Steve Harris Takes British Lion By The Scruff Of The Neck and Into 'The Burning'
Steve Harris’ galloping grooves have come to define heavy metal bass playing. Canonical Iron Maiden songs like “Run to the Hills,” “The Trooper,” and “Aces High” feature his fleet, two-fingered right-hand technique and unconventional trebly tone, a combination that immediately identifies Harris and helped elevate him to the upper echelon of rock bass. As Maiden’s founding member and chief songwriter, he also wrote the book on the power metal sub-genre of heavy metal. Records like The Number of the Beast , Piece of Mind  and Powerslave [1984, all on Capitol] forged a powerful template that continues to influence metal bands to this day. Now, more than 30 years later, Harris’ songwriting and bass playing continue to evolve — and although he may be more apt to choose solid grooves over the wildly kinetic bass lines of his youth, his clanky tone remains remarkably unchanged.
In 2012, Harris released British Lion [UME], his first-ever solo album, which was really more of a side-project than solo endeavor. But the record was a bit disjointed, musically speaking and production-wise. It seemed to leave many folks wondering why Iron Maiden’s leader and main songwriter would need a side project. After all, Maiden was his band, wasn’t it? In January 2020, he answered such questions with The Burning [Parlophone], the incendiary debut of Harris’s four-piece band British Lion. The Burning quickly put to rest any misconceptions about the validity of the band and the musical direction they intend to forge. The production is tight and coherent, the songwriting terse and focused, and the performances simply electrifying. Harris, though unmistakable in tone and attack, is not the songwriting engine in British Lion: He leaves the bulk of those duties to singer Richard Taylor and guitarist David Hawkins (British Lion also includes guitarist Grahame Leslie and drummer Simon Dawson), which results in songs that are more classic rock than phantom of the opera.
The Burning bursts out of the gate with opening cut “City of Fallen Angels,” a tune driven by Harris’ unrelenting eighth-note clank. Later, on “Lightning,” we get a taste of Harris’ familiar pedal tones, reminding us of the legendary bassist undergirding the music. And while these songs’ melodic structure and musical arrangements are a world away from his home base in Iron Maiden, the songcraft on The Burning provides a surprisingly complementary foil for the galloping groove-meister’s unique style. We caught up with Harris, who was candid, affable, and as usual, a bit self-deprecating.
Why does Steve Harris need another band besides Iron Maiden?
I wouldn’t say there’s a need for it, really. I just felt that the songs that were worked on before, back in the ’90s, had to see the light of day. And the only way to really make that happen was to take it by the scruff of the neck and be in the band. That’s how that first album came about. Then we toured, and I’ve just been loving it and enjoying playing clubs. Obviously, Maiden can’t do that [play clubs]. So, I’m able to play massive places with Maiden and clubs with British Lion. And also, British Lion keeps me fit and in trim for Maiden. I don’t like having too big a gap in between tours — mentally and physically, this keeps me in good shape.
Do you approach bass in British Lion differently than in Iron Maiden?
I’ve always approached songs, whether Maiden or British Lion — it’s whatever the song needs, or doesn’t need, in some cases. It’s dictated by that. The songs in British Lion are shorter, which isn’t a bad thing. Maiden’s stuff, particularly over the last few years, has been more prog-based, sothere wasn’t much point in going that direction with British Lion. But the influences for both bands are basically the same — UFO, Thin Lizzy, Wishbone Ash, the Who — but Maiden [has been influenced] a lot more by prog stuff lately.
On The Burning, the production is much tighter and the material more defined than on your British Lion debut. Do you think that’s the result of touring for a few years?
Definitely. Obviously with the first album, we hadn’t really played together. But we toured a lot on that first album, and it’s evolved into what it is now. The Burning is a lot more of a reflection of what we’re like live. And that’s why I’d still like to get a live album out of some of that first-album material. I’m proud of that album; it was meant to sound like that ’70s style — it’s what we went for. I think, if we have a live album, it’d be more representative of the way we are now. So, that would be nice to do, in the future.
Did you record The Burning live, in the studio, or did you overdub tracks?
We recorded live as a band. Some of the stuff was done straight after touring, so it was all fresh. It’s much more how I would like to do things. I’d love to be able to write and record the way Maiden do, but we don’t have time to do that. At least this is kind of halfway there, with the recording techniques.
Between Maiden and British Lion, it seems that you are recording live in the studio more frequently lately.
We actually always recorded somewhat live in the studio, trying to recreate what we do live, which is not an easy thing to do. Even back in the analog days, we were doing that. And in some ways, we had no choice, because you only had so many tracks to work with. You’re just trying to capture the essence of a live performance, and it’s very difficult. Hopefully you get it as close as you can.
Are you writing a lot of the songs for British Lion, or is it collaborative?
They’re collaborative, but they’re basically driven by Richard Taylor and David Hawkins. They bring ideas to the table, and we go from there. Grahame [Leslie] evolved one of the songs, writing-wise, which was an older idea [“Last Chance”], and another song, “Land of the Perfect People,” was [written by] Richard himself, and that goes back awhile as well. All the rest is later stuff. But it has to be driven by those guys, because if I start writing a song, I’d probably end up wanting to do it in Maiden, so it’s best to start with their ideas.
When you’re listed as the sole writer on a song, clearly the music and the lyrics are yours, but are you also writing the vocal melodies and guitar harmonies?
