Iron Maiden: how we made The Book Of Souls

The Book Of Souls was a landmark for Iron Maiden on many levels. Maiden’s 16th album – and their first ever double – was released on their 40th anniversary in 2015 and reached No.1 in more than 20 countries. It also featured the longest song they have ever recorded in the shape of the show-stopping 18-minute closing track Empire Of The Clouds. It represented a personal triumph, too, for Bruce Dickinson. The singer was diagnosed with cancer shortly after the album was completed, delaying its release for a year while he recovered. 

Here, we sit down with all six members of Iron Maiden – Dickinson, bassist Steve Harris, drummer Nicko McBrain and guitarists Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers. They talk about the making of the new album and the creation of its key songs; including Empire Of The Clouds, the “mystical” title track, and a song partly inspired by the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams.

Firstly, how do you all feel about The Book Of Souls?

Steve Harris: "The amazing thing for me is the way Bruce is singing on it. He sounds fantastic. It’s incredible to think that he did that while he was so ill."

Bruce Dickinson: "A double album is kind of cool really. Nobody does double albums anymore. We thought that Maiden fans would absolutely love it."

Dave Murray: "It’s great that we still have so much music in us after so many years. I’m blown away about that."

Adrian Smith: "In these days where people are just downloading tracks and skipping and flitting from one thing to another, we can make an album like this because we have such a loyal fan base. And that didn’t happen by accident – we’ve been touring our arses off since 1980."

Janick Gers: "We’ve put a 92-minute album out at a time when most people have the attention span of a gnat. But that’s Maiden. We’ve done lots of great albums in the past, but this one is heavy, it’s hard, it’s edgy, full of melody, it’s got all kinds of different moods in it. It’s just a pure Iron Maiden album."

Nicko McBrain: "To me, The Book Of Souls is the ultimate Maiden album. I really think it’s the best album we’ve ever made. I always say that when we put out a new album. But I really am convinced that this one is a work of art. Some of the songs, like The Book Of Souls itself, are just monstrously heavy. The whole album is, in a word, majestic."

Making a double album, did it take you back to your teenage years in the 70s and the classic doubles of that era, such as Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis?

Bruce: "Oh yes! The thing is, back then, in my group of friends, we used to go to each other’s houses and we’d all sit and listen to it, two of three of us. We’d play one side and go, ‘Wow, what did you think of that?’ We’d talk about it, go down and have a cup of tea or something, and then go back in for round two."

Dave: "It reminds me of when I was a teenager, buying Physical Graffiti. I love the whole feel of a double album, that warm 70s vibe."

Ninety-two minutes of new Iron Maiden music is a lot to take in.

Bruce: "It is (laughs). After all that, you need to lie down in a dark room."

Steve: "Even the last album (The Final Frontier) was pretty long – 72 minutes or something. But we knew Bruce wrote Empire Of The Clouds that this album was going to be really bloody long. We don’t seem to be able to condense what we do."

And you don’t want to?

Steve: "Not necessarily. Having said that, there are some short songs on the album, Speed Of Light and Death Or Glory."

Bruce: "After six songs we said, ‘Either we stop now, or it’s going to be a double album.’ Then we thought about all the possibilities for artwork – gatefolds and all that shit. Great! Let’s make it a double album. And of course the first thing Rod (Smallwood, Maiden manager) said was, ‘Oh no, it’s a pain the arse!’ I said, ‘Rod, it’s brilliant. I know the record company will possibly whinge, but Maiden fans will love it.’ So we won him over. Rod said, ‘Couldn’t you do Album 1 and Album 2?’ I said, ‘What, like [Guns N’ Roses’] Use Your Illusion I and II? No, that’s bollocks. It’s one double album, and that’s what it should be.’"

Adrian: "It’s funny. On this album my idea was to get back to shorter songs. A couple of albums back, on Dance Of Death, I had a go at writing an epic with Paschendale. Just to challenge myself. This time I went for punchier songs like Speed Of Light, in the style of 2 Minutes To Midnight. Little did I know that this album would be the longest we’ve ever done, with the longest song we’ve ever done. Probably a good idea I didn’t write any epics. It would have been too much."

And in Empire Of The Clouds, you have the mother of all Iron Maiden epics.

