Friday, 13 September 2019

Manic Street Preachers: James Dean Bradfield Talks About "Everything Must Go" And Everything Else

Originally published in Teenage Kicks #1 (1997)
By Devorah Ostrov

Manic Street Preachers sign autographs at Mod Lange in Berkeley
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
When Manic Street Preachers played at Bottom of the Hill in September 1996, they got a wildly enthusiastic response from the packed crowd. It had been four years since their last SF show, but only 19 months since the disappearance of rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards.

With the addition of a keyboardist, the three-piece Manics debuted several tracks from the then-recently released Everything Must Go album, including "Enola/Alone," "Kevin Carter," and "A Design for Life." The riveting hour-long set also featured a smattering of earlier material ("Motorcycle Emptiness," "From Despair to Where," "Motown Junk"), but there was nothing off The Holy Bible.

Following the group's afternoon soundcheck, I met up with vocalist/lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield for an interview. Their publicist had told me not to ask about Richey's disappearance: "They don't want to talk about that," she warned. However, it was an impossible subject to avoid during what turned out to be a wonderfully open discussion about the band's career to that point. And in the end, James didn't seem to mind at all.

* * *

James Dean Bradfield (Bottom of the Hill - 9/1996)
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Teenage Kicks: The soundcheck was really good...

James: Yeah, it was okay.

Teenage Kicks: I was wondering how you would do all the lush orchestration on Everything Must Go with just the three of you.

James: There's no point in trying to recreate anything. Essence is the most important thing, I suppose.

Teenage Kicks: Your keyboard player is quite good. Who is he?

James: He's just... somebody. Not being derogatory to him whatsoever, but you know, he's just there to make up on the numbers. He'll never be part of the group. We'll never get another member in, so to speak. But we get on really well with him. He's cool.

Teenage Kicks: So, you're planning to stay a three-piece.

James: Yeah, we're gonna stay a three-piece. We'll never be a four-piece again. From now on... until we finish, we'll be a three-piece. Definitely.

Teenage Kicks: This isn't your first time in America. You were here in '92...

James: Yeah, about four years ago. We played Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, New York, Toronto, Montreal...

Teenage Kicks: And the I-Beam in San Francisco!

Advert for the single "A Design for Life"
James: That's right, yeah. It was probably the worst of the bunch. We were just like really coiled up. And really... We were at the point of being really antagonistic and confrontational. And the audience there was the most chilled-out people we'd ever come across. They just hated us.

Teenage Kicks: Has it been better this time around?

James: Yeah, it's been much better! We're older and more reasonable.

Teenage Kicks: You guys were recently on a US tour with Oasis...

James: Yeah...

Teenage Kicks: Were you there the night they stormed off stage and went back to England?

James: They didn't storm off, so to speak. Nothing is ever quite as dramatic as people make it out to be or want it to be. You know, the tour was going fine up until then. We did six gigs with them, then they didn't come to soundcheck and, for reasons known only to themselves, they flew home. I just caught sight of them leaving the hotel.

Teenage Kicks: How did their cancellation affect your shows?

James: It didn't. We just went home. We had about six shows left with them, and obviously we couldn't do any of those. And there wasn't any point in our staying in America doing nothing. So, we home for a week and then came back. We just got even more jet-lagged and added more time zones to our already tired constitutions.

Manic Street Preachers with Richey Edwards - 1989
(Photo from VOX magazine, July 1996)
Teenage Kicks: Had you been getting a good reaction from the Oasis fans?

James: Yeah, it was really surprising. It was so charitable. And it was really humbling to be their support band.

Teenage Kicks: Humbling?

James: I think it's humbling for any band. Well, you know, if you're doing really well in Britain and Europe, and other parts of the world... And then you come over here as someone else's support band, and the audience potentially don't know any of your songs... It's really, really humbling. And to see Oasis be, you know, to be completely accepted to the bosoms of all the American kids...

Promotional napkin from the Manics 1992 US tour
Teenage Kicks: Were the crowds really young?

