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It's been 19 years since Bruce Dickinson released a solo album. With 'The Mandrake Project', the almighty Iron Maiden frontman makes up for lost time and reveals all the secrets behind his ambitious project...
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19 years after 'Tyranny of Souls', Bruce Dickinson is back with his new album 'The Mandrake Project', part of an ambitious jigsaw puzzle that includes the comic books he developed... In this exhaustive interview, he reveals all the secrets behind the creation of this exciting project. It's a rich encounter with an authentic, honest artist, who reveals himself without filters, including the reasons for his return to Iron Maiden in the late 1990s...

What's the one question you've been asked too many times that you're sick of answering?

Bruce Dickinson: Um... Is 'The Mandrake Project' a concept album? It's not (Laughs)!

Well, I don't have any more questions for you, since all our questions were based on that angle...


On a more serious note, since your return to Iron Maiden in 1999, your solo career has largely been put on hold...

That's true...

... In fact, you released an album in 2005 and since then there's been almost total radio silence...

(Laughs) Exactly!

Despite all this time, are you still thinking about releasing a solo album?

Of course I was! I kept telling myself that one day, one day (Laughs)... it would happen! But I was crazy busy with Iron Maiden and finally in 2014, Roy and I decided to get back into the process...

By the way, would such a solo album have been possible without him?

No, or at least not the way we did it: he co-wrote 50% of the songs! We've been working together for 30 years, and he's a very special soul musically...

He's like you...

Maybe, I don't know... He's someone who inspires me and I hope I inspire him too... We work pretty well together!

There's a real chemistry between you. Do you miss this special relationship - because we're talking about 19 years without a solo album?

It's true that I didn't realise it would take so long (Laughs): it wasn't planned to take so long... But a lot of things did happen, things we hadn't planned. A year after I wrote most of the songs on this album with Roy, I was diagnosed with throat cancer (NdStruck: winter 2014)... It took me a year to get rid of it and to be able to sing again. Once I'd recovered, I spent more time than I'd planned with Iron Maiden, mainly to make up for lost time... And then, just after that, there was Covid, which took up three years of our lives... Incidentally, I spent my confinement here in Paris and, for the record, just before that I'd made the decision to write and, with that in mind, I bought myself a laser printer from Fnac. And as soon as I'd settled in, Mr Macron made his speech announcing that at midnight we'd all be confined! Apart from the pub crawl we did just after the announcement, it was still a good idea to buy this printer, which enabled us to print out these fucking certificates every day we wanted to go out... But the rest of the time - apart from poisoning the life of my partner, who continues to love me - we watched Netflix - which I never did the rest of the time when I was on the road - and we became addicted to 'Sons of Anarchy'.  It was so good that I looked up who'd written it and it was Kurt Sutter. At the time I was writing the script for the video of 'The Writing on the Wall', we were still confined, so we did it all by videoconference on Zoom. The idea of the four bikers of the Apocalypse comes directly from 'Sons of Anarchy'...

You mentioned the clip for 'The Writing on the Wall', which was made during the Iron Maiden pandemic. Was this the inspiration for the comic strip that illustrates your new solo album?

We started from scratch with this comic book! In fact, initially, in 2014, I had the idea of doing a comic strip, a single very simple episode linked to the album and the idea was that this album should be a concept album.

But that's not the case...

(Laughs) No, because there will be twelve comic strips, twelve episodes: that's the concept!

But aren't you planning to do a soundtrack for the other episodes?

No! The comic strip will have its own existence. The first episode comes out next week and then, every three months for two and a half years, a new 24-page episode will be published. Four comics will make up one book, so there will be three books... The story of the Mandrake project spans twelve comics and I realised that I didn't need the album to make a concept.

