Brave New World (Portrait/Columbia)
An interview with singer Bruce Dickinson
by Tim Den
Long Beach Arena, the site of Iron Maiden‘s four sold out shows during ’85’s Powerslave tour (and symbolically the band’s peak), packed once again for the first time in fifteen years. Banners flying, throats screaming “Mai-den! Mai-den!” over and over again in unison, audience members fainting from the glory that is Iron Maiden 2000. Of course, two or three years ago I’d be a dead man right now, saying all these ludicrous things. After all, Iron Maiden had demolished their own fanbase with their most recent studio records (’95’s The X Factor and ’98’s Virtual XI), and even mentioning the word “good” in the same sentence with the band’s moniker, once the biggest metal band in the world, would’ve resulted in a relentless beating from fellow Hessians. But not no more. No sir, not with last year’s eye-popping surprise coming out of the Maiden camp. As if everybody doesn’t already know, legendary Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson and guitarist/backup vocalist Adrian Smith — two members behind the band’s best songs and most successful records — returned to the fold. Metal fans everywhere, though in numbing disbelief (“pleasure… excitement… overwhelming…”), rejoiced. This, they said, was the Second Coming. And Iron Maiden was going to be the spearhead.
After a short but amazingly successful world tour in ’99 to tease the fans, the band (now a six-piece, with Smith, long-time axeman Dave Murray, and Smith’s initial replacement Janick Gers all giving Skynard a run for their money) proved to the world that they were back in top form. The enormous buzz the band created also proved that the world was once again Maiden’s, and they’re definitely not fucking around this time.
By the time you read this, the six-piece’s new studio album (the first since ’92 to feature Dickinson and since ’88 to feature Smith) should be sitting at the top of the charts around the globe. Not because nostalgic fans are eager to pick up a familiar-sounding band with its most-remembered vocalist in tow: but because Brave New World (Portrait/Columbia) is a kick-ass record with take-no-prisoners charisma and melodic beauty. End of story. Maiden hasn’t sounded this tough in a long time.
What do you see as the goal for Maiden? My guess is that, after a number of years not being the leader, you all just want to get back into the game and show these new kids how it’s really done…
No, I wouldn’t say that. There was no master plan.
Really? I always felt like the band maybe had something to prove, that you’re still a force to be reckoned with. That you’ve influenced a whole generation and now you’re going to influence another (hopefully intercepting them before Pü Metal gets them).
I’m kind of suspicious concerning “making a record for a generation.” I’ve always thought of that idea as kind of phony. Adrian and I came back into the band to make a good, kick-ass record. We don’t think or care about anything else. We wanted to make Maiden the biggest metal band in the world again, and we didn’t let anything else get in the way of that. I think good records become influential on their own; you can’t dictate it. If a record can reproduce a feeling or a certain mood, then it’s going to influence people no matter what. It’ll be influential by simply being great. All the band can do is do their best at their job. The funny thing is, if I had a penny every time a band named Iron Maiden as an influence, I’d be a rich man already. I wouldn’t have to do this any longer. I listen to these bands, and they don’t sound the slightest bit like Maiden. Which means that they walked away from a record or one of our shows and they got something… a vibe or feeling. And it’s that that’s influenced them.
Most people claim your ’80s records as influential…
I agree with them.
…but obviously you gave it your best during the ’90s too. What’s gonna give this new record the impact of the classics?
I think our fatal flaw was that we became self-aware. I would say that after Live After Death (’85), we were no longer “pure.” Up until then, we didn’t think about what it was we were doing, we were just doing it. Writing, playing, putting out records… But by the mid-’80s, it was like “Wait a minute… we’re Iron Maiden! We’re big!” We became aware of who we were in the industry, what our status was, and started worrying about other stuff that shouldn’t get in the way of record-making. “Do they (the audience) expect this? Or this?” “We’re Maiden, let’s experiment a little. We can afford it.” That kind of shit. And, I hesitate to say it, but we became a little… comfortable. Complacent. One of the reasons why I quit the band was because I felt the other guys were pretty pleased with where we were, and we were no longer struggling or trying anymore. I wanted to keep trying. Not trying new things to be fashionable — because no one in this band gives a shit about being fashionable — but to “react” to the times. React, rather than trying to be significant for the sake of it. It’s what we’ve learned to do now. We’re buried in the act of making the best record we can and nothing else.
Which, as history has proven in your case, will produce influential substance on its own.
I think a lot of bands today don’t give enough of themselves. Iron Maiden has always had this intensity, especially when we perform. We get out there and give all that we’ve got, and we’re out to get the audience. We’re like a sports team; a soccer team. “Okay, we’ve gotta score goals” mentality. Playing live to us is like going into the combat zone. We take no prisoners. I don’t find that attitude in a lot of bands today.
Perhaps recklessness interferes with their wardrobe.
(laugh) Yeah, right. That’s one thing Maiden has never cared about: being “in.” We’ve always been on the outside. Let them have the image…
You initially quit Maiden because you felt the band was not pushing itself hard enough. With your solo records, you have not only succeeded in going further than the ’80s-era power metal that Maiden pioneered, but also gained wide critical acclaim (something that eluded the Dickinson-less Maiden). Why did you abandon that solo career to return to your old band?
