Part 5: Nicko McBrain
How’s your little boy?
Nicko: Oh he’s great, yeah – I just saw him the other day.
You saw him the other day? That sounds like you don’t get to see him too much.
Nicko: I don’t get to see him at all, no.
That’s the way it goes on a tour like this, I guess.
Nicko : Yeah … it’s hard …
This is the first time I’ve gotten to talk to you in an interview sort of thing, so I want to ask you some stuff about you that I still don’t really know. … Well, first, I want to ask if you’ve still been having any trouble with your hands?
Nicko: No, not since the last time, no, everything’s been fine. I still get calluses and everything that I have to look after, you know, and blisters appear every now and then, but other than that, no.
Well, I just ask, because I know you’ve had some problems with that before.
Nicko: Yea, I got blood poisoning, and an infection, and it was quite serious.
Yeah! And you were in the hospital about it, weren’t you?
Nicko: Yeah, for about two hours …
Oh really, that’s all you were in there for?
Nicko: Well, they wanted to keep me in there longer, but I couldn’t … Actually, I had to have a week off, but it was fortunate because the blood poisoning cleaned up the next day. But, I had to keep an eye on the part of my hand – the finger – that was actually infected.
Did that ever happen to you before?
Nicko: No, it was the first time … and only because I used some drumsticks that were not varnished, that were not finished, and they were straight wood.
And that caused more friction?
Nicko: Yeah, and maybe I got a small splinter in and it went septic. So, it was the first time, and, I hope, the last!
Well, if it was the first time, maybe it wont’ happen again … and I remember, the first time I ever heard of you was before you were in Iron Maiden, actually. Because Steve mentioned Trust to me, during the Number of the Beast tour, and you were in that band at the time, right?
Nicko: Yeah, that’s right!
Well, I remember because he mentioned that you were a great drummer, and he also remarked that he rarely ever wrote letters, but that he had written a letter to you. So, that did make an impression on me. And then later, after the Number of the Beast tour was over, I found out that you were actually Maiden’s new drummer, and I thought, “Oh!” – because I suddenly realized that it just seemed to be in the cards all along that it would be you!
Nicko: Yeah, that was really nice, yeah. We had met before on a few occasions when we did a tour together, I think, with Trust in about 1981.
Nicko: No, that was the second tour. The first tour was in England. And then we were invited, just over a year later, to go back to Europe with them, which I did. I was still with them [Trust]. But, there wasn’t very much happening business-wise; it was a bit of a shambles. Musically, we had a great time, but the business side let itself down, so I decided to settle down into something else … although, there wasn’t very much happening in England at the time, for me to go and do. And then I got a telephone call from Rod asking me to join the band, and it came at a very opportune moment, you know? Apart from the fact of being friends with the band …
Sometimes it seems like those things can just be fateful, you know?
Nicko: Yes, Rod phoned me up and said he wasn’t very happy with things that were happening, and just said, ”The boys would like you to join the band.” And I was arguing on the phone with Rod, about what would happen to Clive, and why he was screwing up, and then Rod said, “Do you want the gig or not?’ Because I was more concerned with Clive, because he was a mate, you know? Obviously, it was very flattering to be considered straight off the top, because we knew one another, and had played on the road together … They had other people in mind, but for me, being more recently involved with them, in Trust, I suppose it sort of made their mind up for them easier.
And now, I must say, the drums do sound especially good on this new album!
Nicko: You like them?
Oh, yeah … That definitely was one of the first things I noticed when I listened the first time. The production’s just great on everything, really, but especially the drums; I think I mentioned that to Steve and some of the rest of the guys I interviewed earlier …
Nicko: Martin’s just excellent, really. I had no worries at all when we were in the studio recording it, because it’s a brilliant sounding band, and that was when it hadn’t been mixed! And, when it I sat with Steve[Harris] and Martin, they asked, “Have you got any worries about the sound at all have you?” And that, to me, was wonderful, you know? He’s proved [Martin Birch], yet again, that he has an incredible sound for me.
It’s not that it was “bad” before, of course, but the sound seems different and everything just sounds super …
Nicko: Yeah, that’s right! The other albums have a slightly different sound, it’s true. The drum sound, on this album, is quite heavier, I think. I liked the sound on the last album, too, but this one has got a slight edge to it. I think it’s that, and this being the second album in the history of the band that has the same lineup – which does also have something to do with it. It’s familiar territory for us, without a new face to get into and understand what they want.
Yeah, I know what you mean – and it creates more stability overall.
Nicko: Yeah, that’s right!
I particularly liked the drums on “2 Minutes to Midnight” – you know the opening part. There’s just a lot of clarity in the sound. And, Oh! – this just popped into my head – and I haven’t actually heard it – but in England you also released a 45, a single for “2 Minutes to Midnight,’” and, on the other side, isn’t there an argument or something between you and Steve?
Nicko: That’s right, yeah. It’s called “Mission from ‘Arry.’” And it’s actually a bootleg recording of the tail end of an argument that Steve and I had, and Bruce came in and wound us up with this recording machine.