James: Yeah, and that was really humbling too. But we accepted it. We really like Oasis. They're cool. I haven't got a bad word to say about them, to be honest. I really love 'em. And even though it was really humbling and really scary, it was quite liberating as well. It felt like starting again to a certain degree. So, it was all these contradictory emotions.

Teenage Kicks: Do you find that people over here tend to lump the Manics in with the Brit Pop movement?

James: Oh, gosh no! Do they? I mean, Brit Pop was supposed to have been something that came to fruition round about two years ago. Whereas we released our first album in 1991. So, there's no way we could be part of Brit Pop because, you know, we're much older than Brit Pop.

Teenage Kicks: I was just thinking that playing with Oasis might reinforce that idea in people's minds.

James: It doesn't bother me. We just feel really anonymous being in America, anyway. Being lumped in with Brit Pop doesn't really harm me. The only way it can be harmful is... You know, it's got a slightly jingoistic or patriotic tone — something that's called "Brit" Pop. That's the only way it can affect you.

Nicky Wire (Bottom of the Hill - 9/1996)
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Teenage Kicks: Can we talk about the band's history? Are all of you from Wales originally?

James: Yeah. We're all from the same town, kind of a mining town called Blackwood. We all grew up within a mile of each other. We've known each other since about the age of five or six.

Teenage Kicks: Did you go to the same schools?

James: Yeah. We went to the same nursery school, the same college, went to the same pubs, went out with some of the same girls... You know, it's a shared history so to speak.

Teenage Kicks: What bands were you into when you were growing up?

James: The first actual universal thing between us was the Clash. We all really got into the Clash around the age of 15. There were a lot of punk retrospectives round about then. We saw some archives, some of the old clips of the Clash on the telly.

Teenage Kicks: So, you weren't around for the original punk movement?

James: No, I'm 27. When punk was happening, I was like six or seven years old. There wasn't much of a music scene around at the time we were 15 or 16. The Manchester thing was happening, but that was predominantly an urban-based, drug, youth culture thing.

Teenage Kicks: Like the Stone Roses...

Manic Street Preachers sign autographs at Mod Lange
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
James: Yeah, and that didn't really connect with us. I think we were always up to something that was more politicized. That's why we really turned on to the Clash. You know, we came from a very working class background. Also, there was a very strong mining community where we lived, and right about that time, 1984, the miners' strike was going on. It went on for the whole year in Britain. It was quite a historical year for the working classes in Britain because it kind of smashed the trade unions.

Teenage Kicks: Did it affect your families?

James: Yeah, because everyone had people in their families who worked in the mines. Uncles, aunts... or one of your friend's fathers worked in a mine. So, yeah, it affected us kind of indirectly and directly.

Nicky Wire on the cover of NME
August 1997
Teenage Kicks: You guys got compared to the Clash quite a lot in the beginning. The stencilled shirts and sloganeering...

James: Well, you know, we obviously owed a debt to them. Just as Nirvana, to me, owe a big debt to the Pistols; and Green Day owes a big debt to the Buzzcocks. Everybody's in debt to their primary influences.

Teenage Kicks: Didn't the Manics cover some Clash songs?

James: We covered one Clash song — "What's My Name?" But we only did it live.

Teenage Kicks: What was it that made you guys want to put a band together?

James: We were really isolated, you know; and we were all quite nerdy; and we were all kind of quite literary; and we were all really into rock and roll mythology. We favored the morbid, iconoclastic writers. You know, we were in love with people who had died. We were just four people that were really into the mythology of everything, and we all kind of gravitated towards each other. And because we were all quite insecure people, we were looking to do something with each other. We were looking to do for each other what we couldn't do for ourselves. The obvious way to do that was to be in a band.

Teenage Kicks: Was the band called Betty Blue in the beginning?

James: No, we were called Manic Street Preachers, but then for about a month we called ourselves Betty Blue. Then we went back to the original name.

"New Art Riot" four-song EP
(Damaged Goods - 1990)
Teenage Kicks: Was it Richey's idea to call it Manic Street Preachers?

James: No, it was mine! I've read that; it's an NME thing, I think. I wish I could give the credit to Richey. I think it's an awful name.

Teenage Kicks: Why do you think it's awful?

