The Cover Story

Bruce Dickinson: “We’re all living longer and more effective lives, which is great – as long as you do something with it”

After almost 20 years, Bruce Dickinson is back with a new solo album, and a reality-bending story of ominous corporations, deities and the occult. In this world-exclusive interview, we spend the day with the Iron Maiden figurehead and explore the darkened realm he has created, as well as ruminate on everything from life and death to Norse myths and the joy of fencing...

Bruce Dickinson: “We’re all living longer and more effective lives, which is great – as long as you do something with it”
Luke Morton
Andy Ford

It’s a cold, drizzly day in Paris. The kind of day where even sunlight is tinged with a dismal grey. People hurriedly run their errands with hoods up and heads down, eager to escape the bitter drabness of it all. An unassuming man in a leather jacket and beanie approaches the glass door of the dive bar Kerrang! are setting up in, swings it open and casually enters to survey his new, warmer, and much more metal surroundings. “Alright?” he offers, casually, shaking hands with the small crack K! team who made the trip over the Channel this morning. No entourage or blacked-out-window taxi; not really the sort of entrance you’d expect from one of the most famous men in heavy metal.

Bruce Dickinson has lived in Paris for a few years now, and has just married his French partner Leana Dolci, but splits his time between here and his home in London. “I wander round and it all feels a bit bohemian, a bit exotic,” he says of his life in the French capital. “I still love London, but it’s a slightly different headspace when you get [here].”

He’s never been here, though – Hellfest Corner. A modern, sleek-looking rock bar doused in varying shades of black (currently blasting out everything from New Found Glory to Lamb Of God), in which K! are preparing a mini photo studio for the man himself. Blue lights, shimmering fabrics and mesmeric prisms, it’s all very sci-fi and futureal.

Between every pose he excitedly tells K! all about the reason we’re here today. Not in a PR-able ‘get the plugs in’ way, it’s the kind of uncontrollable, wide-eyed chatter of a child at Christmas who’s just opened their new favourite toy. For, you see, Bruce has spent almost two decades waiting for this particular gift to be unwrapped.

“It’s about time, isn’t it?” he smiles, sipping his coffee in one of the bar’s iron-barred booths post-photo session. “It wasn’t particularly planned to be now, it should have been years ago, but having said that, I’m almost glad of the delay because it has made the project stronger and bigger.”

He's talking about The Mandrake Project, the brand-new solo album from the Iron Maiden frontman, which is finally making its way into the world in March 2024. It was originally planned for release 10 years ago, but his throat cancer diagnosis put paid to that, then subsequent world tours with Maiden, then “the world suddenly got this weird disease and we were all locked up”.

But with serendipitous gaps in his personal life and day job, suddenly there was time to work on album number seven, teaming up again with guitarist Roy Z, drummer Dave Moreno and keyboard genius Maestro Mistheria from 2005’s Tyranny Of Souls LP.

Alongside the album announcement back in September, Bruce described The Mandrake Project as ‘a very personal journey’. So, how does this compare to making a Maiden record?

“First of all, it’s a longer process. This album has percolated through layers of rock,” he laughs. “Some of the songs surfaced all at once, some took a while, some I dug out from 20 years ago. The amazing thing is that they all fit. Sonically they all fit. They’re all obviously me or have contributions from me. There’s quite a bit of collaboration with Roy, and quite a bit of odd eccentric things that I wrote completely solo – guitars and everything. People are like, ‘Oh, you wrote this song?!’ Well, yeah, I also did Powerslave and Revelations and Flash Of The Blade on my own completely.”

Don’t go expecting Bruce’s new venture to sound like classic Maiden, though.

“It’s a heavy rock album, but I’m not limited by having to fit in a niche,” he expands. “I’ve got the freedom to be as heavy as I like and I’ve got the freedom to be heavy in different ways. The key to making it all work is it’s authentic, it’s not just, ‘Oh we’ve got five minutes, what do we do? Write some shit ballad and put it in there.’ Nothing on the album is there for no reason. It’s all there because it stands up with the other things. That’s quite rare. Every album I’ve done there’s always been a couple of songs where you’ve gone, ‘Yeah, these aren’t quite doing it for me in the same way.’ There isn’t a single track on this album that I don’t listen to and love. Number Of the Beast didn’t even have that. There’s so many classics on that record, but I was always a bit, ‘Well…’ about Invaders or something. But you’d forget about that because the rest of it is fucking great.