Did you know he was recording you at the time?
Nicko: No!! Not until the very end, when it was like, Steve turned round and saw it, and went, “Some cunt’s recording this!” And then we proceeded to have a fight to get the tape off of him! (laughs) When me and Steve was arguin’ Bruce came in and started going, “Yeah, well you know ….” – and started us up again, and he had this tape recorder behind his back!
Oh! He was instigating it more!
Nicko: Yes, he was instigating this wind up! So, that’s why it’s engineered and produced by Bruce Dickinson.
That’s what I thought, but you guys probably got a good laugh out of it when you heard it later.
Nicko: Yeah, we did – it was so funny, and it was so ridiculous! The story as to why we arrived at this particular argument is, it wasn’t really an argument, but it developed into one, if you’re with me. ‘Cause Steve was so stubborn about things, and I was so stubborn about what had actually happened to me – well, you’ll see what I mean when you hear it.
Well, I think it’s kind of funny – or fitting, actually, of the band’s sense of humor – but I know there’re a lot of bands that wouldn’t want to show that side.
Nicko: No, I know – exactly! Well, Steve and I – it was the only argument we’d ever had! And, as I say, it wasn’t really an argument as such. Well, as I say, when you hear it, you’ll see the ridiculousness, and the pettiness in it.
But that’s typical of some arguments – you totally forget what you’re arguing about in the first place, ‘cause you get so fired up, you just want to keep on arguing more! (laughs)
Nicko: Yeah! We just like the sound of our own voices! (laughs) We say “fuck” 35 times! (laughs) Every other word is a swear word! It’s quite obscene, really! You couldn’t play it to a young child – it’s quite rude!
Well, I want to ask you more about your background. Of course I know some general stuff, but I want to know more about some of the same things others would want to know too. You are from England, too, aren’t you?
Nicko: Yeah, I’m from London – born and bred.
How did you get into Trust, then? They were a French band, except for you, weren’t they?
Nicko: Oh, that was just through a friend of mine that worked at a studio where they were working. He phoned me up one day and said they needed a drummer, and that they liked Pat Travers, and when he knew me, that got me the gig.
Well, I wanted to ask you about that too, because you were also with another band, Streetwalkers, weren’t you?
Nicko: Yeah, that’s right. It used to be called Family before when the singer and the rhythm guitar player – a guy called Charlie Whitney – the main two people from Family, carried on with a band called Streetwalkers. That was the first actual touring band that I actually went off with – I think that was about 1973 –‘74. I was a professional musician for a couple of years before that – doing studio work.
That was prior to Pat Travers then, when you were doing studio work?
Nicko: Yes, just in and out doing sessions with various people.
Prior to that, had you been in other bands of any kind?
Nicko: Well, yeah, prior to that I served my apprenticeship with sort of pub and club bands. Doing the old “sacrifice” gig, you know? (laughs) Yeah, I was playing in bands when I was 13 years old – that seems a long time ago now!
So, you must have started playing drums pretty young then, right?
Nicko: Yeah, I had my first drum kit when I was 12.
Did you ever have any lessons?
Nicko: No, I was self-taught. Anybody who wants to learn music, I think it’s excellent to actually learn the rudiments. But a good ear is basically what you need – and timing, obviously. You can discipline yourself, and not be classed as “not a musician” for not having any training. But certain people, they reflect and look at it, and they’ll say, “Can you read music?” And I’ll say “No” – and they kind of look at you in a different way, in a manner of saying, “Is he really a musician?” You know what I mean? (laughs)
Yeah, it’s a bit like that with other types of education, too, isn’t it? You can be self-taught and know just as much as someone else who’s formally educated, but it’s like having a diploma or degree validates it to others.
Nicko: Yeah, that’s right. Something more formal … but I never had that. But I have had tuition in a way. A friend of mine used to work for a band called Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera. His name is Richard Hudson, and he eventually ended up in a band called The Monks – they had a very successful hit in Canada a couple of years ago. I used to go around Richard’s house when I was a small boy, when I was about 13-14 years old. I met him when he used to work in a fruit barrel – like a market, and my mother used to get fruit and veg off of him. Then he worked in a music store I used to go to, just to look at the drums. So, we struck up a relationship, and he let me go round after school to his mother’s house where he had his drum kit set up – he had this nice Premier drum kit, much better than mine. It was like driving, and going from a Mini to a Rolls Royce, that sort of thing – that was what I felt then! And he allowed me to use his kit, and his mother was great too. So, I’d go round after school at about 4:30 and he’d come home from work about 5:30 – 6:00 at night, and we’d sit down for about a half hour, and I’d wander off home at about 6:30. I used to this quite often with him, and he’d sort of show me tips and we’d sit and listen to Buddy Rich albums, and The Animals – and people like The Shadows, you know? And so there was a lot of guidance I got from him – he really helped me on a lot of things. I had the timing – but he was always showing me new things – I really didn’t think of! He’s a songwriter now – he gave up playing the drums. He played in a band called the Strawbs with Dave Cousins – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them.
