"My business is to create. It’s what I do." How Iron Maiden legend Bruce Dickinson struck out on his own, got weirder than ever and created some of the boldest music of his career, over 50 years in.

Bruce Dickinson
(Image credit: Press/John McMurtrie)

From 23 floors up, São Paulo looks like a crazed concrete Lego set pieced together by a restless toddler god. Nearby tower blocks topped with triangular steel constructs that resemble 1930s radio transmitters give way to an endless spread of grey and white buildings of all shapes and sizes, peppered by vivid splashes of greenery and crawling, multi-coloured streams of tiny cars. Somewhere in this vast, fantastic hive of humanity, 12 million souls are busy living, working, eating, sleeping, screwing and, in some cases, dying. 

But Bruce Dickinson is oblivious to the spectacular view and everything in it. Right now, his mind is… elsewhere. “I think there’s a question mark over the nature of the universe,” he’s saying. “Is it scientific? Is it poetic? Of course, it’s scientific, but science can’t measure emotion. The meditations caused by poetry can connect you with the emotions that may be expressed by alternate realities and other dimensions. Time travel is only possible in your head. In your head, you can travel back in time.” 

Sadly, we’re not in an alternate reality or another dimension. We’re sitting next to the window of an exclusive VIP bar in one of São Paulo’s most upmarket hotels. With his woolly hat and ‘Washmen’ t-shirt (a parody of Alan Moore’s landmark 1980s graphic novel Watchmen, featuring the comic’s blue-skinned protagonist Doctor Manhattan exiting a shower in a flowery plastic cap), the Iron Maiden singer stands out amid the well-heeled guests and sharp-suited business people sipping coffee and having late-morning power meetings. 

The only thing remotely bling about him is the brand new wedding ring he proudly shows Hammer – he got hitched to his French partner Leana Dolci in her native Paris two weeks ago. Bruce has been talking effusively for the past 90 minutes. The conversation has taken in Ragnarok, the occult, Sons Of Anarchy, surf guitar, William Blake, Doctor Strange, astral travel and psychedelic drugs, all of which we’ll get to soon. 

Where he’s taken more of a backseat when it comes to Maiden’s press duties in recent years, today he’s wired with enthusiasm. The reason for his excitement is the reason we’re here in São Paulo. In 24 hours, Bruce will appear at CCXP, the Brazilian Comic Con. There, in front of a hall full of rock fans, comic book junkies and movie buffs, he will unveil his new solo single, Afterglow Of Ragnarok, and its accompanying video, as well as officially launch its parent album, The Mandrake Project, and the high-profile comic book series of the same name. 

“Yes, well, there’s a lot going on,” he says at the start of our conversation. “Shall we make ourselves comfortable?”

The last time Bruce Dickinson was in São Paulo as a solo artist was way back in 1999, when he played a short tour in support of his fifth solo album, The Chemical Wedding. A lot has happened since then. 

He has – and here’s where we take a deep breath – rejoined Iron Maiden after six years out of the band, embarked on a career as a commercial pilot, founded his own aviation company, written a script for a horror movie (2008’s Chemical Wedding), helped launch a range of beers, been diagnosed with and declared free of throat cancer, released an autobiography, turned his natural abilities as a raconteur into a side-hustle as a spoken-word act, launched a podcast, and made six albums and toured the word several times with Iron Maiden.

But a solo album? Nothing since 2005’s Tyranny Of Souls, a record that was lost amid the unstoppable force of nature that is Hurricane Maiden. “An orphan album,” is how Bruce describes that record today. “It’s got some beautiful songs on it, but we didn’t have a band, we didn’t tour it, we put it out and that was it.” 

There’s little danger of that happening with The Mandrake Project. As an album, it’s epic and ambitious, aiming as big as any Iron Maiden record without actually sounding like Maiden. But the comic adds a whole other dimension to it all. He’s not the first musician to dabble in the world of graphic novels, but he is the only one to cook up a wild metaphysical story about mad magicians, malevolent dead twins, corporate occultism and transdimensional travel and turn it into a 12-issue, three year odyssey. 

