Interview: Iron Maiden Drummer Nicko McBrain on Flight 666, Ed Force One, and HAHAHAHAHAs
"I actually threatened to throw the documentary crew off the plane while it was in the air one time."
Iron Maiden guitarist Janick Gers and drummer Nicko McBrain sightseeing in Mexico
In the annals of rock-star heroics, piloting your bandmates, roadies, and 12 tons of stadium equipment safely around the globe in a Boeing 757 is an impressively staggering feat--right up there with barely escaping a military coup by Hugo Chavez. So last year, when Iron Maiden set off for 23 concerts on five continents via Ed Force One--a customized jetliner with the band's zombie mascot Ed on the tail fin--and front-lung Bruce Dickinson was in the cockpit, the metal behemoths brought along a movie crew to document the voyage. The result is Iron Maiden: Flight 666, a 112-minute tour-film out this week on DVD (and on VH1 this Saturday at 12:30 am) that chronicles 45 days of touring faraway reaches like Tokyo, Costa Rica, and Mexico City--cities where the devil-horned dieties still fill stadiums, cause hysteria, and make grown men weep on camera.
While Ed Force One is one of Flight 666's unexpected stars, so is jovial drummer Nicko McBrain, a gregarious hoot of a man characterized in the rock-doc as "the social side of Maiden." We recently spoke with him from his Boca Raton home about nearly throwing the camera crew off the plane, being gobsmacked, and why he doesn't want Maiden to tour in the fall of 2010. (Hint: his well-documented obsession with golf.) And yes, Mr. McBrain actually laughs like this.
At the beginning of Flight 66, there's talk about how you guys have always been a private band. Why'd you finally decide to allow a film crew along with you?
It was a little bit of a difficult decision. There were two or three of us in the band--myself included--that had a little bit of trepidation about it because we have always been private people. When we're on stage, that's our domain. But we've never been a band who searched out paparazzi and would want to go to nightclubs where we'd know we could get our picture in OK Magazine or People Magazine. We've always shied away from that kind of limelight. And having a camera crew 24/7 in your face, for seven, eight weeks was not our idea of being private. So it was discussed--and there were mumblings and grumblings and moans and groans all over the place. And finally, we kind of relented, and thought, "It is such a historical event. And it is something we've never done before. And it should be something that could make a great piece of film." So we all kind of agreed.
TicketsSat., Apr. 1, 7:00pm
16th Annual Eric Clapton Birthday Show: Godfrey Townsend & Friends
TicketsSat., Apr. 1, 7:30pm
Dorthaan's Place Jazz Brunch: Bucky Pizzarelli, Ed Laub Duo
TicketsSun., Apr. 2, 11:00am
Munich Philharmonic Orch
TicketsSun., Apr. 2, 7:00pm
I have to be honest though, Camille, there were times over those seven-eight weeks when the [film crew] boys were out with us on the airplane that they got into trouble, verbally, none more so than my good self. I actually threatened to throw them off the plane while it was in the air one time. [Laughs]
But what happened when we all sat back and watched the roughs of this film just before Christmas, I was gobsmacked. And I thought, "My Lord, these two guys, Scotty McFadyen and Sammy Dunn, they did such a great job." And those moments when you thought, "I don't want to do this. I don't want these guys here. I don't want them in the dressing room," yaddy yah, the moans and groans, were all worthwhile, because it all came out so well. And they are so much a part of our family now. I think the proof is in the finished product.
Why wouldn't you have had a film crew along with the band, say, 15-20 years ago?
I think maybe the access to us, 24 hours, access to virtually anywhere they wanted to go and anywhere they wanted to film. The mental attitude of where we would've been 15 years ago--I don't think we would have done this. And then of course, Bruce didn't have his commercial license back then.
Well, what was your mental attitude 15 years ago?
We [have since] got older. The drummer got better-looking. He matured a bit more, as well as everyone else. [laughs]
No, but to be serious. We have a passion for our music, for this band, for the entity of Iron Maiden. And I think over the last 15 years, it's gotten stronger, especially since Bruce has come back [singer Blaze Bayley fronted Maiden from 1994 to 1998], which is really 10 years. And so 15 years ago, I don't think we'd even dreampt that we'd be possibly putting a 757 customized with Eddie emblazoned all over him, with the road crew, and 12 tons worth of gear on the bottom, all your mates, your family, hooligan reporters like yourself, bloody photo crews, and bloody cameras. So think the change is that we've gotten a little older.
You're nicer now?
[Deep, belly laugh] Hesitant pause. Yes, we've always been, very, accessible people, but I don't think we would have even considered it 15 years ago.
It is kind of a rosy portrait of you guys on the road. Where were the band arguments, the inevitable bickering?
I think what it is, Camille, I've been in this band for 25 years. It's like half my life, almost, and if you don't get to know someone pretty well in that time, there's got to be something wrong. I think what we've learned over the years is that we know how to deal with each other and to deal with problems that may arise, and everybody gets given a certain amount of space. Especially me. I'm the Mr. Grumpy in the band. HAHAHAHAHAHA. I tend to have the emotional moodswings and we all know each other very very well, we very rarely have arguments. In fact, the only arguments we've ever really gotten into are when we're in the studio. But there's a lot of love in the band. And we respect each other immensely.
