Monsters of River and Rock — My Life as Iron Maiden’s Compulsive Angler is the new book from Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith. Behind the flashy solos and that dominant power stance onstage is a humble man who has spent a lifetime wading the waters of the world in pursuit of balance, tranquility and, of course, some photo-worthy fish.
Even if you’ve never been fishing in your life nor have had any ambition to, Smith’s book is a must-read. Not only does it offer a glimpse into the otherwise private life of the Iron Maiden axeman, complete with its fair share of stories from the road and other band anecdotes, but it underscores the ideals of the sport (he’s more of a catch-and-release angler) and raises the level of understanding as to what makes this a much more enthralling adventure than perhaps many would realize.
As Smith recounts in great detail in Monsters of River and Rock, the excitement comes from the unknown. Sure, some polarized sunglasses can help peer a bit beyond the surface of the water to reveal what living treasures may lie beneath, but nothing is a guarantee in fishing — it’s a game of patience, skill and a little bit of luck.
It’s the understanding that, at any point when you’ve got a line in the water, you could potentially reel in the biggest fish you’ve caught (“biggest” is relative to each species, of course) and it could even be the first time you’ve netted a certain species. That’s where the compulsion comes in, similar to a gambler tempted by fortunes to be had with just one more bet placed on the table.
As mentioned above, Monsters of River and Rock also affords Maiden fans with brief anecdotes about the band — non-stop fishing during the sessions for 2015’s The Book of Souls, writing “Stranger in a Strange Land” as well as what the rocker was up to following his 1990 exit from the band and then his subsequent rejoining in 1999.
Diving into this quiet fascination with angling, we caught up with Smith by phone to discuss the book, a bout with depression in the ’80s and what it was like to watch Iron Maiden perform during his time away from the group.
‘Monsters of River and Rock’ is out now. Head here to get your copy.
There’s a connection between water, cleansing and creativity. I hear all the time inspiration strikes in the shower or while washing dishes. What do you feel that connection is?
You said it there, it is a cleansing thing. As I say in the book, fishing is like meditation with a punchline. I can sit there all day staring at the water and get completely lost thinking about what’s happening underneath the water. I watch the wildlife and the nature. I don’t create when I’m on the bank, maybe the next day I’ll come up with an idea, but it does clear your mind for sure.
Seeing Bruce Dickinson fill up notepad after notepad for his book, did that in any way inspire you to work on a book of your own?
Not directly, no. It started off just sitting around talking with friends and telling stories. Someone said I should write a book, so I thought about it. I wrote a couple test chapters and we took them around to a few publishers and got interest from Penguin, which is quite an established publisher in London. It just seemed to flow, and I really enjoyed the process of writing.
In the book, you start off noting this primal sense to put food on the table. A big surprise for me is that you rarely keep and eat what you catch and enjoy the sport of catch and release. Is fish a regular part of your diet and, if so, why do you still mostly engage in catch and release fishing?
I eat fish every other day and when I catch trout, sometimes I will keep it to eat.
The thing about England is it’s quite different from the United States. I write about my dad in the book and he grew up during the second World War. He used to go fishing with his neighbor in his early teens when the war broke out and the country was short of food so people fished the lakes and rivers to eat. These are what we call rough or coarse fish — they’re not trout and salmon because I didn’t grow up in an area that had those kind of fish — that was for the upper classes and the elite.
The working class ate the rough fish (pike and perch), which my dad did during the war. When it was over and the rationing was finished, people kept fishing for pleasure and that’s what we did. There was match fishing where guys would work all week and that was their day out — they’d catch fish, put them in the net, weigh them and the biggest weight won a prize. It was fairly innocent. That’s the environment I grew up in — you always put them back.
Carp in England is like a religion. Catching carp is equivalent to what people think of large mouth bass in America with all the competitions. It’s the same in Europe with the carp. It’s a very different creature the carp of Europe and America. Especially in England, they’re very old and very weary and there’s not many of them. In the states they’re very widespread and easy to catch — they don’t have the same mystique.
Catch and release is something that seems very anti-celebrity in its humility, which is aligned with the overall persona of Iron Maiden. How do you manage humility? Was there any point in life where you felt your ego start to overtake your identity?
I’ve never been complacent. I’m always striving and always trying, which is what makes me tick — I never think I’ve mastered it, even in music where I’m always trying to improve. I was brought up not to be flashy or showy. Having said that, I get up onstage every night and jump around and play guitar, so there’s something in there that wants some attention.
We’re all the same in Maiden — we’re all down to Earth. It was just our upbringing.
You also mention you’ve dealt with depression in the past. With such a regimented schedule of touring that can be difficult to manage when your time is accounted for each day. What worked for you in managing depression?
I didn’t manage it in those days. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I didn’t have a spouse or my family with me on the road. I didn’t want to worry anyone else with it — you sort of cover it up when things get on top of you and you feel desolate. Maybe you have a couple drinks to try to get through it, which only makes things worse.
I don’t know how I managed to include that anecdote in a fishing book, but as I was talking about the ’80s and touring and it was a part of it for me. It was probably a lack of maturity on my part as well — I was only 24 when I joined.
