Interview – Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson Dives Into ‘Senjutsu,’ Time Travel Destinations + More
In advance of the release of Iron Maiden's 17th studio album, Senjutsu, we had the pleasure of speaking with frontman Bruce Dickinson over Zoom, diving into some of the album's biggest highlights, the epic animated music video for the lead single "The Writing on the Wall," how that marvelous 'Belshazzar's Feast' teaser campaign came to be, what period in time he would travel to first if he had a time machine and more.
The chat took place in the early afternoon on our end in the U.S. and the evening for Bruce across the pond. In anticipation, a cup of Lady Grey tea was poured into an Iron Maiden mug, to which Dickinson responded by stepping away from his desk for a moment to grab a cup of... coffee — a bit of an inversion of American and British tropes.
Dickinson, who just turned 63 on Aug. 7, looks as lively as ever, eager to discuss the album Maiden had quietly wrapped up back in 2019 and held onto until very recently when that first new track dropped.
On Senjutsu, his only writing credits appear alongside Adrian Smith's name as the formidable songwriting duo penned three songs together. The singer explained the chemistry between the two and what makes their collaborative process so rewarding.
Dickinson also revealed how he and Steve Harris take mutual influence from some of the same artists, but are at opposite ends regarding their favorite recordings by these artists, helping to complete the overall nature of the songwriting heard across the 80-plus minutes that make up Senjutsu.
Watch the full interview in the video below or read through the Q&A beneath the video player.
'Senjutsu' comes out Sept. 3 and pre-orders can be placed here.
Interview: Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson on New Album Senjutsu
How did the idea of Belshazzar’s Feast and the teaser campaign originate?
I can’t take any credit for the teaser campaign! That was down to Sarah in our Maiden office. She came up with the idea because she is the goddess of all things social media and the internet. Me? I have no social media presence whatsoever, and I love it because I get to sleep at night and not obsess over what idiots say about me.
However, I do appreciate the modern world and it’s the way people feel the need to communicate. In the mad world of the pandemic, you can’t actually go around and physically meet people or have premieres. One of the ideas was to have a premiere of the video in theaters and have people tweet it and have it go viral, but that wasn’t going to happen.
Strangely, there is a clue to the campaign at the beginning of the video which is the invitation to Belshazzar’s Feast and that very nearly didn’t end up in the video because the video company, as much as I love them, forgot it. So, we got to the end of this great production and I watched the whole thing back and I went, “Uhh… we’re missing something, guys. There’s supposed to be an invite to this whole thing.”
That’s why this guy goes and follows the trail — he picks up the invite from the dead Maiden fan and that’s where everybody is going. If you don’t know that in the beginning of the video, it’s like watching Star Wars without the “In a galaxy far, far way” — the preamble in the beginning — it wouldn’t make any sense until halfway through the movie. So, you’ve got to have this in there!
Mark Andrews and the ex-Pixar guys who were our executive producers on this said, “There’s a fix for this — maybe we put an invite sheet that falls to the floor.” Originally, the kid was actually clutching it in his hand and this way you see it fall to the floor which is an easier fix for the animation.
I said let’s do something simple in black and white like a handbill for one of those semi-legal rave parties where you get posters going up on concrete posts under roadways on things like that. So I made things up like “Heaven or Hell,” “rain or shine,” “live forever,” which has a play on words and thought no more about it.
Then we took that poster and turned it into the shirt and turned it into the beginning of what was in effect a kind of rave campaign on the internet. With the clues that she put up, it was a proper Sherlock Holmes Easter egg hunt through the internet. It was really cool. I was seriously impressed with what the team put together.
Iron Maiden, "The Writing on the Wall" Music Video
All of your writing credits are co-writes with Adrian Smith. What makes him such an ideal songwriting partner?
When we write together, things fall into place pretty quickly. He’s quite a comfortable chap to write with, from that perspective. He comes up with some chord structures that are really easy to sing over and they’ve got a lot of musical color in them, which makes it easy to paint pictures in my head and write words and tunes that go on top.
