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Blaze Bayley & Steve Harris Interview
MH Introduction: After a lengthy absence, 1998 will be a frantic year for Iron Maiden. On March 23, they unveil their 11th studio release, 'Virtual XI' - the album's title links their twin loves of computer games and football and is the second record to feature vocalist Blaze Bayley, who replaced Bruce Dickinson five years ago. To support it, the enduring five-piece commence a gruelling World Tour at the end of April. A one-off UK date will take place at London's Brixton Academy on May 16, but we have to wait until September/October for a full British tour. Sitting with his feet up in the Essex home studio where 'Virtual XI' was created, bassist and founding member Steve Harris explains that he is "being very stubborn" about putting on a big presentation once again. Harris is a man who knows what he wants - and when he barks, people jump. He has also started his own label, Beast Records, the first signing to which are Londoners Dirty Deeds, who will support Maiden on the entire tour. Time permitting, he'd also like to sign other bands. But we're here to talk Maiden, and a swift preview of 'Virtual XI' reveals it to be an improvement on the band's weak offering in 1995: 'The X Factor'. Harris and I have known each other for 15 years now, and he takes my disapproval of his previous album on the chin, but he still wants to know why I disliked it. After explaining that it was all rather dour and that I particularly loathed the metal-by-numbers of 'Fortunes Of War', he's more intrigued than offended. "Really? That was my favourite song on the album, it really came into its own live! Everybody's entitled to their opinion, but there were a million people who disagreed with you."
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MH: From the very first riff of the new album's very first song, 'Futureal', it's unmistakably Iron Maiden.
Steve: It's like that with every album. We are what we are and we don't try to be anything we're not. And we don't try to be anything we are - we just do what we do. That said, this album's different from the last one and that was different from the one before that. It's more instant than 'The X Factor', which needed four or five listens to get into it.
MH: It's certainly more upbeat.
Steve: Yeah. And the songs are very strong. 'The X Factor' had a progressive flavour, but the songs are probably a bit more immediate this time.
MH: That's partly due to the increased use of keyboards.
Steve: There's no more keyboards than usual, they're just further up in the mix. On 'The Clansman' and 'Don't Look to the Eyes of a Stranger' we wanted a very orchestral sound, and I actually played the keyboards myself - it was quicker that way. We've used keyboards in the past but this time we really took it to the max and it came out well. Nicko always moans about using keyboards because he wants to keep it rock 'n roll, but he rang to say how great the Hammond organ sounded on 'The Angel and the Gambler'.
MH: That song's reminiscent of The Who's classic 'Won't Get Fooled Again'.
Steve: It's a bit like The Who meets UFO, yeah, and that '70s sound was what I was aiming for.
MH: Possibly a brave move for Iron Maiden?
Steve: Not at all. It was what felt right for the song. We weren't trying to be current, or retro or anything. People will either love this kind of music or hate it, but we just take each song in any direction that feels natural.
MH: Even following a change of vocalist, people continue to overlook any musical progression you might make.
Steve: You can't worry about that. For years we've tried out lots of different things and we always take flak for it. We took stick when we first did 'Flight of Icarus' which was different for us, and then again for 'Wasted Years' (a 1986 song which featured guitar synths). I say it in every interview I do but it's true, all we're trying to do is get the best collection of songs that we can.
Blaze: The thing is that Maiden sound like Maiden every time. That's one of the reasons I'm in this band: I like the fact that it sounds like Iron Maiden. As a record-buying fan, I don't want AC/DC to suddenly have a brass section. Why should AC/DC go techno? I want every AC/DC album I buy to sound the way I like them, and it's the same with us.
MH: Do you sometimes read your reviews and think the reviewers were listening to a completely different record?
Blaze: I just don't bother with them anymore. It's become way too personal.
Steve: Sometimes they just miss the point. Like you did with 'Fortunes Of War', but never mind! Ha! Sorry about that. It's annoying, but that makes it a challenge. Obviously, I want every fucker to like every fucking album and song we do, that's only natural. Not because we want to sell units but because we want to be liked and loved like everybody else. But that's never gonna happen and if it did it'd be boring. Bad reviews are only irritating when they're not constructive. I can't do a thing about you not liking 'Fortunes of War', that's your opinion and that's fine. I can't change that, all we can do as a band is follow out gut feelings.
MH: All the same, the accusation that you make the same album over and over again refuses to go away.
Blaze: That's bollocks. It's always varied and there's always some new direction that the band are looking to explore. The last album was quite dark and broody, this time there's been a definite progression from that.
Steve: People can say what they like. You might think 'Oh fucking hell, 'Fortunes of War' is shit' and if there was a shred of worry in my mind it would confirm those doubts. But I don't think that, so I can be very bombastic and strong about things. With the past three or four albums, we've left off anything that we weren't 100 per cent certain about.
