I’ve been a huge Iron Maiden fan for the last 24 years. The first international band I saw playing live was them, back in 1992 in Caracas, Venezuela. When the word came out that Bruce Dickinson was leaving, I remember feeling like mourning. However, I knew that the band would stick to their guns and carry on. Blaze Bayley became the band’s singer and, in 1995, The X Factor album came out. Despite divided opinions among media and some fans, I totally loved the album (and still do). This was a dark sounding Iron Maiden with great songs and very reflective lyrics. Virtual XI (1998) was the next, and last, effort with Blaze on vocals, and ever since his departure from the band, he has remained active in the music scene and in contact with his fans. Recently, he has been doing acoustic shows and just released the EP Russian Holiday, containing the original title tracks plus new acoustic versions of two of his songs and Iron Maiden’s “Sign of the Cross”.
On February 22nd, before his acoustic show in Hamburg, I had the opportunity to interview Blaze, along with his guitarist Thomas Zwijsen and their guest violinist Anne Bakker:
Hprog: It’s a great honor for me, Blaze, to be here with you.
Blaze Bayley: Hello!
Hprog: Although many bands have done unplugged shows and that kind of stuff, playing heavy metal with a classical guitar approach is not something very common. How did you guys come with the idea of doing heavy metal this way?
BB: Well, I’m not a fan of the MTV style of unplugged –and I never have been- where all of the instruments, except for the (electric) guitars, are there, you still got the drums and everything. For me metal music is big and it’s more. The song has to come to life. If the song is good, however the arrangement is, it will work. I didn’t want to do just a stripped down, strumming version (of the songs), so when Thomas had the idea of doing this classical guitar style in one of my songs, I was very interested to hear it, because I’m always looking for different sounds. This was a different sound. The relationship between the voice and the classical guitar is very interesting because of the way the chords worked and the slightly different structure, the different sounds and the different places, so I was very interested in that. And Thomas had already worked with Anne and suggested that we could have a violin part. I’ve never worked with a violin before in a creative way. Anne came along to one of our rehearsals and we worked in a couple of arrangements, and with the first song I ever heard with the violin sounding like that, I was really blown away. Creatively, it started me thinking “Oh! There’s a lot of different things we can do”.
So my song we came up with this rearrangement was something from my Tenth Dimension album called “Stealing Time”, and that really showcases what you can do with the three things, because it sounds like much more than two instruments, acoustically, and the spice that’s left, the dynamics between the vocal, the guitar and the violin just feels right for me. It’s a very dramatic story, the album is a theme, and to take this song out of it and do it this way… it feels very dramatic. It’s really good; it lends itself to the story of the song. And as we worked on other songs, the same thing started happening. Some of the fastest songs are quite fun because you’re not used to hearing them that way, and then some of the bigger songs are more emotional and more melancholic. Heavy metal comes as quite aggressive, which is a tool that I have used in my presentation and performances… heavy metal can be aggressive but when you tie these different arrangements, it’s less aggressive but there’s more emotion. Both of those things, the aggression and the emotion, they’re both powerful things, so it’s a different kind of power and it’s something I really enjoyed working on. So once we got that first couple of arrangements we were like “You know? Let’s see if we can make an EP”, and we did, and it worked. We’ve had great reviews from the fans.
The important thing was, when we put out the EP, I didn’t want any journalist to hear it before the fans. For me it’s really… you know… I’m famous enough, I got a few fans in the underground scene that are very loyal, so I don’t really consider the opinion of someone who didn’t buy the record as important. So I didn’t want my fans seeing reviews by someone without hearing it themselves. The most important thing that we did was the pre-orders, and the fans got the Russian Holiday CD before the tour started and before any single journalist because, for me, it is about my fans. That’s the most important thing. They support me and they allow me to do these incredible creative things and go on these journeys.
Hprog: Speaking of the Russian Holiday EP, you guys made a great arrangement of “Sign of the Cross”, which is one of my favorite Iron Maiden songs and you, Thomas, just released the Nylon Maiden CD. Do you also play original acoustic music?
Thomas Zwijsen: Yes, I do. I’ve been studying classical guitar at the Conservatoire for about five years or something, I was in my last year ‘till Bayley took me out of it [smiles], and I didn’t have a chance to finish it yet, but I’ve always been composing on every instrument. It’s just that the Nylon Maiden arrangements became a very big hit on YouTube and people were asking for an album, so I thought “well, it’s a good way to get my name out there”, and I’ve always loved Iron Maiden so much, even when I was studying just classical guitar. For me it was great to play Iron Maiden songs and still please the classical-guitar-people, but in the future I’ll also release my own compositions as well.
BB: The title song (of the EP), “Russian Holiday”, is an original composition and it’s based on an idea from Tom and some lyrics from me, so I think that’s something really beautiful…
TZ: It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever worked on, to be honest.
Hprog: It’s deeply emotional indeed. So is this EP a preview of a full acoustic CD to come?
BB: We would really like to do that, but we have to see what the fans say. If the fans say “yes, we would like to have a full CD”, then there’s a lot of other songs from my catalogue and I also have some ideas for new songs that I would like to do.
TZ: And also some new instruments like choir or an orchestra.
BB: I would like to explore the format a lot in the context of a full album, and I would say 70 minutes of music. So, we’ll see. If it’s a success, if the fans like it and they’re willing to support me then we’ll make an album.