Adrian: "Bruce has outdone himself there. He’s outdone everyone."

Nicko: "An 18-minute song – what an opus!"

Bruce: "It’s a very bizarre story, how I ended up writing that song…"

Let’s hear it.

Bruce: "Basically, I won a piano in a raffle. It was one of these charity dinners, hosted by Jamie Oliver. There were various auctions where you could win things that were utterly useless to me, like free facial pampering session at some place in the Cotswolds. But there was also a little portable electric piano up for grabs – signed, it must be said, by Jamie Cullum! I thought, I wouldn’t mind having a piano at home to muck about on. And in the end I won it."

How would you describe your style as a pianist?

Bruce: "I am to the piano what two fingers are to typing. It was all a bit Lionel Bart. He couldn’t play piano either. He used to put post-it notes on the keys. So there was a bit of that going on with me. But I started writing these little tuney bits and thought, ooh, that might turn into something…"

And what it turned into was a historical epic: the story of the R101 airship disaster of 1930.

Bruce: "Originally I was going to write a song about World War I and the soldiers who operated the dawn patrols – something a bit atmospheric. Then I went round to Adrian’s house and we wrote this song Death Or Glory, which kind of covered that subject in a slightly different way. So I started thinking about the R101. I’ve always been fascinated with airships, and the R101 especially. Only five of the passengers survived when it crashed. I’ve got a pocket watch of one of the survivors, and a tankard that says: ‘Welcome aboard from the airship crew.’ To tell that story, I thought, it’s a big job – oh, go on then! So I started putting it together piece by piece. It was difficult, because I wanted to get everything as historically and technically accurate, but still making it… poetic, I guess."

Did you have to do a lot of research into the story?

Bruce: "I read a book about the R101, called The Millionth Chance. It was a quote from the Secretary of State for the Air, who perished in the crash on the maiden flight to India. A journalist had asked him, ‘Aren’t you a little bit nervous?’ And he said: ‘With this airship, there’s only the millionth chance anything can go wrong.’ I put that in the lyrics: ‘The millionth chance, he laughed, to take down his majesty’s craft.’ So the script was there already."

Did you envisage from the start that this would be such a long and complex piece of music, and such a departure for the band?

Bruce: "I knew it was potentially going to be reasonably lengthy, because you had to tell the story. But it did grow. And yes, it was outside all of our comfort zones. We’ve never done anything like this before."

How did it come together?

Bruce: "When we got to the studio, I had probably about two thirds of it written, but in no particular order. And there were other bits I had to finish up. There was this amazing Steinway grand in the studio. Even as a two-fingered piano player, anything you play on a Steinway grand, there’s inspiration flowing around. So I would stay late after school every night bashing away on this piano, scribbling ongoing lyrics, writing extra bits. As I was doing it I’d be going to Nicko or Steve, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ And they liked what I was doing. I just let it grow, and the arrangement kind of grew with it. Steve loved the song. Our producer Kevin Shirley said: ‘This is gonna be great!’ And then he said: ‘You’re gonna play piano on it.’ I said, ‘I can’t play fucking piano!’ But in the end I said, ‘Okay, I’ll have a go.’"

Was Kevin Shirley’s opinion shared by the band?

Adrian: "Hmmm (laughs). Bruce is not a trained pianist. He’d be the first to admit that he’s not that great. But he can vamp out a bit."

Steve: "We were thinking about getting somebody else in on piano, but then we thought, it’s not going to have the same feel as if Bruce does it. Some of the bits he did were a bit… rustic, for want of a better word. So we patched him up here and there. But it was better to do that and have him playing, for the feel of it. I think a proper pianist, if you like, would come in and play it too nice, too clinical. And it just wouldn’t be right."

How hard was it to record the track?

Adrian: "For all of us, that song was a challenge to play."

Bruce: "I said, ‘If I get on that grand piano and try to play this end to end we’ll be here till Christmas. We never would have been able to record Empire if we’d been in a rehearsal studio, trying to learn the whole song from beginning to end. But because I was writing it in the studio, that was a great advantage. We could piece it all together as we went along. The band had to play for the first five minutes to the piano, and there’s no metronome or timing, everything is just off the piano. It’s a fuck of a long time for four guitars to basically pluck notes out of the air and make it sound tuneful and orchestral and everything, with Nick just adding little grace notes and colour."

