"I didn’t recognise him straight away and my son said, 'Dad, that’s Brian Johnson!'" Nicko McBrain on playing the "stunning" Power Trip Festival, his stroke recovery and what's next for Iron Maiden

Nicko McBrain behind a drum kit
(Image credit: Lloyd Bishop/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

2023 was an historic year for Iron Maiden, who brought an electrifying mix of old and new with their Future Past tour. A double-barrelled blast of 1986’s iconic Somewhere In Time album and, 2021’s Senjutsu, the run saw them storming Europe, Canada, and finally Power Trip festival. There were surprises along the way, not least the long-awaited live debut of epic Somewhere In Time album closer Alexander The Great, although drummer Nicko McBrain got an altogether more painful shock when a gong whacked by frontman Bruce Dickinson fell on his head.

The year was capped with an appearance at the all-star Power Trip festival alongside the likes of Metallica and AC/DC, though Maiden being Maiden, there’s plenty on the slate for next year, including Bruce Dickinson’s solo album, The Mandrake Project, a comic book celebrating the 40th anniversary of the band’s fourth album, Piece Of Mind, and yet more dates that prove Maiden are the most tireless band in metal.

We caught up with Nicko McBrain to look back on 12 months of epic live shows, personal turmoil and gong-based accidents.

Metal Hammer line break

Maiden played Alexander The Great for the very first time ever on The Future Past tour. Did it feel good to finally bust that one out?

“It was stunning. In rehearsal everyone just had a smile on their faces, and it was magic - that moment in the room when we played it, it was like, ‘why did we leave this so long?’ Because everybody’s been asking, especially the lads over in Greece. Everyone wanted to hear it live, so we’ve blown the cobwebs away and I think it could become a staple in the set!“

Is it pleasing to know that you can still surprise the fans after all this time? 

“When it comes to a set list we do what we want, not what we think the fans want. Alexander The Great was being pushed for many years. We’re not driven by fans but we know what they want, and then you see the reaction and it’s brilliant. It’s such an electrifying stage set. And we put these beautiful LED screens up which continue the theme of the backdrops which I really don’t get to see, but I can turn around and have a peek! There’s a lot going on with the screens and the lights and the scrims, and it’s so great to give those fans something new… and you’ve got three Eddies coming out!”

Tell us about the gong incident.

“Oh, for crying out loud! I encouraged Bruce to do the gong and it looks great. At first Charlie my drum tech would get behind me, stage right, and he’d whack the gong on the edge, and I remember Bruce saying, ‘Ooh Nick, do you think I could have a go on the gong?’ I said ‘yeah that’d look great, but you can’t hit it hard. ‘ He’s like, ‘OK I won’t!’

“We were in Birmingham and he blasts the bloody thing! Fortunately I’ve got a little back support on my stool and it basically broke the forward motion of the gong, but two things happened - it hit the backrest and then the top of the gong hit me. I was more shocked than in agony! It didn’t really hurt. I remember coming off the stage after Maiden and Bruce came running over to me and he said, ‘Are you alright? I’m really sorry Nick…!’ I said, ‘Well, look, please just don’t hit it that hard.’  ‘OK no, I won’t hit it hard.’ 

“So what happens? One of the next gigs he literally busts the mallet which comes off the shaft, it flies past my hair and hits my 14-inch tom-tom with such force it went down three quarters of an inch. It’s a war zone up there! The last one was at Power Trip when it fell back on me. I kind of expect it now.”

On a more serious note, you revealed that you suffered a stroke earlier this year. How do you look back on that experience, and how are you feeling now?

“Well it was very, very difficult. When it first happened I thought, ‘This is it, I’m not going to be able to play. I’ve got a tour coming up in three months’ time’. I had a lot of time for reflection in the hospital. My wife was really my bastion of strength and encouragement and she was with me throughout.

“I did a lot of strength exercises, a lot of stretches with weird weights that they have and I got my stamina back. Through all this period of time I was in touch with Steve, obviously all the guys, and I’d have a bit of a chat with them on the phone and they were all very very encouraging, and none more so than Steve. He said, ‘Look the most important thing is that you get well and work on getting yourself together.’”

Was it a relief to tell everyone what was going on?

“I felt they deserved to know why I wasn’t giving it 100%, and that was my primary reason. The secondary reason was that if I can help one person as an example of my striving to get better then it’s worth doing, so it was kind of a double-barrelled thing for me to let the fans know and help someone say, ‘Well if Nick can do it I can do it. He had 13 weeks of recovery and he’s ended up doing a tour of Europe!’”

How was the Power Trip festival?

“It was stunning, mate. It was immensely well-organised. Not that most fests aren’t, but this just had something extra - these little villages for each band. Your own dressing area, all the security were great, there were no issues, so it was a fantastic festival. And the stage was humongous! They had these whacking great screens. Wacken have something similar, but this one was just kinda crazy - I suppose two headline bands a night you’re going to have a lot of room at the back for all that equipment, and that happens each day. It was an incredible experience and really cool.”

Did you catch up with any old mates in other bands? 

“Oh yeah, I met [AC/DC singer] Brian Johnson on the Wednesday. We’d arrived on the Tuesday, and my son and I were staying at the same hotel. I didn’t see Angus [Young] but Brian was there. My son and I went into the restaurant to eat and I saw these guys sitting at the table, and my eyesight’s a bit dodgy because I’m an old git, but I looked over and we kinda made eye contact and I saw him lift his hand. I didn’t recognise him straight away and my son said, ‘Dad, that’s Brian Johnson!’ He was on fine form. It was his birthday the next day. I’m not going to tell anybody how old he is! Well I guess they know, it was lovely, we went for lunch. He’s a good old mate, I’ve known him for ages.”

What’s in store for Maiden in 2024? 

“I’m very delighted to be able to go see our chums in Oz and New Zealand and Asia, and I’ve always loved playing South America. It’s one of my favourite places to go and tour - and we’re going to end up in North America so it’s going to be great to say hello to all our chums there who’ve been moaning and groaning, ‘When are you gonna come and play our place, man!’”

Originally published in Metal Hammer #382

Alexander Milas

Alexander Milas is an erstwhile archaeologist, broadcaster, music journalist and award-winning decade-long ex-editor-in-chief of Metal Hammer magazine. In 2017 he founded Twin V, a creative solutions and production company.  In 2019 he launched the World Metal Congress, a celebration of heavy metal’s global impact and an exploration of the issues affecting its community. His other projects include Space Rocks, a festival space exploration in partnership with the European Space Agency and the Heavy Metal Truants, a charity cycle ride which has raised over a million pounds for four children's charities which he co-founded with Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood. He is Eddietor of the official Iron Maiden Fan Club, head of the Heavy Metal Cycling Club, and works closely with Earth Percent, a climate action group. He has a cat named Angus.