MH: It'd be interesting to hear where you think Iron Maiden stand in the current musical scene.
Steve: Fuckin hell, you tell me. I don't know! Obviously, I read the magazines and to a certain degree I do keep in touch with what's going on. I do listen to other people's stuff but I've been here for six months doing this album, so I prefer not to listen to too much.
MH: Would you be familiar with the like of Marilyn Manson, Green Day and Nine Inch Nails, for instance?
Steve: Of course. I wanna keep up with what's going on. Some of it I like, some I don't.
Blaze: Actually, I'm a fan of Nine Inch Nails. I listen to Korn a lot and the more technical stuff like Ministry, but it has to be powerful. I love Judas Priest's 'Jugulator' album and there's a band from Brazil called Angra, their singer actually auditioned for Maiden, and they're great, too. And I'm really looking forward to hearing what Max Cavalera comes up with.
Steve: I tend to like certain tracks, but I haven't really liked many albums over the past two or three years from start to finish. You buy an album, check out the two or three songs you like and the rest of it is average at best. To me, it's a lack of depth in the songwriting. Maybe some bands concentrate too much on getting one or two individual tracks away in the hope that something will take off. Whether you like a song of ours or you hate it, you have to admit that it's a good song of its type... except 'Fortunes of War', obviously!
MH: Putting the question another way, you seem to be a million miles away from the 'cutting edge' bands.
Steve: Again, you tell me. Those bands do what they do and so do we.
MH: Does it bother you to be perceived that way?
Steve: You can't get paranoid. Over the past three or four years or maybe longer it's become an 'in vogue' type of thing, and that's something we cannot deal with - and we don't want to. I'm not gonna start dressing like I'm 20 years old because I'm not. And I'm not gonna try to start writing contemporary songs just because other people are on my back about it. If people think Iron Maiden are uncool then there's not a lot I can do about that. It's only a problem in the UK and to a lesser degree in America. Anywhere else in the world, nobody's interested in what we look like, just our sound and how good the songs are. And that's the way I prefer it.
MH: Musically speaking, anything goes in 1998. You can mix and match styles, be androgynous. Rob Halford - the former frontman of metal gods Judas Priest - has just admitted he's gay!
Steve: That spirit of musical freedom is very healthy. And hopefully we'll fit in with all that, too. All we need is for people to be a bit more open-minded. If there's this vibe of 'anything goes', surely that gives us as good a chance as anybody.
MH: Fair enough. But it wasn't too long ago that Iron Maiden were spoken of in the same breath as Metallica. Now Lars Ulrich and company have updated their image, seemingly disowned heavy metal and are reaping the benefits.
Steve: I'll cut my hair when I'm fed up with it and not before, and I'm not even thinking about it at the moment. At this point, I wouldn't feel comfortable with it... it's too cold for one thing. There might come a time when I feel that way - and maybe there won't! - but I will not be part of some marketing ploy. And you won't get me to have a go at Metallica either because I really, really liked 'Load' and the 'Black' album. In fact, I prefer them now than during their early days. I come from a traditional rock background and that's where my influences still lie. I haven't got 'Re-Load' yet, but what they've actually been doing is a lo more traditional rock. I prefer the way that James (Hetfield) sings now, and everything about them. I liked the arrangements of their earlier stuff but i couldn't get past some of the vocal melody lines, and I said that to Lars once and I believe that James probably quite rightly got the hump with me. But I was only being honest. It's strange that there's supposedly this divide between Metallica's 'old' and 'new' fans. I know it keeps magazines going, but it's still the same fucking band, for Christ's sake. They're just doing something different, whatever their reasoning. The thing is it's OK being different - as long as what you come up with is good! And that's what Metallica are doing. And I'm sure they don't give a shit what some journalist thinks.
MH: All the same, it's unfeasible that your band would turn their backs on heavy metal
Steve: I don't care what people call us. We've been a metal band for a few years now and we've never been uncomfortable with it. I know at the moment it's quite uncool to admit to being heavy metal, but I don't see it as a negative thing.
MH: Somehow I can't picture you in Kirk Hammett-style make up...
Steve: Who knows? When it becomes time to do it, I just might. But I'm not gonna do it just because it's in vogue.
MH: Bruce Dickinson recently told me that he wouldn't have quit the band but for a few key issues. Firstly, he had reservations about the quality of this studio, the place where you recorded 'No Prayer for the Dying' and 'Fear of the Dark'. He also wanted rid of all the 'yes men' who seemed to be in attendance, and to drag Iron Maiden into the late '90s.
Steve: I don't really wanna talk about Bruce, he says whatever he thinks he needs to say at the time. He left us because he wanted to do something different, and then because he thinks metal's coming back again he starts doing Maiden stuff again. He left in the first place because he didn't want to do that anymore. Bruce just talks about whatever he thinks is gonna work in his favour at that time.
