“People are gonna think it’s either the last album or that we’re Trekkies”: how Iron Maiden made The Final Frontier and silenced rumours they’d reached the end of the road

Iron Maiden against a space-style background
(Image credit: Press)

Steve Harris once famously proclaimed that he planned to make 15 Iron Maiden albums and that would be it for the band. So when they released their 15th album, the mischievously titled The Final Frontier, in 2010, Metal Hammer had no choice but to join them on tour in the US to find out if it really was the end of the road for the metal icons.

It’s a hot and sticky summer day in San Antonio, Texas. As you walk out from your air-conditioned hotel foyer into the sweltering outdoors, possibly to head down the road to The Alamo, where Ozzy Osbourne famously took a drunken piss many years ago, the effect is like being subsumed in hot custard. The natives, as you might imagine, behave as if temperatures that edge towards the 100 degrees mark are the most normal thing in the world. The British, however, are stopped in their tracks and compelled to pull stunned, slightly alarmed faces. It’s seriously bastard hot here and were it not for the fact that Iron Maiden are in town and about to hit the stage at the AT&T Center, one of the city’s major indoor venues, Metal Hammer would probably be found cowering in a jumbo-sized refrigerator somewhere, in between bottles of Mexican beer.

But this is the third show of the metal titans’ brand new tour; a tantalising precursor to the release of their 15th album, The Final Frontier, and every self-respecting metalhead from the surrounding area understands their solemn duty. Sixteen thousand of them are crammed into the venue and making a vast amount of noise, primed by support act Dream Theater and whipped up to fever pitch by the simple fact that there is no such thing as a half-arsed Iron Maiden gig. 

In keeping with the science-fiction vibes of the new album’s artwork and lyrical themes, The Final Frontier show kicks off with a suitably space-orientated intro and some ominous, otherworldly lighting, before guitarist Adrian Smith marches out onto the stage playing the thunderous opening riff to The Wicker Man, and all hell breaks reassuringly loose as the rest of Maiden storm the stage, as vital, ebullient and deafening as ever. Despite an occasionally vexed relationship with the US – the one country in the world that seemed to require a bit of persuasion to fully embrace this incarnation of Maiden, even as the rest of the world went cheerfully batshit at their every move – Maiden are welcomed back as conquering heroes over here these days.

On this occasion, two years after their Flight 666 exploits and the whole Somewhere Back In Time tour cycle, the band are revisiting the music they have made over the last decade, since the return of Adrian and singer Bruce Dickinson helped to usher in a second golden age for this most enduring and consistently adored of metal bands. In stark contrast to the nostalgic majesty of that last round-the-world jaunt, the new Maiden set focuses primarily on songs from Brave New World, Dance Of Death and A Matter Of Life And Death, with just one song from the early days – the ageless Wrathchild – thrown in to the main body of the show, with a few old favourites appearing as welcome encores, as you may expect.

Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris onstage at the Sonisphere festival in 2010

(Image credit: Future)

Alongside the epic, bombastic likes of Ghost Of The Navigator, Paschendale and The Reincarnation Of Benjamin Breeg, one new song, the monstrous El Dorado provides a uniquely fresh highlight. Available for the last few weeks as a free download, the song is both quintessential Iron Maiden and remarkably fresh and distinct from past glories; a thrilling teaser for an album that, when you finally get to hear it, is practically guaranteed to blow your mind and put a year-long grin on your face.

The fact is, 30 years after the release of their self-titled debut album, Iron Maiden look and sound a long way from a band who are winding down and eyeing retirement. Speaking with Bruce, Adrian, bassist and founder member Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain after another triumphant show has ended, Metal Hammer gets the distinct impression that this is simply the beginning of another chapter in this band’s remarkable story…

How does it feel to be back on the road again and playing a set of songs from the last decade, rather than from 20 or 30 years ago?

Steve Harris: “It’s actually a real challenge, especially starting off in the States, because the hardcore fans know the stuff but some of the other people here don’t know it at all. You can tell! So it’s more of a challenge, but we’re enjoying it. As soon as we get to Canada and Europe it’ll be very different, because they’ll know the words to every song. But I think we’ve got to mix it up and keep challenging ourselves. The tour before last we did A Matter Of Life And Death and we did the whole album, so you just have to keep refreshing what you do, in front of any audience. I know people will moan that we’re not playing The Trooper or something like that, but we played it on the last five, six, seven tours. We’ve never done things the easy way anyway. It’s not just a question of being stubborn, it’s about keeping it fresh for everybody.”

