by Lucy Gibson
For someone notoriously "spiky" when it comes to media interviews it was a pleasant surprise to learn Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield is actually the complete opposite.
Speaking over the phone from Cardiff about the Manics' ninth studio album, Journal for Plague Lovers, Bradfield chats like a mate you haven't spoken to in a couple of weeks, waxing lyrical on everything from politics to rugby.
Even when Richey Edwards - a subject usually broached with caution - is brought up, Bradfield is at ease. After all, he says, "this whole album is about him".
Journal for Plague Lovers is made up entirely of lyrics the band's former guitarist left in the weeks before his disappearance in 1995.
And for Bradfield, it's just nice to deal with "something real" after 14 years of speculation as to Edwards' whereabouts.
"The thing with Richey is over the years there's been little bits of hearsay, little bits of rumour, people saying they've spotted him in Timbuktu," Bradfield says. "I think that was probably the drudgery, having to deal with the B-movie factor of the rumour mill.
"This is our chance to deal with something real. They are his words, he wrote them and he obviously wanted them set to music because they are written in chorus, verse and bridge form."
In 23 years together, the Manics have enjoyed massive success in the UK with six Top 10 albums and 14 Top 10 singles.
Across the world, too, they have garnered critical acclaim, most notably for their 1994 album The Holy Bible, to which Edwards is believed to have contributed most of the lyrics.
But the disappearance of their troubled guitarist has always hung over their heads.
Edwards went missing on February 1, 1995, the day he was due to leave with Bradfield on a promotional tour of the US.
According to reports, in the two weeks before his disappearance he withdrew £2800 from his bank account and was spotted at the passport office and bus station in Newport, just outside Cardiff.
On February 14, the 27-year-old Welshman's car was found abandoned at a motorway service station, near Bristol, close to the Severn Bridge, a notorious suicide spot.
Edwards battle with depression and his tendency to self-mutilate - he was once asked about the band's authenticity during an interview and responded by carving "4 Real" into his arm with a razor blade - led many to believe he had committed suicide.
But as time went by and with no word from Edwards or body recovered the mystery surrounding his disappearance grew.
There have been several reported sightings of him, from a market in Goa, India, to the Spanish Canary Islands of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. None has ever been confirmed.
Bradfield estimates that it was between three and five weeks before Edwards disappeared that he, bass guitarist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore, were each presented with a folder containing artwork and 28 complete lyrics.
"Over the years, we have all taken them out of our drawers and looked at them and then filed them back away, not quite knowing what to do with them and with a sense of perhaps being a bit scared of them as words," Bradfield explains.
It wasn't until about two years ago when the Manics were touring with their last album, Send Away the Tigers, that Bradfield confided in Wire that he had revisited Edwards' lyrics and hadn't been able to put them down.
Bradfield says he never tried to find answers in the lyrics. There is, he says stoically, "no hidden treasure". But the lyrics have given the band more detail about Edwards' state of mind.
Edwards was pronounced "presumed deceased" in November last year but Bradfield says the band will probably never get "closure".
"I don't really understand the notion of closure," he says. "It's something that's travelled on the boat from America and planted its feet around the world. It's not something I buy into. You can't really get closure on something that doesn't have a significant end. I'm not saying we walk around with our heads in our hands, it's just that we've come to accept the situation for what it is."
Bradfield is still in contact with Edwards' parents and sister, who he says have "the toughest gig out of everybody ... and that's an understatement".
"We did approach them when we initially had this idea (for the album). We said this is what we want to do with the lyrics Richey left us as one of his last creative acts. We would like to carry through the responsibility of doing something with them," he says. "They had no objections at all." The Manics still put away 25 per cent of their royalties for Edwards in a bank account but Bradfield says there's nothing sentimental about it, it's purely a legality. But it's clear, when hearing him talk about those close to him (he still goes to rugby with Edwards' father), the Welshman is loyal to the core.
He describes his cousin Moore as "virtually a brother" and says Wire has been his best mate since he was five. The trio went to the same school in Blackwood in the Welsh valleys, same college, played in the same rugby teams, went to the same discos. They even "got turned down by the same girls".
This enduring friendship, Bradfield says, is the main reason the Manics are still in the business.
"We have an immense shared history from when we were very young," he explains. "So that is the starting point, a shared sensibility that you just can't shake off.
"It's a challenge every day writing music for lyrics but you're doing it with friends you have known since you were born."
There was some disagreement, however, when it came to releasing Journal for Plague Lovers.
Wire recently admitted he urged his bandmates to scrap the album, explaining it could harm the band's commercial potential.
He told British newspaper The Guardian that his preference was to publicise the fact the band had recorded a "great album" but then not actually release it.
"I said, 'Let's just f...ing dig a hole and bury it and make it even more of an art statement, say we've made this great album, but it's just too much to give away'," Wire said.
Bradfield agrees that with no stand out single or video, Journal for Plague Lovers was hard to pitch to studio executives. But he stands by the album's release saying: "If we hadn't done it then, I don't think we would ever have done it."
And it would appear he made a good call.
Journal for Plague Lovers has been given either four or five out of five in the four main music magazines in the UK, something which delights Bradfield.
"They have all been sizeable, important reviews, which is what we wanted for Richey," he says.
"The whole reason for doing the record was the responsibility of doing something with the lyrics he left us.
"In the back of our mind we wanted good reviews for him, not just ourselves."
[Originally published: The West Australian, 15 May 2009]