, same as the coast of Ireland. To be immersed in all that beauty, surrounded by it, but somehow you were told you couldn’t quite be part of it, and you couldn’t quite participate in it, and you had to go back indoors, made it a so much more vivid experience for him, I think. Very strange, almost Truman Show-esque, really. So, I think that’s where the title came from. Being surrounded by beauty – being surrounded by love, with your family, being with them, but also being forced to be with them. Just all these things, being amongst beauty but not quite being able to touch it, being amongst all the people you love, but probably getting on their nerves [laughs], that kind of thing, you know. All those things that are good for you, but which suddenly are being forced upon you. Not through anybody’s fault.  There is no subtext there about us being anti-lockdown or anti-vaxxers. Far, far from it. We were very much compliant in terms of the rules and stuff and we were happy to be, but it was still a strange feeling of being amongst things which are beautiful, which are full of empathy and love but somehow it’s still feeling quite unnatural.
– Yes, it’s a bit like walking around in a box where you can see all the beauty around you but you’re contained. It is strange.
– That’s why I likened it to that film, the Truman Show. It was a beautiful world which somehow, all of a sudden, became unreal.
– I wondered what you meant when you sing “We live in Orwellian times” and “I’ll walk you though the apocalypse”?
– To be Orwellian is… there are so many different versions of what Orwellian is. We were not on about the more hackneyed, cliched version of Orwellian, which is Big Brother. We were not on about that, we were not on about The State.  We were not on about somebody watching you. We were on about the Orwellian kind of obsession with doublespeak, where language can be contained, it can be re-armed, it can be manipulated, it can be misinterpreted, it can be re-armed for anybody’s use, the Left or the Right, and the extreme Left and the extreme Right can re-arm language and can misappropriate language and misappropriate culture for its own purposes. That’s, I suppose, the thing I’ve always found really enticing and interesting about Orwell – sometimes you can never tell if he’s writing about the extreme Right or the extreme Left. There’s that philosophy which is called “Janus-headed philosophy”, it’s the signal of living in the most extreme of times, when extreme Right and extreme Left meet, and they become indiscernible from each other. That’s supposed to be the signal that you’re living in terrible times. Sometimes it’s felt like that, amongst all the Culture Wars in Britain in general. Sometimes I don’t recognise the so-called liberty of the extreme Left, I don’t, I don’t recognise the things they say as being libertarian and I certainly don’t recognise the things that the centre Right, that has splintered off towards the far Right, have written.  I certainly don’t recognise things that they say as being extra-level libertarian, y’know, triple-X libertarian, where the State must not intervene at all. It seems to me that the extreme Left and the extreme Right really are policing the barriers of language as vigilantly as each other and misappropriating language and using it to entrap people and using it to just keep people quiet, really.

– That’s fascinating. I wanted to ask you about the Abba influence. Like Abba you’ve mastered that kind of melancholic-yet-happy melody in many of your songs. It’s more obvious on this record but I wanted to ask whether you have always had Abba as an influence, because I’ve definitely detected it in past records, here and there, but not as much as the new album.
– Yeah. I think most guitar bands … I will make quite an assumptive statement here, I do think most  guitar bands at least have one massive Abba fan in the band, but that’s it – we all are.  Even Richie liked Abba. It’s a big thing of our generation, growing up in the ‘70s, our parents all had lots of Abba records, Simon and Garfunkel, lots of Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, just stuff like that. My parents’ record collection was brilliant, I loved it. That’s why I was always confused by the generation gap syndrome. I never really felt as if I had a generation gap with my parents. I really got on with them, and loved it when they came home a bit tipsy and played their records really loud.
– Sounds great!
– I really liked it. But Abba just always had a strange power over myself and Nick, especially because of the mixture of the songs, the simplicity of the lyrics which go straight to your heart, because they’re writing in a second language but they’ve become all the more pointed in this simplicity of language. The way the melody just mixes together with the two singers’ voices, I mean – their voices are just so powerful, in a glacial, glistening, kind of graceful kind of way, their voices have so much power. I think the way that their voices mix together is one of the biggest achievements of 20th century music. I just love the way that their two voices combine as one instrument of precision and grace and just a glacial and gliding power.  They are like the Silver Surfer of singers.  I just love the way they sing. What I love about Abba is they always seem to, more often than not, whether it be a song like “The Day before You Came” or “The Winner Takes it All”, or “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, to be a bitter pill sweetened by a sugar coating, which is the music. The lyrics and the music, the two come together and their voices – it creates some kind of beautiful melancholic pill. It’s like when you take a Nurofen and it’s got that sweet taste on it. The only way I can describe it is a bitter pill which is just sugar coated and it makes you feel better.
