James Dean Bradfield was born in 1969, and brought up in the south Wales valleys. He formed the Manic Street Preachers at school in 1986 with friends Nicky Wire, Sean Moore and Richey Edwards; after Edwards went missing in 1995, the trio carried on, achieving both critical and commercial success. Next month, Bradfield releases his second solo LP, Even in Exile, with lyrics written by the Welsh poet Patrick Jones.
How has lockdown been for you?
I didn’t leave my corner of Cardiff for months, or see my dad every week, as I always do, so that was hard. He’s 77, and still working as a gravedigger. I’ve also got young kids, eight and four, so I’ve been like the headmaster patrolling the corridors at home. I’ve also been running a lot while listening to music: lots of the Bad Plus, Public Enemy, George Benson, Rush, old C86 compilations. Blondie are amazing to exercise to. You imagine yourself being caught between punk and Jane Fonda.
Your new solo album is inspired by the Chilean protest singer and artist Victor Jara, who was killed by Pinochet’s soldiers in 1973. What drew you to him?
He kept cropping up in my life after appearing in songs by bands I liked when I was a teenager. The Clash and U2 sang about him; Simple Minds dedicated an album to him [1989’s Street Fighting Years]. In my teens I also loved the film Missing, starring Jack Lemmon, about the Chilean coup. Lemmon was one of my heroes as a kid, alongside Charlie Brown from Peanuts.
How would you describe Jara’s protest music?
It’s quite shocking at first because it’s very beautiful and graceful. It shows that protest music doesn’t have to be someone shouting “Motherfuckers, stand down!” Even in American protest music from the same time, by Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs, there are moments when they go four-to-the-floor, straight in the eye. Not here. Jara shows us that protest music can be a psalm or a prayer to be more inclusive, or to understand history a bit more. That feels right for today. After all, you don’t have to find your enemy to have a fight any more, do you?
You’ve made a podcast inspired by Jara too, interviewing people like Emma Thompson [who wrote a film script about him], Calexico’s Joey Burns, and Welsh folk singer Dafydd Iwan. How did you find interviewing?
Terrible at first. I kept asking my wife to come and help me on Zoom – tapping away, hopeless – but I enjoyed it in the end. I’d only interviewed one person before, and that was Paul McCartney for the reissue of his Pipes of Peace album. That came about after I’d met him after a gig, and blurted out I’d liked that song as a kid. He’d looked at me as if I was taking the piss. But he remembered, and after the interview a year or so later, with me apologising for blabbing, he said: “Oh you’re loquacious, you’re Welsh, you’re fine!”
You’ve lived back in Wales for a decade. Wales’s devolved government has a more cautious approach to Covid-19 than England. How have you felt about that?
Strangely proud. Looking at pictures of our beaches next to England’s and going: “Yes! We’ve stuck to the rules!” I was like, ah, this is what it’s like to feel old.
Your home valleys were also one of the biggest Brexit-voting areas in the UK. Why, do you think?
Because politicians based their referendum campaigns on hectoring and preaching. Look at anyone who wins an election, whether it be Clement Attlee or Margaret Thatcher – you shouldn’t mention those two names in the same breath, of course – they built their victories on addressing people’s hopes and fears. Wales’s government have done well in their response to the virus for similar reasons, and, importantly, they’ve not scared people too much. Unless you’re a mad, rightwing libertarian who has a problem with wearing a face mask, that is. That’s beyond the realms of my thinking.
What do you think of punk-rock bands today, like Idles, who talk about politics onstage?
I think there’s been a generational shift. I never felt we were qualified for it – I remember being criticised for not speaking up about the Iraq war, and saying we wanted to let the songs speak for us instead. It’s not that I think speaking up is wrong – I liked Red Wedge a lot in the 80s – but I’m not sure musicians telling people who to vote for is going to help. It worked for us to talk about books we liked, or artists and thinkers, and excite fans that way. For me to preach about politics right now would be like watching a dad at a disco doing a drop-shoulder move.
In April, the Manics announced a free gig for NHS workers this December. What drove that decision?
Obviously, we planned it on a hope and a promise, and all promoters have second and third dates planned in. But we really wanted to give these people a party. We know so many friends and family members working in the NHS who have suddenly had to learn to live very complicated lives. They’re run ragged, and it’s horrible. Also, I don’t want to stereotype, but people who work in hospitals love a good lash-up. They need it! The only people I’ve seen worse are ballet companies on tour – these huge, tattooed, pierced roadies from south London would always warn us about them – or the time we crossed over with the Riverdance company. That was mental.
How do you imagine your return gig to be?
It won’t be: “Oh, this album’s got a theme, we’ve got a set to build.” It’ll be [screams] “Yes! Biggest song first! Let’s fucking do it!” I look forward to that.
Even in Exile is out on 14 August on MontyRay