Even if one knows nothing about a particular thing, there are common-knowledge people and groups that are inextricably-linked to them. You might know nothing about cricket, for instance, but know it’s something Don Bradman played. You might know nothing about cooking, but know it’s something Jamie Oliver does. In the same respect, you might not listen to heavy metal – but you know it’s a kind of music that Iron Maiden plays.
For over 40 years, Iron Maiden have been one of the figureheads of the genre. Since arriving as a part of what was dubbed the new wave of British heavy metal (or NWOBHM), Maiden have seen countless bands come and go – and yet, they have proven to be true survivors; refusing to let the dream go up in flames as they continue to brandish their unmistakable, fantastical take on the genre. Last year, the band released their 16th album, The Book of Souls, and are returning to Australia at the beginning of May as a part of an extensive world tour in support of it.
Speaking to Music Feeds in-between US dates, longtime drummer Nicko McBrain held court on fandom, flying high and an absolute belter of a story from an early-on Australian visit.
Music Feeds: The Book of Souls world tour has been getting a rave reception thus far from the fans. What have things been like in the immediate Maiden camp? How are you feeling about this run of shows?
Nicko McBrain: It’s just been absolutely incredible, mate. I can’t tell you how fantastic it’s been. The stage show is fantastic, the guys are all on fire, we’re having the best time. Bruce is singing unbelievably well – there’s a bit of extra magic in him on this tour, which I think is directly linked to what he went through last year to get to this point. We’re all having such a great time, I’ve gotta tell you.
MF: Bruce is back on double duty, too, piloting Ed Force One around the world in order to get you from show to show.
NM: That’s right, he sure is. He’s my hero, without a doubt. I can’t say enough about him. He’s phenomenal. He’s just a little guy, but he faces down a 400-tonne aeroplane and fires it up; and he’ll take us wherever we need to go. He does a remarkable job of it, too – he’s a phenomenal pilot. He shoots these incredibly smooth landings… I’m sick of it, actually. It’s too good! [laughs] He’s loving it.
MF: We always get to see the photos of Ed Force One up in the air, but we haven’t really seen much from inside the plane. What’s your corner of the plane look like?
NM: I go up in the bubble. That’s the quiet zone. [laughs] Me in the quiet zone, that’s quite funny… anyway, they’re business-class seats. It’s an old Air France plane, and it’s got their seats in it. They don’t lay flat, but it’s comfortable and there’s a lot of room. It’s very peaceful, and we have a great flight crew. They’ve been with us for ages.
The co-pilots change out, but the cabin staff are quite long-serving. It’s a bit like being in your kitchen, it’s so familiar – you can go grab a cup of tea, or you can go and raid the lager if that’s what you’re after. [laughs] You can go where you like, and it doesn’t upset other passengers. It’s a good little set-up, what we have.
MF: You obviously can’t believe everything you read online, so perhaps you could help clarify this one: Is it true that you also have a pilot’s license?
NM: I do indeed! I’ve got a twin-ray one, a multi-engine rating. I got it back in the 80s – about ’86, I think. The last time that I flew was about 10 years ago. That was with Bruce, funnily enough. I pretty much did it to prove that I could, y’know, and I think Bruce was partially inspired by that.
His mindset was that if the drummer could do it, he could. [laughs] Look at him now! He’s gone all the way with it! I’ve been up the front of Ed Force One, but I haven’t had a go yet. I’m gonna see if I can finagle something when we don’t have all of the crew with us…I’m saying that, of course, but I have no idea if I’m allowed to do any of this. I hope so!
MF: Of course, this tour is to promote the band’s latest album, The Book of Souls. How have audiences responded to the newer material so far?
NM: It’s been unbelievable. There’s a little bit of everything for fans on this tour, and we’ve got six tracks off the new album that we’ve been playing. “The Red and the Black” has become a real “Fear of the Dark” moment at our shows now – the audience sings along really loudly; and they sing along to the guitar parts, too.
“Death or Glory” has the kids in fine voice during the chorus. It seems a lot of people coming to the shows are really happy to be hearing these new songs, which is such a great thing to see.
MF: The Book of Souls features some of the longest Iron Maiden songs to date, including the closer “Empire of the Clouds,” which is officially the longest song the band has ever recorded. How do you approach such extensive tracks as a drummer? Do you do entire run-throughs in one go, or is the recording more segmented in order to nail specific parts?
NM: The length of the song isn’t really an issue. It was more to do with learning it. There are so many complicated parts in that song that had to be put together, so we did it in sections. We did that track over about two days, learning each piece and putting it together. I worked very closely with Bruce on the rhythmic side of things. We used a lot of percussion and various effects.
What you have to bear in mind is that it’s not just the story in lyrical format, it’s the story in a musical sense. Each section is a movement related to the story about the aircraft. I’ll always cherish the way we worked on that song together. I think it’s a masterpiece.
MF: What is the key to keeping up stamina as a performer, for you? Most of the band is in their 60s now, and you’ve been playing at fairly high speeds across quite a big drum-kit for over 30 years. An Iron Maiden show is a big enough task in and of itself, but one can only imagine the gruelling nature of doing it almost every single night…
NM: The answer to that is that I stopped drinking. May 25th last year, I stopped. My brother had a clean bill of health, and I realised that I had a massive world tour to come up. That influenced my decision to get off the grog for a month. One month lead to two, and then after that I decided to look after myself a lot more. I focused on setting aside an hour to play drums every single day.
