He’s an ’80s metal icon whose inimitable groove has roots in the ’60s and ’70s—and he’s still going strong well into the 2010s. If ever there was a drummer for the ages, it’s him.
Nicko McBrain is humble about the fact that it took a while to get on the cover of Modern Drummer. “It’s just one of those things,” says McBrain. “There are so many great drummers out there. You can’t all get on there. You wait your turn and now it’s mine. Better late than never.”
But McBrain didn’t have to wait his turn to be at the forefront of a drumming revolution in the 1980s. They say you can’t separate the person from the playing, and Nicko McBrain just happens to be quite the character.
McBrain laughs a lot. Equipped with a wonderful sense of humor, he puts the same energy into his stories as he does blasting away with his legendary heavy metal group, Iron Maiden. A conversation with the drummer, who turns sixty-seven this year, goes from self-deprecating analysis of his style to heartfelt anecdotes about his bandmates and his years in the trenches of the heavy metal business. “Passion” is a recurring theme and frequently used term when McBrain speaks.
But McBrain speaks most passionately when behind that kit. And he’s been behind that kit with Iron Maiden since their fourth album, 1983’s Piece of Mind, after replacing original drummer Clive Burr. Following a brief time in the mid-1970s session world and stints with Streetwalkers, Pat Travers, and Trust, McBrain took over the Iron Maiden throne as they led the charge of the new wave of British heavy metal. The band’s star rose by the mid ’80s, and they remain international rock superstars to this day, selling out arenas and stadiums around the world.
Today’s Iron Maiden—which, besides Nicko, features singer Bruce Dickinson, guitarists Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers, and bassist Steve Harris—is a little greyer than before, but packs no less a punch with its commanding and epic sound. McBrain, who now resides in Florida and lines up golf clubs more frequently than beer cans these days, is still a marvel with Iron Maiden, constantly filling the music with fire and color, but always staying true to the strident and aggressive style the band helped invent.
But McBrain remains, as mentioned, humble. He speaks lovingly of his friends, fellow musicians, wife, and band management. He’s sincerely glad to have the job. And he gets a chance to express himself with artwork on his drum shells with a cross reflecting his faith or his obsession with Jaguar cars. He’s involved with a restaurant in Florida and has recently partnered up with an old friend to open a drum shop in Manchester, U.K., Nicko McBrain’s Drum One.
Nicko’s day gig still takes up most of his time, though, and Iron Maiden is as busy as ever, traversing the world regularly. The band’s current tour is even linked to a mobile game, Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast, a role-playing adventure inspired by the band’s lyrics and album art. The stage is massive, the sets elaborate, Nicko’s kit the centerpiece of it all (when it’s not covered by camouflage, of course). And he’s playing with such vigor on all the old stuff while bringing that McBrain attack to newer material. The huge smile on his face is genuinely infectious. No one looks like he’s having greater fun playing music or living life than Nicko McBrain.
Writing new songs is important even to many bands who’ve been around for decades, and thankfully for hardcore fans, Maiden has stayed active recording new music, recently with 2015’s album The Book of Souls. On it, McBrain brings the speed and power on classic Maiden fare like the urgent “Death or Glory” and the charging, uptempo “When the River Runs Deep.” Neither drummer nor band is setting out to re-invent the wheel with new Iron Maiden music. Though McBrain is an influence on countless of today’s technically gifted metal players, he himself knows that his band’s music and his own playing is of a time, and if it ain’t broke…. And while many of his peers and drumming descendants stay concerned with mere chops or robotic precision, McBrain remains a truly soulful drummer in a genre not known for subtlety. He’s the perfect guy for Iron Maiden, a serious musician not always taking himself too seriously.
Q: You’ve opened a drum shop. Were you always interested in gear?
A: I think it’s every schoolboy’s dream. I still today have this excitement when I go into a drum shop. If you’re in a band like Maiden or you do covers on the weekend, you have that passion.
MD: Let’s talk about longevity in a band of this stature and influence. How has your role changed interpersonally and within the creative process?
Nicko: The writing process hasn’t reallY changed since I joined the band. Prolifically, Steve [Harris, bass] was the main songwriter in the band in the early days. But people would bring in ideas or tunes, and if it was good enough, it would make the record. There was no favoritism. Nowadays we have home studios, so the guys are bringing full-cut demos in. They’ve put a drum track on it and fiddled around with a little bass line. But once we’ve decided to work on a tune, we sit acoustically in the studio; I’ll sit and tap my legs and get an idea of what the rhythms are and what kind of grooves we’re looking at.
In the old days I’d write them down—intro, verse, chorus, bridge, solos, how many of each. Nowadays we’ve got iPhones, and we can press a little button. [laughs] Then I’ll sit with Steve, and if he’s brought the song and he’s got his bass lines and arrangement worked out, he’ll tell me if he fancies a classic Maiden gallop, or the triplet feel which we’re known for.
