We’ve Got A File On You: Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson

John McMurtrie

We’ve Got A File On You: Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson

John McMurtrie

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Bruce Dickinson, one of the towering, imperial icons of heavy metal, has never quite gotten his due as a solo artist. The Iron Maiden singer has made seven albums under his own name — including The Mandrake Project, out today. Each record boasts a devoted, cultish fan base, but none have become a hit on the scale of Maiden’s albums. The Mandrake Project might not do Powerslave numbers, but the time does feel ripe for a rediscovery of Dickinson’s solo catalog. It’s been nearly 20 years since the release of Tyranny Of Souls, his last LP, and with Maiden working steadily in the intervening years, The Mandrake Project and its accompanying tour represent a much rarer spectacle. There are grown-ass adults who weren’t alive the last time Dickinson played a solo gig. His upcoming show in Santa Ana, California – the only US date to be announced so far – sold out in hours. The Mandrake rollout has felt exciting, in a way Maiden’s last couple pre-release cycles haven’t.

Understandably, Dickinson was excited to talk about The Mandrake Project, its accompanying comic book series, and the rest of his solo career. That’s a lot of what you’ll find in our conversation below. (His publicist also didn’t want him to get bogged down in the weeds of Iron Maiden minutiae; maybe that will be our second interview.) As a solo Bruce superfan, I was more than happy to hear stories about the making of masterpieces like Accident Of Birth and The Chemical Wedding. The Mandrake Project lives in the same universe as those records, and like them, it’s built on the two-man creative core of Dickinson and guitarist and producer Roy Z. There’s always been a go-for-broke spirit to the solo records that you can’t get away with in a band with the GDP of a small nation. On a Bruce Dickinson album, you can hear our man invoking Ennio Morricone, banging away on the bongos, or singing over a 10-minute-long, Beethoven-inspired ambient piece. The pleasure of hearing him sing on these songs is distinct from the adrenaline rush of a Maiden gig — it’s subtler, more complex. The Mandrake Project is for connoisseurs.

It’s here that I have to confess that I was barely holding it together for much of this interview. I’m only where I am today, writing about metal for a living, because Iron Maiden cracked my skull open and reprogrammed me when I was 12 years old. They’re my favorite band, and they have been for more than two decades. I had met Dickinson once before, briefly, at an event for his memoir at Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn. But this was our first real conversation, and it took a lot of mental effort to maintain my composure. There are a few moments in the transcript below where I revert to a fan’s shorthand, or let small factual errors slide. I’ve tried to annotate them where relevant. I do dozens if not hundreds of interviews with musicians each year. I wouldn’t be doing any of them if I hadn’t bought The Number Of The Beast with my lunch money. “Full-circle moment” is a cliché, but there’s no other term to describe how it felt to go deep on this music with Bruce Dickinson.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The Mandrake Project (2024)

I know some of the musical ideas for the album have been kicking around for quite a while. When did everything start to shape itself in your mind into what became The Mandrake Project?

BRUCE DICKINSON: I thought I was on the right track in 2014, but it turned out not until I got back together with Roy [Z]. That was in 2021, when I was allowed back into the USA after COVID and Maiden and throat cancer and all that stuff that interfered with everybody. In 2014, I was gonna have one comic. Maybe the comic would tell the story of the album, or the album would tell the story of the comic. It would be a concept album. So far, so conventional, in a way. Never got the chance to finish that off, but what lockdown did was give me the chance to write a completely different story, which is a three-year, 12-episode comic book. That means that the album, in my head, was liberated from the straitjacket of having to obey a story. It could just be a musical story. It could just be a musical adventure. And so, it didn’t have a literal storyline to it.

We started collating songs that we had. The first thing that we did when we got back together was we wrote two brand new songs. And they were “Afterglow Of Ragnarok” and “Many Doors To Hell.” And I went, “Wow, those are pretty catchy. Wow, great!” We already had all the other songs. Some of them were less developed than others. “Mistress Of Mercy” was just a thrashy guitar riff and a chorus. We hadn’t developed the tracks or done backing tracks for it or anything. There were no drums on any of the songs. There were guide guitars. There were no keyboards on any of the songs.

