37 YEARS AFTER FORMING ONE OF THE BEST—AND BUSIEST—BANDS IN HARD ROCK, STEVE HARRIS UNLEASHES BRITISH LION, THE MAIDEN MAN’S SOLO DEBUT.
When you are the driving force behind the world’s premier metal band, sometimes it’s hard to set aside quality “me” time. From its 1975 formation through its mid-’80s ascension as the undisputed kings of NWOBHM—the New Wave of British Heavy Metal—and its continued reign as one of the most enduring and beloved rock bands of all time, Iron Maiden has been, well, a bit of a time-suck. At least it has been for Steve Harris, the band’s founding member and principal creative force. That would certainly explain why it’s taken 37 long years for the legendary bass player—whose creative output with Maiden is downright gobsmacking— to finally step away for a solo flight.
That the release date of Harris’ debut, British Lion, fell right in the middle of yet another epic Iron Maiden tour is perhaps indicative of the bass man’s unwavering commitment to the band he founded so many years ago. (Phew!) Recorded over the span of several years, British Lion is a revelation in that shows a side of Harris that wouldn’t exactly fit neatly within the Maiden paradigm. Though it has its moments of Maiden-like majesty, British Lion is more in the tradition of straight-up ’70s British rock & roll. It’s only natural to expect traces of Harris’ signature rhythmic gallop on his solo debut, which would presumably be designed to highlight his strength as a player. But there isn’t much. Rather, the album plays to Harris’ other considerable talent: as a songwriter. Without a doubt, the album offers a snapshot of a bass player at the top of his game, jumping from groove to riff to fill and back again without so much as a stutter. In this new setting, Harris also takes liberties with tone; his trademark top-end attack is there, but so too is a deeper, darker character of his voice on bass. While on tour with Maiden, Steve Harris took the time to talk track-by-track through his long-awaited debut.
Why did you do a solo album, and why is it coming out now?
Well, “why now” first: it’s finally ready! Why is because it’s been a very long time that I’ve wanted some really strong songs to see the light of day.
What was the process of putting the record together?
It was very different than with Maiden. With Maiden, we’ll do stuff in block periods of time. We’ll make an album in three or for months, or whatever it takes. That’s how we’ve always worked— and it’s the way I’d prefer to work. But most people know that I’m pretty much the busiest person in Maiden, so I get a lot less downtime than the rest of them. So this had to be done in bits and pieces over a long period of time.
Over the last few years, Maiden has made a conscious effort to tour more regularly, but for shorter stretches of time. So that opened a window of opportunity to do a few more things. But when this record started, that wasn’t the case. Over the past five years, I haven’t been at home in the U.K. hardly at all.
Where did you record British Lion?
It was done in all sorts of different places, wherever was available at the time. We recorded mainly in Europe, and we mixed it in Los Angeles.
Do you have plans to tour behind the album?
I’d love to, really. I think the songs are really strong, but we’ve got to wait to see the reaction we get from the album.
The album’s opener, “This Is My God,” has a familiar, click-y bass sound. What did you use to track that song?
I used the same gear I use with Maiden on that one [see sidebar], with my normal top-end click. On other songs, I used different bass guitars, some with strings that had really gone dead. I did that on purpose so I could get a lot less top end—rather than just turning the top end down. Since I recorded it over a length of time, I had the luxury to experiment a bit more than normal, and mess about with a few different sounds. With Maiden, I don’t tend to do that; it’s not what’s needed. With three guitars [in Maiden], I need that top end to cut through.
“Lost Worlds” is a track with that darker, woolier bass sound.
Yeah, it’s got a very different bottom end to what I’m used to using. I just approach each track with whatever’s right for the song. I can’t remember exactly which guitar I used, but I think I used my Robin with really dead strings. I’ve had it for years—I don’t even know if they still make them. I usually use it for writing acoustic, because when I write, I don’t normally use an amp. I don’t know when it was made, but I have a photo of my son—who’s now 21—holding it when he was about three years old.
“Karma Killer” is in 3/4 time—not the most common meter in hard rock. How did that come together?