James: I just hate our fucking name. I think it's really crass.

Teenage Kicks: Where did it come from?

James: I used to go busking in Cardiff when I was 16 years old, in the summer. I used to busk near where all these desolates would sleep, you know, tramps and stuff. And I used to wake them up. And they just started calling me "Manic Street Preacher." I was kind of quite friendly with them, but they always used to curse me at the start of the day because I'd wake them up. I was like their rock 'n' roll rooster!

Teenage Kicks: So, it was your nickname.

James: Yeah.

Teenage Kicks: Is it true that Richey wasn't part of the band in the beginning?

James: He started out as the driver. That was the price he had to pay to get into the band. We knew he was going to be in the band, but at first he couldn't play any guitar. So, he drove us and stuff. At first it was just myself, Nick and Sean. We were already up and running before Richey joined.

Teenage Kicks: Your first release was the "Suicide Alley" single on you own label...

James: Yeah, it was a real indie kind of thing. There were only 300 ever made, so it's a real rarity. That was just the three of us — me, Nick and Sean. It's really just tiny, auto-punk.

Teenage Kicks: Did you sell all 300 copies?

James: Gave half of them away and sold the other half, I think. As most bands do. I got a letter off Jello Biafra once because it was in... What was that magazine called? It was like an international fanzine where you could buy loads of DIY indie singles and stuff.

Teenage Kicks: Maximum RocknRoll?

James: Yeah. Jello Biafra saw this advert and sent us a letter asking for it. So, he's got one!

Teenage Kicks: And after that came the "New Art Riot" EP...

James: The "dodgy" EP, yeah. And the third record was a song called "Motown Junk." That was the first record we put out on Heavenly. And the fourth record was "You Love Us" on Heavenly.

James Dean Bradfield (Bottom of the Hill - 9/1996)
Photo: Devorah Ostrov

Teenage Kicks: I love the photo on "New Art Riot." You guys look like little kids!

James: Yeah, we do. Peacefully young. We were about 20 or 21.

Teenage Kicks: Did any of you guys go to art school?

James: Uh... Nick and Richey had gone to University to study Political History. I was still doing some jobs back home. I was doing a bar job and working on a building site. When the band was just about to break, I was about to go to University. So, we were all leaning toward higher education.

Richey Edwards on the cover of NME
October 1992
Teenage Kicks: The "New Art Riot" EP was very revolutionary in its stance; it was almost calling for a revolution!

James: "New Art Riot" is... I think the most important years when you're growing up are round about the ages of 14-16. When we were growing up at that age, those formative years, that's when the miners' strike was happening. It was happening right on our doorstep.
     And like the Clash said, you just write about things that affect your life and things that happen around you. And that is so true! There's no way we could've lived in those teenage years and not been affected by what was happening around us.
     Listening to "New Art Riot," it's very kind of ideological. But one thing I like about it is that it sounds naïve. Idealism is born out of naivete, and naivete is born out of youth. And at least I can look back on that record and know that we sounded young and naïve and idealistic, and that's something I really treasure.

Teenage Kicks: Youth, naivete and idealism... That's kind of what the original punk movement was about.

James: Yeah, definitely. There were certain things about the punk movement I didn't really agree with. Things like anybody can get up and do it. I don't quite agree with that because I think, in order to get your point across, there's got to be a sense of wonder about what's presented in front of you. So, there's a slightly iconoclastic niche to everything we do. We definitely had that with Nick and Richey. There's a lot of things about punk that were obviously important to us, but a lot of it was bullshit as well!

Everything Must Go
 (Epic Records - 1996)
Teenage Kicks: It seems like the group was quite accomplished as musicians by the time you put out the "New Art Riot" EP. You weren't just bashing away, making noise.

James: That's one of the urban myths about punk, that people couldn't play. Never Mind the Bollocks is one of the tightest rock albums in the world, there's nothing inadequate about it whatsoever. London Calling is one of the most accomplished rock 'n' roll albums! Look at Green Day — a band that's very derivative from a punk ethos. Do you ever hear them drop a bum note? They're one of the most rehearsed bands I've ever seen.