Sometimes, we can swap things around a little bit. What he thought might have been a chorus might turn out to be something in the middle. What I thought might have been a chorus might turn into a guitar piece, but you find that out once you start knocking ideas around. Adrian is a great tennis player and when you write songs with him it’s a bit like knocking a ball back and forth. Once you get to a good rally you go, ‘That was good! That was creative!’
Actually, that’s exactly what writing songs with Adrian is like.
I didn’t end up doing anything with Janick, but it wasn’t deliberate or anything weird like that.
Steve already had some ideas and bits from Janick and Adrian and he likes to sort of take things away and be sort of like, “I am the master and I will go away and come out — here’s my bit — this is what everybody has to do.” That’s the way he likes to work. He’s not always comfortable with spontaneity.
His moment of spontaneity is, ‘Hey guys, surprise! I’ve done the whole thing!” That’s just him, that’s the way he is! We’ve been on and off together for 40 something years. We do get to know the way we all work, strengths and weaknesses, and all that.
Me and Adrian were quite surprised when we did “The Writing on the Wall.” He went, “That’s gotta be the first track!” We thought it might be an interesting first track, but that came [out of] left field.
It’s different for us. It’s a bit more mainstream in a way — more classic rock type stuff.
Definitely. Some Jethro Tull!
We are digging through our ‘dressing up box’ of things we used to dress up in as kids, whether it’s the clothes of Jethro Tull or Deep Purple — you dig them out and bring them into the open after all these years. They’ve been there since the existence of the band — you have to listen to tracks going all the way back to “Prodigal Son” and things like that back when I wasn’t even in the band. You go, “Hold on a minute! That’s very Jethro Tull-y.”
Me and Steve are huge Jethro Tull fans, but we probably have different [favorite] albums. I am definitely a fan of the early folk stuff. He’s a big fan of Thick as a Brick and really lengthy, proggy things…
Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson
Like A Passion Play...
A Passion Play, he loves that. I’m no so crazy about that. I prefer the shorter stuff. He’s a massive Genesis fan and not Genesis with Phil Collins so much — the early Genesis with Peter Gabriel. On the other hand, I’m more of a Peter Gabriel solo fan. When he left Genesis I think his stuff is more edgy. Peter Gabriel III — wow, what an incredible album! [The songs] “Intruder” and “No Self Control” — that’s a sinister record.
I was a big fan of Van Der Graf Generator — an English prog band. They were contemporaries with Genesis, they were just not as big as Genesis. They’re more proggy/art rock type stuff, but I took huge inspiration from them and Peter Hammill lyric wise.
Between the pair of us, there’s a fair amount of prog lurking in there. It’s come out [on] the last few albums.
Van Der Graaf Generator, "Refugees"
My favorite song on ‘Senjutsu’ is “The Time Machine.” It’s so playful!
Isn’t it great?
It’s so different than the things Maiden have done in the past. Now, if you had a time machine, where — or when — would you travel to first?
I’d go back to the resurrection [of Jesus Christ]. I’d actually want to be standing outside the tomb going, “Okay, it’s been three days — it’s a pretty rotten way to spend Easter. It's about time — alright, c’mon, let’s have a look at you then.” Let’s see if that was all just symbolism and bullshit.
I think there’s some seminal events like that…
Adam and Eve would’ve been a good moment. You could’ve really screwed with history there if you’d have just hit Adam over the head and said, “Actually, Adam, sorry mate, it’s Bruce. It’s going to be Bruce and Eve. We’re going to have to change things around.”
Obviously, we shoehorned Adam and Eve into the video at the end because we needed a positive ending! We’ve got this cataclysmic ending which is a kind of nod toward the movie Dr. Strangelove [directed by] Stanley Kubrick. At the end of it all, they’ve got this song [that was popular during World War II] and it was kind of an homage to that.
