Bruce Dickinson Talks Iron Maiden’s 18 Minute Epic ‘Empire of the Clouds’

Don't count on seeing Maiden play it with an orchestra though: "I think people have a sense that they want to be sort of like 'real musicians,' and somehow being there playing with an orchestra somehow validates them more than it being metal musicians; that's absolute nonsense."

By Brian Ives

If you’ve been listening to Iron Maiden for 30+ years as I have, it’s a mind-blowing experience to find yourself sitting across from the band’s singer Bruce Dickinson, discussing their new album. And he’s such a great conversationalist on any topic, so you find yourself being more interested in things like mucus or British aviation history than you ever thought you would be when he’s talking about it.

The main topic of conversation, of course, was Maiden’s brand-new double album, Book of Souls, which includes the band’s longest song ever, “Empire of the Clouds,” which Dickinson wrote on his own (on piano!) and which clocks in at 18 minutes. but also on the docket was Dickinson’s health, since he recently underwent chemo for a tumor on the back of his tongue (he’s been declared cancer-free, happily). Finally, he told us about the long-hoped for collaboration between him, Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Queensryche‘s Geoff Tate.

So, how are you feeling? I guess that for a singer, having a tumor on your tongue is kind of a nightmare scenario. 
Well, the doctors are all pleased with the way everything is healing up. A few of the systems are coming back online. The long term after-effects take a while, because the last bits are the longest bits to regenerate. For example, things like getting all your salivary function really back up to speed. It’s loads better than it was two months ago; it’s gonna be even better in three months time. The same thing with mucus. Like I got a cold like six or seven weeks ago, and I thought, “This is gonna be interesting,” ’cause obviously, your immune system goes [away] because of the chemo and everything.

So I got a cold, and I got rid of it just like normal, except I didn’t have to blow my nose, because I’m not making any mucus, because everything’s still fried. That’s starting to come back, and that’s really important for singing.

So, things like that take a while, and you just have to sit there and go, “I’d really like to be doing some singing, but I just have to wait and let it get better.”

You’re not the kind of guy who wants to just sit around and not do anything. 
No, exactly. There’s plenty of things I can do that don’t involve singing. Like doing eight hours of talking every day doing this stuff [i.e. interviews]. So the voice has held up really well. I’m on my third day of doing eight hours of interviews, so it’s doing just fine.

It’s really ambitious to do a double album at this point in the game. Was it a tough decision to release it as a double? 

The decision was real easy, the album is just that long. So we could’ve chopped out 30 minutes or so and put out a single album, and we would’ve had about six songs on it. But double felt great.

We’ve got a triple gatefold vinyl coming out. It just looks unbelievable. Album art is as important to us as everything else, and CDs and also downloading kind of destroyed that. CDs really sucked in terms of doing any kind of art, because it was too small.

But now vinyl’s really coming back, and people are appreciating the fact that these things are just beautiful. They feel weighty. And ditto the actual box for the CD, The Book of Souls, you get the book with it; you’re getting the whole thing. So that lends itself to where we’re at, which is producing a real, total experience for everybody and the whole Maiden package going with it. It’s great, you know.

So, you wrote the first song on the album (“If Eternity Should Fall”) and the last one (“Empire of the Clouds”) on your own, with no co-writers. You haven’t done that in a while. 

Yeah, I did do two songs on the album, but the first song on the album, the one that opens the album, was actually written for a solo album and was demoed with Roy Z [who produces many of Dickinson’s solo records] out in L.A. And the demo that we did is effectively almost identical to the Maiden version. Maiden just effectively copied what we’d done, a few minor alterations.

So that wasn’t intentional; I didn’t even know I was writing for Maiden at that point. I was just writing an opening title track for what was probably going to be a solo album and which was actually probably going to be a concept album. And the spoken word that’s at the end of that track is actually the beginning of the story. So it introduces this character, “Hello, I’m Doctor Necropolis, and I’m formed of the dead. My own two sons, I gave them birth, and I filled them, their living corpses with my bile.”

So yeah, you think, “Ah, that’s cool. What’s this about then?” And you never find out because it goes off into “Speed of Light,” and you think, “Well, that was weird. What was all that about?”

And I did say to Steve [Harris], I said, “Look, what do you want to do about this spoken word thing, because it fits with the rest of my solo thing, but I’m not sure it makes any sense. It’s kind of a non-sequitur; it doesn’t go anywhere for a Maiden album.”

“Ah,” he said, “but it’s got a lot of soul. It mentions a lot of stuff about souls in there, doesn’t it?” “Yes, it does, yes, it does.” He goes, “Oh, it’s all good then.” So okay, great.
Another thing about that track is it is actually in drop D guitar tuning. It’s the first time we’ve ever done it in Maiden. So there was much furrowed brows and consternation about that.

