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Iron Maiden are not only a world-class rock band — they're also world-class secret-keepers.
In the spring of 2019, the band — frontman Bruce Dickinson, guitarists Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers, bassist/founder Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain — entered Guillaume Tell Studios in Paris to begin work on an album with longtime producer Kevin Shirley at the helm. They wrote and recorded an entire double-album's worth of new material, and Dickinson blew out his right Achilles tendon in the midst of finishing the record; and yet, no one outside of the band's circle was aware of either the album's existence or Dickinson's injury until over two years later, when the impending release of Senjutsu, Iron Maiden's 17th studio album, was publicly announced.
"It was very simple to keep the record under wraps, because none of us actually had a copy," chuckles Dickinson, noting that the completed version of Senjutsu existed for ages only as a file on a laptop in Harris's closet. "But I suppose we also got an unwitting and very unfortunate hand from COVID, because in the middle of the pandemic, nobody was talking to anybody about pretty much anything except that we were all stuck in various places around the world. The album should have been out like a year and a half ago."
"The Writing on the Wall," the album's first single, was released July 15th with an eye-popping animated video created by Dickinson in collaboration with Blinkink director Nicos Livesey and former Pixar execs Mark Andrew and Andrew Gordon. Like the rest of Senjutsu — a Japanese word which, loosely translated, can mean "tactics and strategy" — "The Writing on the Wall" shows Maiden continuing in the proggy direction of 2015's The Book of Souls. The majority of the album's 10 songs are upwards of seven minutes, with the three Harris-penned epics that close the album ("Death of the Celts," "The Parchment" and "Hell on Earth") run a combined 34:18 in length. It's a lot of Maiden to digest, to be sure, but it's also a massively enjoyable feast.
"I understand that people now have got allegedly short attention spans, but I'm not a hundred percent convinced that that's true," Dickinson tells Revolver. "Some people do, of course, but there are other people who can still understand drama and light and shade in a song. [What we did in] the early days of the heavy metal world, we're not really doing that anymore; we did that with the first five or six albums, but we're now on album number 17. We can do so much more now, and really take people on a journey."
We spoke to Dickinson via Zoom from his home in England, where he was on lockdown due to a member of his household having tested positive for COVID-19. But the vocalist still seemed his usual ebullient self, barely able to contain his excitement over the new album or the prospect of actually taking the stage again with Maiden in (hopefully) 2022. Two days after we did this interview, it was revealed that he himself had also tested positive. We're wishing him a speedy and full recovery from the virus.
YOU GUYS STARTED WORK ON THE ALBUM IN THE SPRING OF 2019. DID YOU GUYS ALREADY HAVE THE SONGS WRITTEN FOR IT, OR WAS IT MORE, "LET'S JUST GO INTO THE STUDIO AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS?"
BRUCE DICKINSON It was kind of, "Let's go to the studio and see what happens" — because we had some bits, but they were isolated bits. Nobody had joined the dots, you know? Nicko turned up all grumpy and said, "Well, I don't know what we're doing this for. Could we do this later?" [Laughs] and it was very lucky we did do it then, because if we hadn't done it then, god knows what would have happened!
We spent a few weeks doing backing tracks, and of course that also involved the writing process, which tended to be Steve taking a couple of bits from somebody else, like Adrian and Janick, and then he'd just go off and lock himself in his lair for two, three, four or five days. And then he'd come out and go, "Oh, I think I've got one!" and it would be one of these nine-, 10- or 11-minute things. Obviously there was no point in trying to learn it start to finish, so we would do it in chunks. Because there's a lot of quite different parts, some stuff that's quite unusual that requires layering of guitars, layering of vocals and things. So, for all those reasons, we just wanted to get the basics down, the skeleton down, and then we could chip away at it. Adrian and I, our songs, we always tend to be a bit more conventional in the songs that we write; you can generally sort of get in a room with a drummer and go "One, two, three, four" and off you go. So it was mixture of ways of working.
WHEN STEVE CAME BACK WITH THESE 10-MINUTE EPICS OF HIS, WOULD HE ALSO HAVE THE LYRICS COMPLETED?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, when Steve writes a song, he writes the lot; whereas obviously if my name's on the song, then I wrote the lyrics. But I also tend to write melodies and sometimes guitar parts, although with Adrian you really don't have to bother writing guitar part, because he's quite good at that [laughs].
LET'S TALK ABOUT THE THREE SONGS ON THE ALBUM THAT YOU WROTE THE LYRICS TO, STARTING WITH "THE WRITING ON THE WALL." WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE ABOUT THE FEAST OF BELSHAZZAR?
Well, it just seemed to me that everything in the world was going to hell in a handcart, and it seemed kind of appropriate. I wanted to write a song that was about the state of the world, but without necessarily coming down on one side or the other. What it comes down on the side of, effectively, is that people have got to get off their asses and do something about whatever they feel passionately about. Do something about it — don't let the forces of mediocrity and control trample all over you. And that includes, for me, social media and things like that. I suppose it takes a kind of a soft libertarian stance, if you like. Which is that we should just try being nice to each other, but defend our rights against the onslaught of whatever it is, whether it's crazy politicians, crazy other nation states or crazy software developers.
HOW ABOUT "DAYS OF FUTURE PAST"?
Actually that's a straightforward nick from the graphic novel Constantine that got made into the film of the same name with Keanu Reeves. I thought it would be interesting to turn it on its head, the situation in which he found himself in as a person who is destined to walk the earth until he gets his shit together — and to say, "Well, hang on a minute; just exactly who appointed God to do this in the first place? What right does he have to pull all this crap on people?"
