It’s been an interesting year for one of heavy metal’s biggest bands. The members of Iron Maiden had just finished production of their 16th studio album in Paris at the end of 2014 when the band’s frontman Bruce Dickinson felt that something wasn’t right. A visit with his doctor confirmed that Dickinson had a cancerous tumor on his tongue and would have to undergo extensive medical treatment. This would be shocking news for anybody, but for the singer of the legendary band it was downright terrifying. Luckily, the tumor was caught in time to be treatable, but the news was alarming enough to cause even the band members to worry if this could be the end of Iron Maiden. Fans wondered how such fate could strike a performer who had just wrapped a massive world tour sounding better than ever and who, at the age of 56, still runs the equivalent of several miles during a single performance and is capable of putting performers decades younger to shame. Even though the album was in the can, the band put the release and a world tour on hold until Dickinson was given the all-clear.
Fans of Iron Maiden are something of a cult, viewing the band as sacred deities of metal that can only be spoken of with complete respect and awe. For this reason there was little griping over the delay because fans and band alike would rather see the singer healthy and at the top of his game. Now that Dickinson is in the final stages of recovery, the album, called Book of Souls, is set for release on September 4th. It’s their first since 2010’s critically praised The Final Frontier. As one of the few people lucky enough to hear Book of Souls, I can honestly say it is worth the wait. Not only is it the longest Maiden album to date, coming in at a hefty 92 minutes in 11 tracks, but it’s unquestionably one of the most epic outings from a band that, even with over three decades under their belt, still continue to innovate their sound. Book of Souls finds every member of the band putting in an equal amount of creative energy. It is also the first Maiden album since 1984’s Powerslave to feature two tracks solely written by Bruce Dickinson, one of which comes in at just over 18 minutes, making it the longest song the band has ever recorded. In fact, there is only one song (“Tears Of A Clown”) that’s under 5 minutes – only be a second. Getting excited yet?
As of now the band has wisely decided not to release any music from Book of Souls in advance of its release, a move that stands in direct contrast to today’s culture of advance streams, album teasers and other gratuitous hype builders. That’s why we turned to one of the band’s guitarists, the always eloquent Janick Gers, to fill us in on everything happening in the world of Iron Maiden and what we can expect from the band in the coming year.
What was the experience of putting the album together like considering the circumstances with Bruce?
Actually, nobody knew that Bruce was ill when we did the album. We put the album together between September and early December and Bruce was singing fantastic. In fact, he was staying with me and we were staying in the same hotel – the rest of the band were in different places – so we were going out and having a drink and a chat about how things were going. We were really happy with the album and his voice was sounding great and he was his usual bubbly self – excited about the album and we were having great fun.
It wasn’t until afterwards when he got back to England that he said he got an abscess, which he’s had before and he had a couple of teeth taken out, and it came back. It was only then he said to me, “I’ve got this abscess back.” He couldn’t drink because he was on antibiotics and I thought that was strange because he said that last year. I didn’t have any clue, nobody had any clue and then we got a message from Andy Taylor, one of our managers, who told me what happened. I was in shock because Bruce was singing incredibly well. Obviously we had to just scrap everything for this year. We had a tour booked, and we said forget that. Bruce was very positive, he found it very early, and the doctor told him it was going to be curable. It was on his tongue, nowhere near his vocal chords, and he’s in the clear now. I saw him a couple of weeks ago and he was looking good. He was still a bit thin from his chemo; he’s not back to running a 10K yet, but he looks fine, he’s talking fine. I don’t know what his singing voice is like because he’s had radiotherapy on his throat so obviously his throat will be quite swollen. But when we did the album we had no idea about any of this, it only became apparent after we got to the end of the album. So it didn’t affect the album in that way, it’s just affected this year and the fact that we won’t be touring.
One thing that stands out is that this is the band’s first ever double studio album and there are some real long songs on it, but long songs are not exactly a new part of the Maiden repertoire. Why do you think it took so long to make a double album? It almost seems strange that it took this long.