The lyrics were half-finished, or in some cases, not even half-finished on probably half the tracks. So there was a fair bit of fixer-upping to do. The great thing was that we had these two [new] tracks that we [did] full-on. And that gave us a kind of lens through which to view the redevelopment. It’s like, you think you had plans for a house, and then seven years later, you still haven’t built it, but you realize you’ve got a whole new bunch of building materials. The house is gonna look a little bit different now, you know? And effectively, that’s what we did. The oldest song on the record is the last song on the record [“Sonata (Immortal Beloved)”]. It’s 25 years old.

What was it originally written for? Did it just not fit Tyranny Of Souls?

DICKINSON: No, it wasn’t written for anything, it was just written for the hell of it. Roy had done this ambient soundtrack after coming home late from the movies and seeing Immortal Beloved, with Gary Oldman as Beethoven. He just did this 10-minute ambient track. Bed of guitars and synths with a drum machine, never changing, no big drum fills or anything, just the drum machine. So, we were mucking around, and he played it to me. I said, “Well, I don’t have any words in my book of spare words that might fit. This is something totally different to anything I would normally sing on. I’ll tell you what, let’s go and see what happens.” I had no notes, no lyrics, no nothing. And I basically made it up on the spot. It has a posh name: stream-of-consciousness, dear boy. But the first verse of that song is the only time I ever sung it. The same with the chorus. The second verse, I couldn’t think of anything to sing, so I didn’t sing anything, then the chorus happened. I’d done that once, so I could do it again. I changed a couple of things as well. And then after that, I suddenly twigged what the story was. It’s basically a twisted version of Sleeping Beauty. There’s the queen — not the princess, she’s the queen. And I went, “Wait a minute, it’s the queen from “Taking The Queen” [from 1997’s Accident Of Birth]. In “Taking The Queen,” she dies. Now, she’s dead, and the acolytes are still around her, looking at her. And along comes the prince out of the dark forest — no, not the prince. The king. The king comes out of the dark forest. Why? Because he loves her? Yeah, maybe, but more, he needs her. Because without her, he’s not king anymore, possibly. That story came to me quite quickly. [laughs] And again, the spoken word is all on the spot, made up. The original performance.

So, we kept that song, and we sat on it for ages. We didn’t know what to do with it, because it was such a different tune. And finally, my wife was listening to it in the car. We were driving around LA, and she went, “What’s that song?” I said, “Oh, that’s something we did mucking about in the studio. It’s very different to anything else I’ve ever done. I don’t know where it goes, really.” She goes, “It’s the most beautiful thing.” She’s almost in tears, and so emotional. I go, “So, you think it should be on the album?” And she goes, “Divorce if it’s not on the album.” So we put it on the album. And I’m so glad we did, because the song before it, “Shadow Of The Gods,” is the second oldest song on the record.

Yeah, that was what was supposed to be a Three Tremors song, right? [Note: The Three Tremors was a planned vocal trio featuring Dickinson, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, and Ronnie James Dio — then, when Dio died, Queensrÿche’s Geoff Tate. It sadly never got off the ground.]

DICKINSON: Yeah, along with “A Tyranny Of Souls.” So those two tracks were written, and I think “Shadow Of The Gods” came at a similar kind of time frame. I did a vocal on it. I think I did the vocal in 2014. Some of that vocal still is on the record, but most of this stuff, as I say, a lot of it, I had one verse and one chorus. We had to write more words. “Mistress Of Mercy” was really just a sketchpad of me with an acoustic guitar, and then the funny little Jeff Beck guitar riff [imitates main riff]. That was written on keyboard, because I couldn’t play it on guitar, but I could play it on keyboard. I said to Roy, “Could you play that on the guitar with a beat underneath that’s completely out of time to that?” [laughs] I’m still not sure we pulled that off.

When we did “Fingers In The Wounds,” and [new band member] Mistheria sent his keyboards over, that changed everything. Because I suddenly went, “We’ll have this big, lush keyboard thing, and then go into this sparse keyboard thing, big rock chorus, and then we’ll go into Morocco, and go to Kashmir or somewhere like that.” Which is not in Morocco, obviously, but “Kashmir” in terms of the Zeppelin influence. There was something rhythmic and weird, and completely left-field. And there’s a few moments like that on the album. “Resurrection Men”…

Oh, big time, yeah.

DICKINSON: I said to Roy, “I want to do a guitar intro to this that sounds like it just came from a spaghetti Western.” It’s, like, surf guitar. As soon as we did it, I went, “Imagine that we’re Quentin Tarantino, and we’ve got that, and we’re making a record. What would Quentin Tarantino do next?” Answer: bongos. Has to be bongos! So, it’s my bongo-playing debut.

