Santiago Surprise: James Dean Bradfield Interviewed
2020 hasn't exactly turned out according to plan.
When Clash phones James Dean Bradfield, he's still adjusting; a musician who lives for the the concert experience, he's smarted from the loss of an audience, the severing of that connection with fans.
One thing has turned out to plan, however. With Manic Street Preachers taking time out, he's completed work on new solo album 'Even In Exile', a homage to the life, work, and self-sacrifice of Chilean poet and songwriter Victor Jara.
Executed by an authoritarian, militarised government backed by the United States, Jara's work was a key touchstone for a host of artists, ranging from The Clash to Springsteen and U2.
This time, though, it's slightly different. James used lyrics penned by Patrick Jones - elder brother of Nicky Wire - and these potent words link to some of the finest guitar-rooted songcraft the Welsh musician has delivered in some time.
When Clash calls the singer, we start by discussing our mutual longing for gigs, and for the bizarre sight of watching football matches with cardboard cut outs in the stadiums.
"Bizarrely, I’ve gotten used to that quicker than anything!" he exclaims. "I would find it much harder to watch gigs without audiences than I would watching football… and I don’t really know why! Just because I suppose, subconsciously, I’m so used to the ticket-buying public being marginalised in football that not seeing them there feels like quite a natural progression of the way the Premier League governs its world!"
Digging deeper, we uncover a little more about his methodologies, and what he hopes to achieve with this remarkable new record.
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Now, when we spoke previously you ruled out a solo album…
And then Nick and Sean went and told me that we were taking a big break! So I’m doing a solo album for exactly the same reasons I did it the first time.
We obviously released ‘Resistance Is Futile’ and that takes in a good year of work – in terms of being on the road and doing stuff – and at the end of it, they said: that’s it, we won’t have a record out for two and a half, three years. I was like: what, are you fucking kidding?! The same emotion I had after ‘Lifeblood’ where they said something similar.
Being an institutionalised musician I just get sent into a tailspin when the band I’ve been in all my life takes a break. So sub-consciously I was looking round for a project to do.
And then this came into focus?
Well, it kinda landed in my lap, really. I go to see my father up the valleys every Sunday, and on the way back I pop in to see Patrick Jones, which is Nick’s brother. He’s always foisting new books on me – and he has done since we were 15!
A lot of it is stuff he writes, before it gets performed or published. He was writing this, and I was like: you’re trying to get a book of prose and poems and one man plays about Victor Jara published? That’s gonna be really hard Pat! But he said there was no end game, it wasn’t about being published, it was just enjoying the experience of writing about somebody who was riddled with goodness.
He needed to write about something that was just… good! Somebody who represents something you can aspire to. Because he – and Nick as well – was going through a tough time because they’d lost their mother and their father was really ill too. I found that really interesting that sometimes writers are like painters or musicians, in that they’ll create something with no discernable desire to actually release it. You just do it because you enjoy it.
I was reminded of Stephen King’s book On Writing, and he says that he’s always being collared by people at parties who say they’ve started to write. And he’ll say: OK, what stuff do you write? And then he asks what they enjoy reading, and if the reply is ‘well, nobody’s really writing stuff for me that I really want to read, so I don’t read I just write’ then he’ll say: what? A writer that doesn’t read?! Fuck off, I’m not listening to you!
I like the idea that a writer just sometimes writes… not for people to read it, but because that’s what they do. You read and you write. There’s so much conviction there on the page anyway, even though he didn’t want it published. After a couple of weeks I shyly asked: can I try to turn this into a record? And he said: that won’t work! But I was sure it could… it felt like a loose concept album.
I suppose I was cynically opportunistic about it. So I gave it a go, and it became obvious very quickly that it was going to work.
Do you find yourself writing music for the sake of writing, then?
I do write bits in my head, yeah, when I’m playing piano or guitar or bass. I’ll write something. Which I know will never see the light of day. Because I have this shortfall I’ve got inside my head, which is that I’m the singer in a band that mostly sings other people’s words. I’ll write a lyric now and again, but mostly I’ve been singing words from Nick or Richey – and now Pat – all my life.