This is a time when people’s attention spans are so limited, they’re so small and they’ve got the attention span of a gnat. This is a triple album in actual fact – it’s a triple vinyl album and a double CD. We just do what we want to do and we’ve always done that – we always kind of fight against the tide. It wasn’t that we set out to make a double album, we just brought so many ideas into the studio and they were all good ideas. Some of the songs weren’t that long when they came in but they ended up that long when we finished them. Everybody always brings in probably an hours worth of music. You might only want to use 15 minutes of it but you’ve got an hour of stuff that’s really good. It’s indicative of how creative everybody in the band is. This band’s been going a long time and we never have to scrape around because there are always so many ideas to use – melodies, tunes, themes. It just ended up we had 11 songs in 92 minutes, which is quite too long for a single album. I think it’s good; we just come in and try different things, and we never restrict ourselves in terms of melodies and tunes. If it’s long it ends up long, and it’s as simple as that. If it feels right, that’s what it is. This album just dictates where we are right now in 2015. We’re not a band that looks backwards, we always look forward and we’re always trying to develop new ideas, new strategies, new attacks of songs, and taking songs down different pathways. And I think this album proves that we’re still valid; the songs are powerful and edgy. There’s all types of different songs on this album and there’s almost something for everybody – classically influenced, jazz influenced, rock and blues influenced – it’s all there and it’s just indicative of what the band’s about.
Was there ever a point when you and the band thought The Final Frontier would be the last Iron Maiden album?
Truthfully, every album we do I think might be the last. With The Final Frontier we did quite a long tour. I don’t think we hit America with it but we hit everywhere else in the world, so you’re looking at a six or seven month tour and who knows what’s going to happen. You could fall out, some people in the band might not enjoy it anymore, so you always think this might be the last tour. We’re a band that’s been around a long time now, and just looking at what’s happened to Bruce, that shocked me to the core, I was devastated. That was a huge shock to everybody, so you never know when the last tour is. I hate these bands that go “this is our last tour” and they come back a year later with a new album and another tour. We go on as long we’re enjoying it and who knows when the last tour will be. You just make the best album that you can at that moment in your career. That’s why I never come out and say this is the best album we’ve ever made. You hear a lot of bands say that, but you should never say that! You say this is the best album at this point in time that we could make and I’m really proud of it.
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It seems like so many times bands say that and then their words come up to haunt them later.
You just can’t tell. I’m proud of every album we’ve ever done, and every album we’ve ever done was a statement of what point we were at at that point in time. That’s all you can do. As a band you travel the world, you see a lot of things, you take everything in musically and sonically, and then when you come to write an album it all comes pouring out of you in the music. That’s where you are at the moment and if you’re proud of it at the end then that’s really the best you can do.
Given al the crazy stuff happening in the world, there are a lot of gloomy things going on, and does that have an affect on the songwriting for you guys? Like do you think about current events and the state of things when you’re putting together songs?
I think everything you see and do comes out in what you write. I think that’s just paramount and your feelings come out in the songs. We live in a time where everything has to be on the Internet all the time. You’ve got the 24-hour news that has to be updated every 5 minutes. Whether or not the world is as dangerous as the media likes to portray it, I don’t know. It’s always like that, so you tend to get this constant barrage of media attention around the world because we’re online all the time. So that’s got to have an effect. Everything you see, do, touch and feel has an effect on your songwriting, it has to. We try to look at everything in a positive light, and I think our music transcends the barriers of culture and can get through to anybody that wants to listen to Iron Maiden or wants to come and watch us play. It’s fantastic, and we have crossed a lot of barriers, it’s universal.
I’ve always wanted to ask this since we’re on the topic of songwriting. Steve Harris usually does a bulk of the writing. What’s it like working on songs with him when he seems to sort of be the mastermind?
I don’t see it like that actually. We bring songs in and you might bring a riff in that Steve gets off on and he wants to write some words to it. Or he might come in with an idea to go with it. There are no restrictions to the way we write. If Adrian [Smith] brings a song in, then Bruce might write with him or Steve might. I think it’s pretty open. You might bring an hour and a half of music in and only use fifteen minutes, but that’s great because you’re bringing lots and lots of ideas to it. With “The Book of Souls” I brought the music in for that and Steve had some great vocal ideas thematically, and we got together and rearranged it. He had some more choruses he wanted to put in here and there, and he might bring a few different melodies in that he wants to put on it, and then we put the song out. I certainly don’t feel an oppressive nature of Steve. He’s very positive and brings great ideas to everything.
There’s an acoustic intro on “Book Of Souls”, a song you wrote with Steve Harris. Whose idea was that?
