Nicko McBrain: Unleashing The Beast

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.”

Living In The Golden Years

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.”{pagebreak} 

Somewhere (Way) Back In Time

The story begins in the borough of Hackney, just northeast of central London, where Nicko was born Michael Henry McBrain. His parents endearingly called him “Nicky” after his favorite teddy bear, “Nicholas” (future bandmate Billy Day would eventually dub him “Nicko”). McBrain’s father, a trumpet player and a big “jazzer,” introduced his son to Dave Brubeck — and more importantly, drummer Joe Morello. Upon seeing Morello perform a solo on television, McBrain started banging on his mother’s kitchen appliances with assorted cutlery, leaving a path of destruction in his wake.

“Once I saw Joe Morello,” he recalls, “I told my dad, ‘I’m gonna be a drummer. I’m gonna be the best drummer in the world.’ But I didn’t go into jazz. I was 11 years old when The Beatles came out and then I was like, ‘Holy s__t! I want to be Ringo Starr!’ I was very vulnerable to what was going on [in London]. I was inspired by Ringo, Charlie Watts, Keith Moon … When Led Zeppelin came out, John Bonham was a major influence on me and I thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to be playing.’”

Sensing their boy was onto something (and fearing further carnage of their cookware), McBrain’s parents bought him a 3-piece Broadway John Grey drum kit. The self-taught young lad played along to records, absorbing the grooves of pop and soul, funk and blues, and eventually harder-edged underground and progressive rock. He jammed with local musicians at every opportunity and quickly ensconced himself in clubs and studios about town. McBrain’s parents were supportive of his passion, yet he attended four years of university for mechanical engineering at their urging. “I was 21 the day I got my final exam results,” McBrain remembers. “And I said to my mom, ‘I’ve done what you’ve asked me to do. I’ve passed with honors. I’ve got a trade. I’m off on the music trail now.’ And I turned professional and never looked back.”

Stints with over a dozen musical acts followed, and by the mid-’70s, McBrain was making waves with groups like the funk-influenced Streetwalkers and blues-rock guitar wunderkind Pat Travers. In 1981, he was playing in Trust, a punk/metal socio-political band from France that supported Iron Maiden on several shows during the Killers and Number Of The Beast tours. But it was at a fateful Belgian gig in 1979 — when McBrain first opened for Iron Maiden while playing in a power trio called McKitty — that etched an indelible impression in the mind of Steve Harris, Maiden’s bassist, founder, and principal songwriter.

“It was Iron Maiden’s first-ever show out of England, and I met the guys and we got on really well,” McBrain says. “At that show I did an impromptu drum solo because the guitarist’s gear broke down and Steve always remembered it. He said it was one of the best solos he’d ever seen. And he’s not a big solo lover — thank God. [laughs] So when things weren’t kicking over too well with Clive [Burr, Iron Maiden’s first drummer] and [Clive] was getting more and more despondent, the first person who sprung to mind was me.”

Match Maiden Heaven

There are varying accounts regarding Burr’s departure from Iron Maiden, but there’s no disputing that his legacy endures on classics like “The Prisoner,” “Wrathchild,” “Genghis Khan,” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” Burr’s style boasted weight, power, and clarity, and he wove timeless hooks into his parts — the sixteenth-note-driven “Run To The Hills” being one of the most air-drummed songs of all time. (Sadly, Burr now suffers from multiple sclerosis. Iron Maiden and several other bands have played numerous benefit gigs to help with his lofty medical expenses.)

While Number Of The Beast was Burr’s final contribution to Iron Maiden, it was singer Bruce Dickinson’s first, having replaced original vocalist Paul Di’Anno on the strength of his operatic range and dominant stage presence. Similarly, the addition of McBrain proved essential in realizing Maiden’s latent potential as an ensemble. The drummer’s past experiences in myriad musical styles brought a scopious rhythmic vocabulary to the band, helping Harris and company craft a more complex sound.

“My style progressed from my early days playing in three-piece bands and becoming more of a ‘percussion-drummer,’” McBrain says. “What I mean by that is I wasn’t just a timekeeper; I was an explorer. I had the opportunity to embellish. When you’re in a three-piece there’s a lot more room to step out and become progressive and play chops and fills and whatnot. I’m now in a six-piece band, which is twice as many as three. [laughs] But I still play the same way. I try to listen to everything else that’s going on and interpret it, and embellish where I can.”