And if you try to lift the amount of bands where the singer doesn’t really sing their own words, then the names don’t trip off the tongue. There’s Rush. The Who. Boo Radleys. But mostly, singers write their own lyrics. Whether it’s a slight inferiority complex or me finding my position, I’ve always liked the lyric to inspire the music. 98.9% of the time all Manic Street Preachers songs have been inspired by Nick or Richey giving me lyrics.
So therefore, when I’m playing guitar or piano in the day the stuff I write isn’t part of that process; I do sit round and write stuff, while knowing that it might be in a locker in my head but it will never see the light of day.
I think it’s a good exercise as well. Most kids you see who are good at football or rugby, if they get a spare moment they’ll have a kickaround. They’ve got no game to win, but they enjoy just playing with the ball. And I think it’s the same in a lot of passions – you’ll just do it on your own.
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When you first read through the words, did it immediately conjure certain sounds and melodies in your mind?
It did, yeah. A lyric like ‘There Will Come A War’ I knew that it was written in a moment between fear and calm, where you’re almost so scared of something that you become still. That’s what the words felt like when I was reading them. So the music became like that. It might be in my imagination, but that’s the way it worked – that osmosis from the page to me.
And then something like ‘The Boy From The Plantation’, I looked at those lyrics and thought: well, that’s a fucking challenge! You’re asking me to put music to Victor Lideo Jara Martinez… someone’s whole name on a page! And I had to turn it into music. So I looked at it, and thought, well, there’s a good rhythm to it… it’s not as silly as it seems. And it did really quickly become the chorus of the song!
But seeing it as a challenge made it very rhythmic. ‘From The Hands Of Violeta’ was almost like a lengthened haiku, in that per line you only had three or four words. It felt like it was a morphing, repetitive haiku, so that’s what the music became. Now I’ve got a sense memory of how I reacted to the words – because the music came very quickly once I’d read the words – there was a rhythm. It was either repetitive haiku, or a rhythmic challenge, or something that was still unknown.
That’s a writer’s job, really, isn’t it? Do the words capture you straight away… and the answer for me was that, yes, Pat’s words captured me. They engaged me, they challenged me to write music, and the music came very quickly… which doesn’t always happen, obviously.
The record won’t be taken out on tour, so does that factor put you in a different headspace?
There’s not many consequences of knowing if you can tour… not for me, anyway.
Because I remember when we were doing ‘The Holy Bible’ and we were focussing on ‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart’ and it’s a notoriously hard song for anybody to play. For the singer, the guitarist, and for the drummer, especially. But when we were creating it in the studio we didn’t think ‘oh, how can we play this live?’ because in the studio if you’re playing it together and you fuck it up, you just start all over again. But we knew that we would have to rehearse that song down to the fucking tee for it to not fall apart live. But that doesn’t inhibit you in terms of what you create in the studio.
Conversely, if you know you’re creating something that you’re not gonna tour, that doesn’t mean you’re gonna create something so progressive, and so full of discernably jazz time signatures, because you don’t have to worry about having to play it live. It doesn’t do that for you. There’s no influence there, I don’t think. Even when you’re putting orchestras on records you never worry about having to play that live because you don’t want anything to inhibit you when you’re in the studio.
On the other hand, you don’t want to have too much freedom, either… because then you just disappear into a wormhole of your own making. I think the one think that did affect me was the decision to play all the instruments – except drums – myself. Learning to play double bass for the record meant that the way I played those notes was different to playing normal bass, and that impacts on the drums.
There’s a knock-on from my piano playing, as I play on a different beat to a lot of piano players… so that led to something different, too. Anyway, I faked it – I faked playing with different musicians, as I was playing instruments that themselves were slightly alien to me. There’s a naivety there.
Victor Jara’s cultural legacy runs through a lot of seminal work from Simple Minds through to Bruce Springsteen – did that loom in the background at all?
I tried not to worry about it, really, because in this day and age you can get accused of many things. I didn’t want to make it sound too Chilean, because I didn’t want to be accused of cultural appropriation. I didn’t want to try and include any native Chilean instruments on here, because I didn’t want to get into a ‘Graceland’ argument.