Just as I was starting to think about this new project, a friend advised me to get back in touch with Sacha Gervasi, who writes screenplays in Hollywood but whom I know best from our collaboration on the screenplay for the concert I gave in Sarajevo with my band at the time, Skunkworks. Sacha is now well known to the general public thanks to his film about the rock band Anvil and also Le Terminal starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg. I got back in touch with him and told him that I was doing this animation for Iron Maiden but also a lot of other ideas that had been inspired by 'Sons of Anarchy'. Sacha suggested I do a video conference with him and Kurt Sutter, as they're very close. We had quite a chat and I explained the plot of the Mandrake project to Kurt, who immediately agreed and encouraged me to do it, but in comic book form. It was funny because I was thinking of doing a comic book myself. So I set about creating the world of this comic strip, the characters, the plot synopsis... And I contacted Z2 in New York who was immediately enthusiastic, knowing that he had already worked for Maiden on the book 'Piece of Mind'. Z2 put me in touch with Tony Lee - known as one of the writers of the Doctor Who-derived comics - and advised me to do the script with him, knowing that comics are Tony's whole life and that he understands the format perfectly.

So I had a partner to write the script for this comic strip, Tony, who recommended Staz Johnson to draw it. Staz's work is incredible! And finally, we needed someone to do the cover, so we tried several people and in the end we came across Bill Sienkiewicz, who has won several awards for his work, so he's clearly top of the range...

But in the end, do you realise how talented all these artists are? I still wonder how they could have been interested in me, who'd never done a comic strip before, and why they'd put their names on my comic strip? But in the end, the plot I came up with won them over and we're on for twelve episodes (Smiles)...

The interview is already well underway and we haven't yet talked about the music...

... We're going to talk about it (Laughs)!

... But we get the impression that everything surrounding this music is just as important, if not more so, than this album?

It is!

After such a long solo absence, was it important for you not to come back with just one album?

That's true, but I've always wanted to do more than that! In an ideal world, I'd love to do the album, the book, the film and probably now the comic strip: it's a complete world!

And what can stop you in your quest?

Time (Laughs)! If I really concentrate, I could make an album with Roy pretty quickly, but I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing: nobody will know! But one thing I do know is that it's very difficult to make a good comic book or a good film quickly: there are so many details...

It's a whole new world, a whole new job for you...

It's exciting from a creative point of view: I can allow myself anything, like going to Mars like Watchmen and Dr Manhattan (Laughs)! In fact, comics are a three-dimensional art form... It's quite similar to music but it's slightly different in the way it's prepared... I really love it! It's a great challenge that stimulates my brain...

Is that what you're looking for: stimulation?

Musically speaking, the musical journey is not a concept album from a strict point of view, with a guy explaining the plot and what's going on... That's too restrictive, it limits the music... With this project, there's more freedom! Whether you like it or not, you don't have to ask yourself whether the track 'Afterglow of Ragnarok', for example, is related to the comic strip because it isn't (Laughs)! Is that the first single? Yes, so how did the comic strip come about? It's just a dream (Laughs)! And why not? I do what I want to do!

Even if it's not a concept in the strict sense of the word, the term puzzle is appropriate to evoke the concept. There are pieces to the video clip, the comic strip, the titles and the lyrics, and it all adds up to something theatrical, mysterious and a little esoteric. Was it your idea to make people feel that way even before listening to the album?

Absolutely! We wanted to provoke curiosity: we wanted it to be a puzzle, in fact, and for people to investigate knowing that the more they dig, the more they'll find, like some kind of reward: it's great! But you have to have real depth!

Despite everything, do you think that the current consumption of music, which has changed since you've been in the industry, allows for this depth?

Well, I don't give a damn what the music industry thinks... People assume that because there's so much music out there, that it's superficial. There's not so much innovation in music any more. Most of it's entertaining, professional, well done, but you don't get any surprises any more...

Do you think that by offering a comic strip, you'll give your fans that thrill that they don't get from just listening to an album?

The comic book is one thing, but on the album itself, I think there are some lovely surprises (Smiles)... For example, up until the track 'Ressurection Men', you might think you're listening to a big heavy metal album and all of a sudden you end up with Quentin Tarantino with this intro worthy of a spaghetti western with this surf guitar and these bongos: it's madness (Laughs)! And the craziest thing is that it works! You've also got 'Fingers in the Wounds', which starts out very epic and heavy and then suddenly you find yourself in Morocco with djembes... It's improbable!

You mention 'Fingers in the Wounds', the theatrical side of the album comes out particularly well on that track, but also on 'Rain on the Graves', 'Shadow of the Gods' and 'Sonata', with their dramatic, melancholic and grandiloquent side, brought out by the piano. Was that the idea behind these tracks?

