IRON MAIDEN’s Nicko McBrain - “I Have A Love Affair With Five Guys And The Sex Is The Music”
November 5, 2015, 5 years ago
So has it sunk in yet? A pretty ballsy move to release 90 minutes-plus of new music to your unsuspecting fan base, especially in 2015 when more and more bands are convinced that this “thing” called an album is heading towards extinction. But British heavy metal institution Iron Maiden aren’t looking for direction; they are happily guided by their own inner-vision—well, mostly Steve Harris’ able-bodied hands—as they soak in another major success story with The Book of Souls which debuted at #1 in 24 territories, #1 in a further 19 territories where physical/retail charts are no longer published (only digital ones) and closer to home, #2 in Canada and #4 in the US. More incredibly, speaking of the digital age, according to BraveWords industry sources, The Book of Souls had record “physical” pre-orders. Yeah, there are still a few of us fans out there that want to hold onto to something that’s not an MP3 or an ACC file! And Maiden had a plethora of choice as always when it comes to formats, and their audience would by far hold onto the gorgeous book (as Bruce told me it “had to be a book!”) or the luxurious triple vinyl.
BraveWords had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Nicko McBrain, ever dependable piece of Maiden’s rhythmic chassis, and the man proves to be clearly beyond elated about the band’s new album, The Book of Souls.
“The whole experience has been off the chart,” the drummer begins. “I mean, we started writing as a band in October of last year. I think Bruce got together with Adrian and Steve at that time. In fact, ‘Empire of the Clouds’ was just a dream earlier last year, and Bruce I think had already written ‘If Eternity Should Fail’ on his own. I believe ‘Speed of Light,’ ‘The Great Unknown,’ and ‘Shadows of the Valley’ were all ready to go. So, by the time Kevin had gotten to the studio, we were ready to do four songs. It was a magical moment because going into the room to just rehearse didn’t have that character it has—and it had—when you light up the desk and go into record mode, i.e. putting all the Apple gear, lights and mics on, the isolation room and all of that. As soon as Kevin got there the kind of clinical feel of the control room was completely changed... we were like, this is what it’s all about. This is what I remembered from 15 years ago. The studio is slightly different now. They’ve lowered the stage. It was an old vaudeville theater that used to have stage productions. It had a big old pipe onstage. They’ve since cut that down and put some isolation rooms, with one on stage right where Steve puts his gear. On Brave New World, he was in the fire escape going out of the building. It was a brilliant change and the vibe is much better.”
Iron Maiden almost stubbornly went against the grain on The Book of Souls by creating a monster more menacing than Eddie himself!
“The thing with that was, by the time we got through five songs no one was considering it, but no one was watching the clock either,” McBrain admits. “I think it was about five songs in when we realized we kind of had some very long songs here. I mean, ‘The Red and the Black’ is more than 13 minutes long, almost as long as ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ Then we have a couple coming in at ten and 12 minutes, and of course Bruce’s opus. At that point, we were like we haven’t even yet finished writing, as we were only half a dozen songs in. I think it was at this time that Bruce turned around and uttered something about a double album. We all kind of just shrugged it off and got on with it. In the past, we have always done it the way we want anyway. We have never been, ‘Let’s write a single.’ Not to say there aren’t single-worthy songs on the album, as most definitely ‘Tears of a Clown’ or ‘Death or Glory’ could be the next singles. But, to have that choice from a double album is great, and it’s still only 11 songs. To me, because I’m old school, this is a triple album. But, nowadays, with technology the way it is, it’s a double album.”
