Iron Maiden promise a stormer at Belsonic as Janick Gers explains impact of Belfast musicians on rock heroes
For the past four-plus decades Iron Maiden have been the undisputed kings of heavy metal, selling a staggering 100m records despite little or no airplay, performing more than 2,000 live shows in 63 countries and launching a super-successful beer brand called Trooper.
he rockers regularly fly around the world in their own 757 plane dubbed ‘Ed Force One’, piloted by none other than the London-founded band’s singer Bruce Dickinson.
And while the six-piece’s famous work ethic and ferocious zombie mascot, Eddie, has played a huge part in Maiden’s successful career, so too have some of Northern Ireland’s finest home-grown guitar heroes, as the band’s affable axe-wielder Janick Gers explained when Sunday Life met him for an exclusive interview ahead of their Belfast gig at Belsonic as part of their Legacy Of The Beast World Tour.
“I think it’s fair to say that without Thin Lizzy there would be no Iron Maiden,” says Gers of the band who counted Belfast boys Gary Moore and Eric Bell in their ranks during their 1970s heyday. “You can really hear the influence Gary Moore had on (Iron Maiden guitarist) Adrian Smith especially, who’s a huge fan. Lizzy were one of the greatest rock bands in the world.”
Gers also bends a knee to the dearly departed, Donegal-born Rory Gallagher, who spent part of his childhood in Derry and also lived in Belfast for a spell.
“Rory was one of my heroes and he always will be. He was an absolutely brilliant man actually. A real genius. I met him a couple of times and he was a lovely person. I remember one time where I was at a big do with a bunch of musicians and someone spotted Rory and we were like, ‘Oh, my God, there’s Rory!’ We were in awe.
“Anyway, throughout the night, we had a few shandies and Shakin’ Stevens was also there, so we started going, ‘Shaky! Shaky! Give us a tune!?’ And he got up and did his Elvis thing. After that, someone shouted, ‘Let’s get Rory up,’ so we started chanting, ‘Rory! Rory!’ He came over and told us off! He was like, ‘You better stop it right now!’ And we were saying, ‘Oh, sorry, Rory,’ like we were naughty schoolchildren,” he said, laughing.
“Rory will always be one of my favourite players,” he added, with a smile. “If you went to a Rory Gallagher gig, you left that theatre seeing everything that you could possibly do with a guitar. I remember once seeing him and he broke a string, then his pickup fell out, and he was still playing beautifully.”
On June 13, Gers and the rest of Maiden make their way to Belfast for the Belsonic festival and it will be their biggest ever show in the city. Boasting an array of bombastic metal anthems that made them a household name, plus a brace of swashbuckling Eddies, a giant spitfire and lots of flames, their critically acclaimed, career-spanning Legacy Of The Beast World Tour has been hailed as something of a two-fingered salute to the haters who had written them off in the 1990s.
During that era of perma-frowned, fun-shunning grungers, Maiden were deemed past it by the taste makers and, while the boys still made it to Belfast in 1996, their venue of the exceedingly cosy Maysfield Leisure Centre (which also hosted Bob Dylan and The Cranberries at one point) was seen as a bit of a step-down for a band who had headlined arenas and festivals before Kurt Cobain and co came along.
Gers told us he remains unfazed by the whims of fashion and knew the Irons would stage a Rocky Balboa-esque comeback.
“I’ve enjoyed every period I’ve been in Maiden,” he began. “I very rarely reflect on the past. I’m a forward-looking person, but I do remember when (1995 album) The X Factor came out and everyone was playing grunge music and especially in America hard rock was considered dead. I remember a lot of bands cancelled their tours there and wouldn’t play in the States any more, but we went out during the height of grunge and I had a great time.
“I remember the radio stations telling us, ‘We don’t play rock any more, we just play grunge,’ and we weren’t impressed, because it felt like a fashion statement. It seemed like it was all about putting the right shirt on and doing the lumberjack thing.
“The bottom line was some of the music that came out of grunge was great, but I thought that scene would pan out and it did. As (Deep Purple singer) Ian Gillan once said to me, ‘One moment you’re the hottest band in the world. Five minutes later no one likes you because the style of music you play isn’t cool any more. Then 10 years later you’re the hottest band in the world again.’ It just keeps going around and around.
“As long as you do what you believe in and love what you’re playing, you can’t lose. It doesn’t matter how the world views you. I don’t care what the fashion police have to say anyway. We play what we want. If you like it, great. If you don’t, then God bless you.”
And on the subject of playing what they like, the band unveiled their 17th album, Senjutsu, last September and it features a first for the band — a power ballad. However, as this is Maiden, Darkest Hour isn’t about a lost love or anything soppy like that — it’s actually about Winston Churchill.
“What’s great about our band is that anybody can bring something into the studio and we’ll try it,” reflects the 65-year-old rock star. “Darkest Hour is as close to a power ballad as we will ever come, but it still has that Maiden sound and subject matter. I think it’s great we’re all still open to things. We always want to move organically forward and we’re not afraid to take risks. For example, the intro for our single The Writing On The Wall is almost country and western.”
Gers is thrilled to be back at work post-lockdown. Known among Maiden maniacs for his love of Irish bars around the world, don’t be too surprised if you spot him sipping on a pint of the black stuff in the likes of Voodoo before (or after!) taking to the stage in Belfast.
“Lockdown and the pandemic was a shock to everybody, but I’m one of those people who rolls with whatever is handed to them. I couldn’t go to my Irish bars, so I just had a few drinks in the house instead. It’s not so much drinking that I like about Irish bars, it’s the social side of it. Chatting to people, that’s what I really missed. The bar is a great environment for hanging out and playing music. I just have a few beers and chat to people, that’s what winds me down.”
And he also told us that the band are excited to make up for lost time and promised a night out to rival the fabled banquet hall of Valhalla itself when the boys hit Belfast.
“I’m sorry it took us so long to come back. If you thought our Belfast show in 2018 was good, you haven’t seen anything yet. We’re going to be even better this time. It’ll be an amazing show. We have two years to make up for. I hope you’re ready.”
Iron Maiden play the Belsonic music festival at Ormeau Park, Belfast, on Monday June 13. Tickets are £55 plus booking fee from Ticketmaster. Also on the bill are Shinedown, Airborne and Tempt.