Photo courtesy of Iron Maiden
Iron Maiden’s erstwhile vocalist (and sometimes pilot) Bruce Dickinson is a classy guy. He comes across as kind, thoughtful, and personable, even when he’s spent an entire day cooped up in a cramped hotel room fielding questions from sweaty-palmed American fans-turned-writers like me. “You're about interview number 58 today,” he cackles into the phone when I call. “How does that make you feel?” He continues to chuckle to himself as I try desperately not to blurt out, “Fucking terrified.”
See, Dickinson isn’t your garden variety heavy metal legend. He is that, of course, and then some—now that Dio is gone, as the remaining archetypal heavy metal frontman, he is arguably THE metal legend, or at the very least, one of the very few people on this earth who may call Rob Halford, Tony Iommi, and Lemmy his peers. Like Iommi, he has stared death in the face and called its bluff, triumphing over a bout of HPV-caused tongue and throat cancer that had the very real potential to rob heavy metal of its greatest living voice. He actually recorded the vocals for Iron Maiden’s new album Book of Souls prior to getting treatment—and even with a tumor fomenting in his gullet, even in his band’s 40th year of existence, Dickinson’s legendary pipes sound better than they have in decades. Book of Souls was released on September 4, and fans descended upon it like starving hyenas, tearing off shrink wrap or frantically pressing the download button. They were rewarded for their loyalty with an album that stands tall alongside any of its classic predecessors. It’s the best Iron Maiden have sounded in years, and the lion’s share of that victory is owed to Bruce Dickinson, the Union Jack-brandishing, jet-piloting polymath whose powerful voice and steady hand has steered us through sun and steel for so long.
Deep down, though, he must have known that something was amiss during its recording, or perhaps his own 57 years of age were weighing on his mind as he wrote the lyrics. Iron Maiden’s songs have always been based in the historical, the philosophical, and the literary, but their 16th album has heady themes of mortality running through its core, dispensing with subtlety on tracks like “Death or Glory,” “If Eternity Should Fail,” and “The Great Unknown.” That phrase itself—”Death or glory”—has been used as a rallying cry by fellow lifers Motörhead as well as a historic cavalry regiment of the British Army; two of Maiden’s hallmarks, metal and history, dovetail neatly therein, but more crucially, the song’s title represents as a line in the sand, drawn with a flourish by a man who’s sworn to the pursuit of excellence, exuberance, and the thrill of living—a man who is determined to die with his boots on, come what may.
Noisey: So when you’re not stuck in a hotel room doing interviews, what does a normal day look like for you?
Bruce Dickinson: That's a good question! Nobody's asked me today whatsoever; I like that one. Off to a good start. What does a normal day look like? And I'm just going to have to answer that with there is no such thing as a normal day. I start out each week, with a bunch of things that I'm going to do in no particular order, because stuff might come screaming in to interfere with them. So this week is relatively easy, because there's, there's a timetable of interviews, and I'm getting on an airplane and going to Canada and I come back and then I go on an airplane and go to England and blah, blah, blah, so that's all real easy. When it starts getting difficult is, as soon as the album comes out, I'm sitting 'round Monday morning and I might get a phone call to go to Cardiff to go and stick my captain's uniform on and go fly an airplane from somewhere that I've never heard of to somewhere that I've also never heard of.
And then, in the meantime, I'll be answering the telephone and trying to manage a couple companies and then somebody will phone up and say, oh, we need an interview at the last minute because the album's gone to number one in,I don't know, outer Mongolia, and they want you to go appear and give medals to the outer Mongolian MTV or something, you know? To which you immediately reply, “I'm not sure I can do that” [laughs]. All kinds of mad stuff happens. I know next week I gotta go and take a guy from a major newspaper on a tour of the aviation stuff I'm doing. If I'm not doing all that, then I sit at home on my my little piano and I just keep mulling around some songs I'm writing at the moment, and make sure I don't forget to feed the cat. Just normal stuff, you know? Ish, kind of.
