Painted With Fire: Manic Street Preachers Interviewed

James Dean Bradfield looks at the band's videography...

Manic Street Preachers have always been intensely aware of their visual presentation.

Sure, the music – and the lyrics – speak for themselves, but every aspect of the band's visual output has been carefully, ruthlessly pieced together.

New album 'Resistance Is Futile' is now exception, with lead single 'International Blue' taking the Welsh group – and director Kieran Evans – to Nice.

Follow up 'Distant Colours' is a more local affair, traces a series of points around Wales that have both political and personal resonance with the band.

With their new album drawing closer by the day, Clash got on the phone to James Dean Bradfield to discuss a few of their key videos, and his observations make for a keen insight into the evolution of Manic Street Preachers' visual identity.

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‘Motorcycle Emptiness’

I remember every moment of that shoot because it was our first time in Japan. It’s definitely much more of a culture shock than even going to Cuba, I think. I had never been on a flight before I was in the band, I had never been abroad before I was in the band, so all these experiences I was having were just Earth-shattering, mind-blowing events. Even though I was trying my best to hide that fact!

I remember we arrived in Tokyo at 7am and it was a three hour drive through Tokyo, a rush hour, and we put one of our cassettes on in the mini-van we had. We put this compilation on, and we were all just looking out the window.

‘The Eternal’ by Joy Division was playing, and we were going through all these underpasses, and these overpasses, and everything was so different. It was raining and steam was coming up off the streets, and the neon was still visible because it was quite a dim day. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion and it was punctuated by the music, by Joy Division. And I remember that just set the tone for the entire visit.

I remember Richey fainting during the shoot. Richey was one of those kids who used to faint in school assembly. We were in this little underpass, stood against a wall. We’d been stood there for about five minutes because they wanted both a slo-mo and a fast shot of people walking past. And I remember shouting Android – which was one of his nicknames – oi, Android! Come back! And he started walking towards me and boof! He went face first into the pavement! And I remember Nick went: uh-oh, school assembly moment!

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I think ‘Faster’ is a really good video. It’s very good, because it’s just so simple. Obviously it’s using the lyrics, which are not soundbites but they look like soundbites. And I think Richey and Nick directed that video, pretty much, along with the actual director.

Now there’s a band who is utterly confident in the way it looks. The video is very simple, the background is stark, you’ve just got lyrics and the band – there’s not much else going on in that video. So to contrast that with a video like ‘Everything Must Go’ where you can see a band that are sure about the music they’re playing, they’re sure about their M.O. in every respect except for the way they look.

Of course, post-’The Holy Bible’ there are only three of us and we had a gaping hole in our visual aesthetic. If you actually look at ‘Faster’ it is such a simple video but that’s because we’re so confident in everything. It’s a 360 video of the band. But if you look at ‘Everything Must Go’ you can see we needed the videos to be more beautiful because we’re slightly unsure of ourselves in a visual sense because of the gap.

– – –

'A Design For Life'

A lot of people reckon Sean drops his drumsticks in this…

Really? Is it in the video?

Around the 2.20 mark.

I will check that out! That would piss him off as well. Most drummers are fiercely protective of their infinitesimal accuracy.

I think I’d been in the Roundhouse once before for some spurious launch of the film Tank Girl. Me and Richey went along, and then I turned back thinking: oh, I can’t be fucking bothered with this, there’s too much bullshit post-apocalyptic Mad Max stuff going on here…

I’d never been in the Roundhouse until that video, and of course it’s famous for so many things – you’ve got Doors gigs, and so on. I remember just having a moment of stillness and reverance, thinking: wow, this place really did host some amazing gigs! And then realising that the place was a shithole when I saw a couple of rats running round.

I remember Pedro Romhanyi directed it and we had complete confidence in him. And again, going back to that thing of not feeling quite of yourself, I remember looking at myself in the mirror and I had a normal black shirt on, grey trousers, Manics at C&A – which a couple of people said at the time!

It was a very conscious decision to let the music do the talking, kind of thing. We didn’t want any subtext, we wanted to pare down the lyrics – even though the same message was in the lyrics, sometimes – Nick had purposefully pared them down because he didn’t want to be perceived as competing with Richey… even though they were lyrical partners. We just wanted something more concise, to let everything breathe more. We didn’t want the image of the band to be distracting.

And also, we had a complex about the way we looked visually at that time, and I remember looking in the mirror before we did the first couple of takes thinking: fuck me, I’ve got Tim Sherwood’s haircut! I remember thinking yeah, I’ve got a real classic mid 90s footballers haircut… how the fuck did this happen?!

– – –

‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’

The album itself was beaten to the top spot by a mere 600 copies…

Who by, sorry?

Arctic Monkeys.

Ah that’s alright. It’s OK to be beaten by them. They were phenomenal and I just love the way they gestated into quite a sexy beast of a band now, which I never expected.

