I caught up with bassmaster Steve Harris and vocalist Blaze Bayley of Iron Maiden this last May to discuss the release of their latest album, Virtual XI (CMC International), at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood. Here's what they had to say....
The title of your latest album, Virtual XI, explores Steve's influence of soccer and Blaze's influence of Virtual Reality video games...how did this concept come about ?
Steve: Well, this is our 11th studio album and over the last couple years in particular, more and more young kids are getting into soccer, not so much here (US), but in the rest of the world people are soccer mad! Especially in places like Italy, Spain, and South America. We headlined the Monsters Of Rock festival on our last tour and when we played Sao Paulo (Brazil), I would wear Brazil's soccer shirt, and when we were in Argentina we would wear the Argentina jersey. The fans over there give us loads of shirts because they know how much we're into soccer, and the fans get so into it. So, we thought it would be great if we could tie the two together...it's our eleventh album, the World Cup is coming up, and we're totally into soccer. So to tie in with Virtual XI, we have the five members of the band and the eleven is made up of six international soccer players. It's great fun, and it's brilliant for me because of my love for soccer.
Weren't you actually going into professional soccer at one point, before forming Iron Maiden ?
Steve: Yeah, I had trials but I didn't quite make the grade.
Blaze, tell us about the Virtual Reality computer game that Iron Maiden will soon be releasing worldwide ?
Blaze: Iron Maiden was planning on doing a video game for a long time but with this band, we always want everything to be the best quality and the best representation we can have for our fans. The technology didn't really exist to do justice for an Iron Maiden fan until now. We were approached by a company in England, and they had a few ideas and a couple of the guys who were working there were actually huge fans of the band, so they had a really good handle straight away of what an Iron Maiden game should be about, featuring Eddy. We had some meetings with them and I had a real strong idea for the story where each album cover is a level of the game. So, the first couple albums is in the streets, which we turned into a whole virtual environment so you can walk around the streets and encounter all the different characters. And the Powerslave cover we turned into a whole 3D environment where you can walk into the pyramids, and you also get to go into the future and enter the torture chamber and the X Factor. The album covers are brought to life into a 3D environment and Eddy is a 100,000 hologram character, which is more than the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. The game is titled Ed Hunter because you're hunting down Eddy. The idea is, the heads of the five members of the band have been chopped off and you gotta go and find them! (Laughter). At the same time, you're trying to survive Eddy, because he's trying to stop you from getting to the next level.
Steve: The idea is to make Eddy weaker, basically, because you can't really kill him, you can just make him weaker. It's brilliant, really. I mean, I would buy it just for the graphics alone, it's like actually walking into the album cover and wandering about!
I understand noted British author/journalist, Mick Wall, is putting out an official book on Iron Maiden...
Steve: Yes. We actually had an official book released around the Somewhere In Time era, but this new book is basically about everyone in the band, and people who have worked with the band, from its conception up until now. It's quite interesting, really, even for me, because of the different viewpoints. When I edited it, I basically left things as is, even the things I didn't necessarily agree with; I think it's important for people to have their viewpoints. The only things I really changed were any errors in technical points that were slightly wrong.
Do you still keep tabs on the old Maiden bandmates like Dennis Stratton and Clive Burr ?
Steve: Yeah. I haven't seen Dennis for a long time, and Clive I saw about four or five years ago. But some of the other guys, even Doug Sampson, the original drummer (from the pre-Maiden band, Smiler), I still see him. And our first guitar players: Dave Sullivan and Terry Rance, I still keep in touch with them.
I had always thought Dave Murray was an original guitarist for Maiden!
Steve: Actually, Dave joined around '76. And the original drummer when we formed Maiden, Ron Matthews, I spoke with on the phone about two weeks ago.
I recall reading something to the affect that, years ago when Maiden were playing the pubs around London, EMI (UK) came out to one show looking to sign Angelwitch, who you were opening for at the time, but they ended up signing Iron Maiden instead! Any truth to that ?
Steve: I don't know...it's possible. There was a bit of a buzz about us at the time. There were actually a few companies who came out to see us; in fact, I think we got turned down by CBS and A&M. Even though we were playing pubs at the time, we had all these fans from the East London area who would follow us around all over the place. When we would play in East London, none of the record companies would come out to see us, they only hung out in central and West London. East London was like the wilderness, so they would never venture over there.
This was just before the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal exploded in 1979-80. There were only a handful of metal bands, such as Maiden and Motorhead, that were established in England at that time. But you were still up against a wall dominated by punk rock. How difficult was that...to rouse a whole new metal revival ?