I just wanted to make it an outsider’s view and appreciation of somebody. Which was my gateway to Victor anyway – whether it’s Calexico or Simple Minds or Springsteen or U2. There’s so many people that picked up on the threads of what Victor Jara did. His influence extended way into the 90s and the Noughties and beyond. He’s one of those people who never went away, straight from when I first saw his name in the early 80s. He was always there.
I was used to him being this outsider voice through a gateway offered by other people. Countless people wrote about him in Europe and American before I did. So I became a bit obsessed with our outsider’s view of what Victor is – we look at him and something to aspire to, but we also see something we’re scared off as well. We see somebody who is so committed to something that he ends up dying for it.
But we also see somebody that wasn’t that confrontational in his music, he was very appeasing in his music. Of course some of the lyrics are revolutionary, but if you listen to the tone of the music – and some of the words – then it’s inclusive, quite conciliatory. Other lyrics are quite proud and Chilean, and denounce what they called the American reach of greed into Chile – and of course what the Right were doing in Chile – but the tone of what Victor did was very, very… feminine. His music was very feminine – there’s no other way to describe it. But despite all that he ended up getting murdered.
So from afar I think we look on in admiration, but also in horror, and that seeped into the way I wrote about it, too.
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You cover one of Victor Jara’s own songs, how did you go about this?
I took one of his instrumentals – which was quite sketchy – and it gave me a good area of freedom. It’s not a reinterpretation, but it’s definitely my version of it.
I think I ended up doing an instrumental because I tried to sing some of his songs and… it was impossible. When I sang his words, about his country, it sounded – for want of a better word – it sounded empty. It sounded like bad drama. I remember listening back to me having done a quick recording of one of his songs, and I thought: no one needs to hear that! It made me an empty vessel. It taught me a quick lesson – just don’t do it!
But I still wanted there to be a cover on the record of Victor’s work, and I wanted some of the money to go to the Victor Jara foundation – which hopefully it will – and I wanted that sense memory of what he felt musically.
I became obsessed with his musical identity a bit. I became obsessed with this idea of being faced with so much obsession, and this feeling of violence looming in the air, and the Right and the Left coming to blows while the Right have much more access to the means of violence than the Left. But still his voice remained beautiful… which is just unfathomable to me.
He knew what was coming, but some of his last recordings are still so beautiful. To not let your anger explode in the studio, or to let it go in a direction where the songs have some blood on the tracks… he just didn’t do that. Even though he knew that things were turning bad, and the forces working against their progressive government were just evil, basically, he didn’t let that affect the music.
I became as interested in the music as anything else – as much as the words and his life. Unfortunately my version of that song does become a bit more oppressive and a bit more aggressive, and that just shows that he had a benign skill to counter the voices of confrontation in his head… much more so than a musician like me.
‘Seeking The Room With The Three Windows’ is also an instrumental.
Some of the album is self-explanatory, some of the lyrics can be quite heavily loaded with experience and history, but at one point I was looking for something that had a bit more light, some kind of air or fantasy in it. So me and Patrick would meet up once a week to discuss it, and he showed me this picture of Victor stood above Machu Picchu, at this opposing ride overlooking the site, with a poncho on and an acoustic guitar.
Walking to Machu Picchu is a very, very hard thing to do. My cousin did it – Sean Moore – and the air gets thinner… it’s a long journey. And he took his guitar all the way up there! This is during a tour of South America, as he wanted to trace the lineage, the culture, and the songs of the South American peoples. That was one of his obsessions – to free South America from the ongoing popular culture boom represented by the United States. He was trying to reinforce the actual long history of culture in South America.
He did this journey in Peru, doing impromptu concerts all over the place, meeting farmers and collecting songs. He traced history to its source, so he walked up to Macchu Picchu and took this picture. I looked at this picture and I thought: wow, this isn’t something I’ve been expecting! Everything else I saw was him on marches on the streets of Chile, meeting miners, doing huge concerts with banners behind him… and suddenly you’re struck by this picture, which is full of this 70s prog, futuristic, organic fantasy!