It just started off with a riff and a groove, and that’s what the song is all about. Obviously I think it has strong melody lines, as well, and lots of wahwah effects. Maiden used to use a lot of wah-wah in the early days; it’s nice to use a bit of that again.
“Us Against the World,” especially in the guitar department, is the most Maiden-like sound on the record.
I think so, too. I think “The Chosen Ones” and “A World Without Heaven” have those kind of harmonies, as well. That wasn’t a conscious thing one way or the other.
Would Maiden ever play any of these songs?
No, of course not. If we’re collaborating with people outside of Maiden, then it would never come to the table for Maiden anyway. That’s not a rule we’ve set out, but we don’t need to use any outside writers; we’ve got enough writers in the band as it is, with so many ideas flying around that it’s never an issue.
“The Chosen Ones” is one of my favorite bass tracks, and it features that darker sound that you might not hear on an Iron Maiden record.
I’m pretty sure I played a Fender [Precision] on that, but I don’t remember exactly what we did with the sound. I didn’t make notes, and we never really analyzed what we were doing. To me, that song sounds a bit like UFO, with lyrics influenced by the Who, perhaps.
I especially like the upper-register runs on the chorus.
Yeah, it sort of follows the vocal line.
It sounds as if there is a chorus or flanger effect.
No, I didn’t use any effects. Sometimes you’ll get a bit of sibilance going on in a song; sometimes it sounds great, sometimes it doesn’t. I think it sounds good.
“A World Without Heaven” and “Judas” are two songs that have a driving eighth-note feel that could have taken on that chugging, galloping feel so many people associate with your playing, but that don’t. Do you ever feel saddled by that stylistic hallmark?
No, not at all. If a song feels like it needs it, then that’s what you do. People can go on about my bass playing, and I’ve gotten some fantastic complements paid to me over the years. But I’m more interested in the songs, really. I’ve always been interested in strong songs. Of course, the playing is ultra important, but the song is most important of all. You can be a great musician, but if you’re playing a shit song, no one is going to want to listen to it!
In live performance, you have a really athletic style and attack. What’s your approach when you’re in a studio environment?
It’s sometimes a challenge to capture on tape what you would do live. We used to joke about having cardboard cut-out fans in the studio to make us feel more relaxed when we’re recording.
“Eyes of the Young” has an almost pickstyle attack. Are you playing with your fingernails on that one?
Yeah. Because the album was recorded over a long period of time, I had the option to trim my nails short for some songs, and leave them long for other songs. With Maiden, we do backing tracks for an album within a week or ten days, and I tend to leave my nails long for that.
“These Are the Hands” has a very different low, distorted, crunchy sound. Do you recall what you played on that?
I’m pretty sure I used the Precision on that one. Yeah, the sound is a little distorted. Sometimes the sound I get has a lot of midrange, which makes it sound a bit more nasally.
Perhaps it’s just low in the mix, but I have a hard time hearing bass on “The Lesson.”
There is bass on it. Some of the bass stuff I do sounds almost more like piano.
Are you always writing songs?
Pretty much. I’ve got so many ideas it’s ridiculous— that’s a nice problem to have, really! The problem is that I have so much stuff I know I’ll never be able to use in one lifetime.
Lastly, are there any bands or albums that have caught your ear recently?
Not really recently, but a couple years ago I got really into the Nightwish album Dark Passion Play [Roadrunner, 2007]. I thought it was the best album I’d heard in years. It’s got a bit of everything—great melodies, a hard sound, a bit bit of classical thrown in. I think it’s absolutely incredible.
Steve Harris, British Lion [EMI, 2012]
Basses Early-70s Fender Precision Bass, mid-’80s Robin Ranger
Rig Custom heads modeled after vintage Hiwatt 200s, Marshall 4x12 cabinets; Ampeg SVT-4PRO and 8x10 cabinet
Strings Rotosound flatwounds
Piece Of Mind
From Guitar Player, November 1983 Way back when Michael Jackson was moonwalking for Motown and Kiss was ditching their makeup on MTV (yikes—more makeup, please!), Steve Harris took time out of Iron Maiden’s relentless touring schedule to speak to our predecessors at Guitar Player. Here are a few gems from that November 1983 cover story.
