For the 14th Manic Street Preachers album, The Ultra Vivid Lament, James Dean Bradfield sidesteps his favourite Les Paul-and-Marshall tone, relying instead on a Gretsch Country Gentleman, 1965 Jazzmaster, Shergold Marauder and Fender Parallel Universe Telecaster Troublemaker.
Bradfield references Roxy Music as an influence on this album, saying “I’m not really playing big chords. It’s a lot of weaving in and out, playing little lead lines so I didn’t use such big sound.” But his main focus right now is the Manics’ return to the live arena – as he explains during band rehearsals in the Welsh city of Newport.
What’s the first thing you play when you get into rehearsal?
“I have a warm-up before Nicky [Wire, bass] and Sean [Moore, drums] start banging away, because they’re quite combative. They batter you into submission, so you gotta fight for your own sonic space. I always do the [instrumental] passage from Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke, and the old jazz tune Sweet Georgia Brown, the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme. I do that because it has passing jazz stuff in it which warms your hands.
“And I’ve got my own version of Randy Rhoads’ Crazy Train solo. Like a lot of guitarists, if I can get away with not using my little finger I will, but those pieces make you use your little finger. Oh, and Lonely Is The Night by Billy Squier – I always play that riff and tweak my sound around that. Then when we get together we usually warm up with You Love Us.“
What are you rehearsing now?
“You record an album and then you immediately forget everything because you try not to hammer something into the ground. You try to leave it a little bit fresh. So at the moment we’re re-learning everything we played on the album. We haven’t even touched upon old stuff . If we get to October and we haven’t really gigged, it will be two years since we played a gig. That’s the first time that’s happened since I was 15, and I’m 52 now so it’s very strange.
“My muscle memory is going to have to really kick in. I’ve tried on my own little bits of songs from the old days, and my muscle memory is not quite as good as I thought it would be. A mixture of that is age and the extraordinary circumstances of not having played live for two years. We’re rehearsing at our leisure, and that’s nice because it doesn’t feel like there’s too much pressure. I want to feel as if we’re returning to something we love.“
You still sound passionate about it.
“As you get older you realize that if you landed yourself in a job that you love, you can’t ask for more than that. We’re extremely lucky. We wanted to be in a band, we wanted to do it forever and that’s what happened to us. So in a strange way to have that taken away from us like this for nearly two years has really hit home to how lucky we are, and now how galling and how angry it makes me that I can’t actually do what I love. It’s just really fucked me off big time.“
Will that energy power the shows when you return?
“I think a strange sense of relief will power the shows. We are in our fifties, so playing live does become a different thing. I think you become more musical as you get older. You can’t rely on just the deluded indestructibility of youth.
“Undoubtedly, it’s a different energy on stage now. You’re aware that if you’re trying to throw the same shapes at the age of 52 that you did when you were twenty-two, people are going to look at you and they’re going to go, ‘Come on, act your age!’ We haven’t turned into shoe-gazers yet. We still go for it. But you’ve got to accept that things are different.“
A lot of Les Paul players switch to lighter guitars as they get older. Are you sticking with your white Custom?
“I’m not known as the tallest singing guitarist in the world, so I think my low centre of gravity helps me not have the chronic back problems other guitarists would have! But yeah, the thing I’ve always loved about the Les Paul Custom is that it is heavy. I’ve got about two moves on stage and one of them is where I spin round. I like the fact that the guitar is my centrifugal force, it brings me back to where I started to spin. I don’t really like it when a guitar feels like wearing a feather. I need that tangibility, like trying to hew a sculpture out of rock. Because the Custom is so heavy you feel if there’s still more in there that you can find.“
Is there something magical about that particular Les Paul, or is it just special because of its history?
“I’ve read about other people’s guitars and I think it was Roy Buchanan, when other people used to try his famous Telecaster they’d just be like ‘God, it’s sh*t! How the hell does he make it sound so good?’ I love the idea of something not being so special to anybody except for the person that knows it. That makes it more special to me. I’ve never been someone that went looking for the guitar from the fabled year.
“I was just happy that I found the Custom that really suited me at the start. Other people have played it and they’ve never gone ‘This is amazing!’ They’ve always gone ‘Oh... so this is the one.’ It’s never sung to anybody, and I kind of like that. It’s like Thor’s hammer. I didn’t use it for the first five tracks on the new album. It didn’t fit because I was playing in a different way. Then I picked it up again and discovered that it still sings better than anything else I can play – which could depress me. It should be all in the fingers, right? That’s what the purists say. Well, some of it’s in the fingers, but you’ve actually got to find the right thing that responds to you.“
Do you have a backup for it?
“I have smashed a few Gibsons in my life. I know, it’s disgusting. I was young and fuckin' mental. Anyway, Kerry Collier, my guitar tech, knew of two smashed up white Les Paul Customs. He knew who had all the parts so he managed to get them all back, and almost like a jigsaw he managed to put together a whole new white Les Paul Custom. So I’m trying to wear that in at the moment, trying to make that feel like home.“
What amps will you be using on this tour?
“I’m not sure. That’s a question that I’m really tangling with at the moment. On the album I didn’t really use my JCM900 – the cursed 900! So many other guitarists say, ‘Why the fuck do you use that?’ I don’t know. It just suits me, that kind of cheap, ﬁzzy thing. Whatever is good enough for C.C. DeVille from Poison is good enough for me!" [laughs]
“Usually I use the JCM900 in conjunction with the Mesa/Boogie Lonestar. They’re both running clean and dirty at the same time so I have a blend of the two. The Mesa goes through the middle and the Marshall surrounds it for sustain and wideness. So I will be taking those but I used a lot of other amps on this album. A Cornford, really old Vox AC30s that I used on The Holy Bible, and an early '70s Fender Twin, which is slightly broken.
“There’s something not quite right with it but it’s got a real lovely edge to it that other Twins haven’t got. It’s quite rare that I just use one amp. Because I used a lot of little combos on the record I can’t really use my JCM900 and Mesa/Boogie sounds on the new songs. I might have to get a Kemper and just [profile] a couple of sounds myself by linking some combos together.“
Will the setlist be affected by the long break? Are you excited to play old songs again, or raring to play all the new ones you’ve written during lockdown?
“I think it’s going to be a mix of everything. I really look forward to playing six or seven new songs every night, and I really look forward to playing twenty old songs every night. We’ve never been one of those bands that don’t like playing Motorcycle Emptiness or our other old hits. I’ve never understood that. Our gigs are always quite joyous experiences, but they’re always pretty up there in terms of energy. If I can see people moving and loving it, and connecting their old memories with a song I’m playing, that’s enough for me.“
What advice do you have for bands returning to gigging?
“Just don’t overthink it. It’s a lot effort to come to a gig these days. You have to have your temperature taken, walk in anti-clockwise circles to get the toilet, and you’ve got to take into consideration the amount of effort people have put in. I think everybody’s looking to forget all these pain-in-the-ass details we have in life. When they stand in front of the stage, the audience isn’t wanting to think too much. I think they’re looking to unload.”
- Ultra Vivid Lament arrives September 17 via Columbia.