Has it been six years? Well, time flies when you’re enjoying yourself!” Steve Harris lets out a hearty laugh.
In times of uncertainty, few things are as likely to soothe agitated metalheads as the phrase “Iron Maiden are on tour.” Bizarrely, it’s nearly six years since the UK’s undisputed heavy metal champions embarked on a bona fide headlining jaunt around the British Isles. Thanks to regular headlining slots at UK festivals, they can hardly be accused of being stingy with their home- turf appearances, but there’s something undeniably special about a fully fledged Iron Maiden UK tour, and this climactic leg of the band’s Book Of Souls world trek has been a long time coming.
Still very much the human dynamo driving the Maiden machine along, bassist and founder member Steve is an ebullient mood today: even down a phone line, it’s more than apparent that after a few months of rest and recuperation, he’s absolutely itching to get back on the road and to finally bring the full, eye-boggling Book Of Souls stage show to Maiden’s loyal fellow Brits.
“To be honest, it bugs me that we can’t tour everywhere more, not just the UK,” Steve says. “It’s just one of those things. The more popular you become as a band, the more in demand you are everywhere, and that’s fantastic and a brilliant thing, but it means you can’t physically play everywhere as much as you’d like, otherwise you’d be on tour for two years solid. So these days it’s quality rather than quantity, but we’re very excited about the UK dates. Playing at home is always special.”
Steve’s remorseless enthusiasm for all things Maiden remains as infectious now as it was when the band first exploded into our world, and his heartfelt respect for every single Maiden fan on the planet is beyond dispute. But it’s still hard to imagine that after performing to the famously rabid and ultra-passionate fans in, say, South America, dropping anchor in this land of perpetual drizzle and performing to somewhat less demonstrative British audiences can possibly match up. Not that the UK gigs won’t be brilliant, of course, but we definitely can’t compete with the Brazilians.
“Well, we’re just a more reserved race of people, aren’t we?” Steve notes. “We’re just not the kind of people who go mental, unless we’ve had a few beers, ha ha! That’s something you learn very early on, the difference between audiences. British people don’t have that Latin blood, but we still get a great reaction, it’s just in a different way. If I go to a gig, I’m an Englishman and I’m not going to go completely berserk either, you know? But that’s the British way. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s always fantastic to see the British fans.”
In fairness, Steve and Maiden’s British fans go back a long, long way. The band have toured the UK well in excess of 20 times by this point, exhibiting a dedication to honouring their homegrown supporters that stretches right back to the very start of the band’s rise to glory. Today he speaks fondly of the “regulars down the front”; the ultra-hardcore Maiden fans that travel to show after show, tour after tour, sometimes travelling thousands of miles to see the band in action. Some of the faces Steve expects to see looking up from the front row on the forthcoming UK tour have been more or less omnipresent since Maiden’s first few years of success.
“They follow us all over the bloody place!” he says. “They’re just normal people, so how they save up to pay for all these trips, I don’t know. But you get to know the faces and it‘s great. I really look forward to seeing them. They all know who they are and they know we recognise them, too. The loyalty is incredible.”
Of course, when Maiden embarked on their first full headlining tour of the UK back in 1980, shortly after providing main support to Judas Priest on their European tour that same year, they were still in the process of nurturing their now-colossal global fanbase. After several years of dogged hard work in pubs and clubs, both in the band’s hometown of London and around the rest of the country, they had firmly established themselves as the hottest new heavy band around and, from the outside at least, seemed to make the job of conquering the UK look rather easy.
“Well, we were ready for it, I suppose,” Steve recalls. “We’d done so many gigs beforehand. It was a natural step up for us anyway. Obviously it was exciting for us to go on tour with a band like Priest, who we all loved, and to play at much bigger venues and all that, but we’d already played all over the country. That took Priest by surprise because there were a lot of people there to see us, and I don’t think they were expecting that at the time! We’d put in the ground work, so it was a great tour for us. Then we toured with Kiss in Europe as well, and after that we could go and headline everywhere.”