On punk and rock
Around ’77, the punk bands were getting all the work because the owners of the clubs and pubs were more concerned with how many drinks they’d sell across the bar. So if they thought punks were going to be pulling the crowd, they couldn’t give a shit whether it was sounding like a load of dross [rubbish]. They didn’t realize that there were still rock fans out there who wanted to see new young bands. We proved that when we started doing gigs. We got a great following. It was packed houses everywhere.
On his first bass
I picked up a copy of a Fender Telecaster Bass—a Shaftsbury, I believe— for £40. I just started messing around, trying to learn how to play songs by Free and Black Sabbath.
On his influences
Andy Fraser from Free. Marty Turner from Wishbone Ash, Mike Rutherford from Genesis, Chris Squire, and John Entwistle. The bass solo Andy Fraser played in “Mr. Big” was very influential.
On music theory
I know what “crotchet and a quaver” is [a quarter note and an 8th note], but that’s about it.
I don’t know what scales are.
On his current gear
[I play] a Fender Precision Bass from around ’72. It’s been five different colors; at the moment it’s blue. I use it on tour and in the studio. It has the original Fender pickup and pretty low action. I’ve also got three other Precisions. My 1959, which I bought recently, feels so good. It feels pretty much as good as my ’72. I also have three Ibanez basses, but I don’t really use them. I used one of them on the “Run To The Hills” single [The Number of the Beast, EMI, 1982]; it’s got sort of a grunting sound, and it’s good for playing really fast because the notes come out clean I use Rotosound flatwound strings, and have a Nady Wireless transmitter.
I use a DBX 164 Compressor, two Hiwatt Model 109 preamps, two Alectron preamps, six RSD power amps, and eight Marshall 4x12 cabinets with Electro-Voice speakers, which have the best sound. I like getting a lot of bullocks and a tight, driving bottom end without much rumpling. It’s got a lot of treble, as well.
The only two songs I didn’t write on bass guitar are “Strange World” from the first album and “Prodigal Son” on the second album; I wrote them on acoustic guitar.
On his proudest moments on tape
There’s a fair few things I’m proud of as far as the actual playing goes; “Phantom of the Opera” [Iron Maiden, EMI, 1980] and “To Tame a Land” [Piece of Mind, EMI 1983].
Preference for venue size
Smaller halls—about 3,000 or 3,500 seats. Most of the theaters in England are like that, which might sound really small to an American. But in England, if you can do a sellout tour of 3,500 seats, that’s big. I like the theaters. You get a better sound, the atmosphere is better, and the kids are nearer.
On playing style
A lot of people tell me I’ve got a strange style. I just play as I feel. I don’t know if it’s really different from others. I never sat down and tried to copy someone else’s style. I only learned their songs, and there’s a difference. It’s wrong to copy somebody. Evolve yourself. You’ll pick up different licks here and there and eventually get your own style. You can’t force it.
On doing a solo LP
I haven’t really thought about that. The time is really taken up by what we’re doing now. We haven’t got time to do a solo album even if we really wanted to do one. From my personal view, I’m still writing a lot of stuff. But if I did a solo album, I’d probably ask the rest of the guys to play on it, so it would be Iron Maiden anyway.
On doing nonMaiden studio work
No one has ever asked us, actually. I think they know we work every month of the year and haven’t got the time anyway.
Advice for younger players
Basically, you have to be dedicated. You have to really put your money where your mouth is, so to speak, even if you haven’t got much money. You have to stick at it. Don’t worry about stupid things like if your girlfriend doesn’t want you to go to rehearsal. Just follow your heart.
On self editing
If someone [in Iron Maiden] writes a song that’s not good, deep down they know it. Ego doesn’t come into it that much. I won’t even take a basic song to the band if I don’t think it’s good enough. There’s only been a couple that I haven’t bothered to take, but that’s because I spend a lot of time working them out so they are right. I know 90% of what I want, and I’ll work out the melody lines and riffs, build it up layer by layer. I’ve written most of my songs on my own, the melody lines and lyrics.
On being self conscious onstage
When you start really thinking about what you are doing, it screws you up.
On slap bass
I can’t stand slap funk. I can appreciate the guys who play it, but it’s not for me. I don’t like the sound of it.