There are certain key feels that we have. “The Trooper” has that fast, gallopy Maiden swing. So Steve and I will work out what I will play with [his bass]. We’re the foundation of the band. From 1982’s The Number of the Beast until 2015’s The Book of Souls, Steve used a tape machine for every writing session and album. But the poor old thing died on us. So now we individually put it on our phones with these apps, and we take them home. You have to live with it for a while; otherwise you’re floundering to find the right grooves, tempo changes, and what kind of fills you’re going to do in each segue.
MD: When you started with the band, you had to come up with your parts right away?
Nicko: In the old days, I had to do it fly-by-wire. I’d get the idea in my head and then change it. It would annoy Steve quite a lot. [laughs] But now we will write four or five tracks and record them when they’re fresh. You can get to a period when you’re doing a record where there’s too much information. The songs all run into each other. You don’t want to learn too many new songs without recording the earlier stuff you’ve already arranged. But in terms of the creative process, there’s a “greatest hits” vibe in the studio. You say, “That one works, but this one is a bit left field.” And we don’t play to a click, except for a couple of tracks on The Book of Souls. But we’re very much a nine-to-five kind of band. Gone are the days when you have a studio booked for twenty-four hours, and, “Let’s go make an album.” Because it’s different for us now.
MD: But even after all these albums and new technologically enhanced writing processes, The Book of Souls sounds like a band in a room.
Nicko: A track like “Speed of Light” was done in one take. But if you listen closely to the intro and drum fill, it’s not quite right. I do a double snare hit and a bass drum behind it, and it’s not quite where it should be, but it still had this magic to it. It was live, and we were so excited when Adrian came up with the riff, we just had to get going on it.
But we’re blessed to be able to write an album in the studio where we will record it. And the way the band has progressed over the years, we’ve all got an amazing love and respect for each other. I love the guys. Is it strange to love five other blokes? The sex is the music. [laughs] But we’ve matured. It’s like a fine wine, as long as it’s not corked. And we’ve had our corked moments where there have been arguments, believe me, where pressure in the studio gets to each of us. And I want to get it right. I don’t want to let people down. But over the years, we’ve all mellowed out. You have to be able to apologize to each other, even if you’re not wrong. And believe me, the drummer’s always right!
MD: So when you get some magic today, you’re leaving it in.
Nicko: Music used to be analog. Now with Pro Tools, it’s all become numbers. A lot of the passion and the groove and the feel of music are lost when it’s gone too clinical. And that works for certain styles of music.
MD: Your live set list leans heavily toward the ’80s material. Is it still a joy to play that stuff ?
Nicko: Absolutely. On the 2018–19 Legacy of the Beast tour, we’ve introduced “Flight of Icarus,” which we haven’t played since 1986. We dusted the cobwebs off it and agreed to play it a little bit quicker than the recorded version, but still not as fast as we played it in the 1980s. [laughs] And that was a joy. And the Legacy tour gave us an opportunity to go out on a tour loosely based on the game, because there are loads of different Eddies and all these different songs from Maiden on the game’s soundtrack. But on every tour, we play “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” and you’re always going to get “Iron Maiden.” Only the Lord knows how many times I’ve played that song. But it’s always a joy.
But nowadays I do what I should have done in the ’80s and ’90s, which is mellow out the tempos. And doing stuff from my first album [with Maiden], like “Where Eagles Dare.” That was the first track on Piece of Mind, so [back then] we’d go out and open with it. Steve wanted to introduce me as the new guy. But it’s a triplet on the single bass drum, and when I was a lot younger, I could play it faster. Now I have a tempo clock metronome on every one of my songs as a reference at the beginning. I start them slightly slower than what we end up playing them at. For instance, in “The Trooper,” if I go au natural there and I’ve got the adrenaline going, I’ll play that too fast. If it starts too quick, when you get to the solo section, it’s miles too fast by then. Nine times out of ten, I’ll feel like I’m dragging the band, because it’s the performance that gets you, as long as it’s not too crazy. I’ve done that for the last four or five tours.
MD: Aside from the synthesizers that crept into your music in the late ’80s, even your most recent albums sound like tried-and-true Maiden, regardless of how heavy “heavy metal” has gotten. How do you guys stick to your guns?
Nicko: The chemistry of the six guys. Maiden is Maiden. Steve is prolific and his lyrics are amazing, but everyone is a stunning songwriter. Adrian writes some of the really melodic stuff like “Stranger in a Strange Land.” But Bruce will come in with an eighteen-minute opus. We did experiment with some songs back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but it just didn’t suit us. There was a more progressive side to Maiden, which has actually come out on The Book of Souls and [1986’s] A Matter of Life and Death. But our writing stays within a certain parameter.