Is it more rewarding to play newer songs than doing the whole greatest hits thing?

Bruce Dickinson: “It’s really rewarding to play these songs if we can fuckin’ remember them! Ha ha! But yes, it’s great. I thought that Brave New World, looking back, was a classic album that came straight out of the box, but we haven’t had that much chance to pay much attention to it. We’re playing four songs from that album on this tour and they all sound completely incredible. But you can only really go by the audience reaction. Tonight was the first show where I actually found myself getting two thirds of the way through the set and thinking, ‘Oh, it’s almost over!’ and that’s when time seems to pass and you’re in the zone, so that was really good…”

Nicko McBrain: “There’s no real difference for me but it’s great to play this stuff. It’s quite weird to think of songs that are 10 years old as recent. I like the balance we’ve got between the last four records. It’s fresh for us to go back and revisit. It’s always hard to know what to play anyway! Somewhere Back On Tour was a celebration of the old stuff, but this isn’t about that. It’s a celebration of our last few albums.”

Adrian Smith: “We don’t want to be a cabaret act. We could probably play Vegas for the rest of our lives, but we want to play new material and keep moving forward. These songs are quite long and we thought it might be a bit tricky for the audience, but the response has been fantastic. In fact, I don’t remember the response ever being this good in America. They’ve just been really into it.”

Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier [Director's Cut] (Official Videos) - YouTube Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier [Director's Cut] (Official Videos) - YouTube
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Why do you think that is? The US seems to love Maiden now more than ever

Adrian: “I noticed it when I came back into the band in ’99, that there were a lot of new fans in Europe but America didn’t seem to have changed. But thinking about it, on this tour there seems to be a lot of younger fans and the response has been a lot more European, if you like. In Europe the response is always great and we’re floating on air out there, but in America you always have to work a bit harder because the audiences, funnily enough, are a bit more laidback. In Europe and South America they just go bonkers all the time, but here they’re spoilt for choice, so you have to drive it harder. But yeah, it’s been fantastic and a real surprise.”

When Bruce and Adrian rejoined in 1999, did any of you expect to become as successful as you are right now?

Adrian: “There was always that strong ambition in the band. When I got involved again, I spoke to everyone and it was clear that it was going to be more of a long-term thing. I didn’t think it’d be this long. It’s 11 years now and it seems like yesterday that we came back. I’m surprised on one hand that it has gone so big again, but it was always obvious that we were going to have a real crack at it. It’s worked out pretty well!”

Steve: “I never thought this far ahead. You just see how it goes and you never get a clear indication of how something’s going to work long term. Bruce was out of the band for a few years and Adrian was out of the band for a few years as well, but right from the start there was no problem whatsoever, and that surprised me! I thought there’d be a few teething problems, but that didn’t happen at all. You don’t really want grief in your life, do you? So it’s been wonderful really. I think it helps that we’ve made some really strong albums along the way.”

Bruce: “No, we didn’t expect any of this and it’s getting more silly by the day! I’m very cautious about people getting us to work too hard so that we end up going, ‘We’re not enjoying this any more’, so whilst you don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, you can make sure it doesn’t lay too many and you keep things chilled, and then I think we can keep ourselves going for a lot longer.”

You all give the impression that you’re having more fun than ever before

Steve: “Yeah, I think that’s true. These days, in general, we’re a lot happier and you can see that onstage. The first shows are always a bit edgy, as they are on any tour, but the feeling onstage is better than it’s ever been – there’s no reason why we can’t carry on as long as we want to carry on. We’re older and wiser and we don’t argue about stupid things any more. Well, maybe once in a while, but it doesn’t last five minutes! It’s easier and a lot more amenable now. We know each other a lot better. We’ve always used things in a positive way. If you’re feeling down or pissed off, turn it into a dark song. I did pretty much a whole album like that on The X Factor!”

