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Q&A: Bruce Dickinson on Iron Maiden Playing Behind the Iron Curtain and Never Being Punk

"We don't know how to be cool, and we don't care"

Andy O'Connor // September 17, 2015

Many metal bands sing of demons and other creatures from unreal planes of existence. Iron Maiden are one of the only bands who actually might be inhuman themselves. They’ll give any band a third of their age stage fright live, as they’ve somehow managed to retain their 1980s heyday spunk well into their 50s. Their trio of guitarists – Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers – still twirl and shred with a grace and power so Olympic. Frontman Bruce Dickinson in particular runs damn near a marathon every show, and The Air Raid Siren still has enough vocal power to make every Maiden show into metal’s premier workout plan. This is in addition to Dickinson flying the band on their own plane – well chronicled by now but still no less impressive – and beating a bout of cancer in the tongue.

Maiden also just released The Book of Souls, their 16th studio album, which stretches out the prog influences that the band first displayed with Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son in the late-’80s. Most of their peers wouldn’t bee attempting an 18-minute closer (“Empire of the Clouds,” written solely by Dickinson) 40 years into their career, but Iron Maiden aren’t their peers. They’re nowhere close to being done — “Heaven Can Wait,” after all.

Dickinson recently talked with SPIN about playing in Poland during the Cold War, his band’s secrets to longevity, and Souls.

I know you had a bit of a health scare recently. Did that make you reflect on the fact that a lot of our “metal heroes” are humans too?
Well, we never suspected they weren’t. Obviously, people get sick and people die, people get old and people die. Once you get past the age of 27 — having survived that, the most lethal age in rock’n’roll — once you get past that and you haven’t OD’d, then you’re probably gonna succumb to something really dumb, like a piano falling on your head or a car crash or falling off your bicycle, you know?

It seems like you’re running a marathon at every show. You’re going all over the stage. What’s your secret? Do you have a regimen?
I don’t do anything on tour except go around and jump on stage. When I’m on tour, all I do is what I do on stage, and the rest of the time I chill out. I do put out a lot of energy on stage, and because of that I need a decent recovery time. The last thing I do during recovery time is run right up. I just try eat sensibly and don’t drink too much – I drink beer, but I don’t drink anything else. I drink too much coffee, but hey, I like coffee. That’s about it. The reason that I get the energy to get fired and leap around the stage comes down to the music.

Your next tour will have you playing China and El Salvador for the first time. How do you feel about that?
To play China – I’ve never been to China in any capacity. I hope it’s gonna be a perfect, extraordinary experience. The equivalent of the last time we did something like that was when we played in Poland behind the Iron Curtain. We’ll see what kind of reception we get in China. The first time we played India we had a similar sort of vibe, kids besieging us everywhere. El Salvador I’m sure will be absolutely nuts.

What do you remember about the Poland experience?
It was fantastic. We were mobbed everywhere we went. It felt like we were liberating the entire country. It was brilliant, fantastic experience.

It’s really fascinating how Maiden’s music has spread all over the globe.
Obviously, we’re very pleased, and the new album I think it’s gonna cement the relationship we have with all the fans, especially new ones who’ve joined us in the last 4-5 years.

Do you feel a responsibility to get younger people into Maiden?
I don’t see it as a responsibility, I just see it as something that hopefully comes naturally. People who like what we do find out about the new record.

You do see old-schoolers taking kids to their shows now.
Occasionally, you might see somebody like that. But if that’s taking place, I don’t think it’s taking place nearly as much as people think it is. Our audience, the core audience that really keeps the live scene alive, is 15-to-25-year-olds. The front rows of our shows in most places in the world are populated by much, much younger kids.

That’s pretty important.
You see, as a band, you get feedback from the audience and it spurs you onto greater things on stage. If I turned up and the audience was a bunch of people my age I think I’d go home and shoot myself.

I suppose that goes to a bigger question – how has Iron Maiden continued to stay relevant for so long?
Because we do what we do honestly. We don’t pander to commercialism, we ignore fashion, we don’t know how to be cool, and we don’t care. And it’s all about the music.

Compared to a lot of metal greats, there isn’t a moment where Maiden tried to go commercial. There’s not a Turbo or The Black Album. How did you resist giving in to those pressures?
We just ignored it. I’m sure the record label would have loved it if we came up with three or four radio tracks, but that’s never ever gonna happen. Hell would freeze over before we do that s–t.

Luckily, we have a very good manager, and he would tear the heads off of anybody that tried to pester us artistically. The record labels never, ever, in the all the years I’ve been in Maiden, never set foot in a recording studio. In recent years, not even the management sets foot in the recording studio. We make the record, we’re happy with it. Then, that’s it. Done.

This record especially is lengthier and goes further.
We’ve been going that way for quite a while with the previous records. And [Souls], we recorded it in a slightly different way — we went into the studio and camped out from the very beginning, rather than transferring music into the studio from our rehearsal studio. Because of that, it was easier to put down some of the longer songs, but still keep the energy and the spontaneity. I think if we had to rehearse them and fix them all in space and time, we wouldn’t have gotten as good of a result.

The fact that it’s a double album is more or less a happy accident. It was never conceived to be a double album, but it just worked out that way. We got to six tracks and went, “we’re not gonna stop now, there’s only gonna be six songs on the CD” because we’re still thinking in terms of CDs. In fact we still think in terms of albums, with 20 minutes on each side. We’ve got a triple vinyl gatefold album now, which is f–king amazing.

The first single “Speed of Light” is like if you took a Deep Purple song and gave it the classic Maiden touch. Were you reaching back into your formative years with this record, in some ways?
Not exclusively, but all of us in the band are huge Deep Purple fans. Adrian wrote the riff and I thought “that sounds like something off Burn!” Let’s do a homage to Purple with an Ian Gillian-type scream in the beginning – the rest of the riffs sound like something that could have been on [1983’s] Piece of Mind.

This record, too, definitely shows the prog influences that Maiden’s always had.
Maiden were brought up on stuff like — Steve in particular — Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready” and stuff like that. And yes, I was a big Van der Graff Generator fan, so yeah we’re brought up on all that stuff as well as the Doors, Sabbath, Thin Lizzy and Jethro Tull. To us, it all one type of music — there was no segmentation.

Some of the older stuff had a bit of a punky flavor too.
If you look at all the old Steve Harris interviews — he hates punk rock. The first Maiden album sounded punky because it sounded like a sack of s–t. He hates that record. The first singer [Paul Di’Anno] gave it a little bit of that kind of vibe, but the punk thing was nailed to the band by the press. The band absolutely hated it, because there was no way on God’s green earth Maiden were ever, even remotely, a punk band. As soon as Killers came out, which was a proper sounding record, it was obvious — where’s the punk thing on Killers? You’ve got “Murders in the Rue Mourge” which basically could have been off of Deep Purple’s In Rock, you’ve got “Prodigal Son,” a proggy, sweet little ballad, you’ve got “Twilight Zone,” all this kind of stuff — where’s the punk thing? Don’t get it.