When the time comes to interview one of your musical idols, you need to be prepared. I was due to talk to Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain about the bands new Tour documentary, Flight 666, and I had a raft of questions ready. I needn’t have worried. McBrain is the consummately professional interviewee, who is able to speak amusingly (and at length) on any subject – and todays subject is the film. I mention that Maiden’s history is one of the most well-documented in rock – every tour is rounded out by a complementary DVD – why film this one for cinematic release? ‘The idea had been in the pipeline since after (the 2003 tour) Dance of Death. We’d been talking about playing some of the places we never play – Australia, for instance- and then Rod (Smallwood, the band’s fabled manager) told us that India wanted us, that Dubai wanted us. But the accountants were telling us we couldn’t do it. Anyway, Bruce (Dickinson, band vocalist and all-round renaissance man of metal) wondered whether we couldn’t do it by ‘Plane. We looked into things, and, yes, the bean counters said it could be done. But this is history, you know? No band has ever done such a thing. And talking more as a unit we felt that it really was something that needed to be documented.”
The resultant documentary is marvelous. Funny and revealing in equal parts, it follows the opening leg of last year’s Somewhere Back in Time tour, which in part reprised the band’s epic 193 date 1984-5 World Slavery jaunt. Canadian film makers Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn followed the tour party’s every move – did this become an annoyance? “Of course at times it did, but overall I was surprised by how easy it was. As a band there were different feelings at the start. Janick (Gers, guitarist), for instance, wasn’t very keen on having a camera crew following him to the pub on his day off. But I’m a bit of a ham, you know, I always like to play up for the camera, I loved it most of the time.”
I mention that the concert footage contained in the film is some of the best Maiden film I’ve ever seen, yet attending five of the six Australian shows on the tour I didn’t remember seeing a single cameraman onstage. How was this wonderful footage obtained? “D’you know, I’m not really sure? Scotty and Sam are great film makers, but as far as I know, apart from a camera I had attached to my drum kit, most of it was just the footage from the cameras in the (photo) pit that we used for the big screens at the side of the stage each night.”
One of the main things the film draws attention to is the strength of Maiden’s relationship with its fans. Does this continue to surprise the band? “Not really, because it’s always been that way, especially in places like Eastern Europe and South America. But what does surprise me is that the fans keep getting younger! Look at that bit of the film in Australia, where that whole family turns up – grandparents, parents, kids and grandkids – that blows us away!”
It’s all done and dusted now, and the tour is history – McBrain, speaking to me from his home in Florida, is looking forward to some down time before the band begins recording its next album. Does he deem the project a success?
“Oh yes, definitely. You’ve seen it. It’s an absolutely great film, innit?” At this point a disembodied voice from the phone conferencing company tells us time is up on our chat. But McBrain is warming to the conversation.
“Don’t worry mate, who’s paying for this call anyway? Don’t worry Scott, You’re my last call of the day – I’m happy to keep going if you want.”
I don’t want to get you into trouble. But let’s keep going. I want to ask him about the legendary Dickie Bell, the band’s tour manager of many years standing, farewelled by the band at the end of the tour. But the voice is back. It really is time to stop.
“Put another 20p in the meter, for fuck’s sake” Intones the drummer, before conspiratorially adding “He’s like the speaking clock, this bloke. He just keeps going.”
At which point, wishing one another a happy Easter (McBrain, surprisingly a born again Christian, blesses me at this point) we part ways. And the interviewer is a sad but wiser man.
* * * * *
Iron Maiden’s drummer Nicko McBrain is hacking away like a tubercular Badger when we are finally connected over the ol’ jellybone. To be honest with you, even this sound is a relief after the seven and a half minutes of Rippingtons-styled smooth jazz I’ve been subjected to whilst stuck on hold. I can’t help but express my joy on hearing his extravagant wheezing and explain why.
“Fucking hell, you’d think they’d put a bit of Maiden on there, wouldn’t you?” he bellows and we both have a little laugh, ice successfully broken. Not that you need such a Mercaderesque implement with McBrain. The avuncular sticksman is usually happy to go wherever the conversation takes him, within reason; but today, on the back of the band releasing the best album they’ve put their name to in nearly a quarter of a century (last year’s largely excellent Final Frontier) and on the eve of the band’s return to Australia for the first time since their triumphant Somewhere Back on Tour jaunt of 2008, he’s keen to get one point over above all else – this isn’t the last we’ll see or hear of the band he’s powered from behind his fortress-like drum kit since 1983. “I just want to make that clear to your readers. This isn’t the last tour, or the last album. In fact four of us were sitting in a bar last week discussing what we’re doing next year – whether we’re going to take a year off or get back into it. We’ll go when we want to – nobody will tell us, which I think is as it should be- but at the moment we’re enjoying things, so this is definitely not the last of us.”
