Bruce Dickinson On Mysterious New Record ‘The Mandrake Project’ And Using Allegory As Therapy

Arts & Celebrities

When Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson began to shape the aesthetic of his newest solo era, he channeled the influence and energy of some of his favorite cultural touchstones.

The 65-year-old singer’s seventh solo album, curiously titled The Mandrake Project, out now, presents Dickinson à la the dystopian cyberpunk science fiction of Blade Runner. Throughout the record, you can hear the musical details of a cinematic landscape, nodding to the style of directors like Quentin Tarantino. As for the photos to accompany the album, he even wanted to channel the original Black Sabbath album cover, which struck him with awe as a child.

In the lyrics, and in the storyline of the comic books that complement The Mandrake Project, Dickinson integrates the world of fairytales, Dr. Frankenstein, and Romantic Era British poet, William Blake. The record is a culmination of decades of song ideas. And while he admits that the music is in many ways his most personal and intimate, he still holds his cards close to his chest, as his life’s lessons remain told through allegory.

“One of the things about when your subconscious writes things for you is that you are not initially aware of what it was doing,” Dickinson says.

“You can do therapy via ‘legend’ […] but I’m not going to give away my source material for all the f***ed up things that have f***ed me up over the years and people I know, because it’s raw material for creativity and dramatization of things that have happened to you. You just put it in a different context.”

Nearly three years removed from Iron Maiden’s 17th album, Senjutsu, and 19 years from his last solo effort, 2005’s The Tyranny of Souls, Dickinson is as enthusiastic as ever about the music he performs—and in this case, the ambiguity behind it.

From April to July, he’ll hit the road with his solo band, performing tracks from his personal discography around the world, before taking a brief rest and jumping back on Iron Maiden’s The Future Past World Tour through the end of 2024.

Below, Forbes speaks with Dickinson about The Mandrake Project, songwriting, and contemplations on life, death and fame. He breaks down his songwriting, talks film, and explains how inspiration can strike anywhere—especially in a graveyard.

Let’s start where the record ends and talk about the final track on the album, “Sonata.” It’s definitely not like any song you’ve released before. Would you say that’s the peak of the emotional weight on this record?

Emotionally speaking, that is the heaviest track. It’s a weird one because that performance was done probably 25 years ago. 80 percent of the vocals on that song were a stream of consciousness one evening in the studio—it’s the only take. That’s it. We just kept that lurking somewhere and put it in the bottom drawer and never dragged it out until it resurfaced in 2014.

There’s a philosophy in Japanese culture called “wabi-sabi,” celebrating the idea of transience and imperfection. I learned about it from a tattoo artist named Kiku who draws on all of his designs without a stencil. I think that philosophy can apply to these moments in music, right?

That’s right. It’s the same thing with vocal takes. You get something that’s just got the right atmosphere. It may or may not be technically perfect, but it’s perfect for the moment for that song. So just leave it. I accept it. That’s the most authentic thing you can possibly do.

[For “Sonata”], it was my now-wife who heard it [Dickinson was married to Leana Dolci in 2023], and she was like, “What’s that song?” I said, “Oh, it’s just something we did… it’s a bit of an oddity.” And she goes, “That’s the most beautiful, poignant thing I’ve ever heard you sing.” I went, “Do you think it should be on the record?” She goes, “Just reconsider marriage if you don’t get that on the record!”

It was obvious it had to be at the end. You couldn’t stick that in the middle of the record. It would throw everything out of whack. Bizarrely, although we didn’t plan it, the album would be a musical journey from start to finish. It ended up that way. If people can afford 58 minutes of their life (that they won’t get back again), just listen to it in one go from the beginning to the end, let it flow over you. Don’t try to fixate on a particular track, just go with wherever that next track takes you. I guarantee you will be emotionally surprised.

Do you remember when you first recorded the song and had that “flow of consciousness?” What was going on in your own life at that time that you were able to improvise this deep soliloquy?

There’s a quality to the first verse which is unrepeatable. I went in there, stuck the headphones on, and basically closed my eyes and thought, “Where am I?” With the music, I thought, “I’m in the dark forest,” so that’s what I sang.

I’m always slightly behind the beat because I don’t know what I’m going to sing next. There’s this hesitancy to that first verse, because in my world, in my head, I’m looking around the dark forest and seeing the raindrops frozen on the trees and the eyes watching me. The dreaming of angels who are asleep here, this is where angels live, in this weird place.

