"I wanted to treat it like The Clash playing Abba..." - James Dean Bradfield opens up about the Manic Street Preachers' new album The Ultra Vivid Lament
When they compiled all their singles together back in 2011, the Manic Street Preachers poked fun at the idea of themselves as national treasures, but they’ve got a legacy that few bands can match.
All of their recent studio albums have represented sizeable left turns from what’s immediately gone before. 2013’s Rewind The Film was a lo-fi, largely acoustic record, which had more in common with Richard Hawley and Paul Simon than the grand indie of the band’s pomp, while its immediate follow-up, 2014’s Futurology, was a cold, powerful rock record. 2018’s Resistance Is Futile sat somewhere between the two, a reflective record, with some of the band’s early rawness revisited.
In the time between Resistance Is Futile and starting their new one, the band have focused on reissues as well as touring and solo commitments. Both Gold Against The Soul and This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours have been given lavish reworkings, while frontman James Dean Bradfield released his second solo LP.
After all that, the band reconvened in their own Door To The River Studios in Newport with the aim of starting anew. The result is The Ultra Vivid Lament...
In the making of this record, there was a key point of difference, in that it is the band’s first LP initially conceived on piano rather than guitar.
It’s a downbeat pop record. The band have talked up Lodger era David Bowie, ABBA and Echo And The Bunnymen in the record’s formation and those influences permeate every track. It’s a shimmering, elegant bit of melancholia.
Reunited with longtime producer Dave Eringa, the album features two duets. Sunflower Bean's Julia Cumming is on 'The Secret He Had Missed' and grunge legend Mark Lanegan features on 'Blank Diary Entry'.
It’s another interesting and challenging record from a band who show no sign of resting on their laurels.
With the album now on shelves, we spoke to Bradfield about its making, the band’s planned reissue of Know Your Enemy and falling back in love with songs on tour...
Do you still get nervous before records come out? This is your 14th album…
“We do. As a band, we’re quite competitive people and that hasn’t died away, despite the fact that the landscape we inhabit now is utterly different from the one we entered. There’s no weekly music press, CD sales are a different prospect, there’s hardly any music on the TV, radio is completely different and the way everybody discovers music has been transformed. Most of our peers, the bands we came up with, most of them don’t exist anymore. Despite all that, we still have the same ambition and we still feel competition with the other acts around us.”
That doesn’t translate into the sonic choices you make it seems, this record isn’t trying to recapture the late 1990s…
“I grew up listening to everything. My mum was always playing Johnny Cash, Rolling Stones, Badfinger, Abba, all the classic stuff from the 1960s. My house was full of millions of amazing songs. Bangers where everybody could sing along and connect to them. That goes for the entire band, that was our upbringing and it had a massive effect on us all. I still want music to have that same emotional impact. I’m always searching for that. Whenever I write music, my ambition is for it to have that same instant impact.”
And that’s never changed?
“If you’re talking about the Stones, ELO, Abba, that’s the benchmark when it comes to melody. That’s my formative years. I’m always competing with that emotional punch.”
When do you decide that it’s album time as a band? At your stage of career, some bands are touring and it’s an album every five years…
“We started before lockdown, at the end of 2019. We’d just come back from touring Japan and we started writing. The first one I wrote was ‘The Secret He Had Missed’ and as soon as I wrote it I knew I wanted to treat it like The Clash playing Abba. When something like that happens naturally, you have to latch on to it. There was no mission statement, no M.O. You get a clue that pulls you in the right direction. Nick (Wire, bassist and lyricist) had a couple more lyrics and he gave them to me and the ball started rolling. When you get an undercurrent that you know is going to drag you somewhere, somewhere you know could be very exciting, that’s when you start.”
“Our ambition is to keep ourselves alive, we need to do new records. That said, we’re comfortable looking back too. I like doing the reissues, I like looking into the past, I like playing songs that we’ve barely played before. We’re a flexible bunch, we’re happy doing a reissue tour, but I love touring a new record. Writing songs and hitting heights I thought we’d never reach, that makes me happy. It gives you the energy to look at the past and sometimes reproach it, but still, celebrate it.”
When you get the groove of writing, do you write a lot and then slim down for the final cut? Or is it more of a case of knowing when a song is strong enough early on?