McBrain’s feel, though still heavy and driving, was noticeably more fluid than that of the punk-influenced Burr. The elasticity in his meter allowed Iron Maiden to open up and breathe deeper, even amidst the increased number of beats emanating from their new drummer’s 11-piece kit. “Not everything worked,” McBrain admits. “Sometimes the guys would go, ‘Woah! Come on, Nick, we don’t need that Billy Cobham fill right there.’ [laughs] It’s like a painting by numbers; Clive made the numbers and put the sketch out and I put the colors in. If you listen to the bass drum pattern in “Number Of The Beast” — I’ve played that song the same pretty much every year since I’ve joined the band — it’s different from Clive. It’s got a different swing point to it.”{pagebreak} 

Speaking of swing, McBrain announced his arrival with a bang on 1983’s Piece Of Mind — Maiden’s fourth album and first to feature their quintessential ’80s lineup of McBrain, Dickinson, and Harris, as well as the harmonized axe attack of guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith. A brilliant triplet fill launches the quintet into the record’s opening track, “Where Eagles Dare,” an overture of sorts showcasing McBrain’s skill set: syncopated ride patterns, snappy snare work, melodious tom fills, clasped hi-hat punctuations, a rapid-fire right foot …

“Steve said, ‘I want you to do a big drum fill in the beginning of this song,’” McBrain recollects while describing his first writing sessions with Iron Maiden on the Channel Island of Jersey. “It worked out finally between the two of us, with that blap diddly boogady, blap diddly boogady, blap diddly boogady, boogady blap — which so fits, because [the song is] basically in that triplet format all the way through. After we’d finished the record and we started the British tour, Steve goes, ‘Right, we’re gonna open with ‘Where Eagles Dare.’’ And I says, ‘You’re having a laugh! I need to warm up before I play that track!’” [laughs]

Piece Of Mind remains one of the most lauded metal albums of all time, due in large part to McBrain’s contributions. “Flight Of Icarus” underscores his confident swagger and ability to groove the band at a slower tempo, as does “Revelations” — the latter also featuring Maiden’s trademark turn-on-a-dime transitions and tempo changes. “The Trooper,” a live staple and one of the band’s biggest hits, pairs McBrain and Harris in galloping lockstep — a groove the duo would hone down to a science. “We locked in straight away,” McBrain says of their chemistry. “It was beautiful. As a rhythm section, we are very tight. We have a sixth sense of things. I’m his yang and he’s my yin, if you like. I’m very proud to say I’ve played 30 years with one of the best bass players in the world.”

Stranger In A Strange Band

The modus operandi of Iron Maiden’s members is quite anomalistic compared with many of their metal brethren. Murray, Smith, and third guitarist Janick Gers (who joined the band when Smith departed in 1989, and remained upon his return a decade later) often favor clean guitar tones closer to those of David Gilmour than Dave Mustaine. Harris wrote his own book on technique for the metal bassist; his percussive attack is produced via fingers rather than plectrum. And with the exception of “Face In The Sand” from 2003’s Dance Of Death, McBrain has explicitly employed a single bass drum pedal (played barefoot, no less). You’d never guess it when listening to the skipping doubles that pepper “Caught Somewhere In Time” and “The Evil That Men Do,” or the incessant drubbing in the chorus of “The Wicker Man” — all parts that would give most drummers shin splints if attempted with one leg.

“I’m a lazy git,” McBrain jokes, deflecting praise. “[Playing one bass drum] is hard enough, why compound it with two of them? It’s twice the problems — that’s the way I see it. [laughs] No, it’s a preference thing, of course. And I’ve learned to play fast single pedal because of the way Steve and I work. People go, ‘Crying out loud, that sounds like two bass drums!’ But a lot’s to do with the actual bass line that I’m playing to and the sonic impression you get from it.”

Due to each player’s unique approach to his respective instrument, it’s difficult to classify Iron Maiden’s music — especially the forward-thinking middle-to-late ’80s catalog slated to be celebrated this summer. With its catchy, wide-open chorus, “Wasted Years” could almost be mistaken for pop, while “The Clairvoyant” features a near-disco chorus beat. The ever-changing patterns and time signatures in songs like “Sea Of Madness,” “Alexander The Great,” and “Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son” have McBrain covering rhythmic ground like a prog-rock octopus. And on the triumphant verses of “Can I Play With Madness,” he locks onto Murray and Smith’s sassy, syncopated rhythm guitars while holding down the fort with quarter-notes played on a freaking cowbell.