You’re playing those?

DICKINSON: I’m playing the bongos.

I love that.

DICKINSON: It hurt like hell, as well, because I don’t have any technique. I just batter things extremely hard. So then, the same thing with “If Eternity Should Fail,” [from Iron Maiden’s 2015 album The Book of Souls] which became “Eternity Has Failed.” Because I kind of repossessed the song from Maiden. Originally, the keyboard that’s on there at the beginning of the Maiden [version], that’s the demo that I played at Roy’s place. The sound is allegedly a trumpet. But it doesn’t sound much like a trumpet to me. I actually wanted real mariachi trumpets, which would be completely atmospheric, like Ennio Morricone. Well, no, I’m not really fit to wipe his boots. But that sort of effect: [imitates trumpet fanfare]. With shakers and rattlesnakes in the background. We never got as far as getting mariachi trumpets, but Roy found this Peruvian flute player who did the equivalent on flute. I said, “Well, that’ll do. That sounds great.” Then I just added the funny little percussion things that happen there. Again, that song got reworked, and I tweaked the words that were there from the original demo.

One of the reasons I put the original demo on the B-side of the first single was I wanted people to be able to compare the demo that I did with Roy, the Maiden version that they did of the demo, and the finished version of my version of the demo, revisited. Purely and simply as a kind of: “This is how creativity works.” You can see what changed. So, when the album comes out, people will hopefully start comparing the three of them, and say, “I see what he changed there. Why’d he do that?”

Writing “Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter” For A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

Talking about “Eternity Has Failed” reminded me of something similar that happened with “Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter,” in that it was supposed to be your solo debut, and then it ended up on No Prayer For The Dying.

DICKINSON: Absolutely. Not many people have heard the original version of that, and it’s a similar story. The original version of it is more of a groove-type piece. Maiden do it, and all of a sudden, it gets enormous and spiky and becomes a gallop. And that’s just what happens when you play songs with Iron Maiden. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

It’s Maidenized.


When you got asked to write a song for the Nightmare On Elm Street film, did you, at that point, have a sense in your mind of what solo Bruce Dickinson might look like?

DICKINSON: No, none whatsoever. One of the reasons why I agreed to do it was because Janick Gers, at the time, was very down about guitar playing and music in general. He was always auditioning for bands, trying to get a job, and they’d take one look at him and say, “You need to cut your hair, and you need to do this and do that.” And he’d say, “I’m supposed to be a guitarist, not a performing monkey.” So he was just really uncompromising and said, “I’m just gonna quit. I’m gonna sell my gear and be a sociology teacher.” Because he was at university doing that. I said, “Well, that’s kind of a waste.” I got offered this out of the blue, really. I got offered to do a song for this movie — it never made the movie; it was too late for the movie. I said, “Is there a budget for it?” And the guy goes, “Oh, yeah. There’s a producer, Chris Tsangarides. There’s a studio that’s all paid for. And there’s a small advance.” I said, “How much is the advance?” He told me, and I said, “OK!” Then I went to Janick and said, “Janick, you’re going to do a record with me, so you can’t sell your gear, and if you do sell your gear, I’m going to buy it off you!” [laughs] So he was like, “Ughhh…OK.”

The song was knocked together. The chorus happened when we were at this guy’s house for a cup of tea, and he went to the toilet to have a piss, and by the time he came back I’d borrowed his guitar and said, “What do you think of this?” It was, “Bring your daughter/ Bring your daughter/ Let her go.” He went, “Oh, yeah.” I said I thought we’d do a kind of AC/DC pastiche thing at the beginning, we’d have a load of mad monks moaning over the end of it, and a big church bell going bong. I’d never seen a Nightmare On Elm Street film, ever. So I said, “What are these films actually about? Give me the two-minute version.” He’s like, “Well, basically all these girls get sexually assaulted or raped by this guy that looks like their dad that only comes to them in their dreams.” [Note: It’s possible that the person who provided Bruce with this synopsis had also never seen a Nightmare On Elm Street film.] I went, well that’s nice — not! So, I wrote lyrics that I thought were as nasty as the subject matter. There you go. [laughs]

His Solo Debut, Tattooed Millionaire (1990) And Leaving Iron Maiden (1993)

So, you work with Janick on that song. He also ends up playing on Tattooed Millionaire. He also joins Iron Maiden at pretty much the exact same time. You guys were totally creatively entwined at that moment.