Steve: Motorhead were already fairly well received by that time and were headlining venues. We actually did a couple support gigs with them. We weren't really aware of this movement that was happening until the press started getting a hold of it. There were bands up North like Saxon, in Yorkshire, and there was Witchfynde, as well. So, there were all these bands happening all over England during that same time and I don't think anyone was really aware of it until the press started writing about it, and that pretty much started that whole movement.
Back to the new album...it sounds a lot more straight-ahead rock and not quite as musically complex as the previous Maiden albums. I also noticed the songs are much longer in length with only eight songs on this CD. Even your first single, The Angel And The Gambler, is well over eight minutes in length....
Steve: We didn't approach this record any differently than we've always done. We just went in and recorded it and we just wrote whatever felt right during that particular time. 'The Angel And The Gambler' is actually a good example because when I came up with that song idea, I put it on a mini taperecorder while I was driving down the motorway, and I distinctly remember saying to myself... 'this reminds me of The Who meets UFO.' So I just took it in that direction. The last album, The X-Factor, was much more progressive. Blaze: I think what also makes this album quite different is the fact that we recorded The X Factor for quite a long time and did a whole world tour. We took a little break in the middle and recorded a track called Virus for The Best Of The Beast And that gave us a lot more confidence when we started writing for this album. I had learned so much about the different areas of my voice and I made it stronger. I feel that the recording of this new album was also a lot more spontaneous than the last. We just got the arrangements together and started recording before we even rehearsed the songs.
You, Steve, produced this latest CD, as well as X Factor and (co-produced) Fear Of The Dark. Is producing something you enjoy ?
Steve: It's like a love/hate thing, really. I do enjoy it, but it's a lot of hard work. I suppose I kind of co-produced the earlier albums, and arranged the songs. In a way, I'm very glad I worked with Martin Birch on the previous albums because I learned a lot from it. I also mixed the two live albums, A Real Live One and A Real Dead One, because Martin decided to leave. So, I had to hire an engineer and, fortunately, I had some experience in the studio.
Blaze, tell us about the days with your pre-Maiden band Wolfsbane...
Blaze: We did three albums with Def America and two with Bronze Records. I was actually in a band before that, called Child's Play, which kind of had a Thin Lizzy vibe. With Wolfsbane...we had been royally f**ked so many times making the compromises we had to make, especially after the first album. The record company or management would always have their way, yet they would blame us if the record didn't do well or if the show wasn't well received. The few times that we did stick it out and manage to get it our way, it was successful. We were broke the whole time as well, which didn't help (laughs). But, I'm very proud of the records I did with Wolfsbane.
Steve...you are regarded as one of the most influential bassists in hard rock, long before the Billy Sheehans and Stu Hamms came into the fold. Do you realize the impact you've had on aspiring musicians ?
Steve: I do get a lot of people saying that I've influenced them, which; obviously is very flattering. But, the truth is, I'm really more interested in trying to write great songs. Maybe it's because I'm a bass player and I write a lot of the music. I grew up listening to a lot of different bass players like Chris Squire and John Entwistle. Also, Martin Turner from Wishbone Ash and Rinus Gerritsen from Golden Earring were both a very big influence on me. If you listen to some early Golden Earring records, you can really hear the influence!
Heavy metal and hard rock music is still very big all over the world, particularly in Germany and Japan. But in certain countries, notably the US and England, where fashion trends and hype seem to dominate music, the media in general has snubbed metal. Do you see, in the next year or so - exactly 20 years after the NWOBHM exploded in England - a new metal revival ?
Steve: There's a lot of buzz going around about it; I'm not too sure, really. All I can say is that we are very lucky, we're still very strong in most countries all over the world. If our popularity in one country goes down a bit, it goes up in another country, so we're not relying on one country in particular to keep up our popularity. Whereas some bands (from this genre) rely heavily on success in Japan, but we're not in that position, fortunately. Our last album (the X Factor) sold well over a million copies worldwide, but a lot of people here in the States thought we just vanished.That's why touring for us is very important... and we don't really make money touring, we pretty much break even.
You've been together for over 22 years...was there ever a time in your career when you thought about hanging it up ?
Steve: To be honest, there were a couple of times it came across my mind, but it'd only last a few hours before I'd realize that I didn't really mean it. I think it has more to do with your frame of mind and what's going on around you rather than what's actually happening with the band. I just love it too much to ever want to give it up !