MD: So you’ve opened a drum shop, Drum One. Were you always interested in gear?
Nicko: I think it’s every schoolboy’s dream. I still today have this excitement when I go into a drum shop. Guitar Center and Sam Ash have drums. Or you get something like Resurrection Drums down here in Florida. When I see a display in a window, it doesn’t matter what brand it is, I get excited. If you’re in a band like Maiden or you do covers on the weekend, you have that passion. A friend of mine, Craig Buckley, who was the GM at Premier, was taking over the Manchester Drum Shop. He phoned me up and said he had this opportunity to buy it and wanted me to go into business with him. We worked out a deal to call it Nicko McBrain’s Drum One. We would have a big presence of Sonor and Paiste. But we’ve got all brands. So I had this feeling of being an entrepreneur instead of just playing the drums. I’ll be the bloke selling them. So I realized the dream I always had but didn’t know it. We’ve been open over a year, and it’s doing well. It’s a very hard and fickle industry. There’s a lot of undercutting and sales online. But we had a night with Ian Paice and another with Steve Smith. Those were special.
MD: Some famous drummers have coffee or hot sauce, but Nicko opens a drum shop.
Nicko: [laughs] And of course I have my restaurant in Florida. It’s not just my drums. What’s my passion? Drumming and eating. [laughs]
MD: In 1985, during the World Slavery tour, you mentioned to Modern Drummer that one of the ways you took care of yourself was to eat twice a day. Now, over thirty years later, does that still hold true? What’s new in your routine nowadays? How do you still play this stuff well?
Nicko: It doesn’t get easier. But the enjoyment and passion are still there. Age catches up with us all. But yes, I’ll eat a good breakfast in the morning and then one square meal on top of that. But the key to my longevity now is I don’t drink and I don’t take drugs…anymore. [laughs] I stopped drugs many years ago, and I haven’t had a drink in four years. I’ll go out on a golf course. I think walking is one of the best things you can do. But it’s a team effort. The people behind the guys, the management is totally there. We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing if we didn’t have two guys [in management] who had the passion that we do as players. That’s important, the support group. And to have the love and the trust with the people who you work with. But I’ve been blessed to do this, now in my thirty-sixth year.
MD: You’re going to get good soon, Nicko.
Nicko: [laughs] Hey, mate, I might get some of the songs right by the time the Lord calls me upstairs.
Nicko McBrain’s Legacy of the Beast Kit
Drums: Sonor SQ2 medium-shell 9-ply beechwood drums
• 14×6.5 Nicko signature sycamore snare (soon available commercially)
• 6×8 tom
• 8×8 tom
• 10×10 tom
• 12×12 tom
• 13×13 tom
• 14×14 tom
• 15×15 tom
• 16×16 tom
• 18×16 floor tom
• 24×18 bass drum
Note: Shell dimensions are presented diameter x depth.
• 15″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full crash (custom)
• 19″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full crash
• 16″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full crash
• 20″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full crash
• 18″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full crash
• 14″ Signature Heavy hi-hat (custom Reflector finish)
• 13″ Formula 602 Heavy Bell (discontinued to general public)
• 22″ Signature Reflector Bell “Powerslave” ride
• 17″ RUDE crash/ride
• 20″ Signature Fast Medium crash
• 22″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full crash
• 22″ Signature Reflector Heavy China (custom)
• 40″ Symphonic Gong (custom painted stained glass finish by John Douglas)
All cymbals have a black Colorsound finish, with the exception of the ride and top hi-hat cymbal, which have a standard Reflector side on the top and black Colorsound finish on the bottom.
Sticks: Vic Firth SNM signature sticks
Hardware: Sonor stands, DW 9000 bass drum pedal
Accessories: Randall May internal bass drum microphone mount, Hardcase drum cases
MD: What’s different this time around gear-wise?
Nicko: Of course, the change from Premier to Sonor, which happened around 2013. I played Premier for twenty-two years, but before that I played Sonor for nineteen years, starting when I was sixteen years old. When you get your first kit, you actually buy it. When you’ve had a nice affair with it, and you’ve loved it, and polished it. I was so proud of my first kit. But I first joined Sonor when I got the big drumset in 1976 with Pat Travers. And I used Sonor all the way through 1993.
[The first time around with Sonor] I was using beechwood shells. Then when I switched to Premier, I used maple shells. There’s a big difference. My Sonors had such a magic sound to them. So now, going back to Sonor, I wanted to go back to beechwood. For the Book of Souls tour in 2016, we had a Mayan theme, and the Mayans loved their gold, so I asked Sonor to build me a gold chrome drumset. And when they delivered the set, it was actually 24-karat gold plated, which just blew me away. It was stunning. And we tried on a recent tour with internal drum miking, but it sounded like cardboard boxes to me, so we went back to miking on top.