Yeah, I have actually – a good friend of mine was a fan of Strawbs, and she had a couple of their albums she used to play all the time!
Nicko: Yeah, he played with them for a fair few years, actually, he was the drummer.
So he was a big influence on you then?
Nicko: Well, this was back in the days before the Strawbs, and he wasn’t so much of an influence as he was a good friend who helped me out. And that’s the only person I ever had any guidance from, or any tuition, if you’re with me. But I didn’t sit there as a pupil, and it was really good with him! And he was a guide.
And how did you get that gig with Pat Travers?
Nicko: I had a phone call from his management that he was looking for drummers. He had an ad, in the press – Melody Maker. But he’d heard, somehow, from his management office, that Nicko McBrain wasn’t with Streetwalkers, etcetera, and he’d like the drumming I’d done with Streetwalkers, and asked them to phone me, and I was asked to go and have a jam with him. I had an audition, if you like, but it wasn’t really an audition – I was the first one up, and he just said stay here and hang around, and I met all these other drummers coming in for the audition. Then we went out later that evening and got drunk together – and started rehearsing around two or three days later! (laughs) So, that’s how that came together – it was basically on the strength of the albums I’d done with Streetwalkers.
It seems like everything has been a step towards something …
Nicko: That’s very true, yeah! Drummers always seem to rotate around things like that. If you’re a competent drummer – and especially a heavy metal drummer – and one that can maintain and do the energy number, if you persevere, there’s always something you can find to do that suits the style that you play, eventually … It can take a year, or it can take six years, but sooner or later you find that balance of people and music talent-wise, that gels, and you end up staying with it and making excellent music!
Well it sure looks like you’ve found that right niche now yourself …
Nicko: Well, it’s hard for any musician who’s in-between working, to keep on pushing and making the phone calls, and basically being around at the right time – which is very easy to say and hard to do! But there are other times, if you go out to the meet people in pubs in the afternoon – where the business drinks and that sort of thing – you get to hear the idle gossip and you get to know, “Oh, I think I should go over here tomorrow!” It usually does come around in the end …
Yeah, but you have to have a certain personality type, too, to take the instability that comes with being a professional musician …
Nicko: Yeah, that is true. It does take special breed of person, with the feel and ability to be able to handle the life on the road for years in and years out, basically! As you know, this band hasn’t seen any of their homes for months and months! We had a few weeks off at Christmas – which was very beautiful, but it can get to you, you know. Some people do sort of crack underneath the pressure of being on the road constantly – and living out of a suitcase. I sometimes don’t even know what the day is – I maybe know the date. It’s like – “Where are we?! Where did we play two nights ago?” (laughs) I have to be reminded because they all kind of get muddled up, and they all sort of run into one another, you know? (laughs)
I can understand how you’d start feeling like that, totally! But this is probably the most extensive touring you’ve ever done, now that you’re with Maiden … ?
Nicko: Yes, even for my whole career, yeah. The guys, you see – they’ve worked up to this over the years. I came in at the last few rungs on the ladder – they’d already done the hard work. The band are hard-working anyway, even now, more so in terms of stamina and energy. But they’ve had it for two years more than me. But that’s the way Steve, Davey, Adrian, and Bruce are – and that’s the way that I am. This is really the heaviest tour they’ve done anyway.
And there’s still quite a way to go on it! (laughs)
Nicko: Oh, it’s only just started – this is the kindergarten part of the tour. (laughs) But we’ve got a really good set that runs very, very well – and it starts off with three steaming songs – which will be different for America, actually. And we’ve got a bigger production for America, which Bruce has probably told you. We’re doing nearly a two hour show now, at the moment, so we might have to drop a couple of songs, because we might only be able to play for an hour and a half on the American leg. But, whatever we do, this band will always have the problem of which songs to take or add. It’s always a big problem, and it’s always, “What should we do?” We’ll start to drop one, and then we’ll say, “Oh, we can’t do that!” (laughs)
Well, Rod [Smallwood] told me when I see “Ancient Mariner” live, that it’s gonna blow me away! (laughs) That’s really a great song!
Nicko: Yeah, it is! It’s one of my favorite songs that Steven’s ever written, actually. I love “Losfer Words” too – it’s an instrumental – and then poor old Bruce goes off to the back and has a cup of tea. (laughs) But my favorite track, I can’t really say. The album [Powerslave] just blows me away, to be honest. When we finished it, I said, “It’s frightening!” And they couldn’t understand what I meant. But I said, “Well, I just can’t believe what’s going to happen to it! I know it’s just frightening, the success of it, and the power that the album has!”
Well, I’ve heard several reports that there were lines around all the records stores over here on the day it was released!
It’s going to be December before you even get to America with this tour – and all these people are just going to be waiting – with baited breath!
Nicko: It’s such a thrill to know that there’s this vibe for us with this new album. It’s frightening – phenomenal, actually. I’m looking forward to playing it to everybody, actually. It’s really been great, we’ve found the right set for ourselves, and the right pace, and what, with the visuals too – Whew!! You are going to be blown away, I tell you! (laughs)