By Brian Clem
After building a following through constant touring, including opening for bands such as Kiss and Judas Priest, Iron Maiden changed the face of rock by unleashing a fusillade of platinum albums in the ’80s, featuring heavy riffs and harmonized solos by guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith. When Smith left the band in 1990, they recruited Janick Gers to take his place. To their credit, they kept Gers on when Smith rejoined the fold and have rocked a three-guitar assault ever since. Today Maiden (and their iconic zombie mascot Eddie) charge headlong into the new decade with their 15th studio album, the Kevin Shirley-produced The Final Frontier [EMI].
What was the process for creating the new album?
Murray: We decided it would be a good idea to go back to the Bahamas again, where we recorded a few albums in the ’80s. The climate there is amazing, and the studio is familiar. In fact, it’s so familiar, it hadn’t changed in 25 years! We recorded the album in about six weeks. Kevin Shirley brought his electronic magical things with him. Obviously, we wouldn’t sound like 1985 again, but we were able to incorporate some of that vibe. It’s the classic Maiden sound, but it’s also a very clean recording. We spent about three weeks rehearsing, and then it was a matter of doing a few takes and getting “the one.” You need to keep things fresh.
What gear did you use on the new album? Was it your live rig, or did you experiment?
Murray: I like using effects, but it’s nice to go straight into the amp. We’d get the basics done live, and when I did use effects, it was when we overdubbed solos or guitar melodies. Then I’d use a bit of chorus or a Uni-Vibe, which I used on a couple of tracks. But if you plug straight into a Marshall amp, you’re gonna get a pretty great sound anyway.
Gers: I used Marshalls, plugged straight in. I don’t like it when you’re playing and you’ve got things ping-ponging around. When you have a pure sound, it helps everything stand apart, and that way everyone doesn’t sound like a bumblebee in a jar.
Smith: I like to go straight into the amp for the rhythm parts, and then when I do solos and stuff I might use something like a Tube Screamer to get a little more sustain. I used my old goldtop Gibson Les Paul, a Fender Stratocaster, and my signature Jackson guitar, then straight into a Marshall DSL. The band was all playing in the same room, but our speaker cabinets would be in different parts of the building, so that way we’d have some separation.
Was the Uni-Vibe the actual pedal, or are you referring to a digital plug-in?
Murray: The pedal. I’ve had one for a while, but I’ve just started using it on some tracks, and now I’m taking it out on the road. It sounds great. It’s got a totally unique character. I don’t use it all the time, but I’ve always loved that sound.
How hard is it to play live with three distorted guitars, and not have them clash or sound muddy?
Murray: We have three really distinctive and different guitar sounds, so even when we’re playing together in unison or in harmony, it still sounds different because of our playing styles. We’re a heavy rock band, but we still have melodic clean parts. On this album specifically, it’s not just straight through heavy songs, there are also some quieter passages.
Smith: We all have a lot of differences in our playing, our vibrato, and the ways we approach the pick.
How do you determine who plays which parts in the studio?
Murray: It depends on the song, and whether it has harmony parts or not. We just sit down and go over those kinds of details. We look at it as a team effort, and everyone gets a chance to express themselves. It’s not hard. We don’t spend hours and hours working at it. It just sort of naturally unfolds.
You said that you recorded a lot of the new album live in the studio. Does that make it easier to replicate the harmony parts live?
Murray: Absolutely. That’s the way we’ve done it since day one. So when it comes to playing it live, we’re already ahead of the game. Some nights you get it down and everything is perfect, and some nights you do it and have a little mistake here or there, but you have to realize it’s a show, and just let it go.
Janick, with three guitars, what parts do you play on the earlier stuff live?
Gers: If you listen to those early Maiden albums, there are more than two guitars on there, there are four or five. So it’s just a matter of working out which part to do. There is no need to be playing all the time. I like to underplay. It’s all about making Iron Maiden sound better. It’s not an ego thing.
When you are playing live, do you try to recreate the tones from the previous records?
Smith: I don’t think that the actual gear is all that important as a player. I think if you’ve got good equipment, it’s really about your personality, because that’s what they are going to hear. I was always searching for the Holy Grail tone through the years, but it just doesn’t exist.
Who were some of your influences?
Murray: Wishbone Ash and Thin Lizzy.
Smith: When I was a little kid, it was the Beatles, of course. Then in my teen years, it was Deep Purple, Cream, and Thin Lizzy. I also listened to a lot of Jeff Beck and Pat Travers. As far as the metal side of it, it was Purple and Black Sabbath.
How would you say metal has evolved since Iron Maiden started?
Smith: When I was growing up, it was all just called heavy rock. Now there’s Euro metal, there’s death metal. Maiden is known as a metal band, but there is a lot of melody in what we do, and there is also the blues influence.
Murray: It has changed. There are a lot more bands out there now, and some of them are really heavy. A lot of bands have come out that use lower tunings on everything, and that’s something we’ve actually incorporated into a couple of our songs. There is plenty of space for all of them. I wish them well.
How did you get into lowered tunings?
Smith: There was one song that was originally in E that we had to drop down because it was too high for Bruce to sing. It’s a powerful, low, heavy rock song, and it sounds great in D. I’ve been trying to get everyone to tune down for years to make it sound a bit heavier, but no one was really interested in doing it. I’ve been playing around with dropped tunings for a long time.
Have you heard any players recently that you think are playing at a high level?
Gers: Not really. I really have to go back to the ones that I grew up listening to, like Rory Gallagher and Paul Kossoff. My favorite was Jeff Beck, who could just pull things out of thin air. Those are the ones that give me the shivers.
Murray: I like Joe Bonamassa, but basically I listen to the guys I grew up with. They tend to remaster that stuff from time to time, so I just end up buying it over and over again. I prefer to listen to a lot of the older stuff: B.B. King, Albert Collins, and Django Reinhardt.
Smith: I like guys from the ’90s like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. You have to respect those guys. Any more though, it seems that the guitar is used as a battering ram, and you don’t seem to hear a lot of melodic soloing.
It’s well known that radio and television haven’t been particularly helpful to Maiden, yet you’ve sold 100 million albums. When you started, there was no Internet or mp3s, so you had to do it the hard way.
Smith: It was a hard yard, a hard mile. We toured a lot and we built up a solid following around the world. If radio’s not going to play us, then we’re going to go out and play it for the people. We’re a bit different than a lot of them now, because you come to see us and it’s a big rock show. A lot of kids come to see us, and they probably haven’t seen anybody do quite what we’re doing. I think those are the kind of bands that stick with you. We can’t go on forever, but we’re enjoying it and we’re not going to stop anytime soon.