“Empire of the Clouds” is an eighteen minute song, the longest song Maiden has ever done. How do you write a song like that? 

You write the melody in little bits. And originally I had no idea I was gonna write this song about the airship, the R101 disaster and the story of it and all that and what the song is actually about. All I had was two or three little pieces written for separate things, actually, and one of them had a line, “Mist is in the trees, stone sweats with the dew/The morning sunrise, red before the blue,” and it was, basically it was setting a scene: this is dawn, something is gonna happen. And the idea was, yup, it’s gonna be World War I fighter airplanes take off, and they’ll die horrible deaths and a song about that.

Well, that song ended up as “Death or Glory.” So I was still left with this little intro. So okay, something’s gonna happen here; what happens? And I thought, well, maybe I can write some more stuff. And I’m sitting at home, and I’ve got artifacts from airships sitting around. I went to some auctions and bought some stuff; I’ve got the pocket watch from one of the survivors from the R101, I’ve got a tankard from the R101, I’ve got various bits and bobs of other airships. I went, “Why don’t I tell the story?”

I just finished reading a big, sort of encyclopedic crash report of it, 600 pages on it. I decided that I wanted to tell this story. This is a fantastic story. So I thought, well, what am I gonna call it? So the book that I just finished reading was called To Ride the Storm, because it was the storm that finally finished it off, really, then caused the crash in the end.

So I put the little pieces together, and when I got enough verses and pieces, then I started putting them in order, and one of the last things I put together was the actual intro, the little [hums tune]. That came almost towards the end.

And I suddenly realized that that then enabled me to do like a little overture piece at the beginning, which I would state most of the little melodies that were going to come later and put them as one separate little piece on its own, and then we put some cellos and some bits over it and some other little counter-melodies.

And I’m thinking, “This is getting quite sort of classical.” I don’t know s— about classical music. Anyway, it’s a piece, and it’s definitely an overture. Opening, setting the scene instrumentally. And then we just tell the story through the various transitions that dramatize it, that build up the ash of leaves, the masks, the people are clapping and cheering, we’ve got that scene in there. It’s very cinematic.

When I write, all the words that I write come from the scene that is playing in front of my head. And even when I sing other people’s lyrics I have to create the scene in my head before I can probably sing the song. Even if it’s maybe not the same scene they were thinking of when they wrote it, I have to do it for myself in order to animate the words right. But that’s the way we create the song.

“Empire” was not written with guitars in mind; it was all written on piano. I knew obviously the band are gonna play it, and it’s gonna get heavy towards the end. But at no stage when I was writing it did I write it with guitars in mind. There was horns, there was cello, there were fiddles, there was all kinds of different percussion and things like that. And that thinking through those instruments gave me the melodies, ’cause certain instruments suggest certain melodies.

And then I thought, “Well, it gonna be interesting now, seeing what happens when you play them with electric guitars.” It’s gonna get “Maiden-ified” as soon as you do that, which is fine.

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I’d met you in 1995 after you had left Iron Maiden, and you were talking about how crazy you thought it was when Steve Harris presented you guys with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which was almost 14 minutes. So I’m imagining you bringing this 18 minute long song to the band.

There were two pages of legal pad, and that was the arrangement. Each line of legal pad was a different piece that would go from one to another, to another, to another, to another, to another, you know.

And I’ll tell you who was amazing on it was Nick [drummer Nicko McBrain], because he was so key to it, because each section of it has its own unique little percussive quality. So at the beginning it’s just little grace notes on the drums, and he comes in with this little military snare thing. But it’s not playing a beat in the recognized sense of the word; it’s playing to the piano. The whole thing is swinging from a piano up ’til about four minutes in, and then you got, “She’s the greatest vessel [drumbeat] by man, a giant…”

And now you’re into a more conventional sort of thing with the drums there, and all the guitarists in that breathing massive sighs of relief. And then it transitions into a whole bunch of other things.

I said, “At the end of it I want this bit where if you can imagine the airship slowly plunging bow-down, and it hits the ground and very slowly starts to crumple, and the sound inside will be creaking and screeching and grinding of girders and the flames and this: the horror, the death of it.” I said, “I want something that expresses that. I’m not sure how I’d do that.”
And he goes, “Oh, I know what you want.” I said, “What’s that?” And he goes, “You need a bowed gong.” I said, “A what?” “A bowed gong. I’ve got one, I’ll show ya!” I went, “Oh, okay.”

Nicko’s got this orchestral gong that he has behind his kit. He takes a violin bow and starts scraping it against the edge. And of course, it resonates, and it gives this really eerie, kind of like nails on a blackboard, but metallic. And it’s just like [makes sound effect]. It was mad professor-ish from time to time.