– I love the alliteration and description of “glacial and glistening”.
– Well, I come from the same borough of Wales as Neil Kinnock and he loved alliteration [laughs]. Yeah, I think that’s a trick that we picked up a long time ago – if you can call it a trick – but sometimes to sweeten the bitter pill, to make it bittersweet, so to speak, is a great thing to do, ‘cause if you can actually find an uplifting… in talking about something which is remotely tragic or a defeat – if you can make that bitter-sweet somehow, you feel as if you nearly won the day, through learning a lesson. It’s something I’ve always carried with me when I listen to records like that when I was young, and with S&G too. There’s that bitter-sweetness, which makes you feel as if you’ve turned the corner, even though you’re talking about a defeat.

– This was the first Manics album written with the piano, which you mentioned earlier. Did that somehow, feel different? I know it’s the same chords that you would have usually played on the guitar but…
– On the whole, absolutely. It’s good that you say that it’s still the same chords, as you do on the guitar, but that’s the whole point. It’s really strange that I started bedding down and learning piano to a better extent in lockdown because we’d inherited this piano, like I said it felt like serendipity. So I sat down and I really concentrated on trying to play the piano better than I already could and then I started writing on it, and I started thinking “wow!  This chord is amazing!” or “This chord is amazing”. I started thinking in a vainglorious way “I think I’ve found new chords – that nobody else has ever found” and then I started realising it was just G, it was just C, it was just D. They were the same chords that I’d go to on the guitar, but the piano had breathed new life into old chords, which is a lovely thing to happen because, I suppose it’s that old Hemmingway-esque thing, as a writer. I think he was famous for saying once, “How do you write like Hemmingway?” and he said, well, “You’ve got to love all words, not just the big words, not just the words you reach for in the thesaurus”. You’ve got to love all the words, that’s the only way you can get a flow, and I think that’s what I got with the piano, it taught me that these chords which I thought were just ordinary, because I’d be using them all my life, G maj, C maj, D maj, D min, E min, A, suddenly I realised I had wrung the life out of them, but there were still new things to find in those chords. The piano had made them sound, disingenuously, the piano had made them sound more beautiful, but they were still the same chords. So it made me just realise that there was somewhere to go. The road is endless with those chords. It gave more space to the music too, because I was writing on the piano and when it came to playing with the band, suddenly I was playing guitar in a more sparing kind of way, the same way I’d be playing on the piano, so it gave more space for the vocal, it gave more space to the lyrics, which is good because there are quite a lot of lyrics on this album. So, suddenly, my guitar is still there, but it’s not getting the way of the lyrics.
– What guitars did you use on the new album? I assume that your beloved 1990 Les Paul Custom appeared?
– What?! Are you a guitarist?
– No, I’m not, but I love guitars. I really love guitars. I’m a big Gary Moore fan. I know a little bit but not much. I don’t play myself and only know a few chords.
– You’re like my auntie. My auntie absolutely loves guitars and she goes to lots of concerts, but she doesn’t feel the compunction to try and play, which I always find really strange. She’s one of my aunties I’m really close to. I’m always saying to her “Go on!” because her husband plays guitar, and she loves that, but she doesn’t play.  Anyway, I absolutely love Gary Moore as well. For me, he’s probably the most ferocious guitarist ever to come from Britain. Have you ever seen the Stratocaster concert he did?
– No, I haven’t.
–  There was a celebration of the Stratocaster about fifteen years ago at Wembley Arena, and it was about famous exponents of the Stratocaster playing this big star-studded concert in the Arena. He wasn’t so associated with the Stratocaster, he was more associated with the Gibson guitar obviously, but he had a famous old Stratocaster which is worth about forty grand and they invited him along to play. He just wipes the fucking floor with everyone. It’s amazing, it’s absolutely….