I’ve proven what I wanted to prove. I wanted to go beyond what we were “comfortable” with, and I did. I wanted to still be relevant and not stuck in the past, and I achieved it. I have nothing else to prove. So at that point, it’s like “what’s the next step?” For me and the band, it was “can we make Iron Maiden the biggest metal band again: can we make a great record?” And we feel that we’ve done it with Brave New World. I think — and the band does too — this new album is what should’ve come after Piece of Mind or Powerslave.
C’mon!! You can’t be serious!
I really do. I think this (new record) is pure, like the old ones. Nothing but 110% energy into writing and not thinking about anything else. If you look at Number of the Beast, even that one had a few (songs) that Steve and I look back on and say “nah… could’ve been better. Should’ve been something else.” “Invaders?” (shrugs) Nah. “Gangland?” (shrugs) Nah.
You might say that now, but albums like that — warts and all — are untouchable. Classics.
I guess. But the new album: there are ten songs on it, and there are really no turkeys. We had the ideas for the ten songs and we just said “let’s just stick to these and make them absolutely the best we can.” I mean, the “sound” of it: sonically/recording-wise, this is definitely the best Maiden album.
I’ve read in interviews that, before work on the album began, you said the writing process had to be different. Not including songs just so everyone’s input is represented, “whichever songs are best get used.” No egos…
That’s right. And it turned out that everything was written by everyone together. We got to rehearsals and I said, “Well, Adrian and I have a few things;” Janick says, “Steve and I have been working on some things too;” and Davey says, “I’ve got a few things with Adrian and Steve as well.” We all worked on those combinations. We only kept the good ideas, but all the stuff we kept had been the product of people working together. We didn’t have to worry about having everyone’s input represented because it worked out like that anyway. And the songs were up to our satisfaction.
This time around, the “epic” songs sound much more fluid then those on the last two studio albums…
It’s a funny thing because, as you know, there are ten songs on the record. I would say about six or seven of them are well over five, six minutes long. They’re long fucking songs! There are a few that even go past ten minutes! Potentially, this thing could flop (laugh)! It’s not radio-friendly, that’s for sure.
Was there any material leftover? B-sides, perhaps?
Nope. Nothing. We had too much to work with as it was (laugh)!!!
What was producer Kevin Shirley’s input? I noticed that the choruses for all the songs are huge, anthemic, sing-alongs, usually products of a producer’s arrangements or suggestions…
He set up the drum mics the first day…
(pause, waiting) That’s it?
No suggestions as far as arrangements…
Creative input? No. Those songs are ours. No outside influence. He helped set up the drum mics the first morning, we went in there around 8 pm, by 10 pm we had “The Wicker Man” (first track, first single) done.
That quick? Wait, so it was recorded live?
Everything, including most of the vocals, was live. We’ve never recorded an album live in the studio before. Ever. But we wanted to capture the live energy and intensity. We rented a space about the size of a basketball court. We set up a main drum room, an isolation booth for the vocals, three rooms for the guitars, and the console room for Kevin, obviously. Everything had big glass windows so we could look at each other and react to each other. The three guitarists each had their own eight-track mixers to get their own sounds. I’d say it took an average of four to five takes for us to get a song. Vocal-wise, it took a little more — maybe five to six takes. If we got the music down, sometimes I’d just say “could you play that back and let me sing it again” while the rest of the band waited. Even the harmony parts were done right then.
How long did it take to do the entire album?
The whole album — from setting up, to recording, to mixing and finishing — took three months. For us to get in there and lay down the songs: twelve days.
It was very important for us to capture that raw feeling. After the songs were done, I went back to the studio a few days later and asked Kevin if he needed the rest of the vocal overdubs. He was like “No, we got ’em all right here (from the live sessions).” He was very good, he left us alone to do our own shit.
I’m sure your tastes in non-metal music (as shown through the solo records) helped idea-wise too. What do you find yourself listening to these days?
A lot of metal today that sounds like the old NWOBHM bores me. It’s like “it was new then, but not now. So why keep doing it?” When we did it, it was new. It’s time to move on. But non-metal stuff I like is usually poetic, melodic stuff. With muscles or a bit dark. I like Henry Rollins, Pearl Jam, Neil Young… Live is pretty good too. And I even like a bit of Marilyn Manson.
Oh Lordy no…
Yeah, I don’t think he’s as bad as some of the others out there. But the funny thing is, when I first heard one of his songs, I was like “Is this Adam Ant?” (laughs)
What about the huge Britpop bands?
I don’t particularly like stuff like Oasis, but it doesn’t bother me. Travis had a few singles that I quite liked, actually. And everyone loves Radiohead. I tried my best to like them — really listened to them — but I’m not in love with them like everyone else. The Verve is brilliant. The singer, Richard Ashcroft, has a solo record coming out. He was the real deal behind that band anyway. I have to say, though, that I don’t get all this Korn stuff.
I heard Rob Dickinson from Catherine Wheel is your cousin?
Yeah! They’re such a great band. One of the most underrated yet brilliant bands. They’ve got everything. They’re dark, they’re moody… you know that song “Black Metallic”? Superb. It describes them perfectly: dark and metallic. They didn’t get the break they deserved because of some past record label problems, but they’re on a new label now and things look great for them.
Are your kids into music?
Yeah. They’ve got pretty good taste, I must say. The other day, my older one was playing some game on the PlayStation that had a music soundtrack to it. I can’t remember which bands… But he says “Dad, what do you think of all this stuff?” I said “Well… I don’t know. What about you?” He pauses for a little, then says, “It sounds like just a lot of banging, doesn’t it?”