...Kind of normal for someone like you, who’s worked as a broadcaster, and a fencer, and a pilot, and an author, and a heavy metal frontman, who has his own beer and runs his own airline...
The key is don't do it all at once. And the trouble is, over the course of so many years—I'm actually dated in tree rings, not years—then you acquire all these things that've you've done over the years so, like fencing and stuff like that, you know? I mean I would love to go and be have the time to go and do a bit of training, just because i like doing it, but I haven't been fencing for a good year and a half. So yeah, that's one less thing to do. Being an author, well I haven't been an author for a long (exaggerates) while now; all I get to write now is shitty emails to people, you know, although I can be creative, you know, so that's another thing that I don't have to do. So you're slowly whittling down the number of things you actually have to do,, but being an airline pilot or actually running an airline and a training company and feeding the cat, and trying to not get knocked off my bicycle when I'm in Central London cycling around, these are all things that occupy my mind constantly [laughs].
Do you ever get to take a break? How do you wind down?
I watch late-night TV like the horror channel, trying to find old Hammer Horror movies. I sit and play piano a bit, I go down to the pub and have a couple of pints in the evening, stare at the wall. I go and talk to my buddies down there that don't really care about anybody being famous or not famous or anything, and we just talk about football disasters, cricket disasters, great sporting triumphs or lack of, and occasionally come up with really awful puns. And the other thing I like doing is I like going out with my boys, because they're pretty cool, so we go out to the pub and we talk about stuff.
It's interesting that Iron Maiden has influenced basically every other metal band, and now you've got this front-row seat to seeing what exactly that impact has been and what metal's like now since your sons plays in metal bands.
One'sin As Lions, which is Austin; before that he was in Rise to Remain. In fact, he's recording with As Lions in New Jersey this week. And Griffin is in a band called Shapes, they just signed to Spinefarm. Both of them sing, so I've had a front-row seat with both of them. And they're both different personalities, both with different kind of vocal styles and different styles in the band and everything, so it's interesting. I really have to take a back seat a lot of the time, because first of all, they don't need me interfering, and it is absolutely the kiss of death to to try and give your kids, you know, a leg up, or even to allow any perception that that was the case, you know, because the number of trolls and haters and all the rest of them that are out there is really sad but true.
Do they keep you in the loop with what's happening in metal now? You're so busy, I can't imagine you're sitting on the forums all day keeping up with the latest releases.
Ah, no, I'm just really please that our record doesn't suck! I mean I just did the Maiden thing, and if they've got demos and stuff like that, they sometimes play them to me, stuff they're doing. you know. But I just react like a fan. I don't go, “Hey, son, I think that middle eighth should have an extra couple of things in it” or whatever, I just go, “Oh, wow, that rocks! Oh, yeah! Brilliant! Excellent, cool, great!” That's as far as it goes, because I don't want to interfere even if I could.
And now you have this new record, which must be especially exciting because you wrote two of the songs, including "Empire of the Clouds," which is your longest song ever, right? It’s over 18 minutes.
Yeah, at one point, for a worrying moment there, I thought I was channeling Billy Joel.
Good lord, bite your tongue.
That's what I did. But yeah, I won a piano in a raffle. That's how it all started. I got this little electric piano and took it home and started tinkering around on it. And I am really a kind of one-fingered Rachmaninoff [laughs]. I'm pretty limited; I mean, I'm a two-fingered typist, and that's as good as I am on piano.
But somehow you created this 18-minute epic.
Well, sometimes you just gotta know what you want. You don't necessarily have to be able to play it terribly fluently, but you need to be able to describe how to play it fluently. In my case, I actually had to play on the record, so I played the piano on the record, and so that took a little bit of time. But by the magic of midi and a bit of editing, you know, some of my shitty bits got rearranged, and we could actually move the odd bum note around so that we could get some semblance of a piano track that makes sense. But I have been practicing. I've been trying to get a little bit better at it, and I'm actually doing quite a bit of writing on it now for other stuff as well, other stuff which I don't know where it may lead...you never know.
Are you going to play it live on tour?
