Interview with Iron Maiden: Conquered Earth; Next, The Final Frontier

The worldwide success of Iron Maiden is staggering. Never the darlings of MTV, rarely the beneficiaries of heavy radio airplay and infrequently the focus of the mainstream print press, the flag-bearers of the NWOBHM have nonetheless conquered the consciousness of heavy metal fans everywhere.

Well, almost everywhere. But that’s just because they haven’t flown there yet. In their own plane.

And we’re not talking about some little corporate jet here. Flight 666, the band’s last tour and its accompanying DVD, saw the band buy and brand a Boeing 757 (the Ed Force One) which singer Bruce Dickinson flew from tour date to tour date. Not bad for a sextet of blue-collar metal dudes.

(And yes, Bruce Dickinson is a licensed commercial pilot.)

Still, there are a few places the continent-hoppers haven’t been, something which the band hopes to rectify soon, maybe in support of their August release, The Final Frontier. So far, on their American leg, they’ve only premiered the forthcoming record’s single, “El Dorado,” a thinly-veiled critique of the mentality behind the financial meltdowns on both sides of the pond. Fans can draw any number of conclusions based on the sci-fi artwork and tracklisting, but according to founding bassist and songwriter Steve Harris, there is not an overriding theme.

There is a grand stage show to accompany the new album, including the new Giger-esque Eddie. Harris spoke before going onstage in Saskatoon (in western Canada) about the upcoming record, songwriting, and their devoted fans.

Saskatoon sounds like nowhere to me. Is there anywhere that Iron Maiden hasn’t played?

Yeah, there are quite a few places we still haven’t played in the world, believe it or not. We haven’t played China yet; we’d like to play there. South Korea, places like that. Malayasia, Hong Kong. All kinds of places, really. But we’ve traveled the globe many times, and we thoroughly enjoy it. It’s good to go back somewhere as well as going new places.

How has the tour been?

It’s been really good so far, really good. The first couple of weeks is always the toughest, physically, mentally. But certainly now, it’s getting better (laughs).

I’m assuming that you’re doing more recent material?

Yeah, the last two tours we did a lot of the older stuff, so we’re doing a lot of stuff now off the last three or four albums. There will be a couple of oldies, but we like to mix it up. It keeps it fresh for us and for the audience, I think. Sometimes you get people that moan that they didn’t hear ‘The Trooper’ or whatever, but they could have heard that on pretty much every other tour. It’s just one of those things.

Is ‘El Dorado’ the only new song that you’re going to be performing?

Yeah, because the new album doesn’t come out until Aug. 17. So we’ve basically given that away as a free download, and we’re playing that, and then next year, we’ll be playing a lot more new material. But it’s a new show. The new show I think is worth seeing just for the show alone. Watching video from people up front, it looks pretty bloody good, I gotta say.

Yeah, Eddie looks great.

Oh, you’ve seen it?

I saw some video of it online. Have you ever personally been inside of Eddie?

No, not at all. Why would I want to do that? (laughs)

‘El Dorado,’ lyrically, seems to echo some of the financial malfeasance that’s been in the news.

Yeah. It’s about greed and drawing people in basically. Imploring them to sort of do whatever and giving them the once over afterwards. It’s about that, loosely.

Does the album follow any general theme as Matter Of Life And Death did?

A lot of people that have heard the album, press and people who have heard it, think that there’s some sort of concept or something, but there isn’t really. There are only two or three songs kind of around that sort of subject. It’s actually quite a diverse album. There’s not really one song—‘El Dorado’ or any other song. You can use any song as a lead, a taste. That’s what we do, we put out a taste, but it doesn’t really represent the rest of the album at all. There’s not really any other song that’s like that on the album.

I think it’s a very interesting album, it’s quite diverse, and there’s a lot going on. It’s a long album, hour and a quarter, so it’s a lot of music. And hopefully people will like it. I think it’s a pretty rich darn album, it’s pretty different I think. But we don’t really analyze it until we start speaking to journalists, to be honest.

You look at the cover art, and it’s space-themed, and you think of Somewhere In Time. Did you feature any unusual instrumentation on it?

There are some unusual things going on on the album, yeah. I think the opening song—I won’t say it’s going to shock people—but it’s quite different. We’ll see. You can get 10 people in a pub discussing Iron Maiden songs and they’ll have ten different ideas about this and that anyway. You can’t really worry about it, really; we just do what we do. And hopefully people like it.

What was the balance of songwriting on this record? You have so many contributors, I can only imagine it’s difficult to make everybody happy.