The great thing is I’ve had a chance to rejoin the band and my mental state is better than it was and I can enjoy every minute of it now. Before I tended to see the glass half full. I had some good times as well, but there were some low points.
Are you familiar with impostor syndrome? (Impostor syndrome is a psychological affliction in which one casts doubt on their own personal accomplishments and/or talents and fears being viewed as fraudulent or undeserving of their success).
I felt that with Maiden in the ‘80s. It’s not uncommon in people who are successful. I’ve talked to people and it’s very common. We all have our crosses to bear and everyone deals with it in different ways. Some people have the tools to deal with it naturally and sometimes you have to get help to deal with it. It’s a bit more out in the open now than it was back then when it was seen as taboo and maybe a sign of weakness as well.
I didn’t mean to include it, but the whole book just flowed out and it felt right to include it. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me or anything — it’s quite the opposite and I’m very lucky.
Balance is necessary for anyone in life. As much as you love it, music is your job where as for many people it is their hobby and their escape of sorts. When you can’t scurry off on tour and get some fishing in, how else do you maintain or achieve balance in your life?
I have a family now. Back in the ’80s I didn’t have a steady girlfriend. Now I’m married and have kids, one is grown up, but I didn’t have a base and was living out of a suitcase for the better part of 10 years. The contrast shows how fishing and getting back into the wild and nature was good for my head, which is maybe why I included the downside of the ‘80s to make that contrast more clear.
During your time away from Maiden, you wrote and performed a little bit, but mostly shied away from music. What did you miss most about the band or even the job of being a professional musician in a massive band?
I didn’t do anything musically for a couple years and I gradually got back into it and realized I needed to do it as it’s a big part of my life. I didn’t really follow Maiden because I didn’t want to get hung up about it and start feeling bad. I got married, had kids, got a house and started writing my own music, and I was happy.
I did go and see Maiden at Donington in the early ‘90s. Steve Harris rang me up and said, “Why don’t you come down and play ‘Running Free’ with us?” So I went down there and I didn’t expect to feel the way I felt. The tour manager brought me up to the side of the stage and I watched a few songs. I got really, really emotional. I wasn’t expecting it, but I was overwhelmed — the guys are playing the songs I used to play in front of thousands and thousands of people.
It was nice to get a chance to rejoin and have a second bite of the cherry.
Iron Maiden, “Running Free” — Live at Donington in 1992
It is a peculiar thing to see your own band after you’ve left. The down side of being in Iron Maiden is you can’t just go catch and Iron Maiden show like the rest of us, so watching them had to be quite unique.
I saw them again at another show and it did give me a different perspective on it. I could look at it as an outsider. When I rejoined the band, I remembered seeing them and remembered some things I’d like to put into the band to cover those things. I brought something I saw that was maybe missing before.
That’s definitely evident on the En Vivo! record — your playing is just phenomenal with the little guitar flourishes on the “The Talisman” and things like that.
I spent time out of the band and had to stand on my own two feet. I played with some very good musicians such as Roy Z. when I was in Bruce’s band. He’s a shredder/virtuoso, and I had to up my game to play with him, so that improved me. Sometimes you get knocked down a bit and you have to get back up and run with it and get better.
When I returned to Maiden I thought I was a better player. I was more on top of it and could enjoy it more.
In one part of the book you noted your insatiable need to fish during the writing and recordings sessions for The Book of Souls. “When The River Runs Deep” is certainly rife with metaphors, but was the lyric, “When the river runs deep and the line breaks” in any way just the subtlest reference to fishing?
No, basically when Steve and I work together, he writes the words and I write the music, so those are his words. If there’s anyone who will never pick up a fishing rod, it’s Steve Harris. [laughs] He doesn’t have the patience for it.
When I first joined the band and I’d go off fishing next to the hotel in America, he’d come over to see what I was doing and he’d shake his head and say, “You must be mad. I can’t sit there for hours doing that.” But Clive Burr used to fish and so did Dave Murray, which I talk about in the book.
Iron Maiden, “When the River Runs Deep”
Iron Maiden were supposed to continue with some more legs of the “Legacy of the Beast” tour this year. How have you used your downtime in 2020? Have you gone fishing more or picked up any new hobbies?
I’ve been doing a lot of fishing. I play tennis a couple times a week, which is another passion of mine. I love tennis and it keeps me in shape.
Commercial fishing is overrunning the ocean, reducing populations, the average size of fish has diminished, etc. Are you an activist for ocean protection and conservation?
No, but I do see what’s going on. It’s a very complex issue because on one hand you’ve got nature and the breeding of these fish, the decimation of habitat and all this stuff — the taking of large amounts of fish out of the ocean. You have the conservation aspect but also livelihoods. However, the evidence is there that the stocks are coming under too much pressure.
In England there’s thousands of fishing clubs all over the country and they do conservation work. They improve spawning habitats, clear rivers of debris and rubbish. You can do your part. Unfortunately, politicians make the other decisions on the ocean and the climate. I’m not a direct activist, but I do my own bit in a way.
Thanks to Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith for the interview. Again, you can get your copy of ‘Monsters of River and Rock’ here and keep tabs on Smith by following him on Instagram and YouTube. Follow Iron Maiden on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify and get their new live record (out Nov. 20) ‘Nights of the Dead — Live in Mexico City’ here.
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