– I’ve got to see that!
– It’s ferocious. There are no tricks in there with the way he’s playing, it’s just pure physicality, skill and speed, and it’s just fucking amazing. So, look it up it’s the Strat Pack at Wembley Arena.
– I’m writing this down now!
– It’s his famous Cadillac red Stratocaster. I did use my faithful – it’s called Faithful – my Gibson, quite a bit, but I used another guitar on this record called a Telecaster, Fender Parallel Universe Telecaster Troublemaker [laughs]. Parallel Universe is like a series of guitars that Fender put out of designs that never went to production. I used a Shergold Marauder quite a lot.  That was a guitar which was used in the ‘70s and ‘80s by quite a few people which is being re-activated, I used my old Strat, my 1965 Strat quite a lot, I used my 1960…. no it’s 1972 Telecaster. It’s just an ordinary Telecaster with lipstick / pickups on it. They were my main guitars. I absolutely just loved playing guitar in a different way. My template was Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music in the ‘80s. I was just trying to make my guitar pop in and out of the vocals. I love the way Phil Manzanera just plays. He’s almost like the posh waiter who serves you up a little cool drink or a cocktail in between moments, kind of in the clouds, he just pops up with a drink for you. I was just trying to do that, pop in between the lyrics and stuff.
That description reminds me a bit of Alex Lifeson, from Rush.
– Aww, I was just watching …. Nick’s brother sent me a link to “Xanadu” from “Exit… Stage Left”.
– Aah, that gig! That concert DVD is amazing.
– It’s so amazing – the way Geddy is playing his double-neck black Rickenbacker. Alex is wearing his red jacket, and… It’s just three guys, and it’s just…. you wouldn’t say it’s the most visual thing, but you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s just amazing. Absolutely amazing.  I’m a massive Alex Lifeson fan. He’s like the missing link between Andy Summers and Jimmy Page.
– Fantastic description. I’m a concert photographer and that “Exit… Stage Left” gig… if I could have a DeLorean and could go back to only one concert to photograph, it would be that one.
– Well, that’s really weird, because Nick and myself watch it in the studio quite a lot, because Nick is a gigantic Rush fan.
– Oh really?
– It’s his temple.  For him, I’d say his two biggest musical influences were Rush, and after that, early era Whitesnake, Bernie Marsden and Micky Moody, and after that it was The Smiths. He made a massive jump to indy, and then he was into The Smiths, and “Ocean Rain” by Echo and the Bunnymen.  I’d say they were his four massive influences. But Rush… he’s knows everything about Rush. Him and his brother are just… I only got into Rush when I was 15, 16.  He got me into Rush and I got him into Echo and the Bunnymen.
– Cool exchange.
– It was really weird. We watched those concerts, and all the camera work is so much better than now. I don’t mean still camera work, I mean actual, live camera. The angles are better. You get modern camera guys now and they just focus on the singer’s fucking face all day. The photographs are so much better when they capture the context of the stage, the audience, the gear, the lighting. Modern photographers focus on fucking the musician’s face too much, they really do.  You want to see movement, you want to see the context in which they’re playing.
– Absolutely. You’ve got to get the movement, you’ve got to get the feeling.
– Yeah, absolutely. I think some of the best, some of my favourite shots are from the back of the stage, looking out towards the crowd, they’re just great shots.

– I love that, because you’ve got the light, especially when the light is over the crowd, lighting them up, and then you can catch the interaction between them and the artist. That’s crucial.  Speaking of artists, Mark Lanegan appears on “Blank Diary Entry” – how did that come about?