Teenage Kicks: From the band's lyrics and from talking to you, you guys seem incredibly intellectual. Which seems a bit at odds with your growing up in a small mining town.

James: Not intellectual... We were just brought up really well. We were brought up with a lot of humility. I suppose it's quite a surprise to people because they don't equate working class culture with humility or self-empowerment. We just happened to be really lucky; we were brought up by really good parents. That's what it was. Even though where we came from was quite a stifling, repressive environment, within our homes we actually grew up in a good environment.

Teenage Kicks: Where did the Manics first play?

Nicky Wire (Bottom of the Hill - 9/1996)
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
James: Just tawdry little affairs back home. Crappy little youth club gigs, you know.

Teenage Kicks: Where did you debut in London?

James: At a pub called the Horse and Groom on Great Portland Street. There's an upstairs room above the pub.

Teenage Kicks: Were you well-received?

James: Yeah! The man that saw us that night put out "New Art Riot." He saw us that night and offered to put our record out. We got a review in Melody Maker, as well.

Teenage Kicks: Was it a good review?

James: It was a really good review! Bob Stanley, who went on to form the band St. Etienne, wrote it. So, it was really intense for us. We were really caught up in the fanzine scene; we were very connected in terms of that. Because we lived in this rural area in Wales, our lifeline to the outside world was the NME, Melody Maker, and the fanzine world. So, a lot of people would get these mad letters off us — these country bumpkins who lived in the sticks. Then one day we're playing in London!
     By the time we had our first gig in London, we had a lot of people to invite just through fanzine connections. We were quite cynical about it, to be honest. We did use a lot of people. Not like... We didn't use them and then spit them out. But we knew all these connections would be useful. We knew they would be of use someday or another.

Teenage Kicks: Before you released your first album [Generation Terrorists] you had already put several singles into the Top 40, if not the Top 20, in Britain...

Recent Manic Street Preachers publicity photo
James: We released "Stay Beautiful," "Love's Sweet Exile," and "You Love Us." Then the album came out. Then we released "Slash 'n' Burn" and "Motorcycle Emptiness."

Teenage Kicks: So, the band was already well established before the release of the first album.

James: We were an established band in Britain, yeah, and parts of Europe and Japan. It was different back then, because now "indie" is... It's much more mainstream now. Back then you had to struggle to get people's attention. You had to get a fan base. Now, in Britain, it's just assumed that four young, spunky guys with guitars are gonna get in the charts. It was much harder back in our day!

Poster for a 1991 Manics show at
King Tut's Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow
Teenage Kicks: Let's talk about Everything Must Go. People are saying that musically, it's a reaction against the nihilism of The Holy Bible and lyrically, it's a way of coming to terms with Richey's disappearance. Do you agree with that?

James: Actually, The Holy Bible was the most natural thing we'd ever done as a band, but we just couldn't take it any further.
     Obviously, it was veering toward the nihilistic, to say the least, but to try and take it further would have been contrary. There's nothing to gain in reacting against something that you've done yourself. For someone to react against their own recorded output, they'd have to have a very high sense of self-esteem. To bounce off of themselves, to use themselves as a sounding board, they'd have to be very self-important.
     We've never done that. We never sit down and say, "Right, we're gonna do a song like this." Richey and Nick never said, "The music's gotta sound like this." With the new album, we never said, "Right, this album's gonna have loads of strings on it and it's gonna be more cathartic and it's gonna be more optimistic." The only parameters we've ever worked within... We start writing the songs, then the songs govern what the album is going to feel like. The way we write songs... Nick and Richey wrote the lyrics, myself and Sean wrote the music. I never write music without lyrics. I always wait for the lyrics to come to me, then I write the music.
     Also, there's at least seven songs on the new album which were written a good deal before the Richey thing happened. So, there's seven songs on the album that were just about finished before he went missing. That leaves five songs that were written post-Richey.

2016 European tour dates celebrating
the 20th anniversary of Everything Must Go
Teenage Kicks: I've read that you guys had thought about putting Richey's songs on a separate EP...