There is a huge, dramatic climax in the song – the moment when the airship crashes.

Bruce: "That has a lot to do with Nicko. He really bought into the story. I told him I wanted all this dissonant stuff for the airship plummeting to earth. I wanted that in the percussion. I said I wanted twisting metal, and he said, ‘Oh, you want a bowed gong.’ I said, ‘What the fuck is that?’ He has this big orchestral gong at the back of his kit. You take a violin bow, scrape it against the edge of the gong, and it just resonates. I said, ‘That’s the sound of the airship dying!’ So quick, back to the piano: diddle-de-diddle-de, bang, bang! Brilliant, that’s it. That’s the slo-mo shot in the movie, when suddenly you see everything blowing up and the music stops. That was the moment I had in my head. And then you get the line: “We’re down, lads.” That’s the pilot’s voice – the last thing that the survivors heard as they jumped from the back of the airship, from the rear power car, into the dark."

There are other big songs on the album – not least the title track.

Steve: "Well, that song was a fucking nightmare for me. I’d written these melodies, around the time we were making The Final Frontier, and somehow I lost them. I don’t know how it happened. I thought we were recording, but the machine just wasn’t working. It’s the first time that’s ever happened to me, in all these years. The problem for me is when I’m writing, I put so many melodies down, so by the time I get to the tenth melody I won’t remember the first one. But in the end, I wrote some new melodies for the song, and we combined this with some ideas that Janick had. It turned out really well."

It’s a wonderfully evocative title for a song and an album, The Book Of Souls

Steve: "It comes from the Mayan culture in South America. It intrigued me, in the same way that I was interested in ancient Egypt when we did Powerslave. The Mayans believed in the Underworld and were scared of losing their souls. That mystical element was the key to the song."

Another weighty song, clocking in at 13 minutes, is The Red And The Black.

Steve: "The lyric in that one is a real tongue twister (laughs). I’ve written a few like that in the past, and Bruce does freak out a bit about it. I’ll write all these words and he’ll go, ‘I can’t fucking sing that!’ I’m not a singer so I’m not aware of how tough it is to sing this stuff. In my opinion, Bruce is such a great singer he can get his head around anything. Sometimes he does get the hump with me, and fair enough. I understand why he gets frustrated. But he usually ends up doing what I want him to do. He’s cool with it all."

Is it true that the song Tears Of A Clown was inspired by the suicide of Robin Williams.

Adrian: "I wrote that with Steve, and he came up with that title. It could be about Robin Williams. It’s about people who hide their true feelings. It was very shocking what happened to him, but it happens to a lot of people."

The late Robin Williams, inspiration for Tears Of A Clown

The late Robin Williams, inspiration for Tears Of A Clown (Image credit: Getty)

On this album there are songs written by every member of the band except Nicko, whose sole writing credit with Maiden was on the song New Frontier from 2003’s Dance Of Death. As a group, how did you choose what songs made the cut this time around?

Steve: "We just pick the strongest ones. It doesn’t matter who wrote them. It’s pretty straightforward."

Janick: "I brought in over an hour’s worth of songs. But the standard is so incredibly high in Maiden. Sometimes things fit, sometimes they don’t. I think it’s fantastic that a band that’s been around so long still has so many incredible ideas."

Adrian: "I usually sit down a month before we go in the studio, and see what happens. If you have a deadline, you get your act together! And when you’re writing for Maiden, it’s second nature. When I’m writing a song I’m hearing Bruce’s voice in my head, I’m hearing Steve’s bass tone."

Dave: "Whenever I’m writing, I always find that it’s by collaborating with the other guys that makes a song bigger and better than I’d originally conceived it. That was true of songs I’ve written in the past, like Brave New World and Rainmaker, and it’s the same with The Man Of Sorrows on the new album. The thing is, with music, if you try to analyse it too much, it can spoil it. Sometimes you don’t want to know how it works. That bit of magic, you just want it to happen."

Do you feel the weight of Iron Maiden’s legacy and history on you when you’re writing new songs?

Steve: "I don’t think about trying to write stuff that’s as good as the last album or the ones before. If we did think like that, we’d probably start writing stuff that sounded like those old songs But there are elements of this album, I feel, that reflect back a little bit. At first I thought, that sounds a bit similar to something else we did, and I didn’t want to sound like that. But then I thought: fuck it. Embrace it. Go with the flow."