– I met him when we were touring with Oasis in 1997 in America. He was… and he’ll freely admit it in his book, that he was in a bad state then. He was up and down on the self medicating, so to speak. So I talked to him once or twice there, and I remember saying to him that I loved the song “Dollar Bill”. I really loved that Screaming Trees song, and Richie especially loved that song. I just remember chatting to him and some days he was there and some days he wasn’t there, if you know what I mean. I remember just thinking, oh, he was a dude, I really liked him and I really liked the Screaming Trees album “Dust”. I just thought they were quite a tense band, and they weren’t really getting on, they didn’t like being in a band with each other, but somehow it worked when you saw them. That tension made for good performance. I really liked him and it was that kind of feeling you get when you meet somebody and you think, oh, I wish I’d known him at school, kind of thing. Then I met him by accident at a Nico retrospective at the Royal Festival Hall, which John Cale had put on. John Cale had worked on Nico’s “Marble Index”, and I know John Cale, and he’s one of my heroes. He asked me to come and sing one of the songs there. I got there, and I was sharing a dressing room with Mark Lanegan, and I thought “wow, this is going to be interesting” because when I met him all those years ago, he was obviously going through a lot of stuff, and I wonder if he’ll remember me, because things may have passed in terms of his personal circumstance and he’s clean now. I walked in the door and he started to talking to me straight away. He was so nice, he was so lovely, and he was almost trying to apologise for what he was like in the past, when he’d had drug problems, and I was like “it’s no problem, man” and we started talking about records straight away. I had the same feeling I had when I met him, and I’m not friends with many musicians to be honest, but I had the same feeling as when I met him all those years ago in America, I was just like “aw, God, he’s such a dude, he’s so easy to talk to”, I just really liked him. So, that was nice. I’d been buying his solo records since then, especially the Soulsavers stuff and everything. When we wrote this song, Nick said it could be a duet, but he didn’t know who could sing it with me. When I wrote it, the deep part, I accidentally started singing it in a deep voice, and I realised – it just came into my head straight away – Mark Lanegan would be the perfect pick for this. We asked him, and he sent a lovely email back and again he was just such a dude. He makes me smile when I think about him.
– Your voices compliment each other very nicely.
– Haha!
– They do, they do!
– Not so much when we stand next to each other! We look like Dannie De Vito and Arnold Schwarzenegger [both laugh]! He was just a perfect fit, and he did it within three days, just got stuck in and did it. It was the same with Julia Cummings from Sunflower Bean. We asked her to do it and she did it within three days. It was amazing. The yanks have beaten us on due care and diligence this time because you ask certain British musicians to do that and they say “what’s my motivation?” you know, and you’d have to have a negotiation with them. These fucking guys just did it.

– Which is what you need.  You’ve announced a tour later this year, including a free gig for NHS workers, which is awesome.  How are you feeling about playing live again?
– I don’t know to be honest. I’m not sure. I know a lot of people have done some concerts so far.  I’m hearing strange reports, where people are saying they are feeling their way back into it. I’m 52, and a lot of my audience are the same age as me, so I know that a lot of people are a bit more reticent about coming back to indoor gigs, just because they think they might catch something, you know? Whereas I can see people, I can see with ticket sales, people are a lot more ready to go back to open air gigs, because they feel safer in the open air. And, let’s face it, a good gig is based on people having a complete lack of respect for other people’s personal space.
Oh yeah!
– That’s… that’s what a good gig is based on. That’s not the times we’re living in, is it? People are thinking “I’m older now, I might want to move to the country, closer to the coast, I’m going to get a dog. I don’t want to catch something which is going to make me feel bad, I might just go to the one gig a year and that’ll be a festival”, or “why would I buy a ticket for something which may be cancelled?” There are so many ifs and buts in there now and combine that with your audience being a bit older, as we are. It’s…. I’m not going to lie, I think the future of gigs is slightly uncertain at the moment, and we’re just going to have to be patient. I want them to happen, I want to be ready for them, but I’m not trying to put too much expectation on them if you know what I mean.
– Yeah. Tom Jones just played in Belfast to about ten thousand people. There’s a lot of excitement about it but there’s still concern from many people about what the infection rate will be afterwards. There’s always something extra to think about.
– When you go to a gig, there’s a complete lack of regard for the future, or anything.  You just go to a gig to just do it, and when there are so many question marks over gigs, those people tracing numbers to see if there’s a spike in two weeks, after a gig, it still means that we’re far from being back to normal, so I think we’ve just got to be patient, and it’s that thing I said, at the start of the interview, I’m just going to try and live in the present and not to think about these things too much.
– That sounds very sensible to me. I will do the same.  Thanks for taking the time to talk today.
– Thanks so much, Anne-Marie. It’s been lovely talking to you.

Først publisert i Norway Rock Magazine #4/2021