Hprog: It would be great. And would Anne be there? [Anne Bakker smiles]
BB: Yes, she would be.
Hprog: Anne, how did you get involved with this project of doing acoustic Blaze Bayley shows?
Anne Bakker: I’ve known Thomas for about five or six years. We studied together first in Rotterdam, one year, and he had his own band and they were jamming at night, which was really nice, then we lost contact but then years later we met in another music school where we were also studying together for one year.
TZ: I got kicked out from that same school [laughs].
AB: And I graduated, actually [laughs]. And he was actually getting a bit successful with the YouTube videos, so I saw him on facebook and I told him “hey, if there’s something you want to do with a violin, you know, just call me”, so then we tried “Wasting Love”, which was quite a success, and so I got started.
Hprog: Great! And back to Blaze, apart from the acoustic shows you’re still touring with Paul Di’anno now and then.
BB: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun; it’s very less stress, so we tour and the band is all rehearsed and everything for us. Sometimes we sing old songs together, sometimes we don’t and it’s a lot of fun. Paul is really, really funny. We do a few shows together, then we go off and do our own things, then we get back and do a few dates. It’s really nice, and it’s nice to sing the old songs because I sing them a bit differently, and when I work with the bands I show them some slightly different arrangements. I enjoy doing it, it’s a lot of fun, and then I go back to doing my own stuff.
Hprog: It’s great that you guys get along. You are two different sides of Iron Maiden’s history.
BB: Yeah, I’m not sure if Paul gets along with me as much [we laugh], but I certainly get along with Paul, you know, it’s nice, it’s fun.
Hprog: And speaking of Iron Maiden, what would be your most remarkable memory of that time?
BB: Oh so many! There’s just so many! Eddie falling over [we laugh]. Yeah, Eddie fell over in France, he came out and he just went splat [does the gesture with his hand going down], and then he was dragged off by the crew, it was incredible. There was some of the smaller concerts that I played where there was no ring for the stage. I felt that I was very privileged, ‘cause that must have been what it was like when Iron Maiden started. And of course big, big concerts, that’s the thing that gets you. I played concerts that I never did before, such as playing festivals, something bigger. Well, in Iron Maiden, in Europe, every night is a big concert. It’s not the exception, it’s the rule. Everything is big and it’s so professional, and the expectation is so high. But I think the most important thing to me was the music, to be honest. The old songs and the songs I wrote with Steve Harris, Dave Murray and Janick Gers. I really loved the music, and the X Factor and Virtual XI songs. That was the most important thing, really. I love to sing and I loved Iron Maiden before, and I still do. I really loved to sing that music; that was the best.
Hprog: I was going to that topic, because The X Factor is actually one of my favorite Iron Maiden albums and in 1995, when it came out, I read the booklet and thought “well, the new singer also has writing credits”, which is great because you were just entering the band but then contributed right away.
BB: Yeah, nothing was written before and Steve just said: “I don’t care who comes with the ideas, they just have to be good”. So I had a few ideas and I took them along to the rehearsals and it went very well.
Hprog: And your lyrics actually went along with Iron Maiden’s style, in my opinion.
BB: Yeah, ‘cause it’s that side to me, that heavy metal side… and I think you can see it in my other songs … I’m writing about themes and putting myself in the situation of how would I feel if that would happen to me.
Hprog: I think a good example of that is your song “One more step”, which you released on the King of metal album and also on Russian Holiday.
BB: Yeah, we wanted to… I think it’s more me, and I asked Tom if we’d have a go at it…
TZ: Also, I haven’t played it on the guitar before, because it was originally (recorded) on the piano. Blaze actually plays the piano; he’s a virtuoso [we laugh].
Hprog: Yeah, I saw it on YouTube.
BB: Yeah, so I came up with the idea. We did it and it was something (with which) I felt very confident, in the lyrics and in the melody; but I thought “well, let’s have another go” and try a slight different approach with the vocal, something just a little bit different. Now I’m more used to it and it just worked out great, so I’m very proud of it.
Hprog: Yes, the song is really touching, in my opinion. So, I think I just have one more question: considering that you have had a long career with Wolfsbane, Iron Maiden and as a solo singer, in hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
BB: Oh yeah, everything. In hindsight, if I knew I would still get here, to this moment, I’d do really all different, I’d have a lot less stress and I would have wasted so much less energy. If I could go back and talk to that guy, if he would listen, ‘cause I was quite determined to get where I wanted… but if he would listen, if I could go back I would say “don’t waste time on that, it’s just not important”, “don’t waste time on that”, “don’t waste time on that, don’t waste time with that girl” [moving his hands around and pointing], “don’t talk to that person”, “that guy is good to be around”; I’d do a lot of things different.
Hprog: “Don’t look to the eyes of a stranger” [we laugh]
BB: Yes, “don’t look to the eyes of a stranger”.
Hprog: Well, I think this Iron Maiden reference is good to close this. Thank you, Blaze, Anne and Thomas for this interview.
BB: I’d just like to say a huge thank you to all of my fans around the world for supporting me. Thank you so much! And thank you so much for supporting the Russian Holiday CD and thank you so much for coming to support us on tour. It’s very, very humbling; it’s a very wonderful experience.
Hprog: And I’m about to experience it. So, thank you guys!
Interview by Hprog