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Q&A: Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson on Beating Cancer and Late-Career Stagnation

The Iron Maiden frontman on living the metal life in 2015.

If the opportunity to interview Bruce Dickinson arises, you seize it. Otherwise, how do you confirm that the 57-year-old Iron Maiden singer/commercial pilot/competitive fencer/prodigious World War I reenactor is, in fact, a real person and not some kind of mythical hesher fever dream?

Along with Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and free-agent dragon slayer Ronnie James Dio, Dickinson is responsible for defining the look, style, and sound of an archetypal heavy-metal frontman — boundless energy, lethal levels of leather-bound swagger, and a sweepingly powerful voice that can shatter glass as well as an army of medieval demon skeletons. What Whitney and Mariah are to pop music, Rob, Ronnie, and Bruce represent in metal: the genre’s towering divas.

The loquacious Dickinson — promoting The Book of Souls, Iron Maiden’s first album in five years and the band’s first-ever double LP — still cuts a larger-than-life figure. He’s justifiably proud of The Book of Souls, which touches on all of Iron Maiden’s most iconic bases — anthemic melodies, mathematical instrumental precision, grand historical narratives, breakneck tempos ideal for soundtracking a mighty stallion ride through the gates of hell — while also presenting the band at its most fearlessly proggy.

It’s not the first Maiden record that neophytes should check out — take your pick from the masterful triptych of 1982’s The Number of the Beast, 1983’s Piece of Mind, or 1984’s Powerslave — but The Book of Souls is a fairly comprehensive compendium of the band’s range. There are full-on ragers (“Death or Glory”), shout-along story songs (“The Red and the Black”), weirdly maudlin tributes to dead celebrities (“Tears of a Clown,” which salutes Robin Williams), and all-encompassing epics that last longer than most hardcore records (the 18-minute “Empire of the Clouds”).

Underlying The Book of Souls are themes of loss, mortality, and perseverance — appropriate for a band that was formed in 1975 by bassist and songwriter Steve Harris and is presently enjoying renewed international popularity as the members approach 60. It was also prescient for Dickinson, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after he wrapped The Book of Souls in Paris at the end of 2014. He subsequently had tumors on his tongue and throat surgically removed, and he hopes to get his voice “back online” by the time Maiden launches a tour next year.

I reached Dickinson earlier this week in Manhattan, where he was doing prerelease promotion for The Book of Souls.

How are you?

They have me chained to a desk, and I’ve been whipped from one end of the church to the other. I’m not even Catholic, what’s going on?

Your vocals sound great on The Book of Souls — given that you were diagnosed with cancer shortly after the sessions, your performance is kind of heroic. Did you have any sense during the recording that something was amiss with you, healthwise?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I didn’t go to the doctor for about six weeks until I finished the record.

How did you cope before then?

Oh, you know, like an ostrich. Head in sand — or head in backside, whichever you wanna choose. I thought maybe I should get this looked at, but until I get confirmation that this is something that’s not very nice, just chill out and keep singing.

Can I ask how you’re feeling now?

I mean, I made a dramatic recovery, and bouncing around, everyone turns around and says, “Wow, you look great.” Some of them look surprised, and some of them look relieved, which is nice. But for me, the big thing is there’s still some things that are healing up and some of the systems are still coming back online, you know? Things like mucus membranes start to get back to work again, salivary glands come back and functioning normal, which is great. All this stuff is coming back. So I’m just in the process now of getting those things back online. I’m running around, jumping around, everything else is working just fine for me now — I’ve got about three months now before I start getting into the window where I want to be singing two or three times a week to start gently bringing my voice back online — working it, working it, working it, because it still needs time to heal up internally.

When you joined Iron Maiden in 1981, your voice was pivotal in making the band an all-time arena-rock juggernaut. When did you realize you had this powerhouse instrument at your disposal? Did you have any training as a singer?

No, I was sort of self-taught. My then-girlfriend had had some vocal training and she actually had a notebook [where] she wrote down all these little exercises. So I read that book, and I went, “Oh, I’ll try some of that.” So I did, and then I just kind of — I listened to singers, and I kind of analyzed their voices and I picked them apart and figured out how they sounded like they sounded. You build up a repertoire of things that you can do with your voice, [but] you’re still not really 100 percent all the way there with an identity. Because, for me, what happened was that I ended up being quite a good mimic of people who I loved to sound like. But to really create an identity, you need to bring yourself through the fire a little bit.

Where that came from was working on a record — a Samson record — called Shock Tactics. I worked with an engineer called Tony Platt, who just finished working with “Mutt” Lange on AC/DC’s Back in Black. And Tony got me to sing way out of what was my natural range. I actually hated it, but everybody else who heard the record loved it and said, “Wow, your voice sounds so much better.” I’m like, “But I hate that voice. That’s not me.” And then I realized that actually, what I hated about the voice was it actually was me, and I just didn’t know how to reproduce that voice reliably. Because every time I went to sing some of these tunes, I lost my voice. I would shout myself hoarse. So I went into a sort of deep depression for about a week, going, “Oh my god, what do I do about this?” And then I went, “Well, you schmuck, you spent all this time doing breathing exercises and learning all this technique and da da da da da da da, what do you think you learned all that technique for? Why don’t you learn to copy yourself?” So I went back and I learned to copy myself in order to do this stuff live. And that was the voice that I transferred to Maiden. That was the voice that became “The Number of the Beast.”