Not really. It doesn’t really work like that. It’s not about keeping people happy; it’s just about getting really good songs, and whatever combination of writers does that. We don’t write 20 songs and use 10; if we’ve got enough, we stop. There are always lots of bits and pieces flying around, but basically we just use whatever we think is strong at the time.

There’s no plan, no fixed plan of who’s writing with who or anything like that. It just worked out this time as well as the last album that I wrote more stuff with Adrian [Smith] this time, purely because we were the first ones to get together really, and it just sort of stemmed from there. It doesn’t always work like that, and it probably won’t necessarily work like that in the future.

You do have short songwriting sessions, just a little over a month.

Yeah, we don’t allow ourselves too long, because if you allow yourself six months to write, you’ll take six months. So we tend to put ourselves under a bit of pressure. And it is a bit of pressure; I certainly feel it anyway. A little black cloud goes away when you know you’ve got enough songs and you’ve got good material.

That never makes you feel rushed?

Not rushed, it just makes you feel a bit anxious because you know you’ve got to come up with good stuff. But that’s always been a good thing; it’s always been a positive thing. It’s almost like going through a weird stage when you’re doing it, because you do feel sort of an anxiety. I, in particular, I can’t really sleep properly when I’m writing. Too many ideas flying about all over the place, so I don’t really sleep very well. But once the writing’s done, you feel this massive pressure cloud go away.

So you don’t do any kind of intensive writing beyond those sessions.

No. Once we’ve got enough songs, we stop. We’ve always done that, because there’s no point in really working on stuff that you can’t record. We don’t really give ourselves enough time to do that, and we don’t want to do that. We just want to record an album and go on tour with it.

I was under the impression that Matter Of Life And Death was not mastered. Is that the same kind of style that you’re taking with this one too?

It was [mastered], but it was pretty flat. It’s the same with this one too. It’s just that, these days, I think mastering, dare I say it, is kind of—I’m not saying you don’t need it because sometimes you do to get the levels the same and stuff like that—when you work in digital format and you’ve got your mixes sounding just how you want, then you don’t really need a great deal of tweaking. Well, we don’t. Some artists might, but we don’t.

And that’s what we’ve found more and more lately, really, that we don’t need any tweaking at all, and when things are tweaked, they affect everything across the board, and it tends to mess with the mixes. I’m not going to say in the future that we’re not going to [master] but the last couple of albums have been fairly flat. Because they’re dynamic enough anyway in the mixes, so we don’t really want anything messing with it. We did try different things, different frequencies and this and that. But it didn’t sound better really. Sounded different, but it wasn’t better (laughs).

Also, the live sound of Iron Maiden is really what you want to capture in the studio.

Yeah, that’s the thing. You spend a long time capturing all that and getting it just how you want it, and if someone else comes and puts a frequency across it and it affects the whole mix—sometimes it sounds good, and you let people try these things, because you want to be open minded about it—but if it doesn’t make it sound better, then what’s the point?

It might be a tough year for concerts this summer, but it seems that Iron Maiden has been blessed with an extremely devoted fanbase. Do you have anything you attribute that to?

Not really. We’ve been asked this many times, and no. I don’t think you can really put a finger on it. What are we doing any different than anything else? Bruce does say on stage, and it’s true what he says, that there’s music fans, there’s metal fans, and then there’s Iron Maiden fans, and they really are a different breed altogether. It’s the truth. Why we deserve that kind of devotion, I’m not really quite sure. Yeah I think we make good albums and everything else. But I don’t know. Once an Iron Maiden fan, always an Iron Maiden fan, it seems to me.

The fanbase all over the world is unbelievable. I think people didn’t realize until the movie Flight 666 and that really brings it home how global it is. You can’t really explain it. It’s just unbelievable.

That was an interesting experiment, buying a plane…

Well, we played most of these places before anyway, it’s just these days now, trying to freight things around the world, with security and everything, it’s just an absolute nightmare. Some of the places before were just becoming more and more difficult to get to, and now we can fairly well go where we want.

I know you haven’t announced dates for past Europe, but do you plan to go to some of these places you mentioned, like Hong Kong or South Korea?

Well, we’d definitely like to go in the future, whether it’s the near future, we don’t know. Some of these places are not the easiest places to go to. I’d love to go to China, but there are certain things you have to go through. It took us a long time years ago to end up playing Russia, but we ended up getting there in the end. I’m sure with China, we’ll get there too. It takes a lot of people working out getting rid of all the bullshit, I suppose, to actually get in there.

Iron Maiden performs at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ, on July 11 and Madison Square Garden in NYC on July 12. The Final Frontier comes out Aug. 16.