“In the end, we just got on with it and had the best time with it that we could,” continues Nicko. “This was the best vibe we have ever had making a record, and we have always had great times making a record in the studio, because that’s where we love to be. That said, it doesn’t touch being in a live situation. We make great records, but in the end we are a live band. That’s where we really breathe the essence of Iron Maiden. This album we wanted to try and create a more of a live feel, which is what we did. We sat around the studio with headphones on, often times around my drums playing—dare I say it—acoustic electrically... like we were set up to do a show. Then we literally just pushed the record button. It was really fresh. By the time you learn the first song you put it to bed. When you learn the second, you play the first one again. By the time you get to the last song you might have played the first, second, and third songs a few times, but there is a lot going on and it’s overkill. It’s good to get it down. ‘Speed of Light’ was done on first take. There is a couple of drum errors in there but I left them. People critiqued us and asked us why we left mistakes in there. Well, that’s because it’s the way we are. We aren’t overly-clinical. I missed a couple of 16th notes on the last chorus. The intro was not exactly the drum fill I wanted to do, which is what I rehearsed prior to recording it. But when we went in and had the red light on, it had such a vibe and dynamic feel to it—the whole track—and it speeds up a little bit, but its got this fucking live feel and we decided to keep that. We all critiqued every track that we recorded as a band, and that’s the first time that has ever happened. You know, we have all been in different combinations in the control room listening to what we have just done, and a lot of the time it would be Steve as the driving force—and he still is—of what stays and what goes, but this time we all contributed to what stayed, what went and what we would redo.”
A question burning in the hearts of many Maiden fans, what is Nicko McBrain’s role in the creation of a record? Fans would love to know where the drums sticks find their place? Tell us.
“Yeah, well, I bruised the shit out of my legs because I would play with a pair of sticks on my knees, the lot of us sitting in a semi-circle playing acoustically, very lightly. I wouldn’t play on my drum set because I’m too fucking loud (laughs). We get what we call a sketch of the album—like an artist who has sketches. It’s basically a blueprint. Then, I sit on the drum kit and put my rhythm to it. Now, nine times out of ten, it’s what is needed. Then, perhaps 1% of the time, there may be a particular drum groove that Steve would like me to play, like a particular four bar section or something like that. With ‘Empire’ I really worked with Bruce on the different dynamics and timing. I knew it was gonna be tough, because it’s a nine-beat groove—it’s the SOS signal. Bruce was adamant that I do what I feel like, and I tried some massive triplet fills but it didn’t need it. Now, when I listen back, I wish I had put some triplets in starting at the top and going all the way down the kit. I kinda second guessed that, but when we were doing it there is kind of a long section where there is an accent that goes from the top down, and I did one, but Bruce and I thought it was a bit too much—less is best.”
“So, we really communicated together with that whole section. There is also a section in the middle where it’s this sweeping arpeggio, which is meant to signal when the airships are coming out of the sky and realizing they were going down—they didn’t know they were going to explode, hopefully not, but they did. So, we had to come up with a way to musically interpret grinding metal. I suggested we put some gongs in it and some voices, some orchestral parts, but they were muted in the background for effect. I love the way Kevin, Bruce, and Steve constructed these sounds. They put a military snare at the beginning of it. That song, out of any of them, is where I had a lot of input on how we were going to interpret and drive the band through these parts. It was really a joy, because I had learned the story of the song prior to actually hearing the music. So, my input from the percussive side was easily 90%... I just went with it. We would listen back to the sections I recorded, and I would either speed it up where needed or ease up on the back-end—because there is a lot of back-end groove on this record, I would adjust accordingly. ‘Book of Souls’ is kind of like my Bonham tribute—it’s almost ‘Kashmir’-ish, Bonham-esque. I said to the guys that I wanted to make that whole section how I think Bonham would have played it. But when it came to sitting in the circle in the control room critiquing the recordings, there was no anger, no ‘You should have played it this way or that way.’ Everybody was wide-open to each other’s thoughts about the particular piece of music we just made.”
You just beat me to favourite my question. Jimmy Page was in Toronto recently and there was one quote that stuck out from those press junkets. He said with every Led Zeppelin record there was one key element that was the framework of every song; the drums. How do you relate to what he said?