That’s possibly the best news fans of Iron Maiden or indeed heavy metal in general will hear all year, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The last time your correspondent talked to McBrain he was spruiking the band’s Flight 666 film, a documentary record of that storied 2008 tour. When we spoke, the band was just embarking on the recording sessions that culminated in the release of last year’s Final Frontier album. The drummer was enjoying the process and confident of its outcome. But were he and the band surprised with just how well the finished product turned out, and the response it garnered from fans and critics alike? “Well, you know at first people didn’t seem so sure. A few of us look on our website, and all over the internet, and people didn’t want to go overboard at the start. There was a lot of ‘well, I’ve only heard it the once and I’m not sure…’ but now, people are coming up and telling us it is a masterpiece. It’s certainly the most progressive record we’ve ever made. Even I am still listening to it – especially if I listen on headphones- and hearing little bits I didn’t realize were there. I’ll hear little guitar parts here and there and I’m thinking to myself ‘oh! Very nice- I’ve not noticed that before!’ It’s a very complex record.”
It certainly is, and, as most complex records are, it takes a bit of absorbing. But in the live arena the fans don’t get time to think about the finer points of sonics and pacing, so how has the new material been going down live? ”Really, really well! Of course we did El Dorado (the song which garnered Maiden their first Grammy Award earlier this month, pipping the likes of Slayer, Megadeth, Lamb of God and Korn to the title) on our tour last year, but so far on the few dates we’ve done on this tour we’ve been knocked out with the response to the new stuff. The fans have been well into it, even though we’ve been having a few problems ourselves getting to grips with it.!”
McBrain is laughing, but clearly a bit annoyed with this. “It’s early in the tour, but I started a song last night before Bruce (Dickinson, the band’s polymath vocalist) had finished talking to the audience – he was a bit miffed about that, and Adrian (Smith, in my opinion one of the finest guitarists ever to pick up a plectrum in the name of metal) started completely the wrong song halfway through the set, which did cause a bit of confusion! It’s a bit like watching some old blokes jamming down the pub at the minute!”
But you’ll be firing on all cylinders by the time you get to Australia? The question is greeted with more laughter. “Haha! Don’t tell anyone McBrain said that!”
Ah yes, those Australian dates. Not only is the band headlining the prestigious Soundwave traveling headbanging jamboree, they are slipping in a couple of tasty sideshows in Sydney and Melbourne into the bargain. Are these sideshows a good way of keeping the band match fit between weekend festival shows? “Definitely, definitely. Although we’ve eased up a little on this tour compared to the last time we came down to you –Sitting upright on a plane for fourteen hours at a stretch was killing my back and I couldn’t see how we could keep it up. We were sat on the plane and I said to Rod ‘I don’t want to do this anymore!’ He started moaning and then Davey (Murray, the bands longstanding lead guitarist) agreed with me! But we got used to it after a while, even though the first leg of that tour was brutal- we still need that momentum. Because when you play those big shows, those festival shows, they’re great – but you do get rusty if you don’t play for a couple of days. We are spreading the shows out a bit more now, but you definitely need to keep your hand in even when you’re on tour. Everyone has their own ways in this band of using their down time, but for me, definitely, you need to play every couple of days. We’re getting old now, and the best way to stop the aches is to keep playing! Those aches were there twenty years ago, I guess I just notice them more now and need to get rid of them! I like the odd game of golf too. One of the difficulties with flying everywhere is the jetlag. We just got into Singapore and I didn’t want to sleep so I went out on the course. A blazing front nine and then I went to pieces…”
McBrain’s on a roll now, so I stand back and let him go… “Those shows are great for other reasons too. In Maiden we’re lucky enough to play ‘warm-up’ shows to seven to ten thousand people a night, sometimes even more, but when you are playing festivals in stadiums all the time even the drop down to smaller indoors venues gees the guys up, especially the other guys who are at the front of the stage and can actually make contact with the audience. I really love playing shows in smaller venues. I don’t know what your equivalent venues would be in Australia, but my favourite venue to play anywhere would be the Hammersmith Odeon in London, which has a capacity of only about three and a half thousand.”
And that interaction between fans and band works both ways? It’s a treat nowadays to be able to see Maiden in the ‘intimate’ surrounds of an indoor venue. It’s an opportunity not to be sniffed at! “Haha that’s right!”
It’s amazing that a band thirty five years into their career can be so upwardly mobile, and mobile at a pace that would leave most bands half their age staggering about knock kneed, bent double and coughing like hags. What lies ahead for the band after the sideshows and Soundwave? “We’re off to Seoul which I’m very excited about because we’ve never been to South Korea. I love playing in Asia. Then Japan, a couple of days off in Hawaii and then down to South America. Then Summer festivals. And then, who knows? Like I said, we aren’t stopping. We like new frontiers, not just final ones!”
Did the man say the band was slowing down?