IRON MAIDEN Scheduled To Tour Senjutsu Next June - "I Think The Performances From All My Bandmates Are Superb... They’re Just Magic” Says Nicko McBrain
September 17, 2021, a month ago
It’s a huge metal event when Maiden puts out an album, but I can’t remember any being debated so hotly as Senjutsu. Which is a reflection of the times, given the always-increasing ease of using social media including the proliferation of YouTube channels willing and able to give any album a deep and substantial hearing. Funny, but after reading about a thousand comments, certain trends emerge, with the biggest being gripes about intros, long songs and the mix. But then there are the vigorous defences on all those fronts with many fans calling Senjutsu the greatest Maiden album of the 2000s save for… well, then pretty much any of them is up for grabs, with Brave New World and A Matter Of Life And Death being cited most.
“Next year, mate,” begins Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain, about to put his own spin on the band’s 17th album after a little tour talk. “Because we still owe Legacy of the Beast part three, which was cancelled due to unpopular demand—we all know why (laughs). But we’re scheduled to go out next June. So I’m looking forward to that. I would love to get going and I know that all the guys are absolutely chomping at the bit. But we’re going to make it next year.”
And then we’re into a discussion about the band’s strident, 82-minute opus of a new album, with Nicko first answering with a roar why it makes sense that Senjutsu opens with its swirling cauldron of a title track.
“Well, it features primarily the best-looking bloke in the band—come on! It kicks off… the first thing you hear is a massive like boom, and all this tinkly-winkly fairy stuff going on behind it. When they wrote the tune, I visualized the Kodo drums, the Japanese Kodo drums. Our marching bands go into battle with the snare drummer and a flute, a fife, and the Japanese lads would have these big massive Kodo drums. So that was where it originated. And they had this rhythm for it, which then developed. It’s a fantastic album opener because it’s totally different for Maiden. I don’t recall us ever having a track like that. I love the melodies within the tune. The actual framework within the rhythm doesn’t change very much, although there are slightly different bass drum parts that go in there and triplet fills and stuff. But it’s a cracking opener.”
Will we see Nicko in short shorts at the front of the stage then? Possibly, muses the plotting percussionist… “Can you imagine opening with that live? Can you imagine that being the first song opening live?! With the whole massive big drum feel? Oh, I should get up front with the Kodo drums. I thought about this. I talked to ‘arry about it months ago. ‘Oh, it’d be nice to have a Kodo,’ and he goes, ‘Yeah, it would be cool.’ But maybe Bruce could do it. Because if I did it, I would have to do it behind my drum set, up on the riser. If we did that, right? I’ve got to go from the boom boom boom, and then it’s like… because it’s one, two, two and three. So I couldn’t get the third one, because the guitar starts going (sings it). A little bit of a shaky time. Unless I did the whole thing with a drum set at the front of the stage. Who knows, boys and girls?! My drum company wouldn’t like that, because I’d have to have two sets of drums, one up on at the front and one up at the back.”
Asked whether the concept of “senjutsu” permeates the album past the title track, Nicko figures, “Yes. I take it to mean inner strength and tactics, so it lends itself in various ways. There’s various different kinds of ways you can translate that word as well. But we do write songs about war and the futility of whatever. And not political, by the way—I don’t think we’ve ever been a political band and we never will be. But yeah, I think it sums up the album. My second favourite song on the album, funnily enough, is ‘Darkest Hour,’ and that’s still related to war. ‘The Time Machine’ to a certain degree; ‘Death Of The Celts.’ There’s all these kinds of flavours.”
“Oh, I gave him $30 before I left, to make sure I’m up in front,” cracks Nicko, responding to the assertion that the drums seem to be pretty high up in the mix on Senjutsu. “Yeah, he was a cheap night out that night. No, well, the one thing I love about the whole of this album is sonically, each track is different. It’s got a different EQ, it’s got a little bit different compression on the snare drum, it’s got different sounds to the bass. Some of the guitar solos are brighter; some are not. It’s mixed within the song. It’s not just everything goes up. To reiterate, there’s the mix for ‘Senjutsu.’ Right, let’s do ‘Stratego’ next and it’s not, ‘We’ll just leave everything there and maybe just pull the solo up and put Bruce’s vocal harmonies higher.’ It’s not like that. Every track had its own place, in terms of sonics. Kevin is a genius. He’s brilliant. There’s no question about it. A Matter of Life and Death—listen to that album.”
“And I think the performances from all my band mates are like, superb,” continues McBrain. “They’re just magic. Steve’s bass playing... I mean, I’m blessed to still be able to do what I do with this band and be their drummer. But they have all excelled themselves absolutely. And of course Kevin has put the old man up there nice in the mix and I love it. I think the drums sound fantastic. Certainly if I had a criticism, some of the cymbal sounds are a little bit too compressed. They don’t sing enough. They kind of fade a little bit quick. But that’s only my thing. And that’s not all the tracks; that’s just in a couple of places. So sonically, yeah, he’s done me an A+, without a doubt. He’s made me sound really good (laughs).