MH: Are you still mates with him?
Steve: Not really, no I don't wanna get into specifics, but I really felt that he let us down towards the end, not because he was leaving, but because he didn't seem to want to be there anymore. I don't want to get into all that.
MH: OK. Last issue, Blaze quite rightly pointed out that the critics had all predicted that grunge would kill Iron Maiden. But you live to tell the tale.
Steve: People said that thrash would kill us too, but it didn't hurt us at all. I've got to be honest, the grunge thing affected us a lot more, but we're still around. I'm realistic enough to admit that I worry about thinks like that. I thought, 'Are people gonna turn up for this tour?' It was only logical that the fans would grow up and want to listen to something else. Luckily enough, we got a few new younger fans and kept some of the older ones.
MH: Despite the song 'Como Estais Amigos' being about the Falklands war casualties, you have a reputation for writing meaningless comic book lyrics.
Blaze: If you look at them properly there's always a lot more depth. A fan would be able to tell you that we have recorded a lot of factual, historical stuff. And there have been attempts to address some more complex issues.
MH: You just told us that 'The X Factor' sold a million copies worldwide. Bearing in mind that Maiden have now sold in excess of 40 million albums, were you happy with that figure?
Steve: Christ, yeah. If somebody had told me when the band started we'd make a record that sold that many, I'd say 'Thank you very much'. We had a new singer and the vibe we were getting from the outside world was that Iron Maiden were dead, but we did it against the odds. We were desperate to prove people wrong. I'll be honest, there were some places like America where we thought 'Fucking hell, have we still go an audience?' because we hadn't played there for four years. And they were still loyal, so this time we're gonna go back and do the sheds (ie, the arenas). People out there would even ask us, 'Are you still valid?' And we'd reply, 'Yeah, we're still valid to ourselves and our fans and that's all we care about'. We freely admit that we've made enough money to be comfortable, but we keep doing this because we want to do it. People are always looking for an angle with Iron Maiden, but there's never been one - we just enjoy making the best music we can and beating audiences over the head with it.
MH: Is it frustrating having to continually justify yourself to journalists?
Steve: Sometimes. In some ways it's not a bad thing because it makes you work harder, but it seems to happen with every album. And it gets really boring because it used to happen even when Bruce was in the band. I remember having to justify ourselves with the 'Seventh Son of a Seventh Son' album because we'd used guitars synthesizers, and then again with Janick joining. There's always something - even after the 22 years we've been going, which I find hard to believe, too!
MH: After 11 studio albums and 22 years, is there a point where it becomes just a job?
Steve: To be totally honest, there are a lot of times when it's fun and as many when it ain't. Sometimes it's damn fucking hard work. But it's all about getting out on the road, that's when it's all worthwhile. It's a very '90s thing to say that something's stressful, but there is a lot of pressure when you're making an album. But a lot of that disappears when you know you've got the right songs to work with.
MH: I'm not suggesting for a moment that this will happen, but my perception of Steve Harris is that he would want to continue playing even if Iron Maiden's popularity were to dwindle and the band ended up in the clubs again. Is that correct?
Steve: I hate to use a footballing analogy because it's slightly different, but I'm gonna have to. With sportsmen, they get older and lose their sharpness, but I'm sure you'll find there are a lot of professional footballers who give up when they're supposedly at the top. If they don't love the game anymore that's fine, but I can't understand if it's just an ego thing. Once you reach the peak of your career, where's the shame in dropping down a division if you still love the game? Musically, I'm sharper than I've ever been. I wouldn't really mind playing Guildford Civic Hall as long as there were people there watching me. If no one turned up, you'd have to start wondering - but at the end of the day I'm as happy playing at Guildford Civic Hall as I am at Madison Square Garden. If there's a hungry audience there, I'm hungry as well.
MH: Has the shock of joining Iron Maiden worn off yet, Blaze?
Blaze: Not really, but the nerves have. I played some bigger venues with my old band (Wolfsbane), but we were supporting. Headlining to 10,000 people every night is completely different. It blows you mind. Now I'm more confident, and probably a bit more mature.
MH: What is the most important lesson you've learned during your five years?
Blaze: Wow! Probably that you can do just about anything if you think positively, prepare and work hard. When I joined a band as big as Iron Maiden I just thought, 'I can't fucking do this'. But I've made it and nobody can deny that I am the singer in Iron Maiden.
MH: Are there any ambitions left?
Steve: Obviously, I've not achieved everything I've wanted to. We have to get more fans back, or a few younger ones. Basically, to conquer the world again. If the last album did a million I'd like this one to do two million. At this time, maybe there are only a million Maiden fans out there, unless 'The Angel and the Gambler' is a hit single. But we've had good singles before and they haven't crossed over yet, so that would be nice. Just for once!