Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris Discusses His ‘British Lion’ Solo Album + the 30th Anniversary of the ‘Beast’
When word began to leak out towards the end of this past summer that Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris would be releasing his first solo album, it caught more than a few people by surprise. After all, the veteran bassist has been widely considered the creative mastermind behind everything that Maiden does.
So what is it that made Harris step out from underneath the Iron Maiden banner after nearly four decades with the group for a solo moment? Well, it wasn’t a spontaneous decision. In fact, ‘British Lion,’ the new solo release from Harris, is a project that has been in the works for over a decade, with the roots of the music stretching back to 1992 when he first began working with a young group named, you guessed it, “British Lion.”
Although that group eventually fell by the wayside, the name -- and several of the songs, stuck with Harris and he was determined to do something eventually with the material. Vocalist Richard Taylor and guitarist Grahame Leslie have been carried over from the original British Lion project, adding guitarist David Hawkins along the way (with drummer Simon Dawson later rounding out the lineup). Together, they collaborated with Harris to further flesh out the original material and write additional songs for the new album.
The throbbing low-end gristle of lead single ‘This Is My God’ and the Purple-esque keyboards that lead off ‘Us Against the World’ mix with tracks like ‘The Chosen Ones,’ which mash various ‘70s hard rock influences from the Who to UFO to form an album package that retains enough of the Harris songwriting trademarks (and you certainly can’t mistake that bass) to avoid alienating the harshly loyal Maiden fanbase. And yet this is distinctively different and not just something that could be an Iron Maiden album dressed up under another name.
We had the rare opportunity to chat with Steve to talk about the new album and also got his thoughts on ‘The Number of the Beast,’ 30 years after the fact and how that album changed the course for the now legendary heavy metal group.
The basic seeds for this band have been in place for quite a while now and yet, the material doesn’t feel dated. How much of this stuff dates back to when you first encountered some of the band members working as British Lion and how much of it was stuff that was freshly written for this album?
Well there’s 10 songs, so seven of them were written much later and three of them were early stuff. But I think those three songs, they’re such powerful songs that they just absolutely needed to see the light of day. So that’s what kickstarted the whole thing really, because I was trying to help the band back in the day. I named the band and was managing them, producing them and I was also writing with them. It was just a shame that it fell apart, but I thought that “British Lion” was such a powerful name that one day I’m going to use it myself, so I have!
Of those three songs, what was the one that really got you excited about this band and the prospects of doing a project like this?
Well there’s a couple of them, really. I think that ‘The Chosen Ones’ and ‘Eyes of the Young ... and ‘A World Without Heaven’ also, but I think that those two in particular were really special songs and I felt they really needed to come out at some point. ‘Eyes of the Young’ is a totally, totally different kind of thing to what people might expect from me, but to me, it’s just an uplifting song and it’s going to be a really good live song as well. I think it’s really powerful.
It’s funny that you mention that one, because ‘Eyes of the Young’ definitely stuck out to me as one particular track that the pop elements are probably a bit outside of, as you said, what people might expect to hear from Steve Harris and at the same time, there’s that same vibrant energy that we’ve heard in so much of your playing through the years.
Yeah, that’s the thing is that people now might listen to that and go “oh, it sounds too poppy,” or something like that, but the influence of that song really comes from an era where that wasn’t an issue. It’s just a really good uplifting song, so I think that people need to just listen to it with an open mind and give it a chance. Listen to the album a few times and they’ll see that it’s very, very different to what I’ve done with Maiden. The vocalist is very different and I think he’s a great singer, but he’s really different, so people need to get their heads around that and just give it a chance.
I think with the stuff that you do traditionally with Iron Maiden, people expect longer songs. There’s a lot of shorter and more concise songs on this record. It’s pretty tightly formatted as an album. With songs like ‘Eyes of the Young’ and some of the other tracks on this album, did you find yourself writing differently and did anything change about your approach?
Yeah, well the thing is that my influences range right from the ‘70s and the ‘70s was such a wide diverse time for music and a fully creative time for music. Bands were just basically signed and told to go and evolve, really. There was no pressure on them to be any one thing or another. So the songwriting [in that era] had all sorts of things going on and that’s where the influences all come from. With Maiden or with this or anything else that I do, that’s where all of the influences come from. It’s such a wide variety of influences and people maybe sometimes forget where those influences come from. But I think it’s all about good songs and it’s such a grey area as to who thinks what is good and what isn’t.
This is some of my favorite material that I’ve heard from you in recent years. Everything feels very natural and it had to be fun, writing, recording and playing this stuff.
Yeah, well there was no pressure at all. I absolutely love what I do in Maiden and enjoy every minute of that too. This is enjoyable in a different way in the sense that I suppose [because] the people that you’re working around have not had the [same] sort of success or limelight that I’ve had, so there’s just an earthiness to that and it felt really good.
‘This Is My God’ has a very primal sludgy sound in the mix. Can you tell me what was in your head sonically when you were recording that track, envisioning how you wanted to sound?
I just wanted to sound very powerful with lots of low end on it but also it’s a very melodic song, so it needed to have the light and shade in it and I think that’s come out.
Your bass really just busts out of the mix on that one and overall, British Lion is a very dynamic album. Did that bring any challenges when it came time to mix the record?