And you wrote this whole thing on piano?

I won a piano in a raffle, an electric piano, and I wrote the whole thing on it at home. But in the studio we’ve got this fantastic Steinway piano. Oh, my God, it’s an orgasm at your fingertips. I mean every chord you play, it’s just like “Ahhhh!”

So would you play piano on this song on stage with Maiden?

No. No, no, no, absolutely not. I’m not good enough. I would be so nervous doing it. I could probably manage it if I sat there, but I would be absolutely petrified.

I played it on the album, but we used a MIDI keyboard, which is awful, actually. I would’ve loved to have played it on the Steinway, but we’d have been there ’til Christmas trying to get a good take. And it’s not fair to everybody else. So I played it on a MIDI keyboard. That way if I goofed off on a couple of notes, we can always just move the note and get it figured out.

Do you see Maiden playing “Empire” live?

I doubt we will play “Empire” live as a band. It’s too complex; it requires really some other musicians there, some cellos and things. And it’s just kind of unwieldy. What I could see happening, if the song’s big enough and if it seizes people’s imagination, once we get done with this tour — which could be a while — it’d be interesting to see whether or not anybody’s interested in maybe doing something with an orchestra as a special one-off.

And I would love to write some more, extend it, the one piece, and maybe get some actors to sort of animate it to do the duration between some of the pieces so you could actually really get the full sense of the tragedy and the drama that was going on behind the scenes and get some footage and having big screens and things. That could be kind of cool.

Do you think Iron Maiden would ever do a show with an orchestra?

If we did “Empire” like that with an orchestra, I would not call it Iron Maiden. I don’t know whether the guys would be interested; one or two of them might be. But I wouldn’t call it Iron Maiden because it wouldn’t be us. I think a lot of these things with orchestras, I think people have a sense that they want to be sort of like “real musicians,” and somehow being there playing with an orchestra somehow validates them more than it being metal musicians; that’s absolute nonsense.

But there are times when an orchestra is just so powerful. But what it does do, is it obliterates the band. I’ve never heard an orchestra that hasn’t completely overwhelmed the band it was playing with.

And also, just doing orchestral backing music to a rock track is utterly pointless. It’s just kind of musical narcissism. An orchestral version of Nirvana? Oh, get out of here! Why? So if you wanna write something that uses an orchestra and requires an orchestra, different story. Different story. No, doing orchestral versions, “50 Iron Maiden Greatest Hits Played by the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra” No! No, never!

Is there ever going to be a Three Tremors album [the supergroup featuring Bruce Dickinson, Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Geoff Tate, formerly of Queensryche]?

I originally wanted it to be me, Rob and Ronnie [James Dio]. And there was some management issues, nothing to do with me, nothing to do with Ronnie. [Later on] Geoff Tate showed up for a meeting. And we sort of sat around the table and had a chat. And I thought, “I don’t think this is gonna work.”

It’s a lot of commitment. The song that was written for the Three Tremors was “Tyranny of Souls.” And I wrote that song with Roy Z for the Three Tremors project and demoed it doing basically imitations of the three of us.

So I said, this should be my bit, and then this would be Rob’s bit, and this would be the Geoff Tate bit, and I gave just a little hint of how their voices might sound on it with their style, and then kind of split it up equally between us.

And then we had the chorus, which would have been all three of us, “A tyranny of souls that love has lost,” and the idea was the three witches’ speech at the beginning from Macbeth, and there’s “When shall we three meet again?” So [sings] “When shall we three meet again,” and then you get the Rob bit, [imitates Rob] “In thunder, lightning or in rain,” and then you get Geoff going, [imitates Geoff] “When the hurly burly’s done!” And then we all come in with [sings] “A tyranny of souls that love has lost.”

So what was immediately apparent to me was this is quite a long process of going to write a whole album like this in which you genuinely use all three voices, not just do cover versions and have us all sing the same thing. It’s like, what’s the point of having three rifles all pointing three bullets through the same hole when one will do?

So you need to figure out how to hit three separate targets at the same time, and it’s the same thing with writing these songs. It sounds like a great idea; it’s not as easy as it seems to put out a really good album. If you put out an album that sucks, there’s no point in doing it.

So I just kind of put the song “Tyranny of Souls” out myself, and I just kind of beefed up the impressions. And you can spot, if you listen to that song, spot the Rob Halford bit. There’s one, “Hammer the nail into my hand, I’m the killer of weakness,” you know, [imitates Rob] “I am the killer of weakness in my head!” It’s Rob’s bit.

So that was a hint as to what might have been. Ronnie would’ve been great. I would’ve loved Ronnie. Wouldn’t that have been cool. But as I say, managers got all sniffy about it.

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