Singer Bruce Dickinson explains how the British metal gods still attract teenage metalheads by the tens of thousands.
To keep the excitement level high, he says, “we just, you know, play a bit less.”
Iron Maiden’s touring schedule is never very full, typically sporting only a handful of stateside dates each time out, and often with a conceit attached, from The Early Days Tour, focusing strictly on material from the band’s first four albums ... to 2006’s trek behind the hailed return-to-form “A Matter of Life and Death,” when the group would play the album in its entirety ... to this season’s Somewhere Back in Time Tour, devoted to reviving the bulk of the band’s 1984 World Slavery Tour, complete with a wilder pyrotechnic display and the most gigantic Eddie (Maiden’s skeletal mascot) ever assembled.
“When we looked back at the `Live After Death’ DVD,” Dickinson recalls, “the big Eddie at the back that comes out ... we said, `Oh, well, let’s just build it the same as we did before.’ And then we found the measurements of it, and we went, `Yeah, that’s pretty small. We can’t do that. We’ve got to at least double the size of it.’ So now it is absolutely monstrous.”
So big, in fact, that a special hydraulic cherry-picker has to be flown with the band in order to lift it.
Could be stunts like that that keep attracting fresh-faced fans. Or it could also be that while so many of Maiden’s peers and progeny have faded out or lost their edge after an album or two, these British veterans - including founding members Steve Harris (bass) and Dave Murray (guitar), drummer Nicko McBrain and guitarists Adrian Smith and Janick Gers, all in their early 50s - have soldiered on, surviving a rocky `90s to re-emerge this decade as one of the enduring masters of the form.
I caught up with Dickinson, 49, by phone while Maiden was in final rehearsals after touching down in Texas, and I began by wondering the same thing I do of all global phenomena: Great though both highs must be, it must feel different to play for 30,000 Californians across two nights in Irvine than it would to encounter 45,000 people all at once in Bogota, or 50,000-plus most anywhere across Europe.
But ... how is it different, exactly?
Well, it doesn’t so much go geographically, but it is different from place to place. Over the years, it’s strange how places have taken on different characteristics.
When we first started coming to America 25 years ago, we always used to imagine that the West Coast was the laid-back one, and the East Coast was where it was really happening. But certainly for the last 10 years, we were doing shows in Los Angeles and going, “Man, what a great gig!” The audience reaction is just really in-your-face, and they’re really attentive and listening and informed. It was just really spectacular. I would say, actually, that the West Coast is one of our favorite places to play in North America at the moment.
Well, you have some history here, of course. (Maiden’s widely regarded 1985 live album “Live After Death” and its companion video, finally released on DVD in February, was captured across four nights at Long Beach Arena in 1984.) Do you have specific memories of those shows that stand out the most?
Well, it was just a gorgeous summer. It was a time when metal and rock music were really at a peak, culturally speaking. After “Live After Death,” to be honest with you, I think the sort of hair bands, and one or two of the more embarrassing episodes in metal history that happened around then, tended to take over a bit in the public perception. Which was a shame, `cause of course we were still doing the same thing. And we’re still here doing the same. So we must be doing something right.
How would you characterize metal now?
It’s kinda come full circle. Except, of course, that now more than ever the audience own the music, because of the Internet and downloads and things like that. Audiences have such a choice now. But because of that, it’s really heartening when you see your ticket sales going through the roof. And with no radio advertising, no TV - we don’t even have a record out. Well, we do now ...
But it’s a greatest-hits record (“Somewhere Back in Time: The Best of 1980-1989”).
Yeah, and it’s designed - completely designed - to capitalize on people that are new to the band, who need some kind of reference to know what to dip into first. In effect, what we’re looking at is a global phenomenon that is caused by word-of-mouth, and it’s pretty unprecedented.
It does seem that way. When I saw you ... I noticed the crowd was astonishingly young. To see 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids ... other bands who have been around as long or longer than you don’t draw like that. What accounts for it?
The heartening thing is that it’s happening in America now. This is what’s been going on in Canada for ages, and it’s what we expect in Europe and South America. When we go into a country and 45,000 people show up in Colombia, 30,000 in Costa Rica ... we don’t even have a record company in Costa Rica. These are not old, die-hard fans. These are people who are seeing us for the first time.