And then the chorus happened, which I didn’t quite realize was going to be a chorus, but because I’m trapped in a dark forest, “Save me now!” That’s it. Get me out of here. And at this point, I still don’t have the full story.

The second verse did not exist when we first recorded it. I was so busy going, “Oh my god, did we just sing that? That sounded great. Oh damn, we’re in the middle of the second verse. I bet the chorus is going to happen again in a minute. I know what to do!” And then I did the chorus again.

By this time [for the new record], I’d come up with versions of the story. This song is a twisted version of Sleeping Beauty, except that instead of a princess, it’s the queen from “Taking the Queen” off Accident of Birth [Dickinson’s 1997 album].

That song is about the death of a monarch. Then when she finally dies and goes on the other side, she gets the karma of all the bad stuff she did when she was the queen and demons come to take her soul away. Or maybe she comes to the other side and that’s her lying in the bed and she’s asleep, she’s dead. And there are all the acolytes around her as they were in the song back in the day on Accident of Birth. And then the king comes back. So the spoken word stuff was all done completely on the fly as well.

I can hear the cogs turning in my brain when I said, “The king returned, all was silent. The body of his frozen queen, tragic, acolytes around her,” which is straight off from the previous lyric from “Taking the Queen.” But I’m seeing these pictures and I’m describing them.

Then there’s the idea that you don’t get anything for nothing. There’s a moment of life when her eyes light up. There’s this idea as well that female beauty is tragic because as women have frequently told me, it is okay for guys to get older and [society says they] get more interesting, but women just rot and they feel it’s kind of a tragedy. So that’s why they’re always doing plastic surgery and this effort to shore up their beauty because it won’t last. And that was the origin of that line, “Your beauty, you will not last, save me now.”

It goes beyond a fairytale. It’s talking about what it is to be a man, what it is to be a woman. In fact, the reason it’s the king and not a prince, it’s because the king comes back, he returns, there’s his queen, she’s dead whilst he’s been away. Well, what’s he been doing whilst he’s been away? And why is he in such a hurry to bring her back? He has to bring her back because without her, he’s not king anymore!

When I went back and we had to put a second verse in, I thought that if we’re going to twist Sleeping Beauty and you have the angel of death appear, sorry, you don’t get to just kiss the bride and she comes back. It’s not the way it works, buddy. There’s a sacrifice. You can’t just bring people back from the dead. But the whole thing, [the king’s] motivation for doing it is not selfless at all. It’s actually selfish, which is again, something that sadly a lot of men have in common.

This is all really an allegory, right?

Always in my stuff. What I aspire to is that it works as a tune. The lyrics work as comprehensible and memorable lyrics. But, if you want to read the subtext, there’s layers underneath that. I do that for my own benefit. I mean, other people may get it. Well, I know other people get it because there’s a scholar who did an entire book, like a thesis about my lyrics. I was reading it and I was just like, “Okay, look, obviously, I’m wandering around in clothes and you just stripped me naked, woman!” She completely nailed it with so many of the references.

Do you think that you’re aware of subconscious feelings that shine through and inform how you write these songs? Or are you literally sitting down, as if to say, “Well, once upon a time…”

No, I mean, well, one of the things about when your subconscious writes things for you is that you are not initially aware of what it was doing, but then after the fact, you can figure it out. You can say, “Ah, I know where I was going with that!” Sometimes it’s so intensely private that I’m like, no, I’m not going to go and say, “I think this is all about X, Y, and Z,” because people don’t need to know. They can infer things. They can use their own imagination, they can use their own interpretation—but [sharing that private information] takes it into the realm of gossip columns.

So, since a lot of your songs are through that mythical or historical storytelling lens, does it give you the ability to be more vulnerable without having to completely let everyone in?

Exactly. You can do therapy via “legend” [folklore/storytelling]. And to some extent, the comic/graphic novel, that’s true there as well. But I’m not going to give away my source material for all the f***ed up things that have f***ed me up over the years and people I know, because it’s raw material for creativity and dramatization of things that have happened to you. You just put it in a different context.

You’ve said previously that in some ways this new album is your most personal one, but at the same time, you’ve got this comic book that’s this fantastical world with sorcery and all this crazy animation. Does that mean you have a Frankenstein lab somewhere that we don’t know about?