It’s a bit grim. Eddie just ends the world and nothing else? We need Adam and Eve in there at the end and Eddie gives them the apple. That’s when I put them in the video as the two unfortunate people like Dr. Manhattan and Mrs. Manhattan being fed to the evil vampire king, rejuvenating him with their fluids. Of course, Eddie liberates them and we’re going to get rid of all these jerks and start again, starting with you guys! Here’s an apple, get on with it!
“The Time Machine” is a fantastic track. The opening line of it [after the intro] is genius — [mocking inquisitive tone] “Have I ever told you about my time machine?” How many ways can you say that?
It’s really good fun and it’s got this bit in the middle of it that I can just see every pair of Maiden fans’ feet in the room jumping [imitates melody].
I’ve got sketches for crazy stage ideas to do with a lot of the songs. Some of which may never see the light of day because someone says that’s too expensive or too crazy…
Your voice is constantly changing and you have to sort of re-learn everything as time goes on. You've been singing live since recovering from cancer, but first time you get to use your voice in the studio since then. Was there anything different about your range or how you approached certain vowel/consonant sounds?
Not especially. After doing three or four months with the ‘Legacy [of the Beast]’ tour… we don’t detune and they’re all in the original keys and I’m hitting the same notes I used to hit 40 years ago. The tone of the voice has got a bit thicker, a bit fatter…
It is more robust. I’m definitely in the tenor range, but obviously there’s different types of tenor. You’ve got a lyric tenor, which has a very light and fiddly type top end voice and there’s a robust tenor, which can almost go down into a baritone.
One of my favorite tenors is Ronnie [James] Dio. Ronnie was kind of a hybrid. As he got older his voice was much more robust, but if you hear him on some early stuff, in particular some of the stuff he did pre-Rainbow… there was an album he did called Butterfly Ball [and the Grasshopper's Feast]. He was a guest on it and Roger Glover from Deep Purple wrote a lot of it and produced it. There’s a song on there called “Love Is All” and his voice is like glass. It’s so transparent and it’s just amazing. I’ve always wanted to cover that song, not necessarily on an album, but live.
Roger Glover & Guests, "Love Is All" (Feat. Ronnie James Dio)
I’ve got some orchestral things [coming up] actually with Roger Glover in Hungary in November.
We’re working with an orchestra — same thing I did last year with the orchestra in Quebec City where we did two nights and did Jon Lord’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra and we did five Purple tunes at the end of it. We’re doing the same thing in Hungary.
I’m hopeful we might do a few more of them, which would be really cool because they’re very enjoyable and you always get the chance of working with an orchestra. Conductor Paul Mann said, “Do you fancy doing any other stuff?” I said, “Well, there’s a Maiden song which we would never do called ‘Empire of the Clouds,’ which is designed for an orchestra and seeing as we’ve got one…” He listened to it and said, “Oh my god, that would be awesome!”
I’ve watched the video of you and Glenn Hughes singing “Burn” so many times.
I actually had throat cancer when I was singing that. I didn’t realize. I didn’t even know it. I could do it better now, actually! [laughs] Mwoohahaha!!
Bruce Dickinson + Glenn Hughes Perform Deep Purple's "Burn"
Steve did a lot of work on Senjutsu and wrote over 40 minutes of material just by himself. Which is your favorite of the four Steve Harris epics?
[Thinking…] You know what, I’m not sure if he wrote the whole thing, but I just love the title track. Did he write that whole thing?
That was with Adrian!
I would have to say “Hell on Earth,” but a close second I think would be “The Parchment” and I’m even surprised at myself for saying that because it has a lot of repetition in it. A lot of people I’ve played it to (who I shouldn’t have played it to — shh!) love that track.
It has a sort of mysterious atmosphere.
It moves around. I like the fact that it’s five-and-a-half-minutes with no singing because I can go and have a cup of tea [editor's note: or coffee, evidently].
Thanks to Bruce Dickinson for the interview. Get your copy of 'Senjutsu' here and follow Iron Maiden on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify. Read our track-by-track guide and review to the record here.