DICKINSON: Yeah, so we did “Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter.” That came to the attention of an A&R guy at what was then CBS Records in America. And he flipped out. He was like, “This is amazing, wow! Is there any more of this stuff?” And I went, “Oh, yeah, loads.” And there was nothing. We had nothing at all. Zero. But under the contract with Maiden, every member of Maiden had the right to do a solo album, which the record label in England, EMI, would pay for. And this guy was offering a US deal. So I was like, “Hang on a minute, Janick. If we did a record, you and me, we get a worldwide record deal. Shit! Let’s do an album!” We wrote it in two weeks.

And the way we did that, was to basically take a series of, to be honest, musical templates. “Here’s the big ballad, here’s the big Bon Jovi-ish one.” And then you’ve got “Tattooed Millionaire,” which is very similar, in a way, to “Since You Been Gone” by Rainbow, with the opening riff, and you kind of subvert it with the lyrics. All the songs are kind of like that. “Dive! Dive! Dive!” is sort of like a thrash remake of an AC/DC tune. It’s all sort of fun, in a cheesy way. But my favorite song on that record is “Born In ’58,” which for me, is by far and away the best song on the record, because it’s the only one that doesn’t originate in a cliché. That song, Janick had done almost all the instrumental parts of it, and he was just playing a bit. He just played the little intro part of it, and I went, “Hey, what’s that?” He goes, “Oh, it’s just something I’ve done. It’s probably not suitable for this.” And I said, “No, no, no, what’s the rest of it?” And he played the rest of it, and I said, “That’s great.” And that’s it. I wrote the words, and they were personal. They were autobiographical. For me, it’s far and away the best song on the record.

Those first couple of years, you toured a little bit on Tattooed Millionaire, and then, I know you started on [his 1994 solo album] Balls To Picasso while you were still in Maiden. What ultimately gave you the push to leave and focus on the solo stuff?

DICKINSON: This is gonna sound really bizarre. I did Tattooed Millionaire, and to my enormous surprise, all these people liked it. I was like, “Hmm. I wonder what would happen if I did something that was really properly artistic?” Not just a version of AOR, relatively formulaic. It didn’t challenge me in any way, doing Tattooed Millionaire. It was fun. I don’t deny that, and one or two of the tunes in the right context were OK, but it wasn’t really groundbreaking. If I was gonna do a real solo album, I wouldn’t do one like that. And then we started doing what became Balls To Picasso, and I increasingly realized that I didn’t know what to do outside of Iron Maiden. Because I’d been in it so long, and lived with it, and I found that really scary. So, I thought, “What do I do about that?”

There were a couple of things. I didn’t have the world’s greatest relationship with my dad, and I wrote a song about him, which never made any record anywhere, but it had probably one of the most truthful choruses I’d ever written. And I thought, “Could I do that in Iron Maiden? Nope.” And then I read a piece in the LA Times, and there was a quote from Henry Miller. I’ll paraphrase it because I can’t remember the exact quote. Basically, it was like, “All growth is an unpremeditated leap in the dark with no idea of where you’re going to land.” And I went, “That’s me.” How am I gonna grow? If I just go and live in Maiden World the rest of my life, how am I gonna grow? You can’t grow inside of something. And in fact, the response to Tattooed Millionaire was very often, “It’s not bad as a solo record, that’s cool. Obviously, he had to get something out of his system that wasn’t very important before going back to Maiden.” I was like, “I’m not sure I like where this is going, where my whole identity is sucked in by this Iron Maiden identity.” No, screw that. I’m a contrarian, I’m an individual. Like the Prisoner, I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own. I quit.

It was as spur of the moment as that. I had no plan. In actual fact, the world outside of Iron Maiden was a huge shock. I was completely unprepared for the level of shock horror from fans. I was like, “I’m just a bloody singer.” I was completely unprepared for how people…it rocked their world. I didn’t expect that.

Skunkworks (1996), Accident Of Birth (1997), And The Chemical Wedding (1998)

Rob Halford talks about a similar thing, when he left Priest in the early ’90s and started gigging with Fight, that he didn’t realize how insulated he was in Priest World. Probably kind of the same way that you were in Maiden World.

DICKINSON: Absolutely. I don’t know what it is about singers. We all end up going down the same rabbit hole. Rob did Fight, I did Skunkworks. [Note: Skunkworks was the name of both the album and the short-lived band that recorded it.] Both of those projects were cool. Neither of them worked, but they had some cool stuff.

