Steve Harris is an extremely rare bird.
Let’s be real: The Iron Maiden founder and musical frontiersman could’ve hung up his bass after Powerslave thirty five years ago and he’d still be one of the most consequential figures in heavy metal — and, one could argue based on cultural cachet and sonic influence, popular music overall — ever. And yet he has continued to not only live up to past glories, but scale one thrilling uncharted peak after another.
Case in point: The adventurous, soul-stirring, gorgeously realized sophomore album from Harris’ other band British Lion, The Burning, which straps the prog-tinged heavy rock of the quintet’s already excellent self-titled 2012 debut to a rocket and shoots it off into a sprawling new universe comprised exclusively of stellar riffs and melodies dotted not with not with stars but more gleaming earworm hooks than the ships of “Ghost of the Navigator” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” combined.
Ahead of the album’s January 17 release (pre-order here) and a tour that kicks off the next day in Orlando, Florida, Harris was kind enough to jump on the horn and give Decibel the lowdown on his latest triumph — and where he goes from here…
Did you always sense there would be a second British Lion album?
Yeah, absolutely. I want there to be a third one, too! It’s just… I can’t believe how fast the days go, mate. It’s been seven years since the last album. Obviously, I’ve also been busy touring and making albums with Maiden — and that always comes first, as it should — and whenever we do find some time between my Maiden schedule and all the things the rest of the British Lion guys do we are just so excited to get on stage and play these songs live together. So that’s been the trade-off. It’s just always a fight against time to get stuff done. The fact that we have such a bloody massive gap between the first and second album, though, is ridiculous, really. And truth is, I’m too old for there to be a gap that long between the second and third!
Well, the good news is the record is well worth the wait! In light of that, I’m a bit curious about your creative process. I mean, at this point in your career you’ve written many, many game-changing classics and yet you never seem to rest on laurels. You’re still breaking new ground in your career and music. From an outside perspective it’s pretty unusual. Is that just a part of your natural constitution as a musician and human being? Or is it something you’ve honed over the years?
That’s tough for me to say, y’know? The crazy thing is I’ve got so many ideas. A ridiculous amount of ideas. More than I could ever chase down in my one lifetime, really. Which can be frustrating, but is also a very nice problem to have. It’s better than the alternative, certainly, where I guess I’d just dry up and call it a day. But credit where credit’s due — we’re absolutely more of a band now. It’s British Lion. It’s not just all about me. The rest of the guys are really, really talented writers and constantly bring amazing stuff to the table. It’s never a situation where I listen to something they’ve come up with and have to find a way to say, “Y’know, that’s nice, but I don’t really think this is right for us.” Maybe there’ll come a time, but up to now everything’s been just so strong and exciting. It’s just a fantastic vibe in the band right now. I’ve known most of the British Lion guys since the nineties and, like with Maiden, we get on better than ever. I’m very pleased with all of it.
For you personally, is there any specific inspiration you’re seeking to explore through British Lion?
It’s funny: Both British Lion albums really go back to the influences we emphasized in Maiden back in the day. So, UFO, The Who — stuff like that. I’m often asked if I listen to newer stuff. Of course! When people recommend stuff, I’ll check it out. And I very much enjoy quite a bit of it. But, to be honest, the stuff that still influences me is just from an earlier era. To me, the seventies were probably the most diverse, creative period in music ever — and I feel very lucky to have grown up in that era, which is still echoing through everything I do. That’s how powerful a force it was in my life. I’m grateful for it and try to honor it the best I can.
So, the last record got very good response…
Oh, it got a little bit of flack as well.
Yeah, I think some people didn’t want me to be going off doing other things [outside of Maiden]; other people complained about the singing being so different.
Huh. I missed that. But I miss a lot of things! Still, critics aside, it must be gratifying to you as an individual and an artist to have people willing to check out this other aspect of what you do…
That’s all you can ask for, really — for people to give it a fair chance. I do think most people got it. And if they didn’t… well, that’s fine, too. You have to just put out the album you believe in and not worry about what comes next. It’s that simple, really. At the same time I actually do believe The Burning has the potential to win over some of those [for whom] the first album didn’t quite catch on. It’s hard to say, obviously, but I’d like to believe that’s true… I’d particularly like to encourage anyone on the fence to come out to a show because I think we’re a bloody good live band. Even if you had a row with the Missus before you come down, we might cheer you up. It’s a good band, good songs, good fun, a good night out. You know, that’s the goal.
That actually relates — indirectly, maybe — to another aspect of the record I wanted to ask you about: There’s a lot of interesting layers and nuance on The Burning; a lot of different sounds woven together. I’m wondering if your time on the road together bonding and gelling made finding those little transitions that make all the difference in songwriting any easier?
It did. Obviously with the first album, we hadn’t really played live yet. It was sort of a basis to start from — a steppingstone to help launch us on that journey. I’m not not proud of that record. I think it’s a good album, just not really representative of where we’re at now or how we’ve evolved as a band. That’s one reason I would really like to eventually put out a British Lion live record — to show people those songs in a new light.
The Burning also sounds great. Was it difficult at all during the recording process to capture the live alchemy you’re describing in the mix?
Yeah, even with Maiden it’s always been a problem of trying to recreate what you do live on a record — not the easiest thing to do. But I think we captured the essence of British Lion much better this time out. First of all, as I mentioned before, because we were playing quite a few of these songs out for a while beforehand and then also because we recorded a lot of this stuff straight off tours when we were still fired up from the shows. Even the songs we hadn’t played live yet fed off the vibe created by that atmosphere.
Are the guys in Maiden into the British Lion stuff?
Oh yeah. They love it. They love it as much as I do, to be honest.
From the Maiden perspective, do you wish that this band had come along sooner?
Let me rephrase: Does doing this band and exploring the sounds you explore with it allow you to focus more intently on what Maiden is — on keeping Maiden Maiden?
I don’t know about that, actually. It’s an interesting question. What I do know is that when I’m out playing with British Lion, as I say, people were worried that I was doing too much or whatever. It actually has the opposite effect. It makes me more fit and more prepared for a Maiden tour if I’ve been out with British Lion. It’s a bit similar to… I’ve always played football or soccer, whatever you call it, all me life. And with football if you stop playing then you just basically start to fall apart. You lose the flow. You need to keep going. And so that’s why I like playing British Lion in between touring with Maiden — because it keeps me fit, it keeps me going, keeps my body active, keeps my mind active. So it’s all positive. It’s all positive for British Lion and for Maiden.
That’s like shark theory, right? Move or perish.
Yeah, definitely. The older you get, the more you’ll find that out. You can’t stop. Because the worry is, you stop and you might not be able to start again.
Interview condensed and edited for clarity.