"DARKEST HOUR" IS ABOUT WINSTON CHURCHILL, RIGHT?
"Darkest Hour" is partially about Churchill and his own demons. Because of course he did have a number of flaws — he was an alcoholic, he was grumpy, he said horrible things about women, you know what I mean? But he made one decision which saved Western democracy and freedom in the world; he just said [to Hitler], "You shall not pass!" That's it! There was a large contingent [in Britain] who wanted him to back off and give up. There were a lot of appeasers, a lot of people who said, "Come on, it's not worth it." And he was just a stubborn old drunk who went "No way, man; I'm up for a fight!" And yeah, he literally saved the world by that one decision; all of his other decisions, however flawed, pale into insignificance [next to it]. So the song actually starts on the beaches of Dunkirk, with all the blood, and basically we run away. And it finishes on the beaches of D-Day, equally steeped in blood, but we're coming back. And the rest is history, as they say.
GOING BACK TO STEVE'S SONGS — WHEN HE COMES TO YOU WITH AN EPIC LIKE "DEATH OF THE CELTS," DO YOUR EYES IMMEDIATELY LIGHT UP, LIKE, "YEAH! THIS IS SOMETHING I CAN DEFINITELY SINK MY TEETH INTO?"
Well, yeah! [laughs] The interesting thing there is, he's gotten increasingly picky about the particular vocal lines that he wants sung, and I have gotten more and more knowledgeable over the years about how to make it work for him. Because there's a fine line between saying, "Sing these notes," and actually performing those notes without changing the sense of them. So from my perspective, I look for where in the album is the space for the performance, and offset that against his demand for absolute precision. Because what he does very often is write words where the syllables actually match exactly the bass or, you know, whatever rhythmic instrument is going on. Back in the day, I would look at some of his stuff and go, "But this isn't English!" And he'd go, "Yeah, but it doesn't matter, because it follows the rhythm." So that was a bit of an eye opener to me! [laughs]
Some of his writing is kind of industrial from that perspective, but equally he does come up with some really lyrical passages as well. With a lot of the songs on the album, there's some quite surprising moments like big, layered vocals and softly spoken vocals and things like that, quite proggy. The title track, "Senjutsu" — I mean as soon as I heard that, I was like, "Oh wow, this is going to be different!" To me, it's a great way to open a show, because it's not, you know, everybody running around like the Keystone cops, which is what everybody thinks of as really exciting. What I like about "Senjutsu" is the drama, and that it has some restraint in the dynamics, which to me makes it more dramatic. And there's some fabulous little vocal pieces in there as well that just give me goosebumps.
IT MAKES A GREAT ALBUM OPENER, TOO. I LOVE THAT THE TRACK DOESN'T END WITH A BANG, BUT RATHER KIND OF LEAVES YOU HANGING, UNCERTAIN ABOUT WHAT'S COMING NEXT.
That's the beauty of being old-fashioned, album-orientated type people, because we still think in terms of a record; actually, we still think in terms of Side A and Side B, because one of the nice things about vinyl was that it provoked you to tell a story with the first 25 minutes, and then you'd flip the record and there'd be another 25 minutes that might be ever so slightly different. It was like Chapter One and Chapter Two, and there was always a great deal of consideration given to things like, "What do we open Side Two with? What do we finish the album with?" It would be a complete experience.
And I mean, we've already discussed, you know, what we would do [with this music in a live setting]. Because obviously our touring schedule is completely out of whack; we're like two tours behind, as it were, and we've got some catching up to do. There's a million people or so in Europe who have all bought tickets to see The Legacy of the Beast; in all, there's probably at least a couple of million people we have to play to next summer who who've been holding tickets for two years waiting to see that show. But now that we've put this album out, we might play "The Writing on the Wall" and maybe one other [as part of the Legacy of the Beast set]. We're not going to lose the Spitfire, the flame throwers and Icarus and all that, because that's what they paid their money to see — and frankly, that's what we want to do. But having said that, looking forward, we all love this record so much we're like, "Maybe we should go out and do a smaller-scale tour where we do the whole album, and have the really hardcore Maiden fans who love it turn up." Obviously it's a question of seeing what the hell happens next year and the year after with this crazy bug and all the rest of it…
SPEAKING OF TOURING, HOW'S YOUR ACHILLES FEELING THESE DAYS?
Ha! The Achilles is fine. At the end of April , just about 10 days before I finished all the vocals, I was fencing and all of a sudden it just felt like someone had given me an electric shock in the back of my right leg. I was on the floor, and I looked at my leg and my foot was kind of not really connected to the rest of my leg. I was like, "Well, that's kind of weird!" [laughs] Thirty-six hours later, they stitched it back together in the morning, and I walked out in the afternoon on the boot, which I wore while doing the rest of my vocals. And then after I did the tour, I was still doing rehab on my calf, and all of a sudden my opposite hip was really hurting! Everybody said, "Oh, that's because you were compensating for your Achilles, and yada yada yada," but when I went to the hip doctor and told him, "Hey look, this is really bugging me," he went, "Ah yes — that's because you've got no cartilage left!" I said, "Do I need a new hip?" and he said, "Yeah, you will do."
So I did two or three more months like that and said, "Can we just swap it out?" Because we were all on lockdown, and it wasn't like I had anything else to do for the next two or three months. So last October, I had five and a half inches of titanium hammered into my femur, and now I'm back fencing, training, doing everything. My physio says I can pretty much do anything on it, so I am really looking forward to getting back to the States as soon as I possibly can, and then you can see me leaping from tree to tree and monitor to monitor!