Oh, no, no, no. I don't think we'll play "Empire," in fact I'm certain we won’t be playing "Empire" on the new tour. You need strings, you need cellos, you need horns, you need all this stuff to play it properly, and it's such a dominating song. In the format of a regular Iron Maiden thunderous stage show, it would be altogether too dominant, I think, so we're definitely not going to be playing it.
I guess you've gotta leave room for the hits, too. Do you ever get tired of playing “Run to the Hills” or “Number of the Beast”? Do you think you'll ever stop playing them?
Well, there's no reason why you can't retire one; I think we're going to retire at least one of those songs this year, because we play the damn thing all the time. But, at the same time, we'll bring in one of the other classics back that’ll have people going, “Oh my god, they never play that song!” As for which one that might be, we have to figure that out—we're still in a little bit of a state of flux with the set, but obviously we're going to be playing a few songs off the new album, and we're going to be playing quite a few classics as well.
Is it ever frustrating that the fans expect you to keep playing these songs you wrote decades ago when you’ve released so many other albums since then, and this new record coming out that you’re so excited about?
I don't mind, because the new record's really good; it stands up 100 percent on its own. To an extent, we can always tweak the set list. We'll see how the new record goes down, we'll get some ideas from fans, what they think about it, what tracks they super super love, what tracks they'd really like to see. But I think that there's three or four, maybe five, songs off the new album which would be terrific to play live. And that's half the album, you know? That's 45 minutes!
That's plenty of time. Are there any songs you'd never want to play live?
Ah, no, it's not that there are songs that we don't necessarily like, but the one that would be the biggest problem in the context of a regular Iron Maiden show would certainly be "Empire," because it would be so different. On the other hand, it could be really, really cool to perhaps do it in a different context, just because it is so different, you know? Just do something special for it, but that special thing might not even be Maiden, you know? It could be that you just do a special event based around it. I don't know though, that's all speculation. Right now I've got a huge tour coming up to think about. We're going all over the place!
Are you nervous at all about the tour? Playing six continents while flying your entire band and crew around the world is quite a lot of doing.
I'm not worried about that, the only issue that I've got is getting the old voice back in shape, and having a really good long run-up, but I'm doing a bit of vocal rehab, you know?
What are you doing to keep your voice healthy? You just as great on this record as when you did back in the 80s.
Well, yeah, obviously, I've had a bit of a health issue since the last record, and there is still a bit of scar tissue lurking around in my throat. It’s still healing up and the doctor said it should all go back to normal, but I might have to do a bit of work on some of the muscles around the throat to retrain them. So the voice is working okay, as you can hear me talking right now, but for singing, it's a different set of muscles.
Especially since you're known for those clear, piercing vocals; you can't just go up there and growl.
I definitely can't go up there and growl, no. Not a good look. But you never know, I could have a future as a heavy metal Tom Waits.
Do you think you'll ever retire from Maiden? Or do you want to die with your boots on, so to speak?
Well, let's get this tour out of the way and we'll see where we go—give it a couple of years down the road and see if we wanna do another album. You know, I just talked to the other guys, and I think that if everything's working OK, I don't see any reason why we should want to throw in the towel. I'm having too much fun.
Good to know. Now that you've been back in the band for a good while now, how has your dynamic evolved?
Yeah, we get on great, bearing in mind we're spread all over the planet. So the only time we really see each other is if we get together for albums or touring or rehearsals and everything else like that. That was two or three months of last year, plus this tour, so it's like six months. For pretty much six months of every year, we're all hanging out together.
That's a good long-distance relationship.
Yeah, that's right, you know? How to stay married for 40 years: be gone half the time and have separate bedrooms [laughs].
Do your wife or your family ever join you on tour?
Ah, yeah, as often as humanly practical.
How do they like the rock 'n' roll lifestyle?
They hate it.
