Music for Life
The Preachers have got their mojo back, writes John Meagher, but haven't lost their passionate, political edge with age.
It is the afternoon before Arthur's Day and Manic Street Preachers have arrived in Ireland at the height of an almighty row about alcohol, marketing and music. Christy Moore has had a go at them in his anti-Arthur's Day song and so has Mike Scott of The Waterboys. Another band might have run screaming, but not the Welsh trio led by James Dean Bradfield.
"If memory serves, Christy Moore has written several songs about the joys of drinking," Bradfield says, mischievously, as he gazes out the window to the Liffey below, "and I seem to recall Mike Scott talking about getting through the Guinness. Don't get me wrong, I'm very fond of Mike and The Waterboys meant so much to me when we started to make music, but it did give me a chuckle when I heard that he'd referenced us in that song."
Then the smile fades. "Look, we wouldn't have done it [played for Arthur's Day] if there wasn't the guarantee that emerging bands would get a payday. It's very hard for people to make any living at all in the music industry nowadays so Guinness getting out the chequebooks might help them stay in a band that bit longer. It's definitely much harder for bands to do that today than when he started in the mid '80s."
Yet, Bradfield – a youthful looking 44-year-old – says his band still wrestles with the idea of accepting corporate money. "What would [the late US comedian] Bill Hicks say?" he asks. "We were on the verge of turning down 40 grand from Sainsbury's to use A Design for Life for their Paralympics campaign last year, but then thought we could donate that money to a fund for the Paralympics so it goes to a very worthy cause. You've got to be particular when you say yes to stuff, but in the scheme of things, I don't see any problem doing an event sponsored by a drinks company."
Just a few days previously, Bradfield and long-time bandmates Nicky Wire – the chief songwriter and bassist – and Sean Moore, the drummer, had been in Dublin to play a pair of well-received shows at the Olympia. They gave a very good impression of being a band who had discovered their mojo again.
"It was very heartening to see the new songs being received so well," Bradfield says. "They're about as introspective as any we've done before. Nick had written some of the most personal lyrics of his life and they wouldn't have been best served by big choruses. Stripping them back should help the lyrics stand out that bit more."
The album's title track is among the finest songs they have yet recorded. It's lyrics yearn for simpler times and there are striking references to childhood and early adulthood. Sheffield crooner Richard Hawley takes lead vocals. "Nick sings on the original demo and his voice is beautiful, but because the song comes from such a personal place we thought it might be difficult for him to sing it night after night. We did debate it, but when Richard laid down his vocals we knew we had done the right thing."
The album reverberates with loss and allusions to the disappearance of founding member Richey Edwards, who went missing in 1994 shortly after the release of the band's breakthrough album, The Holy Bible. "I don't buy into that American crap about closure," Bradfield says. "We're never going to get closure – and nor do we want to. I think about Richey all the time. Every day I think 'What would Richey make of that?'. I wonder what sort of music we would have made from '94 on – obviously an album like Everything Must Go would not have happened."
A wave of sadness passes over his face as he remembers his old friend, who was officially declared dead in 2008. "I'm pretty sure we would still be together as a band – there's still a very strong bond there from childhood friends who grew up together in Wales and managed to make music that took us all over the world. Believe me, back then, nobody ventured over the Severn Bridge to discover what the Welsh music scene was like."
From the outset, Manic Street Preachers' music was heavily politicised and while there are more personal concerns on the new album, they remain idealistic and angry about the world's myriad social injustices.
"One of the first songs we ever wrote was about Thatcher," he says. "And there was nothing new in that because many of the bands we knew were writing about the injustices in the Britain of the 1980s and if you grew up in Wales then those injustices were very much in your face. Why aren't today's bands writing about what's happening in the world right now? These are very tough, but intriguing, times and yet there isn't a groundswell of songs that nail the here and now. What about Irish bands? You guys have had it even tougher than Britain – has that inspired today's generation of Irish songwriters?
"I don't want to come across as the old-timer moaning about how it was all better in our day, but are today's young musicians so comfortable with their lives and so confident that daddy will secure their future that they don't feel compelled to write about recession or poverty or class? It's baffling – and boring."
Bradfield is a highly engaging conversationalist and his train-of-thought jumps from Dylan Thomas to Bertie Ahern in a heartbeat. Get him on the subject of rugby, though, and you will have difficulty getting him to talk of anything else. He's clearly obsessed by the oval ball game and his hometown club, Cardiff Blues. "It's such a part of my life that I'm surprised that my wife is still with me," he deadpans.
"The amount of people in Ireland who say that Brian O'Driscoll was mistreated by [Wales an Lions coach] Warren Gatland never ceases to amaze me," he says. "BOD is the greatest player to have emerged from the northern hemisphere in the past 10 years, but he wasn't having the best tournament [for the Lions] and really should have been dropped in my opinion. Gatland made the right call, although he probably should have included Brian on the bench. It will make the Six Nations game between us and you that bit more interesting, though."
He pauses and smiles. "Music and sport," he says. "Could you imagine what life would be like without either."
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