By Caroline Paone
Ever wonder what it’s like hearing 40,000 Venezuelan metal fans shouting “Run to the Hills”? Just ask The Iron Maidens who travel the world tributing their favorite band for die-hard crowds. The hard-working musicians get to do what they love. Yes, it’s fun and rewarding being in a metal tribute band, but it requires a lot of preparation and business tasks to fuel their metal machine.
The Maidens have opened for some big named bands along the way, from KISS to Motorhead, and have been featured in high-profile publications including GuitarWorld, The New York Times and Rolling Stone.
Come September, the band will appear on AXS TV live from L.A.’s legendary Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip. The live-music series dubbed “The World's Greatest Tribute Bands,” (http://www.axs.com/greatesttributebands) pays homage to artists from the 60s to the 80s.
All the Maidens live in the Los Angeles area, where their shows have become a popular mainstay for hard rock and metal fans. They also play a handful of U.S. shows outside of California and a large number of dates overseas each year, too. The ladies work hard and play harder, but get serious when it comes to reproducing Maiden’s fierce live shows and iconic metal songs. The Iron Maidens are fronted by Kirsten “Bruce Chickinson” Rosenberg on vocals, Linda “Nikki McBURRain” McDonald on drums, and guitarists Nita Strauss and Nikki Stringfield, who alternate shows to cover the Dave Murray parts.
In between shows, Guitarist Courtney “Adriana Smith” Cox and bassist Wanda “Steph Harris” Ortiz gave GGM the inside scoop about their metal career choice…
GGM: Who were your early hard rock/metal influences?
Courtney Cox: I latched onto Metallica and King Diamond/Mercyful Fate when I was in my early teens. I grew up in the bubble gum-era of the 90s, so hearing music like that was life-changing. It threw me straight into the heavy metal/thrash genres. Besides the entire Bay area/NY thrash scenes, I was into the 80s shredders like (Paul) Gilbert, (Warren) DeMartini, Reb Beach, Vito Bratta, etc. And, of course, there was Iron Maiden with Adrian Smith. I would say Andy Laroque and Adrian Smith definitely shaped my sound and how I approach leads/rhythm today.
Wanda: Steve Harris (Iron Maiden) and Geddy Lee (Rush).
GGM: Courtney, what is your musical background?
Courtney: While growing up, I always used to play around on my grandmother’s piano. I started off in school on the recorder in music class. Remember those things? [Laughs] I just always had a love for music class. When I was old enough, I started on piano. When that became boring, I picked up and taught myself the clarinet and quickly excelled to first chair in the school band. From there I played the violin, flute and any instrument I could get my hands on. When I hit my teens and band wasn’t cool anymore, I just wanted to play guitar. When I heard Metallica on the radio for the first time, guitar was the only thing on my mind. It came out of nowhere really. Just had the urge to play, and play I did. It was all that I did. Within a week I was playing along to my metal albums and so my journey into metal madness began. Rewinding a bit, I did not touch an acoustic guitar until later into my guitar career; it was all about the electric shred machine [Laughs].
GGM: Any other musical influence/styles (early or recent) you want to talk about?
Courtney: I’m a fan of music in general. A good song is a good song, regardless of its genre. While on the road, I listen to various types of music: Whether it’s Fleetwood Mac, Prince, the Beatles to music of the 40s and 50s. Music is endless. I think it’s important to listen to all styles. It’s always a beneficial thing to be well-rounded and educated.
Wanda: Well, I started on upright bass so I also have a background in classical music and jazz. Francois Rabbath and David Walter were a couple of my favorite upright bass players. I still play in orchestras to this day, but don’t play much jazz anymore. It’s hard to find the time to do everything.
GGM: Wanda, when I heard you played in a symphony I was a little intimidated [Laughs].
Wanda: Oh, no, c’mon, I’m a bass player, we’re easy going. [Laughs] We’re the most laid back members of the symphony.
GGM: I’m sure there’s a much different atmosphere playing in the symphony?
Wanda: There seems to be a more serious vibe than playing with a rock band. There isn’t a lot of patience for people who show up late and aren’t prepared, but it’s a lot of fun.
GGM: What made you stay with bass? What do you find attractive about it?
Wanda: I thought it was great that I could play different types of music as a bass player. I remember noticing that I was the only kid in both orchestra and jazz band in elementary school. