Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden (you might have heard of them) reflects on a career of uncompromised ambition
Iron Maiden singer, PILOT, entrepreneur, OLYMPIC-STANDARD fencer – Bruce dickinson Wears A LOT of HATS, often AT THE same TIME. AND somehow He’s found TIME To WRITE HIS Memoir, What does this Button do?. so WHICH one of These Things Is He really? ALL of T
It is quite a while into a conversation with Bruce Dickinson that the words ‘Iron’ and ‘Maiden’ spring up. That’s not because you don’t care, or you’re trying to look cool in front of the singer in one of the world’s biggest and best metal bands – it’s simply that he’ll start talking about something that in turn leads to something else that makes you go, ‘Hang on, what?’, and 20 minutes later you’re onto another topic with no idea how you got there, other than prodding your subject for detail. What does this button do, indeed.
But that’s what’s makes Bruce such a grand human being; eccentricity, an innocent curiosity about everything, a fierce – but genuinely endearing – sense of ambition, a fantastic sense of humour and a nose for adventure straight from a Biggles novel. When he meets K! today, in a chic London hotel, he arrives looking a bit like Alan Partridge after a trolley dash in Millets – but that’s fucking cool, because 30 seconds after shaking his hand, you feel like you want to go out and scrub a few things off your bucket list, to do something fantastic just for the sake of having done it, that could very
well take your entire life down a strange new exciting path.
With a book, the reissues of his ’90s solo work from the period after he left Maiden, and a life less ordinary to discuss, when you start talking to Bruce, you wonder where you’ll end up. And that’s exactly how you want him…
WHAT DOES THIS BUTTON DO? ISN’T LIKE A NORMAL ROCK BIOG – IT READS MORE LIKE BILL BRYSON. WAS THAT YOUR INTENTION?
“Well, you’ve sort of hit the nail on the head when you said Bill Bryson. I’ll take that as a compliment! I never wanted it to be the usual ‘The sex, the sleaze, the this, that and the other’ tales. Because, you know what? They’re boring! After the first Holy Roman orgy you think,‘right, but does anything actually happen that has any meaning, or anything that might inform those of us that don’t have Holy Roman orgies every five minutes?’”
IT’S WRITTEN WITH A SENSE OF WIDE-EYED EXCITEMENT, THOUGH, WHICH IS ALSO DIFFERENT FOR A ROCK BIOG…
“Well, yeah. I do sort of go through life in a state of wide-eyed excitement… just with occasional hangovers! But yeah, that’s kind of how I treat life, I suppose. People sometimes say,‘you should take things more seriously…’ Well, I do take things seriously. I just really, really, really enjoy what I’m doing and being alive.”
YOU DON’T SEEM LIKE SOMEONE WHO’S PRONE TO BOUTS OF DARKNESS – YOU SEEM LIKE YOU’RE ALWAYS TRYING TO FORGE AHEAD AND OVERCOME ANY PROBLEMS. IS THAT FAIR?
“I do allude to the odd moment of feeling a bit down, but for me, that’s about as bad as it gets. So yeah, that’s probably a fair reflection of the way things pan out. If things don’t work out the way you want them to, you can end up feeling a bit sorry for yourself.the thing with me is, I usually end up in that place and going,‘you’re feeling sorry for yourself. Admit it. Own up.’ Either that, or someone else slaps me around the head and says,‘come on, stop feeling sorry for yourself. Look at all the good things you’ve got in your life.’ Other people have really shitty things happen to them, and I’ve met a lot of people who really do struggle with things like depression and long-term illness, and it really does make you pinch yourself and go,‘you know what? I’m very lucky [that I don’t have to go through that].’”
WHEN YOU LEFT IRON MAIDEN IN 1993 AND WENT SOLO, DID THAT KIND OF THINKING HELP? IT SEEMS LIKE YOU WERE LEAPING INTO THE UNKNOWN GOING, ‘I WONDER WHAT’S IN HERE…’
“That’s exactly what it was like. I wish I could say I had a plan – but I didn’t! In a bizarre way it felt like it was fatalism. I thought,‘it’s alright, the universe is gonna tell you what to do.and if the universe decides that what’s next is just to dissolve into the background, then that’s what you need to do.’ If that was as far as I could evolve with music and all that stuff, then I was prepared to look back on the past 15 years or so and go,‘well, I’ve done plenty, not much to complain about. Maybe I’ll go and be a Tube driver!’”