I would rehearse the six new songs that we would be playing on the tour, and I would play them through twice. It was almost like playing half a gig. “The Red and the Black” is 13 minutes – playing it through twice is nearly half an hour of playing right there! I got myself match-fit, so to speak. I started changing my diet a bit, and I lost weight. That’s how I’m coping right now.
MF: There are so many remarkable stories out there concerning the fandom of Iron Maiden – including the story of the Spanish guy who has seen the band over 200 times and once escaped from a military barracks in order to see a show…
NM: [laughs] It’s remarkable, isn’t it!
MF: With that in mind: Do you think you have met Iron Maiden’s biggest fan?
NM: Oh, no! That’s difficult to say. I’ve certainly met Iron Maiden’s oldest fan – it was a little old lady in Spain, and I think she was about 82 years old. This was awhile ago, so I’ve no idea if she’s still with us, but that sure was something. It’s hard to say one single person is a definitive number-one fan. There’s always someone waiting around the corner that’s got a bigger collection or has seen us play more times.
There’s not many fan-bases that are more possessive than Iron Maiden fans. If you single out one and say they’re the biggest fan, you’re bound to piss all the others off. [pauses] Actually, y’know what? I have met Iron Maiden’s biggest fan – and it’s me! You won’t find anyone who loves this band more than I do! I see Iron Maiden’s biggest fan in the mirror every morning right after a shit, shave and a shower. [laughs]
MF: Even though it’s something that you come face to face with every single day, the sheer fervour of the Maiden faithful must be overwhelming at times. You can type “iron maiden tattoo” into a Google image search and not run out of pictures for a week…
NM: I know. There is such a passion from our fans around the world. It’s such an amazing thing. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the people that run the world had that same feeling as the people of all walks of life at our shows? I’m not saying, politically, Iron Maiden should be the leaders of the world. Not at all.
I just wish that the love people felt when they are at our shows, with 20 thousand other fucking people…they can be from all different walks of life, all different countries, all different orientations, all different colours… and they can all look at one another at the end of the show and say “Fucking hell, what a great night.” Wouldn’t it be so great, if that feeling could be felt everywhere? That joy felt as a Maiden fan. It’s such a beautiful thing. It’s such a huge part of what we do.
MF: Australia is up next on The Book of Souls tour, as well as New Zealand. It will be the first time the band has been out here since headlining the 2011 Soundwave festival, and your first headlining tour since the Somewhere Back in Time tour in 2008. Of course, Maiden has been coming to Australia for years – do you have any special stories or vivid memories from early on in the band’s visits here?
NM: Cor blimey, mate, that was back in my drinking days! [laughs] I do remember when I got to Melbourne, and the first thing that I did was get in 18 holes at Royal Melbourne Golf Course. That was special for me. Not only was I so excited about playing these shows with the band, but I was getting to experience my second passion – which is golf – on the other side of the world.
There was one tour we did, back in the early 90s, and I had a drum-kit that I trashed. We were doing shows in Sydney, Melbourne, Wollongong… am I saying that right? Wool-en-gong?
MF: You’ve got it. Most Americans say “Wohl-en-gong.”
NM: Perfect! Anyway, I had this kit… this was back when I was with Sonor drums. The kit I was playing on this tour was owned by this guy – just some geezer. He’d had the kit bought off him by the Australian rep for Sonor. I had trashed it at the end of a show – I stood on the floor tom, and I went flying one way while the legs went another. I threw another tom up onto a rig of lighting, and it came down and nearly took Bruce’s head off! He wasn’t happy, I’ll tell you.
He scooped it up and threw it back at me! [laughs] So, the show ends – I think we were either in Sydney or in Melbourne – and Wally, who was our security guard at the time, comes up to me about 20 minutes after we leave the stage. He says, “Nicko, there’s a bloke outside here and I think you need to come say hello to him.” I say, “Who is it?” Wally tells me, “You’ll find out when you meet him.”
So, I go out and I see this geezer – he’s six-foot-two, 220 pounds of solid fucking muscle – and he’s all “How ya doin’, Nicko?” I say hi to him, and he asks “How’s the drum-kit holdin’ up?” I lie to his face and just say “Yeah, it’s doing well, thanks!” Then he drops it on me: “That’s my drum-kit!” I respond real casual – “Ohhhhh, is it now?” – while I’ve got Wally behind me, laughing his bollocks off. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d trashed his drum set! The shell of the bass-drum got cracked, the floor tom legs were bent every which way… it was a joke! This was all before I left Sonor drums, so I think it was about 1992.
A pretty memorable moment, if you ask me!
Iron Maiden’s Australian Tour kicks off May, grab all the deets below.
Wednesday, 4th May 2016
Brisbane Entertainment Center, Brisbane
Friday, 6th May 2016
Sydney Allphones Arena, Sydney
Monday, 9th May 2016
Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne
Thursday, 12th May 2016
Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Adelaide
Saturday, 14th May 2016
Perth Arena, Perth