Or, as he describes it: “A twisted, dark, Oedipal tale overlaid with science and the occult, but with a philosophy underneath it that becomes apparent as you go down the rabbit hole.” 

With that in mind, here are three things worth knowing upfront about The Mandrake Project. One, it’s not a concept album based on the story in the comic, or vice versa. “It’s not. I didn’t want to try and shoehorn everything into it artificially, trying to make something square when it’s actually round.” Two, having said that, there are links… “There are some lyrical elements that relate to the comic. One song is strongly linked.” And three? Better strap in. It’s going to get weird.

It’s not that Maiden albums aren’t fun, but we don’t get to play like children.

Bruce Dickinson

The chances are that you will have seen the video for Afterglow Of Ragnarok by now. It centres around an enigmatic, bearded figure named Doctor Necropolis (more on him later) and takes in pentagrams, an exploding volcano and Bruce in a cowled robe. 

The video is introduced by a title card featuring a quote by the late 18th/early 19th-century British painter, poet and mystic William Blake, a perennial inspiration to the singer: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare, my business is to create.” 

Which pretty much sums up Bruce Dickinson’s outlook. The creative journey that brought The Mandrake Project to life goes back almost 20 years. The oldest song on the 10-track album, the slow-burning Shadow Of The Gods, dates back to the early 2000s. 

It was written for the abandoned Three Tremors project, the Avengers Assemble-style supergroup conceived by Bruce as a showcase for him, Rob Halford and Ronnie James Dio. Afterglow Of Ragnarok is much more recent, written during the pandemic. Its theme, of a world reborn in the wake of an apocalypse, feels very much on the nose right now. 

“It’s a positive view of the end of the world,” says Bruce of the latter song’s subject matter. “It all goes to shit, but it just cleanses everything and we start again with the good stuff.” 

Maiden fans will already be familiar with another song, Eternity Has Failed. It appeared in slightly different form and with the marginally less pessimistic title If Eternity Should Fail as the opening track on 2015’s The Book Of Souls album. Bruce wrote the song in the early 2010s. Borrowing the name from a 1960s Doctor Strange comic, he had earmarked it as the title track for his next solo album. “I even had the cover for the album,” he says. “Like a Marvel comic, the colours and ambience.” 

The only problem was that he couldn’t see a window when he was going to be able to knuckle down to record his own album. So he decided to run the song past Steve Harris, who liked it so much that he appropriated it as the opening track on The Book Of Souls. “Though he did say, ‘It’s a bit short’, so I stuck the extra verse on,” says Bruce. “And he kept the spoken word ending: ‘I am Necropolis…’ and the rest of it. I said, ‘Are you sure?’ He went, ‘Yeah, it sounds great…’ I’m sure there were a lot of people going, ‘What the fuck is he on about?’” 

The Mandrake Project sees Bruce reuniting with Roy Z, the American guitarist and producer who has been the singer’s creative foil on four of his last five solo albums. “He’s just a magical human being, in terms of connecting technique and emotion together,” says Bruce of the man he calls ‘Zee’.

The pair began working on the album in earnest in Roy’s LA studio in 2014. They had to put it hold while Maiden went into the studio to record The Book Of Souls. Then Bruce found out he had throat cancer “and spent all of 2016 getting rid of it and getting back to some semblance of order”. Then there was a bigger-than-usual Maiden tour to catch up on what they’d missed because of Bruce’s diagnosis. “And then everybody got Covid,” he says cheerfully.

 Ten years later, here we are. While the gestation period was elephantine, that doesn’t necessarily mean the process of making The Mandrake Project was a grind. Far from it. “It’s not that Maiden albums aren’t fun, but we don’t get to play like children,” says Bruce. “Steve is very specific about stuff: things have to be done this way. It’s the way we’ve always worked and it’s obviously worked very well. Whereas me and Roy, we’re like kids in a sandbox going, ‘Hey, look at this, Zee, I can put this toy up my nose!’ It’s just energising.” 

