Steve Harris: 'The Final Frontier' Won't Be Iron Maiden's Swan Song
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"People are gonna think [it's our last album], I suppose, because the band has had a really long career, and who knows when it's gonna stop?" bassist and songwriter Steve Harris told Noisecreep. "But we don't feel like we're there yet."
Right before the North American release of the album, Harris talked about the thrill of spontaneity, his interest in science fiction, the dazzling video for the title track, his affinity for modern technology and why Maiden probably won't play 'The Final Frontier' front to back any time soon.
'The Final Frontier' ups the ante compared to 'A Matter of Life and Death.' It's both heavier and more progressive, yet it's filled with memorable musical sections. Was it challenging to create?
Not really, no. It was rather enjoyable. We wrote the album in Paris when it was pissing down rain and cold, so we didn't even want to go outside and we focused on what we were doing. And then we recorded in the Bahamas [at Compass Point Studios], which we hadn't done since '86. So that was good as well.
For Iron Maiden, four years is a long time to go between albums. Were you in a good head space going into this one?
Yeah, we all felt good. We toured for a while for the last record, and we did the film ['Iron Maiden: Flight 666] as well, so the time passed quickly. We took some time off to spend with our families, and before we knew it, it was time to make another record. And the fact that we were all in the same room as well kept the vibe strong. [Producer] Kevin Shirley put all the equipment in the other room to keep it separate, and we had a fantastic headphone system rigged up. For the first time, it made a big difference, and we could all be in the same room. And that meant we could all communicate better, which was fun.
Did you track the whole album live?
It was pretty well live. It worked really good because we could see each other when we were playing, and it worked really well. We'd definitely record like that again. There were no scratch tracks or anything. We did the songs live, and then we added bits on top as well. For some songs we did a few more takes than others, but then we did some tracks in just one or two takes, which helped keep things sounding really fresh.
Did you intend to write such an expansive, progressive record?
We just did what we did. Some of the songs are very proggy, especially the ones toward the end of the album. It's weird because if you talk about one song, it doesn't really represent what's on the rest of the album. It's so diverse, which I think is good. It's one of the things that make the album enjoyable for me.
The opening of 'Satellite 15 ... the Final Frontier' has an atmospheric, cinematic vibe to it that sets a nice tone for the rest of the record.
The beginning part was mainly Adrian's idea. And to me, it really had the feel of film theme music. It's very dramatic, very sci-fi and we just went from there, really. We put it together and went into the second part of the song. It felt really good. I was really excited about it when that was together. And Adrian was kind of surprised with what I did with it because he didn't anticipate it being like that. But I was very excited because it basically gave us everything. It gave us an intro, it set the tone for the album and it gave us imagery as well to work with.
You released a striking effects-laden video for the song. Did you always know the title track would yield the first video?
Once we had the second part of the song, we knew that would be a good -- well, not really a single because we don't have singles anymore -- but we knew that it would make a good promo. So we got some ideas together and we were really, really pleased with it. The company Darkside Films that did it were really, really good.
Whose idea was it to work with Darkside Films?
It was mine because I knew them, anyway. They did the interface for the 'Visions of the Beast' [DVD, which came out in 2003]. That was really good, but since then they've come along and done so much other really interesting stuff. I just thought knew they would be a really good choice and I knew what they capable of. And the main guy there, Andy Bishop, I knew him personally as well, so it made it an easy choice.
Is there a theme to 'The Final Frontier?'
Well, it's not a concept album, but as with a lot of our albums, you don't really realize when you're doing stuff, but there are common threads. It's like when we did 'Fear of the Dark' [in 1992]. There seemed to be 'fear' mentioned through the album a few times. I just think when you do an album, whatever train of thought you're in at the time, there does seem to be a loose thing going through that ties it all together somehow.
The cover art of Eddie as a space alien encountering dead alien astronauts is great. Did you want the album to have a sci-fi feel?
Yeah, the space theme is there for the artwork, but lyrically there are all sorts of different things going on. Each song tells an individual short story, really, as always with our stuff apart from [1988's] 'Seventh Son of a Seventh Son,' which was a concept album. All our other albums have been short stories.
'Space, the final frontier,' is, of course, a phrase from the introduction to the TV show 'Star Trek.' Are you guys big fans?
I wouldn't say I was a massive fan, but I've always liked 'Star Trek.' I don't think any of us are Trekkies as such, but all like the show. Personally, I'm more into something like 'Lord of the Rings,' but I also like 'Star Wars' and other of sci-fi as well -- anything that's exciting and takes you on a bit of a journey.
Is there a meaning to the title?
It was Bruce's idea. He had the title before we even started the album. And when it worked on the first song I felt, "Well, this totally ties in." And it gave us a bit of a direction. I suppose he was being a bit tongue in cheek [implying that this might be our last album], but we all thought that was sort of funny.
What was the greatest challenge you faced making 'The Final Frontier'?
Writing is always the hardest part. Recording is sort of academic, to a certain degree. We approached 'When the Wild Wind Blows' in a slightly different way. Basically, I wanted to try something where the guys didn't know much what they were playing much before we did it. We just learned parts and then did them and we saw where it went to a certain degree, or how many parts we did. Nobody knew which order they were coming in, and nobody except me knew where I wanted to take it. So I just thought it was good to play with a bit of spontaneity like that. We got some really interesting takes for that.
How did you approach your bandmates with that idea?
Well, I said to the lads, "I hope you don't mind indulging me with this because I want to try something different." And they were like, "Mmm, OK, that sounds ominous, but sure." And we did it and it worked out really well so everyone was pleased.
How is working on an album today different than when you were working on something like 'Number of the Beast' or 'Piece of Mind'?
We're more wise to the ways of recording, I suppose. I'm a lot more knowledgeable and confident when we're in the studio now. I know more what I want and how to get it now as opposed to then. We're jut more experienced. If we don't know what we're doing by now, we never will.
How do you feel about the way technology has developed since the '80s?
I love the technology that's around today. I think it's amazing what you can do these days. And it's amazing you can fit so much information on a small hard drive and carry it about. All those years ago we obviously had to worry about taking all those big reels of tape. It was a nightmare, really, in a lot of ways. And if you wanted to cut something you had to splice it by hand with a razor. It was pretty scary.
On the tour for 'The Final Frontier' you have been playing a good amount of music from the past three or four albums as well as some new songs. You didn't play much written before 1986's 'Somewhere in Time.'
Well, we did a lot of the old stuff on the last tour, so we just like to mix it up. And the tour before that one, we did the whole album 'A Matter of Life and Death.' So, we like to keep things fresh for us and the fans, really. There are always going to be people that complain no matter what you do, but we just do what we think is right at the time.
Would you want to play 'The Final Frontier' in its entirety?
I don't know. I think we'll decide that when we get in rehearsals, but I doubt if we would do that again. We did it once and it was great, but I'm not sure it's necessarily the right thing to do again. It's was nice to do it the first time, but you can only do it with an album that's appropriate for that kind of performance. Also, other people have been doing that [recently, including Megadeth, Testament and Slayer], so maybe it's a good thing not to do right now. We always like to do our own thing and not think about what's going on around us.