Let's start with the end of the album and 'Sonata'. This track is 25 years old! It was inspired by Beethoven. Roy had just seen the film 'Immortal Beloved' (NdStruck: "Ludwig van B. "He basically made a demo just for fun with programmed drums, a sample of 'Moonlight Sonata', guitars and keyboards? Several years later, we'd just finished 'The Chemical Weeding' and we were talking about doing something else - I don't think I was back in Maiden yet - it must have been in 1999, he passed me the track, asked me what I thought of it and indeed, it was different: It wasn't heavy, it wasn't fast like we were used to... But honestly, I didn't know how to sing on it: so I improvised... 80% of this track on the album is the first completely improvised take, both vocally and lyrically!

The lyrics too?

Yes, in fact, you might wonder whether I'm a bit late on the first verse... but I am (Smiles)! If it sounds like that, it's because I didn't know what word I was going to use... I had to imagine the image before I could sing the words, which explains why I'm always a bit late. So I closed my eyes and asked myself where I was: "In this dark forest where nothing lives and I see frozen eyes... Maybe something can exist? Frozen s fall from the trees of this dark forest where an angel lives, where an angel sleeps"... I just built up this atmosphere and then the chorus comes in in which I sing "Save me, Save me now!"... I couldn't believe I'd done that: it was so cool! But we had to go back to the second verse, so what could be in that forest? A queen. In the song 'Taking the Queen' from the album 'Accident of Birth', the queen dies and ends up in the underworld, but in the end it's her like in Sleeping Beauty... It's twisted, but who's going to bring her back? The prince? No... The king himself returns! But why is he coming back? Because he loves her? No... It's just that he needs her because without her, he's no longer king: he's a king without a crown! And it's all improvisation!

This way of proceeding, of composing, is an excellent exercise in the fight against Alzheimer's, after all...

Yes, but that was 25 years ago, I'm not convinced I could do it again today (Laughs)! Although maybe you could, you'd have to try, but you have to be in the right frame of mind to do it!

You mention that the lyrics and vocals on this track are largely improvised. Did you try doing the take again?

You know, we put that song aside and I'd totally forgotten about it.

But you had recorded it?

Yes, but it wasn't finished... And when Roy and I started working on it again a few years ago, he gave me a CD with all the tracks, all the unfinished bits... I can still see myself in the car in Los Angeles listening to this CD and when this track came up, my wife, who has very good taste, asked me what it was. I told her it was a song we'd done a long time ago and the reason it wasn't on any album was that it wasn't heavy enough. But for her, the song was very emotional and she felt it had to be on this album and that if I didn't do it, she'd leave me (Laughs)!

You talk about heavy, and in that respect this album sounds more hard rock than metal, with tracks like 'Afterglow of Ragnarok' and 'Many Doors to Hell' being direct and catchy, and allowing you not to force your voice. Did you want to have less progressive tracks than Iron Maiden?

No! For example, 'Sonata' is almost ten minutes long (Laughs)... And 'Shadow of the Gods' is definitely a progressive track in the grand epic genre and its different movements, 'Shadow of the Gods' just sits there... The shortest song 'Fingers in the Wound' is three and a half minutes long and that surprises me the most...

Precisely, on 'Fingers in the Wounds', we find the epic power ballad that made your strength, like 'Navigate the Seas of the Sun' from the album 'Tyranny of the Soul'...

Oh yes, it's magnificent, I love that song...

... or 'Tears Of The Dragon' from the album "Balls of Picasso"...

Yes, it is!

... for the epic theatrical idea, is that one of your trademarks?

Of course it is! If you like the kind of melodic, acoustic ballads, 'Face in the Mirror' is for you, even if the lyrics are very dark: it's a song about alcoholism and looking in the mirror and wondering who you really are... The idea is that you tell yourself you'll never be that guy lying on the floor with the beer can, but in the end there's not that much difference...

In that spirit, 'Shadow of the Gods' can evoke 'Chemical Wedding' from the record of the same name, and your solo albums can be linked together from a musical point of view...


... but also philosophically, around life, death and resurrection?