We were kept off No. 1 by Eva Cassidy and – even though it’s a tragic story – that did frustrate me at the time with ‘Know Your Enemy’. I think we’ve had more number two albums than anybody. I mean, ‘Everything Must Go’ sold 1.5 million copies and it was never number one! Fucking insane! So we’re still competitive in our own silly way, and those things do hurt us… but I’m kind of glad of that.

With ‘Your Love Alone…’ suddenly the military garb is back a bit and we’re doing amateur rock ‘n’ roll a little bit but you can tell I’m a little bit more confident in the way I look because I know I’ve got this one other person – apart from Nick – I’ve got another flying winger back, and she looks better!

I’m one of the wingers… I’m John Robertson for a start, I’m the stout winger who’s got surprising speed, and Nina’s in the middle and she looks fucking amazing. I remember just that day saying to her, look, you make us so balanced, and that’s an achievement. We felt balanced with her in the song, with her in the video. She made us feel better about ourselves in a visual sense – in terms of just being a band, the aesthetic of it. The romance of having a band line up.

It was bittersweet to know that you’ll never quite be complete in the visual sense with only three of you but it was still a nice moment nonetheless.

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‘Walk Me To The Bridge’

The song was kind of written while we were on the Scandinavian leg of the tour, and it refers to the Oresund Bridge which lies between Denmark and Sweden. I think Nick explains the lyrics to a certain degree as relating to that feeling of being out-run by time, out-run by history, you’re being out-run by reality. You’re trying to find something when you’re not quite sure what it is and the only answer is to try and keep moving sometimes.

As Mark E Smith would say, you just can’t get ahead. Which is one of Nick’s favourite phrases of all time – couldn’t get ahead!

He had this magical moment on the bridge where he just felt he could out-run everything. And of course, what happens with bridges? You get to the fucking end of it! It wasn't an out of body experience or anything like that but the experience of writing those lyrics he just felt like he was out of control, he was being overtaken by something. It just had this positive existentiality to it, where he just felt as if he could start again. And of course, the moment always seems to fail because it just ends.

Having the character in the video just helped that needless but essential search for something. It’s one of those lyrics where you have to be there in the band to know what you’re trying to sum up. I remember Nick being at the back of the bus thinking… It wasn’t as if he’d just seen a UFO but it was a bit like that!

– – –

‘International Blue’

There’s a fan theory that it’s a sequel of sorts to ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’.

It does have the surging guitar riff but it goes in the opposite direction – it goes down, rather than up! I was aware that the song came together in a very quick way, and it was the penultimate song for the album. So we always seem to come through with the single right at the end of the record.

I think any musician if you ask them, have you ever had a moment where you just don’t know what the next note is? If you’re trying to compose something then sometimes it’s just like being on a roll. It’s kind of like doing a beautiful crossword – like, ah fuck, I’ve done clues 1,2,3,4, and 5… all in succession.

Sometimes when you start on that first note and you have one line and every note keeps coming and every chord keeps coming… and that’s what I had with that song. After three or four failed attempts to write the music to the lyrics the fifth attempt came in a burst and it felt like I wasn’t in control of it again, and it was a great feeling. As soon as I had the verse, the bridge, the riff, and the middle section I just knew how I wanted it to sound.

I wasn’t trying to force it to be anything other than what it was in my head, where it sounded like it could have been on ‘Generation Terrorists’. So perhaps that’s the connection it has to ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’.

‘International Blue’ – lyrically, as a song – grew from the moment Nick saw Ives Klein’s work framed by the sea in Nice and he just thought, wow, if this isn’t the most beautiful moment of transcendent parallel installation art then I don’t know what is. That thing of where you’re looking at Ives Klein’s while looking out into the Med. He said he doesn’t expect too much out of life but when you have one of those moments it’s completely worth it.

And it’s about that: the love of that moment. The love and relief of wanting that moment to happen, but not searching for it and then having it thrust upon you. That’s what the lyric is about. It was a poem for Nick himself, I took it off him.

Again, Kieran and Nick said that the backdrop just had to be Nice. It had to be another part of that thing where you have an idea of life and what it should be, if you have an aesthetic then if the visual source is already there then just go for it. When Nick gave me the lyric I just sensed that sense of freedom. And when he came back from holiday – he went to Nice for his wedding anniversary – he said he felt completely free when he was there with his wife. So that’s what we wanted to convey with it all, I suppose.

Kieran’s quote about this video demonstrating ‘widescreen melancholia’ works for the music itself.

It does, yeah. It’s still born from a beautiful moment. I think it would shock people if we wrote ‘Shiny Happy People’. I don’t think we’re capable of it. Sometimes we have these moments of glorious transcendetal happiness but we always manage to down-grade them to something more realistic which sub-fuses them into melancholia.

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'Resistance Is Futile' will be released on April 13th.

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