Their secret? According to Bruce Dickinson, it’s writing new songs, golf and… underpants.
So, The Book Of Souls. Did you have any interest in Mayan culture before you came up with the title?
No, no. Not me! Nothing to do with me. It’s Steve’s [Harris, bass] song. He’s totally developed an interest in Mayan culture. Not sure why. But he has, so hence he thought: “Call it The Book Of Souls.” “Yeah, okay,” you know? Book Of Souls sounds like a pretty good Iron Maiden title, doesn’t it?
The idea of ‘souls’ pops up in quite a few lyrics on the album.
Yeah, it does. But then on the other hand, you could call an Iron Maiden album The Book Of Dark and you’d say, “Oh, every song has ‘dark’ in it somewhere.” Everybody thinks that everything on an album is planned, and it’s not. It looks that way afterwards, of course. It makes you think about the Bible. You go, “Of course it’s not planned, it’s just a bloody accident. They’re making it all up as they go along.” And at the end of it, somebody says: “Aah, it was all prophecy!” My arse.
It also features horns and strings, which you haven’t done before. What made you go down that route?
Well, I wrote Empire Of The Clouds on piano. And when you write on piano it just suggests things. I could hear harpsichords, tubular bells, timpani, all this stuff. And I thought, “Wow.” So yeah: French horns – tick. Cellos – tick. Oboe – tick.
How will you recreate that live? Will the band swap their instruments for horns and strings?
No. I doubt we will ever do that song live.
Is it true you’re building the largest aircraft in history? A mix of airplane and airship?
Yes. In the same hangar where they built the R101 [the airship that inspired Empire Of The Clouds]. It’s still there. In fact there are two hangars. One they built the R101 in. Next door, they built the sister ship, the R100. The R100 flew across the Atlantic and came back. But that was built by a private enterprise. The R101 was built by the government, and they made some compromises. The airship was so heavy it couldn’t take any passengers, so they had to make it even bigger, which made it structurally weaker. Oh, it’s just an incredible story. I could go on all night.
When are you launching that plane?
We’ve already flown it in America. We can cruise at about 120kph, but we can do it for five days. So crossing the Atlantic: not a problem. And the whole vehicle is heavier than air, so it lands vertically and takes off vertically. Doesn’t use a runway.
Would you use it to transport Maiden around on tour?
Listen, if we could get from A to B in one of our airships then we would. But it’ll be two or three years before that’s possible.
You’ve also got an aircraft repair business, Cardiff Aviation, and you’re also helping to relaunch the African airline, Air Djibouti. How did you find time to record an Iron Maiden album?
Oh, doing a Maiden album is brilliant. I just say: “Look guys, sorry, I’m busy.” Delegate!
Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
I am an entrepreneur, no question about that. I must confess: I’d like to be an entrepreneur with other people’s money, but doesn’t everybody?
With everything you’ve got going on, how much of a wake-up call was being diagnosed with cancer?
That was a full stop. That’s when the car hits the brick wall and the airbag comes out and you go: “Okay…” When I got the diagnosis, the doc said: “What are your plans?” I said, “Plans? As of right now, I’m starting getting rid of this. That’s my full-time job. Nothing else matters.” I researched everything. I researched the drugs, I researched the toxicology, I researched the cancer. My oncologist was fantastic because he explained to me the way the whole process works. I kept going back to him with questions, saying: “So, why do you do this then? And why is this important?” He said: “Oh! That’s because the cancer works like this, and we need to do this to it to get it to work.” And I said: “Okay, understood.” I really wanted to understand exactly what was happening to my body. I wanted to be able to… not control it, because you can’t control it…
But defend it with knowledge?
Yeah, exactly. I said, “I am my own science project for the next nine weeks.” I’ve had enough radiation to kill 13 people. And it was an interesting experience. Not one I would wish to repeat, but you just get on with it. Thousands of people in the world have to do exactly the same. It’s not just me.
Did they tell you how long it would take for you to recover?
I asked the oncologist and he said: “I’ll give you an example. I had an RAF fighter pilot with exactly the same tumour as you. He was sat in that chair exactly at the same moment as I’m talking to you now. And the next time I saw him and he was a hundred per cent fit and healthy almost a year later.” My first thought was, ‘I’m going to beat that guy!’ Not that I’m competitive, but… I’m a little competitive.
Is it true you grew a moustache?
Yeah, I grew a Baader-Meinhof-style moustache. It was either the Baader-Meinhof gang or a bad porn star. Actually, I had my picture taken on a building site. I was wearing a hard hat, and I went, “Oh my God, it’s YMCA! It’s got to go!” So I got rid of the moustache.
The Book Of Souls shows there’s still some fire left in Iron Maiden…
Oh God, yeah. Doing a Maiden album is not like doing work. It is work in that we’re working, but it’s not mentally. For some people, work is something they don’t enjoy to make them money to do things they do enjoy. For me, I always thought, ‘I should try and make it so that everything I do is what I enjoy.’ You don’t want to get out of bed, but that’s the worst it ever gets.
