'William's Last Words' is obviously the song that most people are going to interpret autobiographically. Do you have any idea who the character of William might be?
James Dean Bradfield: No, I gotta say. And these are the only problems, when you start to anticipate how people might react to things is when you hit problems, so we resisted trying to forecast how people might interpret lyrics or songs, or what Richey's trying to say. We had to disengage from being worried about how people might react to these songs. Which was essential, I think. Otherwise we'd get fear. And then we'd stop. And then you wouldn't get this record. It's important as a lyric, whether it's semi-autobiographical or about somebody else, because you actually just get genuine traditional warmth from it.
Which is... you spend an entire record sometimes listening to Richey speak in tongues, and on this lyric, you get genuine traditional warmth. It's almost like reading a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem or something. You get something so warm and traditional from it. And it gives you the hint that, during the process of writing all these lyrics, Richey hadn't lost his essential humanity. It sounds overblown, but that's the impression I get. And I tried and tried, I tried a couple of times to write music to this lyric, and I couldn't. I came up against a blank wall on this one.
And Rich, there were two pages of prose for this. It was meant to be a lyric, because it was amongst all the other fully formed lyrics, I tried to edit it, and I couldn't get to the kernel of how to approach it musically, and Nick finally did it. And I was just openly jealous when he finally turned it into this song. Because it was obvious it was going to be the last track. And it was obviously right, because there was a tiny bit of serendipity because I could see that there'd been an Ian McCulloch songwriter special on Sky Arts, songbook I think it's called that series, and I'd said to Nick, when he writes music, it's very akin to how Ian McCulloch does it, because he uses very simple chords, but he seems to get so much expression out of it.
And there was a bit of serendipity there because Richey's first love, Richey's first obsession musically was Echo And The Bunnymen. y'know, after I'd seen him around (primary school) in Blackwood when I was young, Richey, and I kind of knew him and played football against him and stuff, the next time I really saw him and started talking to him was in Oakdale comprehensive and he had an absolute identikit Ian McCulloch haircut. He'd walk down the corridor and you'd see someone with hair this tall... and it wasn't just sugar and water, it was proper proper hair products, it was done properly. The attention to detail was scary.
And my first concert, Me, Richey and Sean went to see Echo And The Bunnymen on the Ocean Rain Tour at Colston Hall in Bristol. And they were his first love, he absolutely adored Echo And The Bunnymen when he was in comprehensive. So it seemed to me there was a kind of serendipity in that Nick seemed to have written something that could have been off 'Ocean Rain'. And in a corny way, that felt kind of full circle to me.
And I think this was Steve Albini's favourite song. When we were doing that, I was doing my electric guitar on it and Nick wanted me to do something that was Jimmy Page-esque, a la, not the rock stuff, but the stuff from like 'Physical Graffiti' where it's almost quite erudite and quite flowery. And when we finished that song, Steve Albini was very un-Steve Albini-esque by saying, 'I'm pretty stoked after that'.
When I got the lyrics, this was the one I was most shocked by. I never would have imagined him writing something like this.
JDB: It was the only time I ever got close to what you might call a soft-focus B-movie moment in the studio. Camera close-up: will you see a tear fall from his eye? It was the only moment where I felt I had to step back a tiny bit and be like, let's just stay focused on this track. Because you can draw some pretty obvious conclusions from the lyrics. But we've just spent a whole interview trying to give you our interpretation of the lyrics.
And we can't stress enough that it is an interpretation. In The Holy Bible, you know, sometimes I would say to Richey, what are you trying to get at here? Is it voyeuristic, is it vicarious, is it first person, is it third person? And sometimes he could explain things to me sometimes, and sometimes he wouldn't. But for this record, we haven't been able to do that at all. Whatsoever. So it is all conjecture at the end of the day.
Did Nicky sing on this one because he wrote the music?
JDB: He did a demo of it and it just worked straight away. I mean my description of Nick's voice in the past has been, it's like a mixture between Mark E Smith, Lou Reed and Katharine Hepburn. And I can't do that with my voice. And I find that pretty galling, really. I've spent my life, since I was nine years old, singing in a choir, and I can't convey that, I can't convey what he does. Which is quite galling for me really.
He has a breathless quality to his voice and as soon as I heard the demo, I knew that I wouldn't be singing that. And there would be a bit of Welsh bluster in what I did... It would be like (booms)"Isn't it looooooovely". And it would have been wrong. It would just have been wrong. And that's the other thing about the lyric, actually, it's one of the only Welsh references that Richey has in the entirety of his lyrics, when he says "Nos da", which is Welsh for goodnight. And I like that. Because if you ever hear playbacks of Richey's voice, he sounded so Welsh. People forget that (laughs) he had that real lilt to him.
Bag Lady - you said you had this as a hidden track because you wanted the same amount of songs as 'The Holy Bible.'
JDB: The drudgery of symmetry... Even though, when the record was finished we shied away from comparing it to The Holy Bible, we wanted some kind of symmetry to The Holy Bible. With the artwork, with the number of songs on it. And for lots of reasons, I think. The record is different, but I think they're the same.... There's a painting by Jenny Saville on the first record, and now there's a painting by Jenny Saville on this record. But they're different. Because the triptych on 'The Holy Bible' shows the wide spectrum, there are some more, there's a variety of topic choices on The Holy Bible.
It's a lot more varied. There are a few more political songs on The Holy Bible than people ever imagine. And there are a lot more wide-ranging references on The Holy Bible. But obviously, this record is a lot more personal. And that's why we chose the up-close portrait of the young girl so that represents how much more personal the record is. Essentially it was the extra track because we couldn't have 14 tracks on the record for aesthetic symmetrical reasons. But I think Bag Lady is the most reminiscent of 'The Holy Bible'. Perhaps that's why we shied away from putting it on the record as well. Sonically, it actually sounds like the Bible, sounds more claustrophobic, I mean it sounds too crammed with perhaps just a bit too much stuff.
The image of walking in half view of all mirrors is strangely terrifying.
JDB: Yeah, and that's another reason why it was left off the record, because it gives a feeling... it's not as resolved, the lyric itself. This is the only lyric that really weighed me down, I wouldn't wanna inhabit that lyric too much. I wouldn't wanna sing it every night on this tour. I don't know why, it just makes me feel like that sometimes. And the push and pull between pretension and repulsion between being vain and rejecting any notion of what is ugly or beauty, must have been exhausting at this point, when it gets to lyrics like this I think. It would be for me to sing it every night, I must say.
The rejection of morality and law and eternity, is very sort of... losing any sense of centre.
JDB: On the record it rejects ideology, it rejects God, it rejects love, it rejects possibility. There you go! The perfect album for our worst economic downturn of all time.
[Originally published: nme.com, 18 May 2009, interview conducted on 22 April 2009]