“Well, with ProTools, if you make a mistake, you can go back and clean it up. But, we are old school. We want to be exactly what we play. We’ve taken songs where we have recorded three or four bits of the song, and we take the best parts of it. A big argument went down years ago when this technology became available, because I said it’s cheating. Kevin mentioned that it is not cheating because I actually played it. It’s not like we constructed and compiled something that has not been played. We’ve just taken the best bits of that verse and stuck it on that chorus. Then it became okay with me. When you are not disciplined at playing with a click track, it’s really difficult. Iron Maiden’s whole essence is based on emotion. Live is a different beast. I would speed up all the time onstage and Adrian would be like ‘I can’t play to that’ (laughs). But, in the studio we would make sure that the drum track is solid. It’s the hardest thing to redo or drop a drum track. When your drums are singing, especially when you hit a cymbal, it has a natural decay to it, making it impossible to edit unless you redo it with the exact power that you originally hit it. So, at the end of the day, we just go and play it again. The drums are the focal point at the very beginning of every track. When I say ‘beginning’ I mean when we have played it, recorded it and listen back to critique. The drums are key, as Jimmy mentioned.”
We had a great chin-wag session with Bruce just prior to The Book of Souls getting launched and we touched upon his recent cancer scare. This had to be a severe blow to the band and your brotherhood. The entire metal community was aghast and in shock. How did you react?
“I cried. When I was told I literally cried. I’m an emotional guy and I said fuck it, I just cried. I started questioning mortality. My brother, my friend, the guy I have known longer than 33 years—lived and played with this guy for half of my life. Bruce was very positive and I knew if anyone was going to beat it, it would be Bruce. But, never did I question that the band might be gone. The first thought was that, my God, my friend is sick. Throat cancer? Listening back to the record, how could he have had throat cancer singing like that? Well, turns out it was behind his tongue and didn’t affect his vocals. The great news is he has come out of this amazingly. He is in remission, and the way his oncologist treated him they haven’t destroyed his vocals chords. They’ve managed to keep them intact. His taste buds are coming back, but he can’t taste sugar. I said, well you never really took a lot of sugar in (laughs). He said he could put ten spoonfuls of sugar in his coffee and he wouldn’t taste it.”
“So, this is his recovery and this is why we aren’t touring until next year. We have to give Bruce his time to let his body heal. Don’t get my wrong, as he is not going to slow down—he runs even faster than he did two years ago. I mean, he is learning to fly 747 systems in December; he just doesn’t stop. After talking with him about how well he had researched that particular disease, I thought that, wow, this man is really in a good position. There are good times and there are bad times. Once the treatment kicked in he lost a lot weight, because you don’t eat, you don’t take stuff down well. I really didn’t take it well at first. But, I put it in prayer, and I think those prayers were answered, along with the prayers of millions of other people. I’m just amazed because the timing is so weird, as we had just made the best record we have ever made, in my opinion. Someone asked, ‘Even better than Number of the Beast?’ I said for our age, definitely. Going back to Bruce, you start to ask yourself how you can help to ease the burden. But with Bruce, you just have to step back and let him get on with his family and kids.”
I mean, we have barely recovered from Dio’s passing, and that was a few years ago.
“Yeah, it was stomach cancer that took Ronnie. With Bruce, it was a tumour the size of a golf ball, and he doesn’t even play golf! That’s me (laughs)! I love the man, and I would take a bullet for him. My analogy is, I have a love affair with five guys and the sex is the music. I know it’s a weird analogy to make, but Steve had a dream and five other guys are living it.”
For most, it’s a life-long love affair with Iron Maiden, which is rare when it comes to the arts. And The Book of Souls is just another indication of Iron Maiden’s wide-ranging effect and influence on heavy metal and music in general. Quite simply the fans continue to eat up what the band are offering on record and on stage.