“Most people would probably say the best record I did was The Chemical Wedding, and then, depending on whether or not you’re into more straightforward metal, you go Accident Of Birth. Then there’s the outliers that go, ‘Actually, Skunkworks is really fucking good.’ And Skunkworks was quite good, but it was such a shift for the way people were back then. A lot of people have moved on so they appreciate Maiden for being Maiden, but that doesn’t mean that everything else has to be like Maiden. And that’s really changed in the past 15 years. A lot more people are thinking more out of the box in terms of music. For that reason they’re picky about things and they make playlists, and seldom listen to a whole album. Obviously I’m hoping this is the exception because it does work as a whole journey.”

“There isn’t a single track on this album that I don’t listen to and love”

Bruce Dickinson

And ‘journey’ is the operative word. Although at no point during our day together does Bruce describe The Mandrake Project as ‘a concept album’, there is a narrative arc flowing through the record. A twisted, occult-meets-sci-fi tale detailing characters of his own creation like Dr Necropolis and Professor Lazarus, and the dastardly deeds of the shady, villainous titular project.

This world isn’t just confined to audio, however. The Mandrake Project is more than music, it’s a three-year creative crusade, expanding the story across 12 comics. Having first tried his hand at storyboarding with Maiden’s epic biker video for The Writing On The Wall – inspired by a lockdown obsession with Sons Of Anarchy – it was through being hooked up with that show’s creator Kurt Sutter, and subsequently Marvel Comics’ writer Tony Lee and artist Bill Sienkiewicz, that Bruce was able to take the next step and turn The Mandrake Project into a something tangible, something bigger.

The Maiden man, understandably, plays his cards close to his chest with what we can expect from the grand, colourful story he’s carefully mapped out over the next dozen instalments, but when it comes to the music he’s been working on for 20 years, he can’t wait any longer.

The Mandrake Project was unveiled at the CCXP comic convention in São Paulo, Brazil, last Thursday. As the guest of honour, Bruce premiered the feature-length video of lead single Afterglow Of Ragnarok to a capacity crowd. For those unacquainted with Norse mythology, Ragnarök is essentially the end of the world through a litany of battles, natural disasters and the deaths of gods like Odin, Thor and Loki. But it wasn’t a frostbitten armageddon that so interested Bruce, it was what happens after, when ‘the sun will rise again’ in a tale of cleansing and redemption.

“It’s not the end of the world, it’s just the end of this world,” he begins. “Even the story of Ragnarök has that optimism, ‘Okay, the world’s gone bang, the bifrost has gone, the link between gods and man is shattered, the end of the world, big flood…’ but the sun will rise again and we’ll all start all over again.”

While the destruction of everything that has ever existed is fertile ground for songwriting, The Mandrake Project is brimming with even more stories and scenes from a vivid, unceasing imagination. Many Doors To Hell, for example, is about a female vampire who just wants to die.

“[They want] to change back into a human at any cost. ‘I don’t care, I don’t want to live forever, I’m done with this shit. Do you know how long I’ve been like this and how fucking lonely this is?’ It’s a song about wanting to live from somebody who has eternal life, but also eternal death. It’s better to live in reality than it is to live for centuries.”

Rain On The Graves, meanwhile, comes from Bruce’s experience of hanging in out with the dead.

“I wrote that song, or part of it, in a graveyard. I was standing in front of Wordsworth’s grave in the Lake District, I’d been on a bit of a pilgrimage to his house. I’m standing by the church and there’s his grave, and it was drizzle and it was grey. And that was it – rain on the graves. I thought, ‘I don’t know what this is about, but this is a moment, and I’ll figure out what it’s about when I write the rest of it.’

“That was probably 2008 or something like that. I’ve had all these things kicking around in drawers, bits of lyrics and things that can all surface at some point. It’s about a guy who meets the Devil in the graveyard and the Devil says, ‘Hey, who are you then? What are you here for?’ And that’s it, isn’t it? Why do we go into graveyards? What are we looking for? It’s full of dead people! But we go into graveyards and there’s something spooky or inspirational.”

What were you looking for when you went to visit Wordsworth?