And a lot of them are very, very young, which is great, because with all respect to old rockers, they don’t put out like 16-year-old kids. You know, they sit there and nod their heads sagely and ruminate - and they enjoy it for sure. But they don’t really start leaping up and down and head-banging and taking their clothes off and sweating buckets. They’d end up in hospital.
But with kids and us ... it’s like feeding the hurricane. You need those warmer-temperature waters to keep the hurricane fed. We get our energy from the audience, and we fire it right back at them.
Some of why you’re so popular with younger listeners must have something to do with older brothers and even parents handing down records. But I think a lot of it also has to do with metal now bearing so much of your influence.
Yeah, I think a lot of the bands that are around now will all name-check us as being a major influence. Because, you know, we went out and we did things our own way. We went, “Screw the Establishment, we don’t care about radio, we just want to rock the way we want to do it.”
You continue to do that.
Exactly. But the thing I’m really proud of is that the stuff we’ve been doing really stands up to scrutiny. So many of the bands now - the young bands coming up - are much heavier than we are. We don’t have a problem with that - we’re not gonna try to out-heavy them or anything else like that. We just do what we do.
Yeah, but you out-sing the majority of them. I think there’s good new metal, fine, but there’s also just a lot of growling and screaming now.
Look, I’m not gonna diss people’s choices. People choose to sing that way, and audiences choose to buy it. They enjoy it. My son is in a band, and he’s a singer, and his vocals ... they’re screaming-growling stuff ... and he’s got a pretty reasonable voice. Yet he practices really hard to get the screaming-growling thing without losing that voice every five minutes. So I’m, like, “Hats off to you.” And then I go along to see him at gigs, and I’m like, “OK, I get this.” It’s not how I would sing it. But I get it, within the terms of reference.
At the same time, all the kids in his band are really into Maiden. They love it because of what it represents and its heritage, but also because of what we do right now. So many of these kids who are into the band now have gotten into us during the last five years. Effectively, that means that they’ve been listening not only to our heritage albums - if even that - but to the new stuff we’ve been putting out.
Perhaps, but they must be hoping to recapture some part of your past, too.
Oh, one of the main reasons this tour has seized young people’s attentions in particular is that they have no idea what it was like when Maiden played “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” back then - but they would have given their eyeteeth to have been there.
And now we’re offering them that opportunity. Not by doing kind of a pastiche or facsimile of the World Slavery Tour. But we are bringing those songs back to life with more experience than we did in 1984. Everything in 1984 sounded like we were really in a hurry to get to the end, `cause we were just excited, and still pretty young. We’d come on stage and play everything at twice the speed.
Now, as we’ve gone down the slippery slope of doing this for umpteen years, we have the confidence to give our songs the power they really deserve. A lot of bands along the way lose the excitement level, `cause they’ve been doing it for years. So they get really good at delivering music that kids are gonna look upon and go, “Yeah, but they look kinda bored.” (Laughs.)
You look anything but bored.
We figured this out a while back. How do we stop this happening to us? `Cause all of us would be really disappointed with ourselves if that happened. And we thought, well, don’t play too much. Treat this as a huge privilege. Treat it like when kids get together and they’re in a band, and they’ve got their first three or four gigs - each gig is just like the first time you do a world tour, `cause it’s so exciting.
So to keep that excitement, we just, you know, play a bit less. And we leave gaps in between. That gives us time to recover physically, but more importantly, mentally. It keeps that excitement level there.
That also helps keep a mystique going.
Of course, once you go out, like when we did the initial part of the tour and we played in L.A. and we played in New York ... I mean, you could tell the sort of seismic ripples that went through on the Internet after we played L.A. That went all the way through North America. Kids were e-mailing going, “God, you should have seen it, it was awesome, they were fantastic.” The business on this tour ... we’ve never done business like this for years and years and years in North America. It’s really, really cool.
I think part of why you endure is that your music has added resonance, especially now. I think your last album reflected our times very heavily.
I think “A Matter of Life and Death” is one of the best albums Maiden has ever made. It stands up to all of our best from the `80s. I’m immensely proud of that album, and funnily enough, it was critically quite well-received. But even if it hadn’t been, what mattered is not so much what the critics say. What matters is what happens when people listen to it and go, “Wow, this is anything but an old and tired band.”