Steve Harris has said in the past that there wouldn’t be more than fifteen Iron Maiden albums. The Book Of Souls is your sixteenth…
The wheels have fallen off that bus, yeah. I don’t know where we go after this one. I’m not going to make any predictions. There’s no point in speculating. But I was all in favour of carrying on [recording]. I said: “While we’re here, well, why don’t just make another one while we’re at it?” I don’t get retirement. The only thing I’ll say about retirement is, if you want to stop doing something, that’s fine. But I would only stop doing something because I wanted to do something else.
You once said that being in a rock band is the only job in the world where men in their fifties can wear the most outrageous clothing and get away with it.
That’s right. It’s the only place you can wear your underpants on the outside of your trousers and not be arrested.
What will you be wearing on the tour next year?
On the last tour I actually had shit made up – it was kind of the steampunk sort of look. So who knows what I’m going to be dressed up in next time.
There are some brilliant Iron Maiden tribute bands out there…
Yes, including us! The only difference between us and an Iron Maiden cover band is that we do new Iron Maiden albums. Funnily enough, while that’s a joke, it’s also a good point. Without doing new albums, you just become a karaoke band of yourself. And that’s not a good enough reason for me to give up a big chunk of my life to go on tour. Hey, the money’s great. Terrific. It’s not enough. Needs to be more than that, because this band is so important to so many people. It needs to be more than just: “Hey, it’s all about the money.”
That’s why this album is so important. That’s why when it turned out it was a double album, we went: “Great!” Nobody does double albums any more. Except us. Our manager said: “Oh, a double album – what a pain in the arse! Can’t you do like Guns N’ Roses did with Use Your Illusion?” We went: “No, fuck yourself! We’re not Guns N’ Roses. This is one album at one time.”
So, back to the Maiden tribute bands. There’s Maiden United, an all-acoustic tribute band And then there’s the Iron Maidens, an all-female band from LA with a singer called Bruce Chickinson.
I’ve seen the Iron Maidens in Mexico. We all went. We were watching them and I said to Steve, “This is a really weird question, but looking at them, would you fuck yourself?” And he went: “I don’t know, but we’ve all been thinking it!” It was very, very weird.
Which is your favourite Eddie?
I think the Egyptian one is great. And the Live After Death one is fantastic as well. They would be my two favourites. Although as the walk-on Eddie, the Somewhere In Time one takes some beating.
For a mascot, he’s taken on a life of his own. It’s some achievement when you think that it all started with Maiden’s manager, Rod Smallwood, putting on a mask during early gigs and making a complete fool of himself.
It was just a kabuki mask from a joke store. And then I think it was Rod’s idea to put a weird personality on the face. And then they had made a rubber mask, and a leather jacket. And then it became symbolic of every crazy adolescent fantasy.
These days, a Maiden audience is made up of families: the 13-year-old kid throwing the devil horns; the dad, who is totally wasted; and mom, the MILF…
You’re lucky. I’m fifty-seven next year – I’m not sure I can get MILFs any more! It’s very strange, as the audience gets bigger the profile gets younger. That’s good to know.
Is part of your job bringing an arena down to the size of a club for the crowd?
Absolutely. The opening lines to the opening track on the album are: ‘Start to speak with the shaman again/Conjure the jester again’ – here were go! That’s it. That’s what we do onstage. I’m the court jester and the shaman, all in one.
Is an Iron Maiden tour sex, drugs and rock’n’roll? Or is it more golf and the odd beer?
Well, I don’t do golf. Our drummer does, but he’s not unusual in that. There are plenty of former heroin addicts who like golf. In fact, I think golf is maybe worse. To be honest with you, it’s very seldom that we do more than go out and have a few beers because we’re usually too knackered. It takes a while for the old body to recover when we’re doing three or four shows a week. We don’t just wander around the stage – we throw ourselves around a bit.
And you still fence, right? You fenced against Bartosz Piasecki, the Norwegian Olympic silver medallist. How was that?
I wasn’t in shape at all. I mean, they just stuck me up – he was number two in the world. I got a couple of points on him. He’s about two-and-a-half metres tall.
Do you ever regret not joining the British Olympic fencing team?
Honestly, not really. Because first of all, the British Olympic team weren’t very good. I mean, they were very good because they were the best we had in England, but on the world stage? They weren’t that good. So I could’ve joined the British Olympic team, and then I would have gone out in the first or second round of the Olympics like all the other guys in the team. I was average. If you compare it to tennis, in the world rankings of fencing, I didn’t exist. In the national rankings, yeah, great. But you’re in the national rankings in a B-list country. Not bad for a guy in a rock’n’roll band but let’s not go crazy here.
Will you ever finish your rock opera on the violinist Paganini?
You know what? The script is still sitting there. If somebody wants to come along with a couple of million bucks, then yeah. I’m not holding my breath.