I brought that in. I brought the song in and that was on the front of it. So generally with pretty much anything me and Steve write it means I’ve asked Steve to add some lyrics to it, and he might add some melodic ideas within the song as well. You might bring one riff in, and it might set Bruce onto something else and he might bring a new part to it. There are no limits, and it makes it really interesting because it never gets boring. You might bring a chorus in that Steve might like and put into one of his songs or whatever. It’s very free and easy what we do. I might write 10 or 12 songs and we might use one or two of them. For this particular album we worked like that, and all of us were the same, we all brought lots of extra stuff in. If everyone gets off on it, off we go. On a song like “The Red and the Black” Steve had it pretty pinned down what he wanted, he knew exactly the melodies he wanted to play. But then Bruce brought “Empire of the Clouds” where he had a pretty decent arrangement and then we just embellished the parts and that was what he wanted. Bruce and Adrian might bring a song that’s pretty solid and we just go and do it exactly as, so there’s no set way of doing it, and that gives you a tremendous array of musical ideas you can bring to it.
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One thing I’ve noticed is, to my knowledge, you haven’t released a single yet, which is pretty bold in today’s media landscape of singles and streaming. Is there a conscious reasoning behind this within the band?
Well we didn’t want anything out while Bruce was recuperating. The album would’ve been out earlier in the year, but we pulled everything and we pulled the tour because we wanted Bruce to get better. To me that’s more important than anything, so we just held everything back. He’s clear now and the idea was to wait until September. I like the idea of getting an album when it’s released. Is that passé now? I don’t know, but isn’t it good to wait for something and get it all at once? That whole Internet thing has kind of spoiled it a little bit because it’s nice to wait for something and get it all at once as opposed to bips and bops at a time.
So I have to ask, will the band be doing a world tour to support this album, and if so, can you talk about when that might happen and what fans might expect as far as a set list and stage theatrics and all that?
It’s too early to tell but we want to do a tour and we’re looking at being out next year, probably late January or early February. Hopefully Bruce will be back to his normal self by then, he’s already looking really good and sounding great. It’s just a matter of getting physically back to what he was. So we’re going to sit back, put the album out, and hopefully do a world tour next year that will be based around the album.
Compared to previous Maiden albums, the cover work for Book of Souls is stark and stripped down. How did that come about?
Well the album title Book of Souls [is based] on the Mayan thing. That was the idea that Steve had for the tour and the cover. We got the idea and named Mark Wilkinson to do the cover art, and he’s worked with us before. It’s just a striking thing and it ties in with the Book of Souls and the mystical idea of the Mayans and the Aztecs. It also ties in with a couple of other tracks on the album. That was it.
It definitely stands out compared to all the maiden albums that are filled with color and a lot of wild stuff going on and here you get just the one figure.
Yeah, maybe he’s gone Mayan.
The last thing I want to ask is, for you personally, if you could play one Maiden album in its entirety live, which one would it be?
Wow. There are so many songs in the back catalogue! We went out and did A Matter of Life and Death in its entirety, and everybody said that would be commercial suicide. It was fantastic. I really enjoyed it and it really felt very fulfilling, but I think there are so many songs from our past career that, to do that, you’re leaving so many great songs out. I think it’s good to kind of mix and match as opposed to playing one full album. You’ve got a career spanning decades so it’s good to pick bits and pieces. The last two tours we didn’t do “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and two years before [on the 2010 Somewhere Back In Time Tour] we didn’t do “The Trooper”. Those are songs that people really want to hear. What we try and do is put six or seven new songs in and pepper it with older songs so everybody gets to enjoy the gig. You always want to play the new stuff and that’s what it’s all about because that’s where we are now. I’m not someone who looks back. There are a lot of bands out there that are a parody of what they used to be, they try and re-tie in the past, and I don’t think you can do that. You’ve got to look to the future. I’m very proud of everything we’ve done in the past, but you’re only valid as an organic band if you go with the now. It’s very important to go out when you have a new album out, play the new stuff and get it out there like where we are now. That way you don’t become a parody, you become valid in time that you’re around. This is 2015 and I think we’re a really valid band. This album is very valid; it’s powerful, it’s exciting, it’s thematic, it’s got everything you could wish for from an Iron Maiden album.
Iron Maiden’s Book of Souls comes out on BMG September 4th on vinyl and CD. For more info check out ironmaiden.com.