“I have no idea. It was a sort of melancholy about the nature of being legendary, but just being in a slab in the ground. It was kind of ironic that someone who created such amazing poetry is now just a square rock. And I related it to what was turning into the story, I was always doing the story. And we got some pretty cool words out of it, this conversation between me and the Devil. There’s a line in there, ‘to kneel before the poet, not the altar or the priest’, and that’s me! I’m trying to get inspiration from a bit of granite. And that’s what artists do, they steal from everybody, they get inspiration from everywhere, and if you can’t find it, go sit in a graveyard and borrow somebody else’s dead spirit (laughs).”

References to death, deities, the afterlife and ultimate finality are strewn throughout the record. Ask Bruce if he’s been ruminating on his own demise, he’s swift to reply matter-of-factly, “Well, yeah, because I’m getting close to it and I’ve got friends who’ve already done it,” but adds, “It’s not so much about what happens afterwards because I don’t know. It’s about the way you approach it and what you can learn from it.”

Standout track on the album, Resurrection Men, offers a solution. The sort of thing tech billionaires across the globe are wasting their money on instead of helping the hungry, sick or homeless. Eternal life.

Closely tied into comic narrative, Resurrection Men introduces Professor Lazarus and one life-extending aspect of the sinister Mandrake Project.

“The [song is] about the extraction of the human soul and storage of it, and it can only occur at the point of death. If you’re not on the slab at the moment when you die, it’s too late. It’s a momentary thing and you have to be there to harvest it. Of course, the idea of living forever, people are gonna pay a lot of money for that.”

But what about Bruce? In the past two years he’s snapped his achilles tendon and had two hip replacements – he pulls down his waistband to show us the scars to prove it, joking he’s “Mr. Bionic”. A curious mind, he knows and explains in great detail the surgical procedures he underwent that allowed him to be back on tour in record time. At 65 years old, would he pay for an extra 50 years on the clock?

“I’d do it if you were going to be in good condition when you were doing it,” he muses. Quoting the line, ‘I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them,’ from the latest James Bond film, he continues, “I think that life is such a great thing, if you can live it then why wouldn’t you want to?

“We’re all living way longer than we were designed to and way longer in terms of activity. Medical technology has meant that I’m alive. Cancer diagnosis would have been basically a death sentence but now it’s not. Both of my hips wore out and I’ve got new ones. Technology is advancing to the point for many things where we are all living longer and more effective lives. Which is great – as long as you do something with it.”

It’s fair to say that Bruce lives his life to its fullest. Having departed Hellfest Corner, we’re now watching the man himself have a one-on-one fencing lesson at a sports club. A keen duellist for most of his life, in 1987 he was ranked #7 in the UK and on the national team. Last year he became an official member of the British Fencing Veterans.

He takes Kerrang! through the differences in the epee, foil and sabre, the difference in scoring between the disciplines, and the mental gymnastics required to best your opponent – not to mention the physical agility. Unsurprisingly, as a man who spends months of the year hurling himself around the stage for hours at a time, battling undead giants and wielding flamethrowers, Bruce is in pretty good nick. And despite the fact he’ll be flying to Chile tomorrow evening, he’ll be back for another lesson in the morning.

“What I like about fencing in common with other sports like skiing is that you can’t concentrate on anything else. You’re doing an activity where you completely lose all the shit that’s happened in the rest of the day,” he explains, having now retired to a nearby pub with a pint of Grimbergen. “It’s a terrific way to escape. It’s like boxing but without the brain damage. I love boxing, but I don’t like being punched in the head.”

When asked if there are any comparisons to be drawn on how he approaches fencing to music, Bruce explains that it’s almost the opposite.

“I try to be more in control and analytical when I’m fencing, which is not really 100 per cent my nature, but in music I can be the opposite – I can be the creative. For the control and analysis, I’ve got Roy, and it’s what a producer is for. When I’m doing my stuff, I rely on instinct and I’m not afraid for it to go wrong in a good way. Happy accidents. There’s a lot of moments on this record that are like that. Like the last song [Sonata (Immortal Beloved)], where 90 per cent of the vocals were stream of consciousness. One take – we never did another one.