Your voice is often described as “operatic.” Do you have any affinity for actual opera?

It’s fake opera. I’d describe it as opera with razor blades. I’ve actually sung with one or two opera singers and it’s quite a terrifying experience. [Laughs.] I mean, the racket that they produce is just immense.

One of my favorite songs on The Book of Souls is the 18-minute closing number, “Empire of the Clouds,” which you wrote on your own. Adrian Smith said you sequestered yourself throughout the sessions, “like Beethoven, his ear on the piano; working on his masterpiece.”

[Laughs.] One-fingered Beethoven, maybe.

What was the genesis of that song, and how did it evolve during the sessions?

What enabled the song to happen was winning a piano in a raffle about three years ago. [Laughs.] So I started playing it — or fooling around, “playing” is too strong a word.

You come up with ideas — atmospheric ideas initially, because I couldn’t really string more than a few notes together. I had ideas of trying to use it as an introduction to a song about air warfare in the first World War, which is obviously a very bloodthirsty and brutal affair. But at the same time, started off using dawn patrols, you get these moments of calmness. It wasn’t modern blood in the trenches, in the horrible mess of humanity. This is quite a civilized way of starting out your day, culminating in the most appalling violence, people being burned to death and just awful stuff.

So I wanted to write a song and start off with a very atmospheric, beautiful, but kind of ominous storm. I just chipped away at it every day. Steve is working with everybody else on all the other tracks, I’ll just hunker down and work on this every night. We’d finish in the studio about six o’clock, 6:30, and I’d stay till about nine or 9:30, just playing piano over and over and over again, trying to get the words down, and then the arrangement down, and then working on the little bits and links and things. That’s how it was. It just came together, piece by piece by piece.

The Book of Souls has several epic-length tracks, as well as a bunch of relatively concise and classic-sounding Maiden songs. Is it harder to do the longer songs or is it actually more of a challenge to distill something down to five minutes?

Five-minute songs kind of write themselves because they are very simple. Intro, verse, bridge, chorus, first bridge chorus, link bit, guitar solo, guitar solo — it’s just a pretty simple concept. Ever since Piece of Mind, it’s always been pretty straightforward. But the problem is because they’re quite simple in that respect, it’s also very easy to become formulaic. And after a period of time of knowing how to write a song like that, it’s almost dishonest to do a bunch of songs like that. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

The single “Speed of Light,” it’s like “Great! Terrific! Here we are back in 1983 or 1984.” That’s exactly what it felt like. It’s an honest piece, a bit of nostalgia. But if the whole album sounded like that, then I’d be disappointed with myself and everybody else.

Iron Maiden has more than 1.3 million Twitter followers. Do you pay attention to social media?


Do you have any curiosity about Twitter?

No. I understand that in this day and age everybody has to have a big social media presence, and you have to look after your social media, and blah blah blah — OK, that’s great. We’ve got a great team and they just look after the social media. I just completely ignore it. It’s as if I live in another world, devoid of Twitter, devoid of Facebook, devoid of all the bullshit that gets talked about by all of these people. I just live in my own little head world. That’s what makes the records. So I have no idea what’s going on on Twitter, and I couldn’t care less.

Is there anything in particular about social media that bothers you?

No, because I don’t let myself get bothered. I pay no attention to it. I don’t even know how to access Twitter. I mean, my mobile phone is a Nokia that I can’t even take a picture on. It’s held together with tape. That is my mobile phone, and people look at it with horror. People say, “Well, why don’t you have an iPhone?” Because it gets polluted by shit.

I’m not some kind of Luddite. I know this stuff has a value. It has no value to me personally.

Actually, it makes sense that you’d feel that way, because Iron Maiden has made a career out of refusing to assimilate into mainstream pop culture.

Yeah, the trendy things that bands do now to maintain their “pop culture” is sit there obsessing and tweeting away drivel to the unwashed masses. It’s just crap. It’s self-indulgent, narcissistic bollocks. I have no interest in that whatsoever. If I want to be self-indulgent and narcissistic, I’ll put it on a record. Don’t sit there tweeting, I don’t even know how many words you’re not allowed to say in Twitter before you run out of intelligence.

How deliberate is it for Iron Maiden to exist outside of the usual machinery of the music industry?

In many respects — not so much Twitter, but Internet forums and Facebook and stuff like that — I guess [the Internet] is a great way for the metal community to interact and to relate without having to tolerate being servile toward the mainstream media. From that point of view, our own community and the whole Iron Maiden dot com thing works brilliantly for us. People can just get involved in the portal and talk amongst themselves. So for us, it means that as a band, we just don’t get involved with it because our audience involves themselves. We just put music out there and let them run with it. They can have their own opinions. They’re gonna make their own statements. They’re gonna create their own communities and their own worlds. We put the music out there and we let people run with it. That’s what it should be like, really.