Lead singer Bruce Dickinson divulges their recording process, why they love Pro Tools and more in issue #317's cover story.
On December 25th, 1975, as the world celebrated a Christmas soundtracked by The Staple Singers and Bay City Rollers, a 19-year-old punk upstart by the name of Steve Harris would recruit four of his friends for the first iteration of Iron Maiden.
So significant was this event to the fabric of heavy metal, and indeed broader music history, that the event has its own wikipedia entry – a slightly more nativity for a band that many would go on to consider both the rulers and saviours of all things heavy metal.
Nearly 50 (!) years later, with millions upon millions of fans behind them, Harris and his band of merry Brits – Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, Nicko McBrain, proud Irishman Janick Gers and pocket-rocket frontman Bruce Dickinson – have announced their 17th record Senjutsu (translation: sage techniques / tactics) and appear as hungry as ever.
Read up on all the latest interviews, features and columns here.
For many bands this deep into their career, a new record can be more symbolic of a will to continue rather than an artistic statement, with the odd new song or two making its way into a setlist for a month or so before being phased out in favour of the hits.
Not so with Iron Maiden, who have released albums and proceeded to showcase a majority of the material in arenas and stadiums on subsequent concert tours – most famously in 2006/07 on the tour supporting A Matter of Life and Death, which saw many of the bands’ classics, including staple ‘Number of the Beast’, dropped from a set that featured their at the time new record in its entirety.
Such commitment to new music has upped the stakes of each release significantly – and with Senjutsu – Maiden have thrown it all at the wall creatively with a mammoth double album, their second such work after 2015’s wonderful, sprawling Book of Souls.
Of course, it makes sense that the band wanted to produce a glut of new material, with the album being composed during a break in their critically celebrated retrospective Legacy of the Beast world tour, which tragically had to be paused just before touching down in Australia.
As Dickinson reveals to us in an exclusive interview, it was the momentum of being on the road that caused their creative cylinders to go into overdrive.
“We thought we would dive into the studio and do stuff between this Legacy of the Beast tour while we were on a two-month break – Nicko came in and was really grumpy, he was like ‘I don’t know what we’re doing this for!’” laughs Dickinson.
“Of course it all fell together really well!”
Dickinson has always occupied a special place in the folklore of heavy metal, with the 63-year old singer still jumping around stage in a way that would put more hardcore frontmen to shame.
This unrivalled energy comes straight down the phone line when he talks about the new record, waxing lyrical about the LP in a manner similar to most young bands after scoring their first record deal.
“We all met at Steve’s house and had this wonderful relaxed time – we would all play pool and just hang out while Steve was in the control room, and then he’d call out ‘hey boys, come here – I’ve got something’.
“We would all trundle in, and then jump straight onto our instruments and start rehearsing and recording – we just left the tape running the whole time. It was wonderful.”
Dickinson is quick to point out that using modern DAWs like Pro Tools has been a godsend for the band, enabling them to flex their writing chops without fear of having to re-record entire five-plus minute passages of music (indeed, the final three tracks of Senjutsu each pass the ten-minute mark).
“We used to work with tape machines the size of houses, you’d have 48 tracks… But if you made mistakes, you’d literally have to chop up the master tape and make sure that you didn’t repeat it – and that takes away from the flow of doing things if you’re a performer,” he recalls.
“To see a recording engineer with a razor blade slicing your two-inch master-tape… That’s how they used to edit across a cymbal smash – that’s amazing, that’s art. But it was so precarious!
“Back in the old days, if Steve came along and said he had a tune that was ten minutes long, we would lose the will to live learning it, and then when we would record it, and make an error two minutes in – it was awful. We’ve gotten better at breaking things down into sections.”
Over their tenure at the zenith of the metal pile, Maiden have earned a reputation as some of the most consistent craftsmen on the planet, barely putting a foot wrong across 17 LPs with an undeniable sound and image.
Key to their universe has been Eddie, the official nightmarish mascot for the band who serves as the centrepiece of their artwork and aesthetic for each album.
From action figurines, to album sleeves, t-shirts and even appearing as an unlockable character in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, Eddie is one of the most recognisable figures in the world of metal, the cornerstone of Maiden’s brand, and a beloved piece of the puzzle for the band’s rabid fanbase.
It was no surprise then that the internet was set abuzz with the revelation of Eddie’s latest incarnation as a samurai, unveiled wonderfully in the bands recent music video for album lead single ‘Writing on the Wall’ – something made all the more exciting with the Tokyo Olympics unfolding at the time.
It felt, once again, that Maiden were having a tangible effect on broader pop-culture.
“Steve came up with the idea of samurai Eddie actually – we had the Maiden Japan EP back in the day, and the song ‘Sun and Steel’ (from the Piece of Mind LP) is about samurai sword-fighting too – but we’ve never gone down the road of this Eddie – there’s so much that you can do with it,” says Dickinson.
“So many of those old Spaghetti Western films, even some of the Clint Eastwood stuff, it borrows so heavily from those samurai stories – it felt like the perfect companion to have with this album release.”
Of course, the major question on everyone’s lips is when Eddie will make an appearance onstage with the band (often appearing as a eight foot monster in the song ‘Iron Maiden’) – and indeed, how they plan to present an epic, 90 minutes of new music to audiences.
In typical Maiden fashion, Dickinson even noted in a recent interview that the album seemed perfect for another front-to-back presentation.
“It’s totally an idea (to play it all) – Steve and I discussed it, but our thoughts are at the moment to finish the Legacy of the Beast tour, with a few new songs off the album thrown in.
“That’s what people have paid their money to see – so we won’t be mucking around with that,” he affirms, a statement which should excite Australian fans, given the band had to cancel their scheduled 2020 May run alongside Killswitch Engage.
“Let’s leave the idea of the album tour to the realm of the fantasy right now – but we do think it would be great to do the lot, because it’s such a great album.
“Right now though, I just want to get out in front of real people, with real music, where everybody is allowed to jump around without a bag on their head.”
With the lockdowns (seemingly) having somewhat of a manageable end in sight, and a new album on the horizon, alongside one hell of an unfinished tour and a band chomping at the bit to get back onstage, it’s hard to think of a more exciting time to be a Maiden fan.
Up the Irons!
Senjutsu, the seventeenth studio album from Iron Maiden, arrives on Friday September 3 via Warner Music Australia.