Yeah. I do the vocal melodies and all that stuff. Sometimes when I’m writing I might take a melody that I think is a part for a guitar and change it to be a vocal melody, or it might be both. An early song, like “Phantom of the Opera,” started off as a riff, and then I put the vocal to it, but I just do it by feel — whatever feels right.
How do convey those ideas to others? Do you play an idea on bass or sing it to them?
I work it all out. I play bass chords as well, but I’ll usually whistle or hum the melody for the vocal, write the words out, and then I’ll show Bruce [Dickinson] what it’s to be sung like. Sometimes he’ll say, “Oh, these are difficult words to sing.” I suppose I’m not a singer, but I go by the melody more, anyway. I think it works well in the end result. It’s not always necessarily in his comfort zone, but he’s all right with it. He has a little bit of a moment sometimes, or we’ll have a little bit of a laugh about it. Sometimes we go, “Wow, that word is really difficult to sing.” What can you do [laughs]? He does a great job singing ’em, so. . . .
I’m pretty meticulous about getting the melodies and the words to the syllable, really, because I think the melodies are important. And if the melody is that strong, the vocal delivery needs to be to that melody.
Do you demo your song ideas?
I’ve never really been one for demos. I just prefer to go naturally with what’s going on at the time, and I don’t like things set in stone. Some of the other guys like doing demos. I tend to get a hold of them and change them a bit, but I prefer writing just ambiently, acoustically, because you can take it wherever you want it to go.
On The Burning you are producing with Tony Newton engineering. How is that different from an Iron Maiden record, with Kevin Shirley producing/engineering?
Tony does our live-out-front sound for British Lion, so he knows the band really well. It’s a natural thing to go in and do that with him. He’s top notch and a good guy to work with, as Kevin is too, but Kevin doesn’t do our live sound for Maiden, so that’s different. Tony is very familiar with the British Lion sound, because he’s mixing it live.
Were there any adjustments going from playing stadiums with Maiden to clubs with British Lion?
I actually love it [laughs]. I like playing ’em all. I like playing massive places, and I like playing clubs. I like that close contact, as well. Hopefully we’ll be able to return to both soon.
Do you see any evolution in your bass playing over the last 40 years or so?
I had a bit of a miracle on the tech side of things with British Lion, because Tech 21 made this gadget [Steve Harris Signature SH1 preamp/DI] for me, since I can’t take my gear everywhere. It’s an amazing piece of gear. I can’t believe it. I don’t normally say things like that, but I truly believe in it. I couldn’t believe it myself when I heard it. It reproduced my E-V [Electro-Voice] speaker sound. When I toured in Canada in November with Coney Hatch, Andy Curran’s Ampeg rig is as far removed from my sound as possible, and I played the Tech 21 through it and it came out so close to my sound, I was amazed. I was like, “This can’t be real” [laughs].
That’s a convincing testimonial.
At first I thought maybe it was a one-off, but they were able to reproduce [my sound on a consistent basis] — so, basically, we decided to market it. I don’t mind putting my name on something that I use, and I knew I was definitely going to be using this. I’ve even been using it as a DI, as well, when Maiden tours. It’s been an absolute godsend, because it means that we’re able to tour in other parts of the world where E-V speaker cabs are not easy to rent — in some far-flung places of the earth where it’s difficult to transport any gear, I can use the Tech 21 unit.
You use flatwound strings, and yet you’re known for a bright, trebly sound. It’s a bit of a contradiction.
It is. The unfortunate part is that I have to change strings every gig. It’s because I sweat so much onstage that they just go dead. That might happen with roundwounds as well, but having said that, the flatwounds also stop all the screeching when you’re playing quieter, slower stuff. And that’s one of the reasons I stopped playing roundwounds—the screeching, and also chopping your fingers up a bit. I love the flatwounds. It’s not for everyone, I suppose. They’re such a heavy gauge that they tend to bow the neck unless you have a really solid neck, like I have.
There are some pretty intricate bass lines on earlier records, like Powerslave and Piece of Mind, and nowadays I feel like there’s less intricacy and maybe more emphasis on groove, if that makes any sense.
Yeah, I think you’re right. I think it has changed a bit over the years. I think it’s just down to the song. Obviously some of the songs, weirdly enough, have become more technically minded, more prog, and yet the bass playing has been maybe slightly less complex, but that’s because there’s more time changes going on and I didn’t feel the need to do stuff like that. Also, there was a period of time, especially before the first album came out, when we only had one guitar player. That maybe had something to do with the bass fitting in and playing more—to fill the space up. I think it has changed, and I think you’re right, you’ve noticed that it has changed a bit, not quite consciously—unconsciously, really. It’s just down to the songs. I play whatever is needed for the songs, or not needed. I think sometimes you can overplay as well as you could possibly underplay, but to me, the dynamics of the song are what’s most important to me.
Hear Him On: The Burning, British Lion [2020, Explorer1 Music]
Bass 1971 Fender Precision (white w/West Ham crest, Badass bridge, Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounder pickups)
Rig Alectron preamp, C-Audio SR707 power amps, Marshall 4×12″ speaker cabinets with Electro-Voice EVM12L speakers
Strings Rotosound SH77 Steve Harris Signature set (.050, .075, .095, .110)
Accessories Tech21 Steve Harris Signature SH1 preamp/DI