How much say did the band have over the final cut?
My only critique, I remember when I saw it, was the beginning of the film, when Sammy [Dunn] was narrating the opening. And he was talking in kilometers. That was my first bug. I said, 'No no no.' We're a British band and we fly in miles. Don't do kilometers, okay? We don't do kilometers.
It was little things like that. [They asked,] "And were there enough drum shots?" I e-mailed Scotty, "What do you fucking mean? Of course there aren't."
A lot of egocentric frontmen would talk about pulling off such a stunt like flying their band on tour, but what is it about Bruce that made you all confident he could do this? There're a lot of limitations--he can't really be hungover or sick or anything.
Ah-hahah. He doesn't know it, he's never flown sober!
Nah. It was something we had talked about, going to these wonderful countries we'd never gone to before, and it was one of those kind of nights where we were just getting ready to think about what we were gonna do in the next couple of years. And we were talking about countries we hadn't been to, countries we hadn't been to in like 12-14 years, like Australia and New Zealand. To do those places on a normal tour without your own airplane is immensely expensive to do and it takes so long. We had done that in the past, but it was a nightmare. So the seed was then.
And then the thought was, "Why don't we take our own bloody jet airline? The idea started off with a 747--he complete stage show, everything. Bruce had already checked out on those. We could it. And you could see him thinking. He put his little finger up beside his face, and rest his hand on his chin, and goes, "HMMM. Hmmm." And I thought, "Oh here we go." And we all know his look. He's got this amazing look about him when you know he's got a revelation. And he's like, "The accountants say you can't do this because it's going to be too cost-inefficient. But we need a magic carpet and there it is!"
Perhaps he was thinking [all along], "How can I fly the band?" That may've been the initial thought. I certainly know that would have been my thought, had I got a commercial license. That would be great: The singer in the top heavy metal band in the world flying everybody around to gigs--it's brilliant! As [guitarist] Dave [Murray] says in the movie, it's a long way from getting in a transit van with the gear.
Bruce Dickinson and the view from the stage in Costa Rica
The crowd footage in the film is insane. Which show from that tour sticks out in your mind as the most unbelievably absurd and why?
I think perhaps Costa Rica. It was our first time. There's always that extra kind of excitement when you go somewhere for the first time. And my Lord, kids were camping out. Not saying that we base our laurels on this, or that we got kind of used to this, megastardom, if you like--I'm not saying that-- because every gig is as though it's the first gig you've ever played. But the vibe that we had from all the people even the hotels, even the police and the escorts and the miliatary--there was quite a bit of military presence there--but most of them were fans.
What specific image from the tour that sticks in your mind the most?
In the film, there is a shot of a guy holding my drumstick and he just starts crying. That shot--it's funny because when I first saw it, I says, "Is he kind of crying because he got my drum stick? Or is he crying because he didn't get Dave's pick and he only got my drum stick?" HAHAHAHAHA. "Or is he crying because he's a Nicko McBrain fan? Oh no! He's crying because the show is finished and this guy's just had such a immense time."
It pulled a string in my heart and I'm going, "Look at the passion in these people." I don't get to see that [from the stage]. I don't even think the band realized that this is going on after we've left the stage. But that kid, the crying man--I did actually get to meet him, this year when we went back. But that memory really struck home with me: The true power of the music of Iron Maiden, what it means to an immense amount of people around the world. And that really does humble me.
The band has studio time booked for early 2010?
Oh yeah. The actual studio is actually booked. But the plan is in November, we congregate somewhere, probably in Europe, to write the album. Bruce and [guitarist] Adrian [Smith] [are over there], [bassist/songwriter] Steve's [Harris] over here in this part of the world, David lives in Hawaii, so to get together for writing before we all get together is a bit difficult at the moment. We'll probably get together in November, first week probably, and go to right before Christmas, writing the album. I'm really looking forward to that: just being with the guys, getting back, writing new songs, and playing them is always very special.
And you'll tour again?
We haven't really scheduled a tour at the moment. But Rod was talking, like, around fall time . I said to him, "That could be the end of September, early October." I said, "Well, the Ryder Cup is the first week of October?" Ha ha ha ha! And he went, "Good point, Nick." Hee hee hee.
I was blessed to be in the 2008 Ryder Cup as a special guest of Nick Faldo and the European team. I'm not going there as a guest of the team this year, but I've been invited just to go and hang out and enjoy the whole event, which is just awesome. I said to Rod, "We can't be touring unless we have a week off"--Ha Ha Ha Ha!
Nah, obviously, look. If I did happen to miss the Ryder Cup, I've got a television on the road with me and I'd watch it on the telly.
I'll note that you said this begrudgingly.
Iron Maiden: Flight 666 airs on VH1 this Saturday, June 13 at 12:30 am, next Thursday, June 18 at 1 am, and the following Thursday, June 25 at 1:30 am. And if you like this, you should see the Anvil movie.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.