MD: And it’s not like you’re flip-flopping and chasing the money at every chance. Those are long tenures with these companies.
Nicko: I have a reputation for loyalty. Like Paiste. And I use the gear because I love it. I use it because I bought it in the first place. [Sometimes] when people get a name for themselves, they get these deals, but they don’t really have the passion to use that brand for the rest of their lives, and that’s wrong. It’s not about getting free gear. But nothing was given to me at first.
MD: And the artwork on the kits?
Nicko: Going back to tours from 2003 on, I’ve had different artwork, pertinent to the tour. The drumset is my tapestry, the center focal point of the whole thing. You see the drumset, and then you see the rest. Very rarely when the stage is revealed, you’re looking at the lights. Mostly you’re looking at the handsome drummer. [laughs] It has to look special. So the new Legacy tour kit has drum art that relates to all the different Eddies in the game, and tipping my hat to my faith and my favorite car, the Jaguar. And the hardware is smoked chrome.
There are three themes on the stage: a war theme, a cathedral theme, and, like, a hell theme in the cathedral, where stuff like “The Number of the Beast” is played. So ideally, it would have been great to have three sets of drums, but I thought, How can I make a drumset sit in with each theme? So the cathedral is camouflaged, and the front of the drumset is covered with camouflage netting. So you can’t even see me. Because the kit art is so bright and colorful, it suited the next two themes.
MD: You’re still only using a single pedal, right?
Nicko: I like a lot of double bass drum players. These guy out there today have taken it to another level. When I started out, we only had a couple of those guys. Ginger Baker had a couple of bass drums, Cozy Powell, the great Louie Bellson. But then you look to Buddy Rich, the phenom. There’s never been anyone who ever graced us with that style of drumming any better than that. He was one of a kind. He was a blueprint for so many drummers. I don’t play that style, but I still look at these guys, and I respect what they do. And Buddy was amazing, a single bass drum fellow. And he had quite a fast right foot. And he was using [equipment] that was archaic by today’s standards.
It’s what you’ve got and how you use it. I just grew up with one bass drum pedal. When I started to play with Pat, my first Sonor kit was a twelve-piece, and I just didn’t use the second bass drum. It’s just the way I taught myself. I’ve always just felt comfortable with one. But I did use a double pedal on “Face in the Sand” (from 2003’s Dance of Death). Adrian had this [double] bass drum part and said, “You can do it.” I asked him why he thought that, and he said, “Nicko, you’re a man of many talents.” [laughs]
MD: And you’re still playing barefoot?
Nicko: On and off. I played barefoot way back in Streetwalkers, my first real touring band, after doing all these sessions. And with Pat, I used to use a Speed King pedal, even into the early ’80s with Maiden. The problem with playing barefoot with that pedal is the footplate has Ludwig and Speed King written on it, so various parts of the pedal have been cut out to make it lighter. So it was like playing on sandpaper. I started to wear boxing boots with a very thick sole, because I loved to feel the pedal. It’s the same kind of thing as feeling the stick in your hand. And then the DW 5000 pedal came out, nice and smooth, so I changed to those and went back to playing barefoot, and have been pretty much doing that ever since. It’s a question of balance. I don’t like to feel anything between my foot and the pedal, including the hi-hat pedal. Now I use the DW 9000.
MD: And no in-ear monitors or anything modern like that, right?
Nicko: I tried them, but I’m sitting in a cave of drums, and I have all my cymbals, and I’m completely surrounded by an acoustic instrument. When I put something like my fingers in my ears, I can’t hear it or feel it when I’m hitting the drums. That’s the problem with in-ear monitors. You can hear okay, but you can’t feel it. What some bright spark came up with was putting a big fat speaker under the ass with a thumper stool. But that didn’t make sense to me. I don’t want to feel it from my ass, I want to feel it from my body. And it negates the whole point of having an acoustic drumset. But I tried them and the band sounded great, but I ended up over-hitting the kit because I wanted to hear it. I couldn’t emulate the acoustic sound with the monitors in my ears. So I went back to normal monitors. I tried a monitor on the left and another on the right, splitting them. But you’re mostly looking left over your hi-hat if you’re a right-handed drummer, so I couldn’t hear the one to my right. And the monitor is quite loud, because I need to hear the band since I’m behind the equipment. But I’ve suffered because I’m deaf as a post. [laughs]
MD: Why have you been covering yourself up with your setup all these years?
Nicko: I didn’t have much choice. The band said, “We like that big kit—no one can see you.” [laughs]