“When you have something like that that has this magic to it, don’t fuck with it. If there are mistakes, they’re not mistakes, it’s called humanity. As long as they don’t upset you. Some people go to the extreme of trying to control everything to the point where they control all the life out of a song; even though it might be more perfect in their eyes than it was before for technical reasons, all the life has gone. It’s the same when someone might look at a Picasso and go, ‘Well, that’s stupid, people aren’t that shape!’ You’ve missed the fucking point.”

“I rely on instinct and I’m not afraid for it to go wrong in a good way”

Bruce Dickinson

For all of today’s talk about channelling your instincts and connecting with fantastical worlds on an album immersed in pure imagination, there is an outlier. The track Face In The Mirror doesn’t correlate to the grander picture, instead raising the often taboo subject of alcoholism and the devastation it can cause individuals and those around them.

“It came from knowing a lot of people who were either functioning alcoholics, or not functioning alcoholics,” Bruce begins, a softer tone to his voice than we’ve heard all afternoon. “I was asking myself a lot of questions. I drink and the rest of it, so where’s the line between one thing and the other? There’s a strange and dangerous wisdom about people who are fucked up on alcohol where they sometimes tell great and profound truths, which is what the song’s about.”

He continues, “Look in the mirror, look at yourself, who is that? Are you yourself now? Go and have six pints, who is that now? But it’s also the hypocrisy of people looking down on the guy sitting in the park with a can of Special Brew. People going, ‘Oh… too weak.’ Too weak to what? You don’t know what his life was. This guy could have been an incredible writer, an investment banker, he could’ve been – and more likely than that – some fucking war hero, who just slid into that lifestyle. People [say] all these judgemental things. You don’t need to tell them that they’re fucked, they know!”

Having spent hours in the company of a man who usually seems so invincible onstage, there’s a distinct sense of vulnerability, an acute awareness of the passing of time, and the fact he is human after all. For someone who has achieved more than most in his six-and-a-half decades, he’s finally taking time to reflect on life and legacy. So what does Bruce see when he looks in the mirror?

“I wished I saw a face that was as old as the person I think I am,” he laughs, with that original zeal creeping back into his voice. “I look in the mirror like, ‘Oh, c’mon God, do me a favour, can we just lose the bags under the eyes and the rest of it?’ My face has been lived in, maybe not as much as some people my age, but still. I’m pretty happy with it. Things are going okay. I’m getting on with life, which is better than all the other options.

“I’ve learned so many things over the last few years and I hope that process will continue. I’m endlessly curious about things, and endless curiosity means you can learn things about yourself that you didn’t know. You find you have a capacity for things you didn’t realise you had. Maybe because you were too young, too busy and full of testosterone and running around that you failed to notice there were other chunks of your life you completely ignored, like your emotional life. So I’m discovering things that were probably always there, but I ignored them or buried them, and this album is part of that.”

“I’m endlessly curious, and endless curiosity means you can learn things about yourself that you didn’t know”

Bruce Dickinson

As we sink our pints and look back on an afternoon fencing, we joke that as a man who can add airline pilot, author, brewer and now comic writer to a bulging CV, it’s impossible for Bruce to not take any hobby to the nth degree. Put to him that he’s a polymath and he modestly brushes it off with an “everybody says that” and a gag about polymer tents.

“What turns [a hobby] from being a curiosity to all-consuming like fencing or flying is the realisation that to attempt to master it is impossible,” he says. “It’s like being the greatest golfer, high-jumper, football player… you might have moments when you’re there, but you’ll always fall. It’s the tragedy of maximum human performance, there’s always a price to pay, there’s always a fall. The day the world champion gets knocked out and retires, what does that feel like?

“Occasionally music has felt like a competitive sport. It’s not – it’s about love and joy and there are many different ways of approaching it. It’s not about beating things or winning, although on occasions it has been, but in reality what endures is not that. Nobody remembers that in this year on this date we sold more tickets than this band or the other band, but everybody remembers when they were there and we sang this song and they were moved to fucking tears. That’s the only thing that matters, it’s the only thing that’s real in all of this. That’s what motivates me to carry on doing this.”

He pauses.

“This solo record is really fucking special to me. Everybody who’s heard it gets it, so now I have the problem of, ‘What do I do?’ I have to tour it and do this and that, but I have to go and lie down in a darkened room like, ‘Stop trying to beat this record. Just be authentic.

“‘And enjoy the ride.’”

The Mandrake Project is released March 1 via BMG

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