Well, I mean, it sucks! If you're not onstage that night, what do you do with your day, you know? If you have any kind of life at all, the last place you want to be is sat there. especially when you're with the lead singer, who after a show comes back home, sits quietly, doesn't want to talk to anybody, sits up watching late-night TV because he can't sleep, lives like a bat, then wakes up at two o'clock in the afternoon, wanders around without talking to anybody, sits in the shower for two hours getting his voice steamed up, then goes down to the show, doesn't talk to anybody for a while, lays down, gets the physical therapist to put his body back in shape, yells and screams like a madman for two hours, and then does it all over the again. It's not a lot of fun to be around that person.
Is it still fun to be that person?
Yeah, because the two hours onstage makes it worthwhile.
That's what everyone says; that's the magic window.
And, then, you know, there's some really nice beers you can drink after a show if you sit in the corner of some unknown bar and chill out, because after a show you're just absolutely buzzing. You're sky-high with adrenaline, and you need to deflate, you know? So you get these moments. And the touring bubble that we go round in, that's our like surrogate family for a couple of months.
How long does it take you to adjust to being home after such a long tour?
Sometimes a week, sometimes a couple of weeks. The difference between, being away doing something else and being away on tour is that there's a difference in head space. When you're running around in front of ten, 20, 30, 40, 50 thousand people three or four times a week, it can screw with your head after a while. Your idea of what constitutes normality gets shifted, no matter how hard you try. That can take a while to unload. But I've been doing it for years; I've got my little strategies on how to do it, you know. like pretending like it never happened—just go 'round and pretend like it never happened, and then of course you just come to this agreement with yourself that it did happen, but it doesn't matter.
Do you get recognized on the street when you're going out to do the shopping?
Nah, not really. To be honest with you, I get more hassle if I'm in some strange foreign place, particularly in places like some of the big Latin American cities where there's only about three places where you could be. So the whole place is surrounded by kids, and they've all got mobile phones and they're all equipped with scooters! Which means as soon as you make your escape, they follow you with their mobile phones, so you're never alone.
Wow. I guess in a way it must be kind of nice to have that level of fan interaction after all these years, since you usually just fly in, do your show, and get out of there—you’re not exactly going to be standing around by the merch table after the gig.
We'll sometimes travel after the show, so often we just chill out and have a beer, and Nicko’s playing cards with the tour manager and everybody's doing their little thing, and hopefully it's been a good show. If there's been a few issues or whatever everybody's a little bit more subdued. Every day is colored entirely by how good the show was the day before.
Well, that's the whole reason you're out there.
That's the whole reason you exist.
During the show, what's your favorite moment? Not your favorite song to play, but that split second where you feel the absolute best.
[Long pause] That's interesting. There's always at least one song in the set which is an absolute motherfucker to sing. Usually because of just where it is in the set—and on the last tour it was "Aces High,” because it's a difficult song to sing anyway—it's very vocally demanding. and of course where do we put the song? Answer? In the encores, right at the end of the show. So when you've been belting it out for the entire show, then you come back out, and boom, "Aces High,” it's very vocally demanding. So if I get to the end of "Aces High" and I've managed to hit all the notes, and it was all put to bed and squared away, I’m a very happy bunny. I‘m going to give myself an extra pat on the back, and go away and drink a little beer to celebrate. Dodged another one. Dodged another bullet.
When can we expect to hear more news about the upcoming tour? No chance of finding out now, eh?
Well, I've got a list of all the dates and times and everything and what cities and how many we're doing in America and everything.
If I don't tell anyone, will you tell me when you're coming to New York?
No, I can't tell you when I'm coming to New York. I can only tease you. When are you going on holiday?
Well, I'm going to Manchester in October.
That's okay, that will be fine then; we're not coming here in October. It'll be next year, sometime between the end of February and the end of April.
Nice! Every time you guys release any piece of information—even that 30 second audio glimpse of Book of Souls—you basically break the internet.
Anything I can do to break the Internet's good with me.
In a nice way, though; you guys aren't very controversial. You're universally beloved.
Yeah, we try not to have a problem with too many other people.
What do you want your legacy to be? In two hundred years, when people look back at your career, what do you hope that they say about Iron Maiden?
They told good stories, and they made the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
Kim Kelly is upping the irons, always, forever, and on Twitter - @grimkim