Pat had some words clipped to the picture, and he just had a title: ‘Seeking The Room With The Three Windows’. So I asked him, and he said he was thought about writing a poem on it, and that the Room With The Three Windows was a fabled place within Macchu Picchu. And I just thought, that’s it! Don’t tell me any more.
It’s lighter for a start, there’s a bit of fantasy about it, it’s not locked down with history and nuts and bolts. It shows a different side to him – you can see the joy he has in this picture, holding his guitar aloft. It’s a moment of self-made heroic fantasy, and I just wanted to write an instrumental about that, even if it’s only to give the album a bit more tone, a different shade.
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Definite hints of Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’ in there; you mention Kamasi Washington in the press note, too…
Ha, yes. It’s that kind of thing where when you’re making your debut album you might not admire to liking certain stuff! And obviously you gather stuff over the years as well. Alongside those, I’ve always been a big fan of the Welsh band Man, especially their album ‘Welsh Connection’.
I was always a huge fan of ‘Meddle’ by Pink Floyd as well, as it was probably their gateway into ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ but it’s a bit more naive. I like a band called Soft Power, as well. And I was always a massive Rush fan, because Nick and Patrick were and got me into them when we were all young! It’s about letting a narrative inform the music in a different way. Simple as that.
For all intents and purposes, I always loved PiL because I felt they were the prog version of what punk was. So it’s not such a dirty word for me. But the Kamasi Washington record I just loved. Sean (Moore) was playing in a jazz orchestra when he was 14, and he was bringing those records home. Miners started passing him jazz tapes when he was playing in a colliery band, and I love that! I love that working class isolation where people start finding their own paths, and you’ve got big hulking miners lending him Charlie Parker tapes! And that passed on to me.
So Sean made me love jazz from an early age, because he was playing trumpet. He played trumpet on ‘Kevin Carter’ - a great, great solo. I used to listen to a lot of that more older jazz recordings, but Kamasi seeped through. I’d been listening to George Benson, Art Blakey… I was only ever listening to old stuff, so when I found something new I could enjoy I grabbed it straight away.
And it actually affecting ‘There Will Come A War’ in a really tiny way, but I love the idea of the tones of the instruments being more important than the actual music.
In the absence of touring will you be exploring live streaming, or other visual projects?
I did a little live session, it was stripped down. But I don’t think so, no. I think people want to see the real thing now! I’m not at all telling people to stop digesting music, but I can’t get my head around live-streaming. I find it easier to face sport without a crowd than music without a crowd. Perhaps that’s my directive.
I just know that if I ever get a chance to step out in front of an audience once more, it’s going to be the most beautiful, no subtext moment. We won’t be building a show, we’ll be fucking coming in hard and heavy. Song No. 1 – let’s fucking go! It’ll be five of the biggest songs ever played all in a row.
Let’s see if you fuckers can remember how to dance, let’s see if we can remember how to play, let’s fucking go for it! It’ll be an explosion. It’ll be nothing except for the intent of sweat and release.
What do you want this album to achieve?
I’ve become obsessed with redefining what the protest song can do. It’s not a fashionable thing to say, I suppose. But it’s like this: the feet are planted towards the subject, the gaze is planted towards the subject, and it’s confrontational, it’s trying to write a wrong or inform you of an injustice. It was to engender some kind of spirit of opposition.
With Victor, it’s the first time I’ve realised that the project song can be something different, that you can try and defeat the purpose of malign forces with beauty. People might say, well, don’t be deluded – after all, he was murdered. But I still think that message conveys something. Especially in the time we live in now, where we don’t even have to have an enemy in front of us to fight with each other because it seems like the people who used to live under the same tent now fight each other.
The Tories must wake up every morning thinking: fuck, they’re still fighting each other! Looks like we’ve got another eight years!
But Victor Jara offers something different. He wants us to agree on something, before we fall into a fight. It’s not fashionable, but I think we live in an age where we need to take our badges off for a minute and concentrate on working as if we’re on the same side… instead of leaving the people in charge to just laugh their heads off.
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'Even In Exile' is out on August 14th.
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