Most of us have a Frankenstein lab. The difference is it’s inside of us. Somewhere buried deep in your subconscious is Igor and Baron Frankenstein trying to figure out how to reanimate whatever bit of it has died recently! [laughs]

It’s fun to see the cinematic and cultural reference points in all of your music. Iron Maiden has countless references, from Where Eagles Dare to The Wicker Man. Do you love working that stuff into your own stories?

We’ve got plenty of shameless cultural appropriations. But hey, why not? It’s cool. And people enjoy the experience of going, “Oh, wow. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I thought he was a postman, but he’s a poet! Wow!” [See Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”]

Obviously when I did The Chemical Wedding [Dickinsons’ 1998 solo album], I was dragging William Blake’s bones out of the graveyard into the public eye. It’s a similar thing with the comic, and there’s a lot of little Blake-isms in the comic and in the videos as well, actually.

The Mandrake Project features a lot of moments that are quite cinematic. Some have drawn parallels to Ennio Morricone, the beloved Italian composter of Spaghetti Western fame. Is that a reasonable association?

I wouldn’t dare to compare myself to Ennio Morricone, but I could certainly say, “Hey, look, a couple of bits sound like they should be on the front end of a Quentin Tarantino movie!”

I was definitely getting Tarantino vibes.

The Tarantino vibes, definitely! But by implication, if you’re talking Tarantino, you’re also having a nod towards Morricone as well, because he uses plenty of those little things. And there’s a couple of moments on the record that are like that.

What’s your favorite Tarantino movie?

Kill Bill one and two. I’ve watched those, how many times? I mean, all of ’em. From Dusk Till Dawn. I love that one as well. But that’s more comedic. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, God, I mean, honestly, but I’d have to say Kill Bill, just off the top of my head, mainly because if it’s on, then I am not changing the channel. Otherwise I’m going to be sleeping alone. But his body of work is remarkable. He’s a proper icon of the cinema.

“Resurrection Men” is one of those tunes where if you close your eyes you could see horses galloping…

It’s bongos! I played that funny little riff at the beginning, it’s like Dick Dale surf guitar. As soon as I’d done that, I went, “Okay, that’s really cool. It has to have bongos on it now!” So that’s my bongo and guitar playing debut on a record!

It’s fun because all the songs fit well, but I know you’ve said it’s not a concept album. The tracks all bring different things to the table. But when you listen to it through, it just works.

To me, a concept album is one that’s very literal. It’s a story with a narrator. So back in 2014, the album was potentially going to be that. I moved away from that, funnily enough during lockdown when I had a chance to develop a story more and realized that I actually had two separate things going on. That was great because it liberated the album from having to be in the straightjacket of a story with a narrator, which is kind of a cliche now. The same time, the comic also uses bits from the album and the album uses bits from the comic, they inform each other but they’re not dependent on each other.

“Rain on the Graves” was inspired by a visit to poet William Wordsworth’s tombstone in Grasmere, England. Do you spend a lot of time in graveyards? What is the draw? Do you go for inspiration? To feel the presence of someone you look up to but never met? There’s definitely a niche of people—goths for example—who really romanticize them.

It’s a contemplation. It’s hard to go and sit in a graveyard and not think about the nature of life and death and fame. “What am I here for?” “What am I doing tomorrow and is it important?” “What did I do yesterday and was that important?”

Graveyards are places that cover so many bases. On a lovely summer’s afternoon, some graveyards have a little park bench, and you sit there and it can be incredibly peaceful. You get the same thing on a dark and stormy night. It’s the full Exorcist when you’re in there. So you get all these different ranges of emotions that speak to your imagination. I’m not even sure what it is that it says to be honest with you, but it says something.

This “Rain on the Graves” track, I happened to be in a village where William Wordsworth was buried. So I went to the church and found his grave. It wasn’t overgrown or anything. It was a very nice, neatly tended little grave with a load of iron hoops over the top of it, like a jail cell, which I thought was amusing. “Well, was that to keep him in or keep us out?”

I sat there and it was raining, as it often does in England, and saw this rain on top of his grave, and I just thought, “Is he getting wet down there? Does he know? Does he care? What’s the nature of this? Who do I talk to about what he feels like?”

I imagined if you met the devil in the graveyard and you started having a conversation with him. What would he say? What would he tempt you with?