Iron Maidens Bruce Dickinson onstage at the Sonisphere festival in 2010

(Image credit: Future)

Life on the road is considerably easier for Iron Maiden in 2010 than it was 25 years ago, when they conquered the States for the first time. Travelling between shows on their own private jet and pacing their tours so that gigs on consecutive days are a rarity, the band have earned the right to do things their own way and are clearly enjoying the privilege and pleasure of seeing the world in comfort. Sharing a few post-gig drinks in the bar, they will chat excitedly about their trip to NASA headquarters in Houston the other day, when the band entered the Mission Control room, perfectly preserved from the days of the original Apollo moon missions, and saw their own faces grinning back at them from the giant screens that hang on the wall in front of rows of desks and computers.

After 35 years of doing this, the six members of Iron Maiden all still seem slightly surprised at how frequently they encounter fans in the unlikeliest of situations, but they also remain utterly down to Earth and philosophical about the whole thing, as if to allow a single shred of complacency or arrogance into their worldview would bring the whole thing crashing down around them. They needn’t worry, of course, but it’s hard to imagine certain other big metal bands exhibiting quite the same level of humility.

Everyone who cares about metal knows that Maiden are a special band; a band that transcends race, religion, culture and anything else you care to mention, and that generates a level of devotion that no other band, from any genre, comes close to matching. What is rarely acknowledged is the reality of how that has all been achieved. Without support from TV, radio, the vast majority of the press or any kind of accidental trend bearing them forwards, Maiden have become arguably the best-loved rock band in the world and the key to their ongoing success has been a combination of hard work and consistently great records. No smoke or mirrors. No bullshit.

Listen to the new Maiden album, The Final Frontier, and you will hear a band still very much in love with their own music, enthralled by the opportunity to take their fans on yet another wild journey. From the swirling, future-metal lunacy of opening two-parter Satellite 15/The Final Frontier to the monstrous El Dorado, yank-the-heartstrings ballad Coming Home to the balls-out sprint of The Alchemist and on through a clutch of astonishing epics like Isle Of Avalon and apocalyptic closer When The Wild Wind Blows, it’s simply one of the best, not to mention bravest, albums that Iron Maiden have ever made.

You’ve been becoming steadily more adventurous since Brave New World. How deliberate has that been?

Bruce: “This album is probably the greatest departure from our sound, but it’s been happening incrementally since Brave New World. But none of it is premeditated at all. I think the key is not to make albums that often. It’s not a conveyor belt. But, when you do make something really interesting like this, you feel like, ‘Oh, we should make another one!’ We could just be bored by it all, but we’re obviously not!”

Steve: “Albums we’ve done over the last few years and even stuff we did before that, like Sign Of The Cross, those songs stand up with anything we’ve ever done. They’re a bit different, but why would you want The Trooper part two? EMI tried to get us to do Run To The Hills part two back then – we told them where to go! What’s the point in repeating old stuff? Fans will argue in the pubs ’til the cows come home about what we should be doing or whether this album is better than that one, but you can’t take any notice of that. Should we send out a questionnaire or something? ‘What would you like on the next album?’ I don’t think so! Ha ha!”

Iron Maiden - El Dorado (En Vivo!) [HD] - YouTube Iron Maiden - El Dorado (En Vivo!) [HD] - YouTube
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The first track, Satellite 15, sounds completely unlike anything you’ve ever done before. Are you deliberately messing with people’s heads?

Steve: “We never have specific aims for anything and we never know what we’re gonna write. We have no preconceived idea of what we’re going to do. Satellite 15 was a basic idea that Adrian had and I put it together with the words and it wasn’t what he intended at all, but it sounds great! I was really excited about it, probably more than some of the other songs, purely because it was so different. It shakes things up. To still get excited like that… well, at my age, that’s a great thing! Ha ha! It sounds kind of industrial to me, like film theme music, and that’s great. It sets up the album great, with the title and the sci-fi feel and all that, and it does what it says on the tin! It could lend itself to being a live intro too.”

Bruce: “We evoke the sci-fi thing in the song. The title of the album, I thought up 15 months ago. We hadn’t written a song yet and I just thought ‘We should call the next album The Final Frontier!’ because it sort of is… It could be, but it might not be! You go to the final frontier and you’re in uncharted territory. It had a certain ring to it. It means we can go back to space for an Eddie and things like that, and we haven’t done that for a while. It has a certain romance to it.”