You had to find out for yourself.

DICKINSON: You have to find out for yourself, exactly. I mean, I learned so much stuff doing Skunkworks. Different ways of writing lyrics, different approach to singing. Jack Endino, the producer, what a great guy he is. And for all the people at the time that were like, “Bruce is going to the dark side! It’s evil, and grunge, and it’s the end of metal!” I mean, just, please, fuck off. It’s music. And Jack was the biggest Ritchie Blackmore and Rainbow fan on the planet. I’m like, “Jack, you’re the king of Seattle grunge.” He’s like, “Yeah, but I love Ritchie Blackmore.” So we had a blast at making that record, but the band itself, the concept of Skunkworks as a band, like the Tin Machine was to Bowie, that didn’t work either. And it was a very similar sort of experience. I was very down in the dumps, as it were, after Skunkworks. I thought maybe I should just disappear and give up. I was seriously thinking maybe I’d get a job stacking shelves, or just go and be a commercial airline pilot. I didn’t know whether I’d had anything left to give that anybody’s interested in.

And then [Roy] Z called me up out of the blue and said, “I’ve been writing a few bits. I didn’t know what you were doing.” I said, “I’m not doing anything at the moment. The band’s just quit, and I don’t have a record deal. I don’t know what I’m doing.” And he said, “Listen to this,” and he played me the intro to “Accident Of Birth,” the song, down the phone. And I wrote on the notepad by the phone, “Journey back to the dark side/ Back into the womb/ Back to where the spirits move…” I wrote “Accident Of Birth,” and the next day I was in LA.

Wow, that fast?

DICKINSON: Eight days later, we had six tracks demoed. I came back to England and played it for the potential record label, and they went, “These are great! Wow, we’ll put these out straight away!” I said, “They’re demos! They’re not even finished?” They went, “Really?” [laughs] Record labels…

So then we went back and did Accident Of Birth, and the whole record was written by myself and Roy. Adrian [Smith] was a loose end. He was still out of Maiden. I said, “Do you want to come and do a few solos on the record? You can do as much or as little as you want. The tracks are all laid down. It’s all done.” So he came in and did some solos on it, and then off we went and toured it. And then went and did Chemical Wedding, and Chemical Wedding was, for me, reaching out to a place where I’d never been before. And I think quite a few other people hadn’t been before either. With the guitar sounds, with the heaviness of it, with the whole artistic part of it, with William Blake and the storytelling, with the sort of gothic feel to it, at times. For me, that’s the jewel in the crown of all of my albums.

Those two records with Roy and Adrian, Accident and Chemical Wedding: You didn’t have any three-way cowrites between the three of you guys on those records, and I was curious about that. Is the way you work with each of them just a little bit too different? What’s the difference between songwriting with Adrian and songwriting with Roy?

DICKINSON: No, I mean, the whole thing was Roy was producer, and he wrote the songs with me. Adrian was invited as a guitar player to play some solos. That was it.

On Chemical Wedding, doesn’t he have some writing credits, though?

DICKINSON: He might have a writing credit somewhere. He might have put a couple of bits on. Maybe “Killing Floor,” I think might be one, if that’s on there. [Note: Smith did indeed get a credit on “Killing Floor,” as well as on “Machine Men” and the Accident Of Birth songs “Road To Hell” and “Welcome To The Pit.”]

But mostly, that’s you and Roy’s collaboration.

DICKINSON: Yeah, absolutely. Everything from Balls To Picasso onwards, except for Skunkworks, has basically been me and Roy. Although on this record, I’ve got more songs that I wrote on my own than probably any of the previous records. Balls To Picasso’s got “Tears Of The Dragon,” but that’s the only one. The rest of it’s all cowrites.

Rejoining Iron Maiden (1999)

You and Adrian rejoined Iron Maiden shortly after Chemical Wedding. Was that a decision you made together, or at least consulted each other about?

DICKINSON: Oh, no, no, no. Back in the Cold War, you had Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, and you had to show your ID to get through, and then they’d put you in a secret back room and ask questions. Honestly, it was a whole drama. They said, “You’re going to have a meeting with Steve [Harris].” I said, “Oh, cool. We’ll go and have a cup of coffee or down the pub.” And they said, “No, we can’t do it in public!” I went, “Really? OK.” So it was this old nightclub that was closed, and they’d arranged it so it would be just me and Steve in this enormous bar, just talking to each other. I thought, I’m having an out-of-the-body experience here. This is not happening. This is like something from a Kafka novel, you know? But when they phoned me up and said you’ve got to go down to Brighton and have this meeting, I said, “Oh, cool. Should I just bring Adrian?” They said, “No, no, no! Don’t bring Adrian! It’s all gonna be separate!” So I have no idea how that happened with Adrian.