That toys-up-the-nose approach has thrown up a couple of unexpected moments. There’s the sound of Bruce playing guitar, for one. While he regularly writes songs on the instrument, he’s never actually played one on an album. The new record features his fretboard-bothering skills on two different tracks. He adds some distinctive, twanging, surf-style guitar to the anthemic Resurrection Men. More impressively, the stirring ballad Face In The Mirror features an honest-to-God guitar solo courtesy of the singer. 

“It’s minimalist to say the least,” he says. “I couldn’t tell you a pentatonic scale from a gin and tonic. I don’t rate my guitar playing at all, but if it sounds good, I like it.”

Then there are the bongos. Resurrection Men features Bruce bashing away like a good ’un. “Dave [Moreno, the drummer on The Mandrake Project] has this big box of stuff to bang and shake,” he says. “So I started grabbing things: ‘That sounds nice, let’s have a go! Bongos? Brilliant!’” 

And here, 23 floors above São Paulo, Bruce Dickinson begins enthusiastically playing air bongos. Because why the hell not?

Traffic doesn’t flow through the streets of this city so much as inch angrily along like the world’s longest and most polluted post office queue. The 10-mile journey from our hotel to the massive São Paulo Expo where CCXP is held takes more than an hour. Around 300,000 people will descend on this sprawling complex over the next four days to watch everyone from Jason Momoa to Jodie Foster hawk their latest movies. 

Rumour has it that Chris Hemsworth is in the vicinity when we arrive, though Thor sadly doesn’t make an appearance. Bruce was invited to come here in 2022 by the guy who organises it, a big Maiden fan. “I said, ‘I can’t do it this year, but what about next year?’ I was thinking, ‘Wow, if all the things conspired…’” 

They have indeed conspired. As well as hosting the world premiere of Afterglow Of Ragnarok and its video, CCXP is the perfect launchpad for The Mandrake Project’s other, arguably even more ambitious component: the comic book. The comic is more recent than the album, though the idea of doing something along those lines has been circling around his head for a while. 

As a kid, he loved the weirder, more mind-bending end of the Marvel superhero spectrum: Doctor Strange, the Silver Surfer… “The cosmic ones,” he says with a laugh. Discovering Alan Moore’s Watchmen was a revelation. “I went: ‘This is the future, this is where literature is going.’”

During lockdown, he and Leana had binge-watched the TV show Sons Of Anarchy and loved it. It sparked the idea for a “Four bikers of the apocalypse kind of story”, initially conceived as a screenplay. Then his friend, the director Sacha Gervasi, offered to introduce him to Sons Of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter via Zoom. 

“I went, ‘Fuck yes, I’d love to pick his brain ’cos I’ve got this crazy idea…’” Bruce and Kurt hit it off and began working on an idea for an Iron Maiden animated series. “It was very, very, very dark and intense,” says the singer. “I really liked it, but I wasn’t sure the management would approve, ’cos it was too dark.’” 

So it proved. The Four Bikers Of The Apocalypse idea wasn’t completely binned – it ended up being repurposed for the video for Maiden’s 2021 single The Writing On The Wall. But Kurt suggested Bruce write a comic instead. “It was going to be one issue,” he says. “Then it grew to four. Then it ballooned to 12, spread across three volumes, more than 300 pages in total.” 

With the help of US publishing house Z2 - the comics specialists responsible for countless high-profile band tie-ins, including Maiden’s recent Piece Of Mind comic book anthology – the singer enlisted a stellar cast of collaborators, among them writer Tony Lee [Doctor Who/2000 AD], cover artist Bill Sienkiewicz [Moon Knight/Marvel’s New Mutants] and artist Staz Johnson [2000 AD/Wolverine]. Now, just under four years later, it has reached fruition. 

At the hotel, he spends almost 30 minutes laying out The Mandrake Project story to Hammer, touching on issues of the comic that haven’t even been written yet. “For God’s sake, don’t print any of that,” he says when he’s done, suddenly wary of spoilers. 

Here’s what we can say. The story centres around Doctor Necropolis, an occult-obsessed “digital genius” who is tortured by the voice of a twin brother who died at birth, and Professor Lazarus, head of a mysterious organisation called The Mandrake Project, which has developed a way of bringing the dead back to life. 