I asked Nicko what he expects out of his band mates with respect to songwriting. Who likes what? Who has a tendency to come to the table with a slow one, a fast one…
“Well, Steve, pretty much any time he comes in with a song, I go, ‘Oh shit, what now?’ (laughs). ‘What time are we going to be playing in halfway through the song?’ No, I love it. Steve is the challenge. I always get super-excited when Steve goes, ‘I’ve got a song I’ve written on me own.’ And I go right, I know it’s going to be epic. Because those songs Steve writes primarily on his own are always, always very structured with beautiful melodies and parts. When he came up with ‘The Parchment,’ I thought, oh my, that reminds me of ‘The Red and the Black,’ where we’ve got all these different guitar motif lines of melody and then you’ve got another one and you’ve got eight bars of that and 16 bars of that and then three solos—stunning, absolutely stunning. Bruce and Adrian, pretty much, you’re going to get 1,2,3,4, all right, see you at the end. Pretty straight, not too difficult of a song. ‘Darkest Hour,’ that’s the best ballad Bruce has ever written, with Adrian. So there’s those two. And when Janick brings something in, it’s kind of ‘Dance of Death.’ It’s got these beautiful, little motif intros… you know that Janick has written that song. And then when he collaborates with Steve, we’re off, we go running up and it’s, ‘What comes next after the 18th bar? What meter are we going to?’”
In defence of Steve’s notorious long songs—check out the firestorm over whether Maiden is progressive rock or just repetitious—Nicko figures he’s doing that because, “They’re compositions. Any piece of music is a composition, if you like, but he writes a story within the music. Now people go, ‘Why does it always have to have a slow intro? And then that same outro, and then another slow bit?’ It’s telling a story with the music. You know, we do the songs and we finish them and we go sit in the control room with Kevin and we listen. We’re critiquing—everyone is critiquing each other’s work, which is beautiful. The last few albums, that’s what we do. We sit in the studio and we go, ‘Steve, is that bass line right?’ Or I missed a bass drum part or the snare whack and it’s not right. So you critique each other. ‘Can we maybe find a second verse? The first part of the second verse wasn’t as good as it could’ve been.’ Right?”
“And Kevin will sit there and go, ‘Here, I don’t know if you know, but that song was over 12 minutes long.’ And we’re like, ‘No, can’t be!’ But you’re hearing a song and the clock doesn’t lie. He points to the timer on the desk and we’re like, ‘So what? It’s 12 minutes frickin’ long! Why are you telling us? What does that got to do with anything?’ The thing is Steve, when he writes a piece of music, he has a complete sketch in his mind of where it’s going with all these different lovely different harmonies. Plus he is very considerate of the fact that we have three guitar players in the band. And he writes around for one solo from that man, one from that man and one from that man. And maybe if it’s that good, he’ll go, ‘One from that… no, that’s going to two, that’s going to two, and that’s going to two’ and he’ll pick and swap. And as they’re doing their solos, the track is building. And it’s a beautiful way… I love the way Steve composes. I don’t think he’s an earthling. I think he’s from another world. Because he comes up with these insane melodies; he’s just a genius, absolutely.”
In closing, we talked a bit about the recent death of producer Martin “The Headmaster” Birch, who was with Maiden from Killers right through Fear of the Dark.
“Oh my gosh, Martin. Oh God, I love that man. I’ll never forget, the first time I met Martin was when he was doing Number Of The Beast as I went to the studio and I met all the boys. Later, when we were rehearsing in Nassau, Martin came over to visit with us before he went over to the studio to get everything set up for us. He said to me, ‘Right, dear boy, what is your favourite snare drum sound? What snare drum sound would you like me to get?’ I went, ‘That is easy—Alex Van Halen, please.’ And he turned around and went, ‘Who?’ (laughs). He was joking, of course. Anyway, ‘Who?’ No, I love Alex’s sound; that is my all-time favourite snare drum sound. So if you can get my snare sounding like… and I use a 402 Ludwig Supraphonic. And so I said the snare drum that Alex uses, the Bonham snare; John Bonham is famous for that sound as well. That was one great memory. And the other memories of Martin, with the drum sounds, were just, every time I would set that big kit of mine up in the studio, he went, ‘Do you expect me to mic the lot of those drums up? Can you get rid of a couple of them for me?’ (laughs). I’m like, ‘No! You’ve got all those widdly knobs in there. You get on with it.’ Oh, we had so much fun. He was one-of-a-kind. And sorely missed. He had basically retired after all the Purple stuff he did and all the other bands that he worked with. He kind of came back out for us and he stayed with us for many years, doing those records for us. And of course we ended up jumping in with Kevin in 2000 on Brave New World. So yeah, Martin was one-of-a-kind.”