James: Yeah, but we decided against it. Any lyrics of Richey's that ended up on the new album, I wrote the music to before he went missing. I've got loads of his lyrics left, but we haven't used anything since it happened. To set music to them would be irresponsible. They're his lyrics and, as far as I'm concerned, I haven't got permission to take them. And there's too many rock 'n' roll detectives trying to find clues in everything we do, anyway. It would just invite hordes of morbid mythologists.

Teenage Kicks: Can you blame them?

James: Can't blame them at all. But because we are aware of it, we're not going to do it.

Teenage Kicks: What made Richey carve "4 REAL" into his arm?

James: He was talking to a journalist [Steve Lamacq from the NME] after a gig. The exact quote was: "Of course you know, a lot of people don't think that you're for real."

Teenage Kicks: In hindsight, was there anything more you guys could've done to help Richey?

James: No. Everybody can act with hindsight and say they could've done more, but there was a lot that was done and was being done. It's more complicated than a yes or no.

"Stay Beautiful"
(Columbia Records - 1991)
Teenage Kicks: What were you doing the night before Richey disappeared?

James: We finished doing lots of demos for some of the songs that ended up on Everything Must Go. Then we were going to come to America on a promotional tour the morning after.

Teenage Kicks: And there's been no word since?

James: No.

Teenage Kicks: You worked with Mike Hedges on Everything Must Go. I've seen his name on records by the Cure, Siouxie and the Banshees, and Marc Almond. How did that go?

James: He's the best producer we've ever worked with. Just the best. He's the only person who really entertained all our ideas. You know, say we needed a harp — two days later he'd have it set up. He's just really cool. He set up a perfect environment for us to make an album. And I really got on with him.

Teenage Kicks: You recorded the album in Normandy?

James: Yeah, that's where he lives. He owns a massive chateau and his studio is in the chateau.

The Manics on the cover of Q magazine
March 2001
Teenage Kicks: I want to ask about some of the songs on Everything Must Go... Firstly, "A Design for Life." Some people think its kind of a downer, but lyrically it reminds me of the Kinks' "Dead End Street" and the perseverance of the working class.

James: There's certainly a lot of irony employed in the song: "We don't talk about love/We just want to get drunk." It's kind of double-edged. That's people's perception of working class culture for a start. Of course there's a lot of interclass conflict among the working class; there's a lot of self-abuse and a lot of violence directed against each other. But the people who condemn that violence usually don't have to work in a shitty job six days a week. They can't understand where that kind of frustration would come from. When I see that violence, it sickens me, but I don't immediately condemn it.
     The other half of the song is basically trying to show the essence of the beauty of working class culture. There are people like Sean Ryder, who comes from a very working class background. He's created his own language; he writes in his own language. That's working class culture. There are geniuses that have been working class...

Teenage Kicks: Like Jim Carroll...

James: Exactly! Or Jack Kerouac...

Teenage Kicks: And I want to ask about the title track...
L-R: Richey Edwards, James Dean Bradfield, Sean Moore & Nicky Wire
James: It's the simplest song, really.

Teenage Kicks: It's beautiful though.

James: Yeah... It's just us realizing that as a band we wouldn't be exactly the same as before. We couldn't be the same band; things had changed. We realized there was a certain self-fulfilling prophecy to everything we were doing, and we had to try and put a full stop to it. We realized we'd taken everything as far as we could with The Holy Bible, and we couldn't be Manic Street Preachers for the rest of our lives. We really did govern ourselves in a rigid way. We set ourselves a lot of rules, and a lot of times we didn't allow ourselves any kind of human characteristics.

"You Love Us" EP (Heavenly - 1991)
Teenage Kicks: Like to be as controversial as you could?

James: Nothing as contentious as that. The way we worked as a group... We vowed never to write a love song, etc., etc. Just little rules that we worked with as a band. So, we decided we had to allow ourselves a human grace.

Teenage Kicks: It seems like you've also toned down the image of the band quite a lot.

James: Yeah, but you know... every band does. As people get older, unfortunately your bone structure weighs heavily into the expectation. The Clash toned it down... Every band changes.

Teenage Kicks: Or else you just burn out...

James: Or just look grotesque! Old men trying to be young...