WE CAN PICTURE YOU AS A TRAIN DRIVER, ACTUALLY…
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being a train driver! Looks great!”
YES IT DOES. SO WOULD YOU SAY YOU’RE HAPPY SO LONG AS THERE’S SOMETHING INTERESTING TO DO?
“I made a strange pact with myself that I would only try to do things that I loved.and the same thing goes for anything: you should do the things you love, but you should love the things you do. So even if you’re doing something where you go,‘oh God, I really don’t want to do this,’ figure out a way to love it. Because why be miserable about doing something you’ve gotta do anyway?”
HOW DID IT FEEL TO GO SOLO?
“I thought it was exciting.the expectation was different, there wasn’t as much riding on it as with Maiden, and it was all up to me, really. I didn’t know what was going to happen.would people like it? Would they not? Would they even care? It was a bit of a case of diving blind into it and just getting on with it, and whatever happens, happens.”
SOME OF THE MUSIC YOU DID IS QUITE ODD COMPARED TO MAIDEN, PARTICULARLY ON SKUNKWORKS IN 1996. WAS THAT INTENTIONAL?
“Yes, and it was an interesting idea and an interesting thing to work on.and we knew people would think it was weird. It’s quite unusual for people to move away so far from what they’re known for like that, except David Bowie. But it was nice to be able to have ideas like that and just go for it.”
DURING YOUR SOLO CAREER YOU DID A GIG IN SARAJEVO AT THE HEIGHT OF THE BOSNIAN WAR. THE CITY WAS UNDER SIEGE, YOU HAD TO BE SNUCK IN, AND YOU WERE TOLD BY THE BRITISH ARMY TO GO HOME. WHAT DROVE YOU TO DO IT?
“The sake of it, almost. It certainly turned into that. It was a big thing to do. Once we got there, the fact that they told us to piss off because it was inconvenient to the UN at the time, that was like a red rag to a bull, I went,‘you know what? Maybe we can do this after all. Let’s not give up!’”
SURELY, THOUGH, YOU MUST HAVE BEEN WORRIED THAT, BY LITERALLY GOING INTO A WARZONE TO PLAY A GIG, THINGS MIGHT NOT COME OFF SO WELL AND YOU MIGHT NOT MAKE IT HOME?
“Uh… yeah, because we were doing something genuinely hazardous! But we were only doing something as hazardous as what everybody else was doing who was there.the only difference was, most people weren’t going there – they were already there, they were stuck there. But it was dangerous, yes.we had to travel down this very long road to get to Sarajevo where there was a high chance of being shot at, if you were unlucky. Fortunately we weren’t, but that’s how determined we were to go and do this gig.and it was great. The people there were so grateful to us for coming. It wasn’t a great venue, the PA wasn’t great, but we were expecting that.we were there to play to those people, and they really needed it, to have a band come and give them something like that.”
WHEN YOU LOOK BACK, DOES IT EVER HIT YOU JUST HOW DANGEROUS IT WAS?
“Yes. But here’s something – the people who were there, who we played to, recently made a documentary about it 20 years on. The 20th anniversary of it was last year, and a local filmmaker decided to interview a load of the kids who were there at the show, and basically made a documentary called Scream For Me Sarajevo. It showed during a War Child thing at the Curzon cinema in London recently, and I got this amazing email from Simon Egan, who’s the producer of The King’s Speech, saying that he’d seen it, and that he was in tears for the whole thing.that’s out on DVD next February.we participated in the documentary only in respect of the fact that they were making it anyway and asked for some interviews from us. But the whole thing came out of Sarajevo, we didn’t know anything about it. I first heard about it when somebody doorstepped me in my local pub and said,‘i’m from Sarajevo, I’m doing a film.’ It’s an extraordinary film. It won Best Film at the Sarajevo Film Festival.”
But all this talk of music – playing it in a city in the middle of an armed seige or not – is only part of the picture. For K!, we know Bruce as the metal singer who does a load of other stuff during Maiden downtime. In the world of aviation, however, he’s a respected pilot and airline captain. Should you so desire, you can read in aero-business magazines about his engineering enterprise, Cardiff Aviation, without music being mentioned once. Then there’s fencing – ranked seventh in the UK at one point. And when, in 2015 this all had to take a back seat to fighting throat cancer – now completely defeated – he chucked himself back into everything with double vigour as soon as he was able.
