Thirty years is a long time for a band to maintain a career, especially when our music listening and buying habits have changed so much.
For Manic Street Preachers, a band that fought its way, kicking and spitting, from the valleys of South Wales to the forefront of the British music scene, the past 30 years has been a journey of reinvention.
Since issuing their self-financed debut single, “Suicide Alley,” in 1988, Manic Street Preachers have constantly strived to ditch the old and embrace the new. There was the spray-paint, slogans and makeup of 1992 debut album “Generation Terrorists,” the frenetic, frenzied onslaught of the dark and desperate third album “The Holy Bible” (1994), the Cuba-loving, Castro-meeting mish-mash of 2001’s “Know Your Enemy” and the relative calm that came with the acoustic-heavy “Rewind the Film” (2013). And, of course, everything inbetween.
But the high point, certainly in terms of sales, came with 1998’s “This is My Truth Tell Me Yours,” an exercise in soul-searching, self-doubt and sensitivity, and the band’s first album to have no input from founding member Richey Edwards, the group’s co-lyricist and rhythm guitarist who disappeared in early 1995, never to be found. The album garnered countless awards in the U.K. and beyond, and propelled the band to international fame and stadium gigs aplenty.
It is this album that finds the band — singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield, drummer Sean Moore and bassist and lyricist Nick Jones (aka Nicky Wire) — making its way to Japan, at the tail end of a 20th anniversary tour for the album, which has seen it played in full each night, followed by a greatest hits set.
Bradfield, 50, says it has been an interesting experience.
“It’s kind of strange to go back into the theaters and play these songs because a lot of these songs signify our sound getting bigger,” he says, adding that he feels the album has aged well. “It’s the closest we’ll ever get to some kind of prog moment … it has sections that just kind of represent something in a nebulous way, some of the musical sections … the obvious hooks are not there.”
Some of the songs on “This is My Truth” are not obvious choices for large gigs, given their acoustic, slow and moody nature. Bradfield points to “Born a Girl,” which he describes as full of “doubt and fragility, but also quite big at the same time,” and “S.Y.M.M.,” a song about the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 of which he says, “The subtext, the context, everything about that song is big and heavy.”
Fans online made their voices heard when the album was re-released and the concerts began, and original album track “Nobody Loved You,” an ode to Edwards, had been ditched in favor of fan favorite B-side “Prologue to History.”
“Just like when you go through a photograph album, you look and you go, ‘Why the f—- was I wearing that?'” says Bradfield. “Inevitably it’ll be the same with a record. You’ll go, ‘Why did we decide to put that track on and leave this one off?’ … ‘Nobody Loved You’ won for some reason (in 1998), even though we were very uneasy with it.”
He stresses that the band isn’t reimagining the album, but rather rectifying a wrong decision.
The track in question was, in fact, a Japan-only single. With that in mind, could it be played when the tour comes to Tokyo?
“Yeah it might do, we might try,” says Bradfield, but cautions that “it’s a f—-king seriously high song to sing!”
Manic Street Preachers’ 20th anniversary tour concept is in its third incarnation, following tours marking two decades since the release of “The Holy Bible” (1994) and “Everything Must Go” (1996). Each has been accompanied by a release of an expanded edition of its respective album.
I ask Bradfield if the band’s much-maligned second album, the hard rocking “Gold Against the Soul,” will ever get the same treatment. It raises a laugh and an admission that he doesn’t see it happening, unless others speak up.
“Nick might tell me otherwise.” he says. “He’s the curator of the band, he’s the one that keeps every demo and every bit of artwork and every note, so he might tell me otherwise.”
So 30 years and 13 albums in, how does Bradfield see his career and his future?
“You are trading on something that is older, and you’re trading on an old success, especially with ‘This is My Truth Tell Me Yours.’ It was so big, 5 million (sales) for us was massive,” he says. “It’s 2019, I’m 50 years old and the cultural landscape is very different now … music’s space in the cultural landscape is diminished, there’s no denying that.”
Bradfield says that with each new album, there’s an element of searching for a nugget to retain for future tours.
“You’re always looking for the song from the album that will stay in set lists. ‘International Blue’ (from 2018’s “Resistance is Futile”) is a song we couldn’t leave out of this tour,” he says.
He goes on to point out that playing the hits is a key point of any Manic Street Preachers set.
“Some of our peers won’t play their biggest hits,” Bradfield says. “We always play our biggest hits, and we’ll always try to play stuff that people want to hear.” And so “You Stole the Sun From My Heart,” “A Design For Life,” and “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” have become firmly embedded into the structure of the band’s live shows.
Manic Street Preachers have enjoyed a fair degree of success in Japan, and have visited the country numerous times. There’s an undercurrent of Japanese culture in some of the band’s songs, videos and artwork. Bradfield says he loves the country.
“I’d barely traveled anywhere in my life, let alone outside of Wales and into England, and suddenly I found myself in Japan (in 1992) and it was the biggest shock I’d ever had in my life,” he says. “Everything was different … and I absolutely felt at home straight away.”
“The food I just bought into straight away … the drink just felt so clean and cold,” he adds.
Bradfield suggests that Japanese fans are unlike those elsewhere.
“The analysis of lyrics, nowhere else really comes close to how Japanese fans and journalists did that with us,” he says.
The love for Japan even extends to the band’s instruments, with bassist Nicky Wire having almost exclusively been seen with Japan-only Fender Aerodyne bass guitars. I make the mistake of mentioning this to Bradfield, who then, ascertaining that I also play, suddenly becomes more animated and bends my ear about guitars.
For the guitar geeks out there, Bradfield is currently pining after a Fender Troublemaker Telecaster (“F—-king gorgeous!”) and recently bought a Shergold Masquerader. On the latter he relates how he looked at it for two months, trying to figure out where he knew it from, refusing to use the internet to help. When I immediately say (New Order frontman) Bernard Sumner had one, Bradfield hollers down the line at me “Yeah, exactly! … I was asleep one night and I was like ‘f—-king Bernard Sumner! That’s where it was!'”
The two Japan dates mark the end of the “This is My Truth” tour and the preceding “Resistance is Futile” album tour, and there’s nothing on the band’s calendar to suggest what’s next.
“I’ve been working on a little project with another lyricist, a little conceptual thing, which I might get out next year,” Bradfield says. “Writing for the Manics … we’ve written two songs that definitely might be happening, but they’re so loose, (but) we just know that the two songs are great. We’ve written about seven that will never see the light of day, but there are two that we think perhaps could be … a building block of what a new record could be, but I can’t really describe it yet.”
“I’m still excited about getting a lyric off Nick,” he adds. “When I haven’t had a lyric off for a while I feel like I’m kind of useless.”
Giving a clue to where the band could go next, Bradfield lists what he’s listening to at the moment: the new Cate Le Bon album (“f—-king amazing”), Vampire Weekend (“much better guitar band than people give them credit for”), a lot of old Rush (“which will really distress many people”) and Timothy Showalter and his album with My Morning Jacket.
With all that in mind, it’s clear this band’s evolutionary journey is far from over.
Manic Street Preachers play Zepp DiverCity Tokyo on Sept. 26 and Toyosu Pit in Tokyo on Sept. 27. Tickets from ¥8,500. For more information, visit www.manics.co.uk.