It's true that the majority of my songs deal with life, death and resurrection, but also love, even if there aren't that many love songs. But 'Navigate The Seas Of The Sun' is a love song, a song about eternal love, about knowing that one day maybe we'll be reunited: it's a beautiful love song, one of my favourite songs I've ever done... There are lots of things on this same album (NdStruck: "Tyranny of the Soul") like 'River of No Return' which is about someone going wrong because of betrayal, things like that... There's quite a lot in 'Skunworks' too which is about relationships going in the wrong direction... And stuff like 'Tears of the Dragon' which is a bit melancholy but ultimately it's a joyous celebration of luck: taking a chance and seeing what the universe is going to offer us knowing what have we got to lose? But honestly, I still don't know what it's about, I still don't know why I sang 'Tears of the Dragon', I still don't know what those famous dragon tears are but they're lyrics that work... What's the meaning of "Wop bop a loo bop a lop bom bom"? I don't know and nobody knows, but it works!

You say you don't always know what your lyrics mean, and you mentioned earlier the improvised lyrics on 'Sonata'. Is there a spirit that goes beyond you when you write like that?

No. Most of the time when I write lyrics, I start with one or two lines and then I start writing the lyrics. Basically, I think I know what the song's about, but I realise afterwards that I don't. The sound of the words coming together fits and unconsciously makes me feel like I'm writing a song. The sound of the words stick together and subconsciously you're organising a story all of a sudden thinking you know what it's about. Many Doors to Hell' is a great song, but what's it about? The song starts with "All things in love and beauty lost in clouds and fire dust"; that sounds great but what the fuck does that mean (Laughs)?! But what can this song be about? It's about a vampire who wants to become human again and wants to feel what it's like to be made of flesh and not drink blood, to feel passion, to be able to use her body like a human... And finally the only time this vampire becomes mortal is during the eclipse: she can't go out during the day but during the eclipse she can be like any human...

And finally, what are your expectations for this song and this album? And I'll go even further: do you still have expectations when your name is Bruce Dickinson and you've done everything?

Oh, shit (Laughs)! I've never said to myself that I've done everything... 

I understand that you're always passionate when you come up with a project like "The Mandrake Concept" or even "The Book of Souls", Iron Maiden's first double album, but most of the time, aren't you jaded?

Jaded? No, not yet... On the contrary, with this album, I'm fulfilled! It's incredible, I spent a whole year listening to this album that we finished mixing last April... Even the rough mix sounded incredible and we were all wondering how long we'd have to wait before sharing it? A year to live with this fucking album we love? But we wanted to get it out there straight away and share it with all our friends (Laughs)!

It's funny to note that you've kept that sincerity typical of newcomers...

But you have! As far as I'm concerned, you owe it to yourself to have that enthusiasm.

It's obvious that without this enthusiasm, you wouldn't be able to invest in such projects...

The only thing you have as an artist is your integrity! That's the only thing you've got, otherwise you're naked! It's just me and my creative instinct!

But did you ever think you might lose some of that integrity at some point in your career that might have justified your departure from Iron Maiden?

I felt that if I stayed, it was for the wrong reasons: I would have stayed for the money! And that's not the right reason to stay!

That's true, but when you came back, it wasn't for the money?

No, absolutely not!

So what had changed?

What had changed? I had the impression that Maiden and in particular Steve (NdStruck: Steve Harris) would be more receptive, a bit more open to my ideas and other things... But I also spoke to the guys I was playing with - Roy and this great band we were touring with: it was just fun! - I had to talk to them about it, tell them that Maiden had asked me to come back: obviously it would be great for Maiden, but it would mean the end of the band I'd formed with them... I asked them what they thought about it and they unanimously replied that of course I had to join Maiden... Really, why did they say that to me? And Roy told me that the world needed fucking Iron Maiden and that my return to Iron Maiden meant the return of Iron Maiden! Presented that way, I could only agree and for my return, we made "Brave New World" which marks a great comeback!

And finally Steve Harris was more open?

Yes !

But through this interview and this last anecdote, it would seem that Roy is more than just your favourite sidekick musically, but a brother...

It's clear: we look out for each other!

Thank you very much

(In French) "Oh oui ? Merci à toi pour ça et bonne soirée monsieur" (Rires) !

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BRUCE DICKINSON: The Mandrake Project (2024)

A top-class heavy/hard rock record, 'The Mandrake Project' allows Bruce Dickinson to move a little further away from the Iron Maiden sound.
BRUCE DICKINSON: The Mandrake Project
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