Given that we are talking about 37 years ago, what exactly was an Iron Maiden stage set like at that point? Presumably you didn’t have the kind of budget you have today…
“Not really, no! It was quite basic, but we had Eddie at the back and all that stuff. It was early days with lighting and the rest of it, but we did seem to be doing more than most bands were doing at that time. Even when we were playing pubs, we’d try to put on a bit more of a show than everyone else. It was about the music first and foremost, but we wanted to do something a bit different and bit special, same as we do now.”
Amost four decades later, Maiden could hardly have a stronger reputation for putting on a bombastic, visually enthralling show. The live experience is as integral to the band’s enduring appeal as the music itself, while Steve’s attention to detail and steadfast belief in maintaining high professional standards means that value for money is simply an expected part of the deal for Maiden fans. If we were playing Devil’s advocate, however, we might argue that as much as every discerning metalhead adores Iron Maiden, they don’t exactly have the most debauched of collective back stories, with frontman Bruce Dickinson’s recent triumph over cancer being one of precious few dramatic incidents from the last three decades. Was there ever a time when Maiden were living a life of excess, getting shitfaced and trashing hotel rooms?
“Ha ha! Yeah, back in the early days there was certainly an element of that!” Steve laughs. “That was all going on, without a doubt, but there was more of that going on when we were supporting Priest, because there’s less pressure when you’re supporting. When you’re playing for 90 minutes or longer, you have to take care of yourself a bit more, as opposed to when you’ve just got to do 45 minutes and you have more time on your hands. That’s when you get up to all kinds of naughtiness, ha ha ha! We hit every bar in Europe… every bar in the world! But once you’ve done it two or three times, it starts to wear a bit thin and you think, ‘Hold on a minute, I haven’t actually seen anything of the cities I’ve been in…’ I grew out of drinking by ’86, to be honest. I’d been through all kinds of things, and come through the other side more or less OK, so I thought, ‘I’d better stop now!’”
It might not be the most salacious revelation of all time, but one truth behind Iron Maiden’s ability to consistently deliver the goods is that the band have always recognised that when people spend their hard-earned cash on a ticket, they deserve to get what they paid for. Some bands thrive on a reputation for obnoxious behaviour and drunken chaos. Maiden just don’t roll that way.
“Mentioning no names, but some people can get away with doing all kinds of weird and wonderful things before a show and still play well, but I can’t!” Steve notes with a chuckle. “I did try once in Chicago, at an open-air free festival in ’81. I had quite a few beers before the gig and it just crept up on me and I didn’t have the best gig in the world. It bothered the hell out of me later and that taught me a lesson, so I didn’t drink before shows after that. I know I’m not at my best if I’ve had a drink. I used to get a hangover for three days, rather than one, and I started to think that maybe I was a lightweight, but then I found out that I was allergic to wheat, hops and barley, so I had to switch to cider, ha ha!”
Digging for dirt in the Maiden camp has never been a worthwhile pastime: what you see is, and always has been, what you get. Even when Bruce Dickinson quit the band in 1993, not without a faint whiff of acrimony, there was a strong sense of, ‘Sorry, nothing to see here, folks!’ and Maiden simply regrouped, recruited Blaze Bayley and got swiftly back to the grindstone. Since the dawn of the millennium and Maiden’s triumphant reincarnation as an all-conquering sextet, the band have radiated nothing but total harmony and unified sense of positive purpose. Again, it’s all entirely admirable, but it’s hard not to wonder if there have been any juicy arguments or tantrums erupting behind the scenes.
“I’m afraid not, it’s always been harmonious really,” Steve states. “People do try to find some kind of issue or something going on, don’t they? I suppose that’s the journalist’s job. But it’s always been very harmonious in Maiden. We’ve had our moments like any other band, but less of them than most, from what I hear of it!”
Go on, there must be something. Can you remember the last proper argument you had with someone in the band?