“People wouldn’t associate Iron Maiden as having a song with a cowbell in it, would they?” McBrain muses. “But it worked. And if you think about it, that guitar part is brass phrasing. It’s what a brass section in a big band would play — bah baddot, bah baddot! And the opening riff of ‘Infinite Dreams,’ that groove is funk. Dare I say Iron Maiden is funk, but it’s that percussive thing again. It’s been a percussive plan [all along]. That’s why I have such a big love affair with the heavy bell on a ride cymbal, you know? I love that bell, or playing just an inch off the cymbal into the body, right next to the bell, slapping the cymbal rather than using the ping of the stick.”

McBrain’s ride cymbal placement is yet another interesting character quirk, as it sits almost completely vertical, covering nearly half the circumference of his 13″ and 14″ rack toms. “That cymbal has to be like that,” he explains. “I prefer to play with a flat ride cymbal, actually, like Bonham used to use — nice low drum set, everything flat. That’s how I used to play. But as [the kit] grew, everything went up, and that cymbal had to come down to that acute angle.”

McBrain’s trusty Ludwig 402 Supra-Phonic snare (which has been a part of his setup since 1975 — seven years before he joined Iron Maiden) is also tilted toward him, getting at the real reason why he’s virtually invisible on stage: ergonomics. “I’ve always sat very low. That drum set — if Mike Portnoy put his snare drum up the way it normally goes, and he sat on his drum stool, you’d see him. People think, ‘Oh, it’s that massive big drum kit.’ It’s not. It’s a 24″ bass drum. The tom toms are high, yeah, but I sit extremely low. My stool is the lowest you can get. [It’s unfortunate because] I love watching drummers, you know? It’s nice to see what they’re doing. You hear a drum fill and you say, ‘Well, I’d like to see how he did that.’ And also, 90 percent of the time we are the best-looking bloke in the band!” [laughs]{pagebreak}

McBrain’s Setup

Drums Premier Series Elite (Final Frontier Finish)
1 24″ x 18″ Gen-X Bass Drum
2 14″ x 5.5″ Ludwig 402
3 6″ x 6″ Tom
4 8″ x 8″ Tom
5 10″ x 10″ Tom
6 12″ x 12″ Tom
7 13″ x 13″ Tom
8 14″ x 14″ Tom
9 15″ x 15″ Tom
10 16″ x 16″ Tom
11 18″ x 16″ Floor Tom

Cymbals Paiste
A 14″ Signature Heavy Hi-Hat (Reflector Finish, custom)
B 15″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full Crash (custom)
C 19″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full Crash
D 16″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full Crash
E 20″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full Crash
F 18″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full Crash
G 13″ Formula 602 Heavy Bell (discontinued)
H 22″ Signature Reflector Bell Ride
I 17″ Rude Crash/Ride
J 20″ Signature Crash prototype
K 22″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full Crash
L 22″ Signature Reflector Heavy China custom
M 40″ Symphonic Gong (Custom Brilliant Finish)

Nicko McBrain also uses Premier hardware and stands, Vic Firth Nicko “Boomer” McBrain signature sticks, Remo heads, LP percussion and DW 5000 single pedal.

Heaven, Or, Golfing Can Wait

Unfortunately, due to McBrain’s sunken perch and cocoon of gear, he rarely catches a glimpse of his adoring audience during a concert. For the most part, he can’t even see his own bandmates — not that it affects their performance. After all these years, Iron Maiden is a well-oiled touring machine and clearly still in cracking form. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a little interaction with the lads now and again?

“Bruce is always climbing the walkway above me or up the stairway in front of me and we’ll have a little laugh,” McBrain says. “He’ll look at me like, ‘You’re f__king playing too fast.’ [laughs] Davey likes to come up and make an appearance. Steve’s getting a bit old, so he can’t climb up the stairs as much as he used to. He looks at me underneath me tom toms and we make faces at one another. Some nights I’ll hear him go ‘Nicko! And I’ll be screaming back, ‘You old c__t!’ He’ll go, ‘You play like a wanker!’ [laughs] Oh, it’s hilarious, the stuff that goes on.”

With Iron Maiden clearly feeling the love from inside and out — and deservedly enjoying every minute of it — it appears as if McBrain’s professional golf career (he’s a fiend for the sport and plays most every day) will have to wait. And at a mere 60 years young, who’s to say there isn’t another three decades of innovative and soulful hard rock drumming still to come?

“We just do what we do because we love it, and we love one another and we love the music we make,” McBrain says. “And we love the fact that a lot of people around the world love what we do! It’s just so wonderful. And I think that we just get better with age. It’s like a really good bottle of Chateau Palmer, you know? The older it gets, the better it gets. And we haven’t corked! [laughs] I haven’t thought of it that way before. We haven’t corked yet, have we?”