I think sometimes we all experience these moments when you’re suddenly presented with your own mortality. You’re in worker bee mode and then all of a sudden you’re reminded you could die tomorrow. It’s like, “Oh man! Ignorance was bliss! Why did you remind me!?”

There’s lots of irony about death. When my father died, he died in hospital in Germany, they kept him in the bed. We got there and there he was in mid-snore! I thought he was going to come back to life.

I mean, honestly, he looked so healthy and I thought he was just going to wake up, but he didn’t. And the extraordinary cold, I touched his skin on his arm, and it was the coldest thing I’ve ever felt in my life. Viscerally cold, I mean more than if you put your hand in a vat of ice cubes. It was a cold that went down literally to your soul. And those moments are amazing. As a creative person, you don’t know where that moment is going to reappear, but it will.

Let’s talk about “Many Doors To Hell,” are we getting into total vampire territory here?

It is about a vampire who wants to turn back. She’s a female vampire who wants to be human again. She’s fed up with eating people, with not having a soul. The only orgasm she can ever have is from drinking somebody’s blood. What about just being with a guy or a girl or whatever, flesh and blood, and actually feel what it’s like to feel joy because you’re alive, not undead forever, but alive for a short period of time, and get to feel the joy of life? The only time she can get away with it is when there’s an eclipse. During the eclipse, she dreams that maybe one day something will happen and she’ll be set free of the curse that she’s under.

It’s a fascinating thought exercise, wondering whether or not you’d want to live forever, if that means that you need to watch everyone you’ve ever loved come and go while you continue on for eternity… it’s not for the faint of heart…

I’m not sure it got great reviews, I think it’s quite well done actually, but that’s the theme of The Hunger (1983 film) with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve, where she is a female vampire, very well-dressed, gorgeous looking woman. David Bowie is her boyfriend, and they’ve been together for 200 or 300 years. He starts getting a funny rash on his skin and says, “What’s going on?” And she said, “Oh, it’s probably nothing!” She knows exactly what it is because she’s made him—he is going to deteriorate.

I think it got kind of slightly sniffy reviews, but I found it beautifully filmed and it’s extremely erotic. And also really, it goes to the heart of what it is. In fact, it subverts the idea that guys get more attractive as they get older and women’s beauty fades. In this case it’s the other way around.

Getting back to the current solo incarnation of Bruce Dickinson: let’s talk fashion. The sunglasses you’ve been rocking, they give off a very Blade Runner or John Carpenter-ish eighties sci-fi vibe. Is that what you were going for?

I wanted that Blade Runner sci-fi look. That was actually a look I came up with for the Maiden tour, because it is that Blade Runner look. When it came time to do the photo session for the The Mandrake Project, what I wanted was something enigmatic.

We got a great shot in the graveyard. All of those shots with me and the pyramid and in the weird stone circle, all that was one day. It was a Jewish boarding school which had gone bankrupt. When they were not bankrupt, they spent an enormous amount of money employing an incredibly well-known architect to design a series of futuristic follies. He built all the pyramids and all these brutalist architecture interiors and the weird amphitheater with the stone circle. And it’s still all there because it’s under some preservation order. They can’t touch any of those buildings.

Next door to it was a ruined chapel with a graveyard. And I said, while we’re here, let’s just go and take some pictures. And that was just gold. I was determined not to have any obvious Photoshop stuff on the record. I was like, “No, we’re going to use real photographs because real photographs have meaning.”

I was thinking back to the very first Black Sabbath album.

I stared at that photograph when I was a kid for hours, going, “The woman, what the hell is going on there? What’s in the lake? What’s that funny house?” And I thought, “If I could aspire to something like that, what would it look like?”

And there was the shot of me standing in the graveyard and I went, “Why am I there? Why am I standing there in the graveyard?” That’s the shot for the back cover.

That was the idea of an enigma with the cover and the title, The Mandrake Project. “Is that some clandestine government project? What’s the meaning of the medallion?”

I wanted people to view the album with curiosity. Albums don’t always invoke that, especially a lot of metal records. It’s about, “This cover is going to punch you in the face!” Well, no, this cover does not punch you in the face. This one says, “Open if you dare.”

For all things The Mandrake Project, check out Dickinson’s website.

Follow Derek Scancarelli on Twitter/X.


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