“We’re a bit more experienced now. When we did Everything Must Go, we had 22 songs floating around, this time, we had 14 or 15 to choose from. We’d discarded everything we knew wasn’t working. When we were younger, we’d need those songs for B-Sides and we liked trying to dig something out of those songs when we had more time to work on them. Now, you don’t need B-Sides, so I’ll play a song to Nick and Sean (Moore, drummer) and if they don’t like it then it’ll never see the light of day. We don’t stockpile anymore. We know how to kill stuff off. The age of the B-Side is over.”
You recorded in Rockfield and in your own studio, how was that?
“We did the bulk of the album in Rockfield and three tracks in our studio. We demoed a lot in our studio and we did that after lockdown ended, right through the summer. We’d written most of it remotely, Nick would send me stuff and I’d send back a little acoustic demo. Then we charged into the studio, and realised all the songs from those months. Then the shutters came down again, we carried on writing and by November we knew we had the album."
"At that point, we knew we had to book another studio, somewhere where we could stay and focus. We’ve all got young families and we’re all coming home for teatime. I’ve got three young kids. I'm coming home to take them to do football club or take them to taekwondo. We had to go away.”
Just to focus…
“We had to get the record done. We knew things could go wrong and we could be in lockdown again very quickly. We booked Rockfield for the start of 2021. It’s half an hour away, but we stayed there and just ate, slept and breathed the record. We got most of it done in a two-week period and then we reconvened at our studio for another week, did three more tracks and it was done. We were very focused and very prepared. Some of that comes with age, it comes with not being young musicians and wanting to go on the razz the whole time. We’ve learned to be work-focused.”
You’re back with Dave Eringa on this album. He’s worked with you throughout your career, but he’s not the only producer you’ve used. Why did you decide he was the right man this time?
“We’re very close friends, myself and him especially. We understand each other and we can be horrible to each other and go past it. You need that. There’s always tension in the studio. People want to fight their corner, and, sometimes, it’s guns at dawn. We’re from the same generation, we don’t take that personally. His work ethic is second to none. He’s in the studio at 10.30 in the morning and he doesn’t finish until you finish. We’d usually go until at least one in the morning, sometimes way past that. He’s an old rocker too, loves Guns N’Roses, loves old Whitesnake, but he’s an inner Nirvana nerd too."
"He implicitly understands us, he knows how to get results from us. We knew this time that we weren’t going to take a punt on this one, there was no room to experiment, there was enough difference in the songs. So much of this album was conceived on piano and built around the piano. My guitar is very different on a lot of the stuff. There was enough newness in the architecture of the songs, my singing was softer, there are fewer big chords, Nick’s bass is more clipped, Sean’s hitting was softer. Dave knows how to record that.”
If you’re looking for a new sound, some bands might go looking for somebody who’s done it with another band. But is it more important to have someone you trust?
“We needed an old school engineer to do what we were doing. You’re trusting the microphones and you’re trusting the performances. In an old studio like Rockfield, you don’t go with someone new. We were recording in a very old school way.”
There are a couple of collaborations, you’ve got Sunflower Bean's Julia Cumming and Mark Lanegan on there, were they both done remotely or did you get in the room?
“No, it was all done ebony and ivory style. That was Covid. We couldn’t get Julia to come over from America and we couldn’t get Mark over from Ireland, we were lockdown from each other. To be honest, I’m beginning to trust the instincts of other musicians much more than my own. I remember going to New York to sit in when Nina Persson recorded the vocals for ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’. Nathan, her husband recorded the vocal and I just stayed out of the way. There was nothing I could have added to that session, they made all the right choices."
"Mark and Julia did it remotely with barely any direction, just a guide vocal, and they made all the right choices. When you’re working with good musicians, you’ve got to trust them and trust that good stuff is going to happen. They had all the right instincts and they didn’t need our input.”
It must be nerve-wracking though, playing it for the first time when you weren’t in the room to give direction…
“It is. But when the person you’re asking to collaborate with actually respects the song when they hear it, they’re going to tap into the essence of the song and then go off and do their own thing. With this, there was a mixture of them using their own phrasing and respecting the demo."
"We asked them both to sing and within two days they were singing. They didn’t ask for motivation, they didn’t ask about a contract, they didn’t ask about money, they just got on with it. Lots of other artists would have stalled with their management and analysed it too deeply, they just floored it. Two-nil to the Americans.”