Wow! But it worked out. You pretty much came in at the same time, right?

DICKINSON: Yeah, absolutely. To all intents and purposes, absolutely.

There were so many lineup changes between 1980 and 1993, but I think it’s remarkable that there hasn’t been one since you guys came back in 1999. I’m curious, what mindset did you re-enter with? And why does the band dynamic work so well at this point, that it’s been the same six guys for 25 years?

DICKINSON: I think we’ve all grown up just enough to appreciate that we were all separate individuals who got together to play Iron Maiden music. I think what pissed Adrian off, and me to a certain extent, was this idea that we were just this homogenous blob that was Iron Maiden. That we were a single block of concrete. Adrian rebelled against that. I didn’t particularly like the idea, either. Because it was like, “Are we not individuals then?” And then it was, “To a certain extent.” Well, no. Now we’ve rejoined. The reason we’ve rejoined is because we wanted to, so it’s a choice. And it was actually our choice. It was a request, and it was our choice to rejoin. And now, having done that, let’s have more adult relationships between everybody. It became a lot easier to get on with everybody, a lot easier to speak more honestly and open about things. And also, not to get bent out of shape about things, about somebody has a bad day or somebody’s turned into a megalomaniac this afternoon. Just walk away, because tomorrow morning, they won’t be like that. Whereas back in the ’80s, we’d have had a fucking argument about it, or people would have gone away and sulked about it for weeks. And that just breeds resentment and discontent and things like that.

We’re in the state now where the band’s really successful, and we all get on, probably because – with the exception of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, who lived in the same street together when they were growing up – none of us would ever have met each other if it wasn’t for Iron Maiden. I would never have met Nicko McBrain. I would never have met Steve. What brings us all together is Maiden. So, this is a great place to be. We’re probably one of the biggest heavy metal bands in the world. We mean a huge amount – and I do understand that – to millions of people around the world. And what’s not to love about still being able to do it?

And you get to do both things now. There was that leap into the dark moment that you mentioned, in the ’90s. Well, now you’re in Maiden, and you’re still making the solo stuff. You’re able to keep both streams going.

DICKINSON: Absolutely, and I think people in the intervening period have had a chance to examine the solo catalog and take a good look at it and go, “Some of it was pretty good, actually.” [laughs] So looking forward, obviously, I’ve got a tour to do and all this promotion, and I’ve got this graphic novel for three years. But then we’ve got plans for Maiden going through until the end of ’26.

His Reputation As A Polymath (Flying Airplanes, Fencing, Etc.)

I don’t want to ask you specific questions about all these things, because I don’t have the technical knowledge about piloting or fencing to ask a smart question. But a broad question: What do you think gives you the drive to want to master all these things you’re interested in?

DICKINSON: It’s purely the naïve schoolboy that’s in me. I’m curious. And if I’m halfway to being any good at anything, I want to find out what makes it work. What’s at the heart of it? What’s the heart and soul of flying an airplane? You have to do a deep dive to do that. Fencing, I mean, I still train. The great thing about fencing that I love is it’s a completely open-ended sport, in that you can never know everything. You’re always going to get beaten. If you fall off the horse, get back on it. Keep training and learn from your mistake, and figure out why you got beaten, and try not to do it again. Plus, the fact that it’s not a huge sport, so everybody knows everybody, and the one thing that everybody has in common, no matter what your background is, is that they love the sport. That’s more important than talking about money or fame or this or that. Nobody’s particularly bothered. They want to talk about technique and fighting and tactics, and then go for a beer.

His Memoir, What Does This Button Do? (2017)

The one thing I am qualified to ask you about is writing, so I wanted to ask a couple of writing questions.

DICKINSON: Oh, shit…OK. [laughs]

No, it’s all good. I really respect that you didn’t use a ghostwriter for What Does This Button Do?

DICKINSON: Oh, no, absolutely not. No, no, no. And actually, because I’m a terrible typist, I wrote it longhand.