“No… well, it was probably with Nicko [McBrain, Maiden drummer], anyway! That was probably three albums ago. We haven’t had any rows on the last two albums. The funny thing is, if you’re gonna choose any two people in the band, me and Nicko are probably the most matey out of all of us, so maybe that’s why we have the occasional argument or two. But we haven’t had one for a few years. We’re probably due one, ha ha!”
Is that just a rhythm section thing, though? Do you ever moan about each other’s mistakes?
“Oh yeah, without a doubt! He’d be the first to admit it as well. That’s just how it goes, isn’t it? But the truth is, we’ve never really been drama-type people. We’re pretty easy-going blokes. But I suppose we could all turn out to be really cantankerous in a few years’ time and then the answer will be something different…”
By the time they get to the end of the UK tour, Iron Maiden will have played well over 100 two-hour shows on The Book Of Souls world tour. Most people would arrive home after such a gruelling touring stint and relish the thought of having absolutely fuck- all to do for a while. For a self-evident workaholic and tireless enthusiast for performing like Steve Harris, the end of a tour must bring some mixed emotions. Does he ever suffer from post-tour blues?
“Ending a tour is a weird thing. You are glad it’s over because you’re knackered, to a certain degree,” he says. “But you’re also sorry it’s over, because you were having such a good time. Then your body starts shutting down because you’ve been in adrenaline mode for so long. That’s why it’s important for us to play each year, really. If you leave it too long, things start rusting up, especially at our age! I do work a lot harder on my fitness now. You have to. But it’s good to chill out sometimes, too.”
Do you ever slob out on the sofa with Netflix and a giant bag of crisps? Somehow it’s hard to imagine you sitting still for long enough…
“Well, I do watch a bit of Netflix and a few movies and I enjoy doing that too, yeah. I’ve watched a few things recently. I thought Narcos was great. Everyone should watch that one. It’s unbelievable. I’ve watched a few different series. I watched Vikings recently and that’s great, too. It has to be available in a box set, though. I can’t watch something at the same time every week and I don’t like waiting a week for the next episode. I’m far too impatient for that, ha ha ha!”
Speaking of impatience, the interminable wait is finally over, and Iron Maiden are about to hit the road in the UK. Like most tours they do, it will almost certainly feel like another lap of honour for a band that have somehow managed to become even more successful as respected veterans than they did as an unstoppable, youthful force in the 80s. In a sense, Maiden have become almost untouchable, and a cynic might suggest that they have had a fairly easy ride from the media, Metal Hammer included, over the last 17 years in particular. There certainly haven’t been any notable bad album reviews in recent times, arguably because the albums have been consistently great, but it’s intriguing to contemplate how Steve would react if Maiden received a major kicking in the press at this point…
“We’ve always had the rough and the smooth, like anyone else,” he argues. “Some people maybe feel that they can’t criticise us and it’s a shame if they feel like that. But hopefully they won’t need to criticise us! It doesn’t affect us too much. With a career as long as ours, it goes up and down in waves, and you can’t expect to have critical acclaim all the time. You’re only human, so you want to be liked and you don’t want to be criticised. I’d rather have the praise, but if someone doesn’t like what we do then that’s their opinion. It doesn’t change anything that we do. We’ve never changed for anyone else, so why change now?”
So here we are again. It’s 2017, the world has gone mad, but, gloriously, some things remain the same. Steve Harris and Iron Maiden may not have hidden secrets, behind-the-scenes drama or even moments of profound self-doubt, but what they do have is a never-ending dedication to being Iron Maiden and to keep putting smiles on our faces for as long as is humanly possible. As Steve cheerfully confirms, this band is a long way from being done. Thank fuck for that.
“I think we’d all like to do another album. I don’t know when it’ll happen but I’m sure there’ll be another one,” Steve concludes. “That’s something for the future, but at this stage we just want to get out and carry on playing for as long as we can. It’s really, really enjoyable. It always has been, to be honest. We don’t feel finished at all. If we ever feel like we’re finished, we’ll stop. But we’re all enjoying it far too much for that. You’ve just got to cram in as much as you can while you’re on this Earth, haven’t you?”
Maiden tour the UK in May