According to Wikipedia, an iron maiden is “a torture device, consisting of an iron cabinet with a hinged front, sufficiently tall to enclose a human being.” While there’s nary a mention of the impaling spikes that traditionally line the maiden’s interior, that last bit of Wiki wisdom could also apply to the towering mass of maple, bronze, and gleaming chrome comprising the kit of one Nicko McBrain — drummer for the legendary heavy metal band bearing the aforementioned instrument of terror’s namesake.
In the excellent 2009 Maiden rockumentary, Flight 666, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich speaks on behalf of drummers worldwide when he pleads, “Nicko! Come on, man, I wanna see what the f__k you’re doing!” At a typical Maiden gig, glimpses of the statuesque Englishman can only be had between songs, when he rises above his halo of cymbals to flash a smile and survey the scene. But McBrain swears his disappearing act is not designed to thwart fellow sticksmen seeking to cop a trick or two. Rather, his battlement of cannon-sized rack toms serves as a buffer, so as not to damage the tender egos of Maiden’s five other members.
“I’m the best looking bloke in the band,” McBrain posits through his thick British accent. “If I was sitting up like Dave frickin’ Clark, [the audience] would all be looking at me — especially the girls. The rest of the guys would be a bit upset, see? So they said, ‘Sit there behind that big drum kit and go low so no one else can see you.’”
While speaking to McBrain 2,000 miles away from his home in Boca Raton, Florida, it becomes abundantly clear that the man enjoys a good laugh (or several). In addition to driving Iron Maiden’s powerful sound with his distinctively punchy drumming, McBrain serves as band ambassador and resident comedian, thanks to his gregarious demeanor and penchant for levity. In another life, he could have had quite the career in public relations, or better yet, as a cast member on Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
“I love watching Nicko do his thing, and I’m not even talking about the drumming; I’m talking about his persona,” says drummer/educator Dave Stanoch, a fellow Paiste endorser who has witnessed McBrain hold court at numerous industry events and parties. “Everybody around him is having such a great time. And it’s not like he’s trying to be the center of attention at all; he’s just that magnetic.”
Though good-natured by default, McBrain has reason to be in even higher spirits these days. Iron Maiden is currently enjoying a global resurgence that has them performing in front of the biggest crowds of their storied 37-year career. On the first leg of 2008’s epic Somewhere Back In Time tour — a nod to Maiden’s classic 1984 Powerslave album and subsequent World Slavery tour — the band played to 500,000 fans over 23 concerts on 5 continents in a mere 45 days. In innovative fashion, Maiden circumvented inherent logistical roadblocks by hopping from gig to gig, with all their gear and crew, in a customized Boeing 757 christened “Ed Force One.” The kicker? Bruce Dickinson, the group’s animated frontman (and licensed commercial airline pilot), flew the bloody thing.
While McBrain and company continue to release vital new material — 2010’s The Final Frontier went platinum or gold in 12 different countries — their History Of Iron Maiden tours afford them the opportunity to play fan favorites from the band’s original golden age. This summer, Iron Maiden are again turning back the clock with the Maiden England tour, the band’s most extensive North American jaunt since 2001. Material will lean heavily on songs from Maiden’s much-loved middle years, widely regarded as their most fertile period.
“There are a lot of [Maiden] fans that weren’t even born when we came out with [1986’s] Somewhere Back In Time or [1988’s] Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son,” McBrain explains. “We’re addressing that, primarily to give the new fans a chance to see Iron Maiden perform these classic songs from that period of time. And it’s great for our hardcore fans as well. I’m so excited. Especially revisiting Seventh Son; that’s just brutally good.”
2012 marks two significant milestones for McBrain. The seemingly ageless basher recently turned 60, and by year’s end, he’ll have celebrated 30 years of service to the band that personified the new wave of British heavy metal. “Half my life I’ve been in Iron Maiden,” McBrain says in bewilderment. “Can you frickin’ believe that? We had no idea 30 years down the road we’d still be headlining these massive, amazing [gigs]. We didn’t even think we’d be alive 30 years later to be honest. I’m grateful and humbled. It’s been a great story and it’s getting better and better.”