Imagine, it’s 1984 and the school bell finally rings in your last class for the day. Your friends run outside, hop into your racy Firebird Pontiac, and tune in to your local rock station. Blasting through the speakers is Iron Maiden’s newest single ‘Aces High’, and you rock out of the school parking lot. Little did you know, you were headbanging to what would be one of the most celebrated rock bands nearly 35 years later.
The GRAMMY-award winning heavy metal band is known for being some of the most talented and influential rockers of all time, including the powerful English drummer, Nicko McBrain.
McBrain marks the second interview in our month-long #DrummerSeries. His unique style of drumming and witty British charm makes for a telling Q&A. Now, let’s #UpTheIrons!
Q. When did you first start to play the drums and who were your biggest influences?
A. I got my first drum kit for Christmas when I was 11 years old. My influences back then were several musicians… Joe Morello, Dave Brubeck Quartet, The Beatles, The Who, Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, John Bonham, Keith Moon. Swing jazz was big for me, as I came from a very musically diverse family. My father played the trumpet and my mother played the piano. Even Frank Sinatra was an inspiration to me early on.
Q. What was the first song you remember playing?
A. One of the first I remember is ‘Needles and Pins’ by The Searchers. Possibly any of The Searchers’ songs.
Q. What is the best way to learn how to play the drums?
A. The best way is with other people. Go through all the learning curves; scales, rhythm, timing. Play with others and learn to play different genres so you can be versatile.
Q. Is there a specific moment when you decided you wanted to be a drummer for the rest of your life?
A. When I saw Joe Morello, I said to my dad, “I want to be him. I want to be Joe Morello, in a band and play the drums just like him.” Fast-forward to 21 years old and I went pro. I dropped my job and went on to work with these two songwriter guys in late 1972. They paid me 50 quid a week and I drove the band van, so at least I got a car out of it. But that was it. I’d done all the work and played semi-pro for 5, 6 years, since I was about 14 years old. Back then I was playing pubs, bar mitzvahs, weddings, all kinds of stuff. Actually, never did a funeral, which I suppose isn’t something most people would want to do. But my moment was at 21 when I became a pro.
Q. How did (do) you prepare for going on tour?
A. I didn’t prepare. My first few tours were local around Liverpool, not out of the country. My first big tour in America was in 1975 with a band called Streetwalkers. When preparing for something like that, you just pack your suitcase and off you go. The more you do it, the more you realize that you should take as little as possible, because you don’t want to have a big suitcase lugging around with you. If there’s one thing to learn about touring, travel lightly and if you need stuff, pick it up on the way. Also, wash your clothes in the bath and hang them up in the bathroom – do not hang them up on a balcony because the wind will blow them away. There are really a few learning curves with touring; you learn about the guys (and ladies) you’re touring with, those on stage with you, and you get very close. I’ve been with Iron Maiden for 37 years now, half of my life, and they’re like my extended family.
Q. Do you have any other touring tips for new timers?
A. My biggest touring tip is to take care of yourself on the road. Whatever your poison is, don’t do it before the show, do it after. You can’t perform at your best like that. After all the years of learning your trade, why spoil it by getting messed up? Back in the 80’s, I knew that to carry on doing what I love, with the passion I had in my heart, I had to take care of myself. That doesn’t mean you have to go to the gym and run five miles every day but look after yourself and eat square meals; you learn these things on the road.
When someone goes out for the first time, it’s all very exciting you know. You’re traveling on a bus together and 9 times out of 10, you might be in a band van together with the gear in the back and everyone squished in around it, like we were in the 60’s. You might be sitting there for 2-3 hours driving like that while you ride up to the gig, with bumpy roads and everything. So, to give your best show, you must be in your best condition, especially after being stuck in a box like that. The lesson of the day is to stay healthy and take care of yourself.
Also, learn to compromise and give your best, and be careful when it comes to being exploited. A lot of times, people want to use others; use and abuse. Just remember, the drum is always right.
Q. What was your favorite tour?
A. Every tour is my favorite tour. I think 1985 Powerslave was probably a highlight for me because we were invited to play the first “Rock in Rio”. But earlier in 1975 when I came over to America for the first time, wow, that was mind-blowing too. That was immense. But that ’85 Powerslave tour, we were on a North American tour at the time and we took a week out to go down to Rio. I’ll never forget, we flew out of New York in first class. The thing that stands out to me today still, is the airline attendant coming out with this tray, holding two 4 ½ pound lobsters – I’d never eaten lobster in my life up until that time. I tried it for the first time, and it was really, really stunning. The service was just nuts, and it was the first time I’d ever flown first class. We all caught the VIP bug after that and decided that this was what we wanted. But of course, that wasn’t immediate. We were still on buses and commercial flights for many years, but that experience was stunning. So, I think 1985 was a highlight tour for me.
Q. What fun facts can you share with us about your life?
A. I love the Jaguar brand. I‘ve got “Priscilla”, my blue XKR-S. She has a very special blue finish. I bought my wife an XK Straight named “Bill”, and an S-Type named “Leila”. Then another named “Lady” and I’ve got “Johnny 1” and “Johnny 2”. That’s my family of Jaguars. People might ask why I have so many cars, and people have this thing about collecting stuff, well I like to collect Jaguars.
Want more McBrain? Check out this Sound Royalties ‘Between the Notes’ episode!