It’s inspiring stuff, and testament to the man’s unbreakable attitude. But, really, what you truly want to know is what it’s like flying a plane…
DO YOU STILL GET EXCITED ABOUT FLYING PLANES?
“Yes I do! And I can tell you that I have so many demands on my time and so much to do that I don’t get as much of a chance to do some of the things I really love as much as I’d like. But flying… there’s no greater buzz. I get just as much of a buzz out of flying a little light aircraft as I do a big 747. I remember my first big airline job – I turned up and there was this huge airliner standing there that was mine for the day, like, ‘here you go, just bring it back…’”
WHEN YOU FIRST HAD A GO DID YOU THINK IT WOULD BECOME SUCH A HUGE PART OF YOUR LIFE?
“Never in a million years did I ever think I’d end up flying an airliner, let alone being a captain, let alone flying a 747.That was not part of it! It was just a slippery slope.and once I’d started, one thing led to another, you know? That’s the story of my life, pretty much – what does this button do? I start with something, get into it, and then I go,‘ well, how do I do that?’ And someone says it’s a set of exams. So you do the exams, and you get into a slightly new realm, and then you start discovering things in there. Like, flying a plane over mountains, you think,‘ i’m not too happy about doing that with one engine, at night, what about two?’ And then you see more stuff you need, and then you go, ‘I wonder what it’s like to fly a jet? Oh, I can’t afford to do that… unless I got a job! How do I do that? Can I get a part-time job as a pilot?’ That’s how it started.”
DID YOU HAVE TO MAKE ANY LIFESTYLE CHANGES FOR IT? IT’S A WORLD AWAY FROM BEING ONSTAGE WITH A BAND…
“No, not really, you just have to get used to getting up stupidly early in the morning, like, three o’clock.”
WITH THE BOOK, WAS IT HARD TO BALANCE BAND STUFF WITH EVERYTHING ELSE YOU DO?
“Well, I didn’t want the book to be just a shopping list of things that happened on tour over successive tours. I wanted the book to have a feeling to it, so people
A NUCLEAR SUBMARINE is a bit like a big tour bus, just with Dangerous missiles
would know what it felt like to be at various stages in our career. So the biggest amount of word-footage in the book is always about when things happen for the first time. So, first learning to sing, then Maiden, the first album, first gig, it’s all stuff that happens for the first time. But it’s the first time in your life that you do things that are the most interesting and exciting, and it’s when you feel the most alive. So in the book, some of the lengthy, lengthy tours are compressed into, like, a page and a half. Because it’s not a shopping list, and if you’re an Iron Maiden geek who wants that stuff in great detail, look on our website, because all that information is on there.the book is not about that. “We carved about 60,000 words out in the end! We dropped some good stories, but that means the book reads like a novel and there’s a narrative to it. I romp along!”
IT’S ALMOST LIKE A METAL BIGGLES…
“Ha! Yes! I’d go with that.”
DO YOU ENJOY BEING SEEN LIKE THAT?
“Yeah, I suppose I do, really. It makes me more interesting to talk to, at least! I must confess that I’m not too crazy about books on music, because they can be quite… insular.a book should be entertaining and informative to an extent, and it should make you laugh as well.”
YOU’RE INVOLVED IN A FIRST WORLD WAR AIR DISPLAY TEAM AS WELL. HOW DOES ONE GET INTO THAT?
“Well, they’ve been around for years and I was dimly aware of them, and I got involved when this guy approached me. Basically, he knew I’d be loony enough to go and buy an aeroplane! He talked me into buying this bloody thing.as soon as I saw it, I had to buy it.”
THAT’S A BIG IMPULSE PURCHASE…
“Yeah, but it just looked so cool. It was a German Fokker triplane, like [WWI German flying ace] the Red Baron. It’s not red, but it’s the same type of plane. It’s quite tricky and eccentric to handle. I did one season with them, and then I got stuffed by my throat cancer thing, but the plane is still very active on the display circuit. Unfortunately displays happen over the summer, and during the summer I tend to be rather busy!”
YOU BOUGHT THE PLANE, BUT YOU ONCE NEARLY ENDED UP BUYING A SUBMARINE AS WELL. WHERE DID YOU FIND THAT?
“I saw it in the Daily Mail.a children’s charity were selling it, believe it or not! I thought,‘what on Earth is a children’s charity doing with a Royal Navy operational submarine?’ In the past I’ve actually spent six days on patrol in a nuclear sub, for fun. That was three or four years ago.”
WHERE DOES ONE GO IN A NUCLEAR SUB “FOR FUN”?