Steve, you have been quoted as saying that you always planned to make 15 studio albums. Is this really the last one or are you being a bit mischievous by calling it The Final Frontier?

Steve: “That’s true. I’ve always said that I wanted to do 15 studio albums. Well, I haven’t always said that. I started saying it after the fourth or fifth album I suppose, but I didn’t even expect to do more than three when we first started! But yeah, there’s probably a bit of mischief there, particularly on Bruce’s part, but people are going to think it’s either the last album or that we’re Trekkies, or both, and it’s not like that really. It’s just a really strong title. If that’s how you want to see it then so be it, but it would be sad if we don’t make another album, and sad for the fans too. We’ll have to see.”

Bruce: “Is it mischief? Yeah, of course it is! Ha ha ha! Because although we genuinely haven’t made up our minds about another album, we thought that people are bound to say, ‘Oh, it’s the last album!’ and so we’ll just go, ‘Not necessarily!’ Ha ha! I don’t know what we’ll call the next one. Maybe ‘Never Say Never’! Ha ha ha!”

Nicko: “I think everyone’s being too fucking cagey! No, it ain’t gonna be the last record. Not as far as I’m concerned. The general feeling is that if we want to make another record, we will. You can never say never, and my personal feeling is that we’ll tour the next album and play all the new stuff, you’ll get a new stage set and all that, and then we’ll make another album. The Final Frontier just suits the vibe and the moment. People have said, ‘Oh, is that it?’, and no, bollocks, that ain’t it. Not unless the good Lord turns round and tells one of us it’s time to go!”

What made you decide to give the track El Dorado away for free online ahead of the album?

Steve: “It’s the first time we’ve done it, but we knew we wanted to do some gigs in the summer and we didn’t want to put the album out until August, and I did question that because it was quite unusual. But we decided to play one new song on this tour and we thought that people might as well hear it beforehand. It’s a thank you to the fans but we knew that it would be on YouTube as soon as we played it, and of course it was! No matter how well we play it live, someone’s going to record it on their phone, and it’s not gonna sound as good, so we thought it’s better to download the proper version instead. You do have to embrace new technology and what’s happening now. And it keeps people guessing about the album!”

Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith onstage at the Sonisphere festival in 2010

(Image credit: Future)

You’ve achieved so much in recent years. What else is left for you to do? Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?

Bruce: “There are plenty of countries we haven’t played that would be great. I don’t think Maiden’s over yet. I think as a musical thing, but also as a social phenomenon, there are countries, Islamic countries, where Maiden represents something really quite astonishing to kids. So we do stand  a chance of breaking a few barriers down, and there’s lots of ways in which the band can break through. We’ll have to wait and see what they are. You can’t make them happen. It does seem that the universe keeps throwing us curveballs.”

Steve: “When we got to India for the first time, people were saying the same things they say everywhere, like, ‘We grew up listening to your band!’ It was amazing. There seems to be other places like that as well. So as exciting as it is to go back and play for the fans that know and love you, and it always is, there’s something refreshing about going somewhere new and you can’t get away from that really. That drives you on.”

Can you imagine life without Maiden?

Bruce: “It’s not something I ever really contemplate, to be honest with you. If Maiden stopped being active, there would still be a sort of ghost of Maiden that would haunt the corridors! I think the only way to kill that is to do something dreadful and to go out with just one original member and it doesn’t bear thinking about! Without all of us, it wouldn’t be Maiden. We get back together, go in a room, muck about and you think… It is like the best fitting pair of jeans you ever had and you go, ‘Oh, isn’t it great to be back again? Everything’s cool. It’s all back!’ The cap fits, you know?”

Nicko: “We’ll rock until we drop, basically. But we won’t rock if we can’t cut it anymore. I still love to get up there and I can still keep my edge. If I pace myself, I can still rock it. Listen, anyone who thinks they can have my job, fucking forget it!”

Steve: “We’re having a great time and we just go with the flow. We’re not stopping yet, put it that way. It’s nice, in the twilight years of our career, to have all this going on, tohave our own plane and all that lark. You do have to pinch yourself sometimes. I’m not saying we deserve it, but we have worked our nuts off for many, many years and anyone who’s been  a fan for a long time knows that and sees the effort that we put into everything we do. So we’ll take it, thank you!” 

Originally published in Metal Hammer 258

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.