What, specifically, are you referring to?

Steve: "There’s a fast-flowing riff on the track The Book Of Souls that is actually quite similar to Losfer Words [from Powerslave]. But I wrote Losfer Words, and it was Janick who wrote that fast riff in The Book Of Souls, so I thought, it doesn’t matter. If I didn’t write it, it’s not like I’m repeating myself (laughs). Janick didn’t realise it sounded similar because he wasn’t in the band when we did Powerslave. And you know, the two riffs aren’t exactly the same. The new one is in a different key and the notes are slightly different, but it has a similar feel, let’s put it that way. But you can’t get bogged down with stuff like that. And really, why shouldn’t we sound a bit like our old selves a bit?"

There is also an echo of more recent Maiden history in The Book Of Souls. It was recorded at Guillaume Tell studio in Paris, where you made Brave New World, the album on which Bruce and Adrian returned to the band.

Nicko: "The studio held many special memories from Brave New World. And it hasn’t changed a bit. It still has the same couch full of lumps, and the same dodgy old stained carpet. It felt like we were there only yesterday. So everybody was in a wonderful frame of mind."

Adrian: "Brave New World set a benchmark for the band. So going back to the same studio did make a difference. There was a real vibe. The atmosphere within the band was really good on this album. Really creative, a good laugh. It felt great, until someone said it’s been fifteen years since we were there. Our mouths dropped at how much time had passed."

Iron Maiden in 2015

Iron Maiden in 2015 (Image credit: John McMurtrie)

Brave New World was Maiden’s first album with this six-man line-up and its unorthodox triple-guitar attack. Did you always believe that having three guitarists, instead of the traditional two, would work out?

Adrian: "As soon as we started writing and recording Brave New World, I thought, yeah, it works. Luckily, Dave and Jan and I get on very well as people. I’ve known Dave since we were kids. Ego-wise, it was all under control."

Dave: "Going back to when Janick replaced Adrian in 1990, we’d known Jan for years, since he was in Gillan, so having him playing with us was just an extension of the friendship. Likewise, with Adrian coming back to the band it was always going to work. The first day we got together, the three of us set up our stacks in a big circle, facing each other, we just blasted through a few songs, and it felt very natural. With three guitars it’s not necessarily heavier, but it’s more musical. We work on it, but not too hard."

Your previous album, The Final Frontier, went to No.1 in more than 20 countries. Would you have been gutted if The Book Of Souls had failed to do so?

Steve: "No. It’s very nice if we get number ones and all that. But that’s not what we do it for. Without sounding weird about it, we just write songs that we like, and hopefully other people are going to like. That’s pretty much it. And that’s always been it, really. If we get all those number ones, that’s great. It’s a bonus. But we don’t go looking for it, in the same way that we don’t go looking for awards and things like that. It’s not why we do it."

You’ve said, all of you, that you’re immensely proud of this album. Is that the bottom line?

Steve: "Totally. That’s all that matters. We feel like we’ve made a really great album. That’s a good feeling."

Janick: "I remember when I was in Gillan many years ago, saying to Ian Gillan, ‘You’re only as good as your last gig.’ And I still feel the same. I don’t want to be in one of those bands that wander the globe just playing the old stuff. I want to feel like the band is vibrant and growing. There were time when I was kid, I used to watch bands and feel that they weren’t putting the effort in. I felt I was being cheated. But I think when people look into your eyes at a Maiden gig, we’re not faking it. The minute that goes, I’d like to think we’d all be man enough to say we’ll stop. But we’re still valid – this album proves it."

Bruce: "This album is fucking brilliant. And to do this now, at this stage of our career, it means a lot to all of us. Whatever it is, we’ve still got it."

Paul Elliott

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2005, Paul Elliott has worked for leading music titles since 1985, including Sounds, Kerrang!, MOJO and Q. He is the author of several books including the first biography of Guns N’ Roses and the autobiography of bodyguard-to-the-stars Danny Francis. He has written liner notes for classic album reissues by artists such as Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy and Kiss, and currently works as content editor for Total Guitar. He lives in Bath - of which David Coverdale recently said: “How very Roman of you!”