Bruce compares them to notorious 19th-century grave robbers Burke and Hare, only they’re dealing with souls rather than corpses (this is where the song Resurrection Men comes into play). Also in the mix are the shadowy Kelley family, a thinly veiled and less than benign version of the Disney family, and an array of supporting characters, including Leah, a nurse and Necropolis’s ritual magic sex partner. 

In the first issue alone, there’s a near-fatal overdose of hallucinogenic mandrake root, ritual shagging, red-eyed devil dogs, an encounter with the spirit of William Blake and the mysterious Lazarus Institute, which will play a key part in the rest of the story. 

“The story in the comic exists in several dimensions,” says Bruce. “There’s the now, there’s the then, there’s also the underworld. The question is: ‘Is the underworld inside you, or is it a real underworld that’s external to you?’ Part of one of the later books will take place in Necropolis’s psyche – his dreamworld, or nightmare world, or whatever you want to call it.”

The metaphysical, the esoteric and the occult are threads that run through much of the singer’s work, from 1983’s quasi-Biblical Maiden song Revelations, to the themes of prophecy and clairvoyance on 1988’s Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son album, to 1998’s Blake-inspired The Chemical Wedding, and the later, unconnected film of the same name (an imagining of notorious occultist Aleister Crowley running amok in the modern day). 

The interest in all things strange and mystical was fostered in his early teens, when he was an unhappy boarder at Oundle public school in Northamptonshire. “It’s my 14- or 15-year-old self, being at boarding school and feeling totally powerless,” he says. “And thinking, ‘I’m going to read books about the occult, maybe it’ll help me out.’” 

The late 60s and early 70s was a time when interest in the esoteric was at its peak. Bruce’s gateway was the 1972 book Magic: An Occult Primer by David Conway. “It was things like, ‘how to go astral travelling’, ‘how the soul works’. It wasn’t black magic shit or anything like that. It was about meditation, herbs, spells and things like that.” And did you try astral travelling? “Yeah, I did. Nothing happened! Ha ha ha!” 

What about other stuff? How deep have you gone on a practical level with the ritual magic side of things? ‘Not at all. I’m more of an interested onlooker.” 

Be honest. Were psychedelic drugs involved at any point in coming up with this whole thing? “Nope,” he says proudly. “I’ve never actually done anything like that in my life. If I think like this when I’m straight…” He trails off, letting the sentence hang. He has a point.

Bruce Dickinson 2024

(Image credit: Press/John McMurtrie)

It’s just gone half past three, local time, and Bruce’s job here is done. For the past 30 minutes, he’s been in full raconteur mode onstage at CCXP, the perfect pitchman for his grand new project. The Afterglow Of Ragnarok video got two rapturously received airings on the giant screen, though it’s not clear how many here have clocked the winking, ‘Presented In Necrovision’ credit as a tribute to the singer’s beloved Hammer Studios.

There’s no rest for the wicked. After Bruce flies home, he’ll convene his solo band in Cornwall with Afterglow Of Ragnarok director Ryan Mackfall, to make the video for next single Rain On The Graves. It will involve Faustian pacts with the Devil and the band playing in a remote, spooky house. 

“We’re going full Hammer Horror with this one,” he says gleefully. Then there’s his upcoming tour to rehearse for, which begins in May. The plan, he says, is to focus on 1997’s Accident Of Birth, The Chemical Wedding and the new album. 

“I did think of doing Born In ’58 [the autobiographical anthem from his debut solo album, Tattooed Millionaire], because I love that song,” he says. “And even Roy was like, ‘Anything off of [1996’s divisive] Skunkworks?’ Because that’s a fabulously underrated album. But I was like, ‘Hmmm, you know what, later. Let’s get our feet under the table with this tour first.’” 

All of this – album, comic, tour – only reinforces the idea that he can do anything he turns his hand to. “Not true,” he counters. “I can’t drive and I can’t play golf. But I do thrive on what I like doing. There’s only so many things you can do in the limited period of time you have, but it’s like the William Blake quote at the start of the video says: my business is to create, it’s what I do.”

The Mandrake Project is out now via BMG. Bruce Dickinson's solo tour starts April 15 at The Observatory in Orange County. 

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.