When did you decide that The Ultra Vivid Lament was the right fit for the title? Was it there the whole time and did you kick any other titles around?
“No, no others, it was Nick’s. I didn’t know what the title was going to be until the second day of Rockfield, that’s when Nick first mentioned it. I connected with it straight away, he showed me the artwork, I loved the figure staring out at the sea. It reminded me of The Truman Show nature of lockdown and what that was. Being trapped in this beautiful world, you couldn’t touch, or couldn’t stay for too long."
"That’s what lockdown became. You’d be on a beach and suddenly you’d realise you’d be there for too long and had to get back in the car. You’d see mountains and not be able to go up it. I remember seeing an old couple running past me because they were worried they’d been outside for too long and they’d broken the rules. It was such a cruel time.”
It really was…
“I also connected with the way you can look at the sea and search for answers, but nothing comes back. Somehow though, something seeps in, when you get back in the car and you feel like you've turned the corner. I feel like a lot of the songs on this record are searching for empathy and a search for answers. There’s another layer on this record’s lyrics too, Nick’s lost both his parents in the last three years and he was remarkably close to his parents, so there’s another layer of melancholia on the record.”
Does he ever have to work on you for a title?
“The only time we’ve been a bit confused was Know Your Enemy. Nick wanted it to be two separate records, one to be called Door To The River and one to be called Sand In The Grass. Solidarity and Glasnost were knocking around as titles too, but in the end, it became Know Your Enemy. The plan didn’t emerge then as he wanted and I think he regrets that. I think he wanted a double album with two titles. That was fuelled by indecision.”
That must be fresh because it’s 20 years this year, are you planning to reissue it?
“Nick’s knocking it about now. He enjoys the reissues. He collects all the hotel stationery from every stop, all the ticket stubs, all the ephemera from an album and the tours that follow, every note from me on a demo. He’s got it all in Stanley Kubrick-esque storage boxes and he gets it out and he really likes trying to make sense of the past. He loves curating and re-imagining our old albums. He’s asking me a lot of questions about it at the moment, not sure if he’s taken in the answers yet…”
You’re about to start touring again in earnest, how’s the set coming together? As you said, 14 albums, there’s a lot that can’t make the cut…
“It’s actually quite a strange emotion. We do setlists and drag out a few old songs to play them. I love that, you can fall out of love with a song and come to regret it and then you can start playing it years later and make friends with it again. But when it comes to putting setlists together, even now, we feel like we haven't got enough songs, which is ridiculous because we've got more songs than most bands ever have. The average amount is something like one a half albums and we've got 14!"
Always wanting to push on...
"We've been going through the set and I've been discovering how high some of our old songs are, which is scary for a man of 52. I'm also struck by how difficult we must be to review, we've been so many different versions of ourselves and people don't know what to expect from us. We're so many different things to different people."
Anyone who entered your career at any point would have found a profoundly different band from what had gone before. If you're on the reissue trail, your next one will be Lifeblood, a whole other chapter of your career...
"I still find it bizarre that we led off an album with a single called 'The Love Of Richard Nixon'. The idea of calling anything 'The Love Of Richard Nixon' is a confusing enough notion in itself. That's the song that could drown in its own nuance. A song about Nixon sitting in the sad reflection of JFK. That act of living regret at the end of that fabled third act in American life. How the hell were we expecting people to take that in? It's a three-and-a-half-minute pop song. Sometimes when you look back you're confronted with your own delusion. You look at what Lifeblood was. You look at what the first single was. And you ask yourself 'What the hell were we thinking?'"
It's given you a fanbase that can expect the unexpected though...
"Perhaps. Other times it feels like we're gloried in trying to be the anthemic behemoth we can be. The misunderstood thing about a lot of bands isn't how you react to other people, but how you react to your own success. Sometimes you react against yourself. We reacted against the success of This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours and Everything Must Go with Know Your Enemy. That's us being childishly repulsed by the success of those two records. Sometimes you look back and see just how childish you can be."
Still here though...
"It's still the best job in the world. I'm extremely f**king grateful. I wanted to be in a band when I was 16. I wanted to write songs and I wanted to make people move to my music. I got my wish. You have tough experiences in bands and you wonder where you fit in sometimes, but then you step on stage and it all comes back around."