Teenage Kicks: Like Kiss!

James: I think they're the one band that can actually carry it off. They're so cool!

James Dean Bradfield (Bottom of the Hill - 9/1996)
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Teenage Kicks: Even the artwork used on Everything Must Go is subdued and tasteful.

James: To be honest, the intention of the artwork was just to make it colder. Everything we were doing was under so much scrutiny in Britain. We just wanted to stop the rock 'n' roll detectives; we just wanted to give ourselves some breathing space. We didn't want people to pour over everything. It's the biggest cliché in the book, but we just wanted to let the music do the talking for once.
     And that's why we didn't do any press for "A Design for Life." We were a band that was recognized for doing loads of press, getting on the cover of NME and Melody Maker all the time.
     It was our first single since the Richey thing. We released the single, didn't do any interviews, didn't do anything that we were traditionally associated with, and it was our most successful single ever. It's very ironic.

Teenage Kicks: "A Design for Life" entered the British charts at #2!

James: It went platinum; it stayed in the Top Ten for ages. So, it was a proper hit single à la "Wonderwall." We're doing better in Britain than ever. A million times better! We're on our third single [off Everything Must Go] in Britain now.

Teenage Kicks: Have you ever charted in America?

James: Not yet, no. I think we're only just getting added to KROQ. The way it happens, it usually takes six months to even know if you're going to get released in America. "Wonderwall" was a hit over here ages after it'd been a hit in Britain. You've just gotta sit tight and wait when it comes to America.

The Manics in Bangkok - 1994
(magazine clipping)
Teenage Kicks: I also wanted to ask about your cover of the theme from MASH, "Suicide is Painless"...

James: It came out as a single by mistake. What happened was, NME did a charity album for the Spastic Society and they invited all these bands to cover songs. The only rule was, every song had to have been a #1 in the British charts in the past. So, all these bands submitted their versions of #1 singles.

Teenage Kicks: It was a perfect song for you guys to do. What made you choose it?

James: It just seemed fitting. It was the only #1 single we could think of with lyrics that were remotely good. And then they came back to us and said they wanted to release it as the single for the album. We were like, "Oh, no!" But we couldn't refuse because it was for charity. So, we became the willing victims of our own charitable nature.

Teenage Kicks: I read that when the band played in Bangkok, you were nearly jailed for shouting, "Repeat after me, fuck Queen and country" during the song "Repeat (UK)." Is that true?

James: Nick dedicated it to the Thai King. He said something like, "This is dedicated to the Thai King. May he rot in hell!" And to insult the Thai King in public in Thailand is a punishable offense by imprisonment. Of course, Nick didn't know that at the time. There were rumors that the State Police were coming after him, and he got very paranoid because he'd committed a crime.

The Holy Bible played in full - 2014 UK tour dates
Teenage Kicks: Do you have any trouble with the song in Britain?

James: No, it's a free country. We've got democracy in Britain!

Teenage Kicks: But several of your songs seem to rail against democracy as well.

James: Ever since I can remember we've had a Tory government. So democracy does seem, to quote one of our songs, as if it's in a coma. In Britain, if 51% of the population vote for the Tory party and 49% vote for the labor party, they can deem that a majority. That such a small percentage can make such a difference to the political path of a country... It's madness! So, it does seem as if democracy is kind of quite obsolete.

Teenage Kicks: You also rage against America  — things like McDonald's and Coca Cola. There's the song, "If White America"...

James: "IfWhiteAmericaToldTheTruthForOneDayItsWorldWouldFallApart." I think it's true. White America lives in a world which doesn't supersede its own doorstep, and it's reflected in the wrongful insensitivity of all its foreign policies. But then again, America is an inspiration to us too. When we were growing up, if it wasn't for the American influence, we'd have been poorer for it. American youth culture and language and music gave us a lot of our inspiration.

Teenage Kicks: Like black R&B music...

James: Yeah! Public Enemy! Public Enemy were the biggest influence on us, following the Clash and the Pistols. So, America's got a lot of good things. But something as big as America is just going to be 50% evil and 50% good. There's no reason not to criticize it.

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