But it’s more than that. Bruce Dickinson is currently in training for his licence to fly the Boeing 747-400 Jumbo Jet (aka Queen of the Skies) for their world tour next year. The new Ed Force One will take the band, crew and over 12 tons of equipment more than 55,000 miles (88,500 km) around the planet with concerts in six of the seven continents (Australasia, Asia, North and South America, Africa and Europe) with The Book of Souls World Tour 2016 expected to visit around 35 countries.
“My goodness, it’s great,” McBrain reflects, not quite sure how to soak in all the overwhelming glory. “But, it’s never been about mainstream thinking in Iron Maiden. It’s always been our way. As we have progressed, and people look back on the career of Maiden, they are amazed that we have done this with very little press. We have become, dare I say it, a household name. I have met older people right here in this restaurant, ladies in their 70s and older, who say, ‘You are the drummer for Iron Maiden! I love your restaurant. How many people are you playing for at your next show?’ I answer, ‘Oh, thank you, and 70,000 people in Chile next week.’ So, it has become like that. It’s being respected. We have always made the best records that we can, and I will quote Janick and say, ‘If we ever become a parody of ourselves, then that’s it.’ I’ve quoted Jan on that because when he first said it I thought it was very true. We’ll never rest back on our laurels of past accomplishments. This album shows it. There is still life left in us old guys yet! Maybe the drummer is stringing along a bit, but he is still the best looking bloke in the band (laughs). The success of Iron Maiden is that we love to do what we do together. That really is the whole essence of it.”
“You know, this band has always had class, panache, in whatever we do,” McBrain adds. “Primarily, we are very selfish—we do what we want to do. We love to do this stuff together, the way we do it. We’ve been very, very blessed, in terms of our success and the way management works with us. It’s not just us six guys, it’s Rod and Andy, and a bunch of other people behind the scenes. All the people in the office who take care of the press, our accountant, all back in London. All these people are part of the Iron Maiden family. I mean, you hear this said all the time, but this is something different... it really is. We may do things the way we want to do it, but it’s done properly. We don’t rip the fans off, we don’t charge a ton of money for t-shirts. Sometimes we have to charge a few bob more because concessions take a chunk of that. So, yeah, we make a very good living from touring, because you certainly don’t make money on albums anymore, at least not like you used to.”
So let’s talk about Rock N’ Roll Ribs a little bit (McBrain’s BBQ restaurant in Coral Springs, Florida, about 30 minutes outside of Fort Lauderdale).
“Yeah, this restaurant, it’s not just Maiden fans coming in,” laughs Nicko. “There are a lot of people who come from all over the place. In fact, there was a family that just came in today from Brazil to listen to Book of Souls. The restaurant has the same principles that Iron Maiden was built on—from the people that I have working with me, all the way down to the cleanliness of the restaurant.”
“Well, I love ribs,” the drummer gushes. “Long story short, a chef friend of mine, who was one-third partner of this restaurant when we started, made these ribs for me one night, and they were the best ribs I have ever had in my life. He taught me how to make his BBQ sauce, and I made some variations of it. One day we were at my place cooking up some ribs, and I used my sauce. My friends were all over him how my sauce was better than his. So, we got talking, and someone suggested we open a rib joint called Rock N’ Roll Ribs, and it just stuck. This was all the way back in 2004. It took a few years to get things together, but here we are. With all my world touring with Iron Maiden, going to all these fine eating establishments, having good wine and good food, clean environment, not too pricey... it was born from all of these experiences. So, we started the restaurant and taught the chef how to make the sauce. We don’t use molasses as it’s too expensive, we use fructose. The signature dish is the baby backs. We smoke the ribs, chicken, and pulled pork. We also have a hamburger that is to die for. The french fries are hand-cut, blanched, not frozen—totally fresh. People just love it. We have our own potato salad which is my recipe. We have been doing much better this year and it continues to grow. I couldn’t wish for a better crew working for me. People often ask me if I’m going to open another one. Yeah, I would like to, but my main focus right now is on Book of Souls and the tour.”
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