For me, it was Fear of the Dark. For others, it might not even be the music that first introduced them to Iron Maiden – their branding is so strong, experts suggest there are more of their t-shirts in the world right now than there are people to wear them (if you consider my own imagination as concrete evidence). Hell, it might even have been as the romantic catalyst in that Wheatus hit ‘Teenage Dirtbag’. But unless you’ve been living under the sea, at some point you’ve stumbled upon what has become one of the most successful bands in history. After 2000 shows and a discography so heavy it has its own orbit, drummer Nicko McBrain chats about the band’s notoriety and his own unique style.
“I mean, when anyone tips their hat to you it’s a very nice thing,” says the jovial Englishman. “You see people wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts in movies, you hear of famous people who are fans of the band and they’re proud to show it off, when that happens, it’s great. An accolade from another performer who has been inspired by the music of Iron Maiden, that’s always going to be the best compliment you can achieve. Where those [Wheatus] guys did that song, ‘Teenage Dirtbag’, ‘I got two tickets to Iron Maiden baby’, that’s really cool, but whether that in influences other people to go and have a listen? I don’t know. I think we do pretty well in converting people by our presence and our music, the essence of what we are. People might know who we are without knowing our music because of the pro le of the band! Or even from a song like ‘Teenage Dirtbag’. The way I see it, no news is bad news. If people are talking, it’s good, because hell, they’re talking.”
McBrain is getting close to that Beatles magic number, sixty-four, and given he first began drumming in small local bands at fourteen, it’s safe to say he’s had a fairly comprehensive musical career and has picked up more than a handful of tricks along the way. Half a century is a long time to perfect your signature, and yet McBrain’s drumming ‘voice’ was championed from the very beginning.
“I think everyone has their own signature. There’s only so many rhythms and so many beats that you can actually do with a drum set, you know, just like there are only eight musical notes with flats and diminishes, stuff like that. It’s how you swing it all together that makes something unique. The personality of the drummer really dictates, I think, how the band...” He pauses. “Let’s put it this way. If you got another drummer and sat him in Iron Maiden, it would sound different. It would be totally different; likewise with our guitar players. The chemistry really is just right, and when you have that chemistry, you don’t mess with it. And the personality of the drummer is very integral to a band; most of us are as nutty as a barrel of monkeys, myself not being the exception. I’m absolutely nuts, but I’m passionate about my playing. I played in two bands before, but session work way, way back. But you have to have your own unique identity. And that’s very hard nowadays. In the early days, my comparison was between Keith Moon and John Bonham, and that was one of the biggest compliments I ever got paid in the press back in the late 70s. Nicko McBrain has a unique style of playing – I’m proud of that.”
Across thirteen albums – from 1983’s Piece of Mind through to last year’s #1 album The Book of Souls – that unique style has had a lot of space to move around. “The drummer has always been regarded as an inferior musician; if he’s ever even classed as a musician. We’re at the back; we don’t get a lot of the limelight. We’re usually the best looking guys in the band, and I think a lot of the guys who are out front are happy about that. If we weren’t up the back, everyone would be looking at the fucking drummer. As far as my perspective is, I have a job to do. I’m the engine driver with Steve Harris, that’s the heartbeat of the band. You can have a gig where the drummer plays really bad, and you’re a really fantastic band, and that gig is still going to sound shit. Then, you could have a band that aren’t particularly great up front but they have a great drummer, they’re going to sound good.”
At the time we are talking, Black Sabbath are set to tour Australia one last time, having announced that their life on the road and the promise of future studio albums has come to a close. It’s a bittersweet thing for McBrain, but he’s also quick to assure that Iron Maiden have a few more tricks up their sleeve yet. “It’s sad to think of, because Sabbath were such a pioneering band. I actually went on tour with them back in 1974, in Europe, and they’re all dear friends. To think that all these bands from my era, that I grew up and listened to and were influenced by, well, I guess they’re deciding that perhaps it’s time to hang it up. For us, we aren’t ready for that yet. That’s all I can say. There’s still a lot of story left in us.”
May 4 – Brisbane Entertainment Center, Brisbane QLD
May 6 – Sydney Allphones Arena, Sydney NSW
May 9 – Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne VIC
May 12 – Adelaide Entertainment Center, Adelaide SA
May 14 – Perth Arena, Perth WA
For more details, head to ironmaiden.com.