“I can’t tell you, or I’d have to kill you!”
WAS THAT WEIRD?
“I loved it! It was just like being on a very big tour bus, without any windows, and a lot of very dangerous missiles.”
WAS IT STRESSFUL AND LOUD?
“No, it’s actually very quiet.the only issue is that if you do a deep dive, you need to be careful you’re not in the toilet.the submarine hull shrinks a bit because of the pressure, and the door jams shut! You don’t want to be stuck in there!”
WHAT STOPPED YOU BUYING YOUR OWN, THEN?
“My wife! I was tempted, though – I bought a radiocontrolled one. It’s on top of my bookshelf at home. I was looking at it one day and thought,‘what’s the point of a remote-controlled submarine?you can’t see it!’”
YOU’VE BEEN VERY OPEN ABOUT YOUR CANCER, BOTH WITH KERRANG! AND IN THE BOOK. IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WERE WORRIED ABOUT SAYING?
“There’s stuff I could tell people that I haven’t, yeah. Things that would make their hair curl. But I haven’t. I do want to give people a bit of a flavour of what it was like, though. In my case I developed a bit of a black humour about the whole thing.you just do, because how else are you gonna deal with it? During the treatment there’s nothing you can do about it, because you’re already doing it – you’re having the treatment.and then you have to wait for a bit before you know whether or not it’s worked, so you just get on with it.that’s all you can do. It’s quite revealing, that chapter in the book. I don’t know how you felt about it?”
IT WAS VERY HONEST, BUT ALSO WRITTEN FROM A POINT WHERE YOU KNOW YOU CAN GET BETTER.
“Yeah.and that’s something else – you can get better. It’s a bit shitty – actually, it’s just shitty – but it’s possible to be okay.and that’s how I felt. I was very lucky. It’s not a very nice treatment, and most people, I think, can suffer to a greater or lesser extent because of the treatment. I’ve met people who’ve had the same thing, and had exactly the same treatment, and some of them have been in a really terrible state. But they’ve all got better, and that’s what’s important.”
YOU HAD TO PUT EVERYTHING ON HOLD TO FIGHT IT. HOW DID IT FEEL WHEN YOU GOT THE ALLCLEAR AND COULD GO AND PLAY SHOWS AGAIN?
“Absolutely amazing. Even if you’re a bit knackered, you just think,‘well, nothing can stop me now…’ The first time I got back onstage with Maiden, it felt unbelievable, because you do have it in your mind,‘what if? What if I never get to do this stuff again?’”
DID IT FEEL LIKE THE FIRST GIG AGAIN?
“Not quite, because the thing is, that first time, you have no idea what’s going to happen. But coming back, I know what Maiden gigs feel like – I’ve played enough of them – so I knew what I was going into and what I’d been missing.”
YOU DO SO MUCH – DO YOU HAVE ‘OFFICE HOURS’ TO KEEP ON TOP OF IT ALL?
“No, I just have a paper diary with lots of crossings out!”
DO YOU HAVE A SET DAY IN THE OFFICE, THOUGH?
“Which office?! No, I don’t. If you’re doing two projects at the same time, you can keep on top of it as long as you’re organised. If you’re doing three, things get a bit frantic so you end up doing a lot of stuff on the phone because it’s the only way to have enough time.and if you’re doing four things, you just accept that you’re doing the equivalent of living in a funny farm.”
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU STILL WISH YOU COULD GET INTO THAT YOU HAVEN’T YET?
“Yes – without going into specifics. I’ve got half a solo album from two and a half years ago that I would love to finish off. Not that I’m under any illusions that anybody would be interested, but I’d just love to do it.and I’d also love to, one of these days, something more with Empire Of The Clouds. I’d love to get involved with some theatre people and an orchestra and stuff, and do a proper production to tell the story of the R101, using footage, and bits with actors, and intersperse it with the movements from the album. Maybe write some extra pieces as well. I dunno. But the question is,‘when the hell am I gonna do that?’ Because what you don’t know is what I do know about the next five years of my life. I could tell you but I’d have to kill you!”
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM DOING ALL THIS STUFF?
“Never give up, and the sun will always come up the next day.that’s as good as it gets!”
BRUCE DICKINSON’S WHAT DOES THIS BUTTON DO? MEMOIR IS OUT NOW VIA HARPER COLLINS. HIS SOLO WORK IS REISSUED ON OCTOBER 27 VIA BMG