You got me one better on that. I don’t think I could do that. What’s one thing you learned about the process of assembling and editing a book?

DICKINSON: Just the discipline of imposing a narrative on your life. A badly written autobiography is a shopping list. There’s no drama, there’s no story to it. You have to impose a story on your life. It could be that you don’t have a problem with that, because you’ve got so many stories that there is a story. But even within individual stories that are episodes that happen, there’s a narrative structure. There’s a tension that you need to respect. So you get to the end of one chapter, and we’re in a slightly different world now. From that perspective, it’s like writing fiction, although you’re dealing with real events.

Now, I wrote 45,000 more words than I was supposed to for the book. When we came to edit, and chop out 45,000 words, it was an interesting process. It was quite easy to do, because I wrote episodically. I’d do four pages of a particular story. I’ll give you an example. It might be, hypothetically, there were four stories about airplanes. My editor said, “There are four stories about airplanes. They’re all great, but we really only need two.” So we’d take out the stories, and they were quite easy to take out, because it’s, “That’s three or four pages. Boom! Out it goes.” Then you have to read it yourself, because what I’d be doing, is I’d write my four stories or whatever, and then like 30 pages later, I would refer back to one of the stories that people had already read. Except now they haven’t, because it’s dead. And there were half-sentences and odd words where you’d be self-referential, that was just like, “Oh my God, this is like digging up weeds in a garden. There’s another one! Oh, shit!” It’s not stimulating, it’s not exciting, but you’ve got to tidy things up. If you’re a reader and you read something like that, it completely breaks the spell.

The Mandrake Project Comic Book Series (2024-)

Now you’re doing the comics, which is a completely different process. I’m blown away that you have a three-year plan, because that means you have three years of deadlines you’re staring down. But you’re gonna be on the road the whole time. Are you gonna be in the corner of the dressing room, writing?

DICKINSON: Well, luckily, I’ve got a synopsis for all 12 episodes.

You’re ready.

DICKINSON: We’ve got the backstory going back 100 years, nearly. And we’ve got the backstory of all the characters. You met most of the characters in Episode 1. There’s a couple more that make an appearance in Episode 2, and then you really start finding out what dark things happened in the families of all these people that make them do what they do in response to this technology. So, that’s what underpins the drama going forward. It’s character-based drama. It’s not sci-fi-based drama, and it’s certainly not a superhero comic.

My go-to, big daddy comic is Watchmen. That’s a serious, serious work.

Best of all time, probably.

DICKINSON: Yeah. And I’ve reread that several times, and so much of it is layered. There’s so many different layers. I don’t know whether Alan Moore has all the layers at the initial plot stage. I didn’t. I had some of the layers. I had some of the big, dark interactions, and all the “This is what happens in each episode.” That’s the boring bit. Why it happens, who does it happen to, and in what way, that’s the bit that gets you viscerally. But then I realized that what happens in Watchmen is that there’s a philosophy that goes through Watchmen. It doesn’t become apparent at first, but as you go toward the end, it really becomes much, much more apparent. There’s quite a depressing philosophy. It’s like, “You’re fucked. There’s nothing you can do about it. Give up, because it’s not going to make any difference.” And I started thinking about what the philosophy would be of Mandrake Project, in a similar fashion.

We haven’t started alluding to it yet. In fact, Tony [Lee, the script writer] just finished the script for Episode 2, which is now at the stage of final art. And script 3 is on the way. I’ve got a bit of an artistic phone call to make about a couple of tweaks on it. Then, script 3 will be ready to go to art as well. But script 2, we had a couple of pages, and Tony put a couple of things in the script where I said, “You can’t say that! It’s too soon! You can’t even give them a fucking clue! Don’t say any of it! Cut the whole page out! Do a different page. Let’s do something different. It’s too soon.”

But we have such fun with it. A comic script, I’m not going to pretend I understand it. It’s not instinctive for me. It may become that way after I’ve done 12 of them. But I’m guided by Tony’s years of experience doing comics. I go in there, and I’m still looking at things a little bit like a screenplay. I have dialogue, and I have images, and I have all that. The big realization was, when we were doing Episode 3, it looked like Episode 3 might be a bit skinny. And as we were going through, I was like, “But there’s all this dialogue!” And he was like, “It’s one frame.” I went, “Ah! Ding! Got it.” We’ve got to move the visual story forward, and the words are not the big driver of this. The words are the effects machine.

The Mandrake Project is out now on BMG.

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