Well that particular song you’re talking about is very bass-driven anyway, because that’s the main riff running all the way through it, so it’s not me being bass-crazy, it’s just the fact that it’s a very heavy riff that needs to plug right through the song. But I think really that the approach is whatever is needed for whatever song, really. Sometimes I’ll play busier than others, dependent on what I feel the song needs. That is the luxury I do have is that I can decide what I think it needs rather than someone else. That’s always been a plus point for me whether it’s with this or with Maiden.
You just put out a video for ‘This Is My God’ and it’s a cool video. Where did you film that one?
Well, most of it was filmed in Canada and obviously, you can see that there was a little bit filmed in New York But most of it is from a place called Banff in Canada, which is about two hours north of Calgary and it’s an amazingly beautiful place, as you can see.
I found it interesting what you did with some of the playing on this album, as far as how you used it in relation to the songs, for instance, hearing the way your bass chases the vocal on a song like ‘The Chosen Ones.’ I thought that you went to some interesting places on this album with your playing.
Yeah, I like to think that I go interesting places on all of the records that I do, hopefully. But first and foremost, I think of myself as a songwriter, so I just do whatever I think is right for the song. I could play bass lines all over the place from an ego point of view, but some songs don’t need to do that, so sometimes less is more. But like on ‘The Chosen Ones,’ I thought that it did need to chase the vocal in the chorus, so that’s what I did.
Did your schedule allow you to record as a collective or was it done in pieces?
It was all done in bits and pieces all over the place at different times over the years. It took a long time to do but it proved that you can basically do something a completely different way and end up with a result that you’re really happy with. So I’m really pleased with it and it sounds cohesive, I think. It doesn’t sound like a “bits and pieces” album at all.
Despite your concerns about people giving this album a chance, it seems like the overall reception has been pretty positive.
It’s been very positive for the most part. There’s been a few people that haven’t been so kind to this thing, but it’s just a matter of opinion and that’s fair enough. But I think these people initially reacted when they very first heard the album when we had an online playback and they were talking about stuff straight away without really having the chance to have it sink in at all. I think some of those people maybe have changed their mind and some of them won’t. But it is what it is. Hopefully people will like it but if they don’t, well, then they can give it to someone else.
I know you’re hoping to do some live shows with this band. What are your thoughts on that and what do you think would be the ideal setlist opener?
Well, I think the opening song of the album has got to be the opener, the way it stands at the moment. I suppose that possibly could change. But I think we’ll be doing something in Europe sometime next year. Maiden is going to be playing throughout the summer in Europe anyway. We [Iron Maiden] just played North America, so I don’t know when we’ll hit these shores [with the new band, to promote the Steve Harris album], but I definitely would like to play around the world with it. I think the songs will be great live and we’ll see what happens. But first and foremost, I suspect that we’ll work over in Europe [to play some solo shows].
The Steve Harris name on the album cover obviously brings instant name recognition to this project. Was there any thought towards putting this out with a band name instead?
Well, I think what I would like it to evolve into, is a band/side project, I would like it to evolve in that way. It was the right thing to do it like this, but I think it does feel more like a band with time. It’s a bit difficult for the rest of the guys, because they’re hanging around all of the time waiting for me, in between Maiden stuff. Apart from that, it does feel like a band, so I think in the future, it will be pushed more in that direction.
Your tour this year with Maiden paid homage to ‘Maiden England’ and fans are very stoked about the planned ‘Maiden England’ reissue for next year. What can you tell us about where that project is at? What sort of bonus material will there be on the package and what has the process been as far as any necessary cleanup of the footage and things like that?
Well, it’s still a work-in-progress at the moment, so I can’t say too much about it, but that’s one of the things that I’ve been working on as of now, to be honest. So it’s still in the pipeline and we’re still working on stuff.
It’s been 30 years since 'Number of the Beast,' which was the start of a very important new era for your band. What are your thoughts looking back at that time period?
Well, it was a scary time period as well, because we’d just changed singers and at the time, it was a very traumatic period for us, worrying about how people would take to the new singer, but take to him they did, in a big way, so we didn’t need to be worried! [Laughs]
But before the album came out, it was very worrying. We knew we had a really strong album and we knew we had a really great singer in Bruce, but you just never know how people are going to react. Lucky enough, everyone liked him and obviously it went on from there.
It’s incredible to read that you were working from scratch on that album and had very little material prepared prior to recording. And yet the album completely hit the mark. How did that change your approach to future recording? Was going in cold a good thing?
Totally, yeah. We didn’t have any material. We’d used everything up that we had from the periods before that, [from] before we were signed and the first two albums. The second album ‘Killers,’ there’s only three or four totally new songs, the rest of all of the stuff was all from early periods, so the pressure really was on big time. Not only did we have a new singer, but we also had to come up with the goods to come out with a really strong album with completely new material. The weird thing is that all of that material was written in a two or three week period, because that’s all of the time we had. So that put us under so much pressure, but that dictated the way we’ve recorded everything since. We thought, “Well, that’s the way we work well, under pressure, obviously,” so that’s what we’ve done ever since. We’ve just allowed ourselves a specific time of period to write and that’s what we do. So we don’t ever write on the road, we just write right there [in the moment] and it’s worked well for us ever since!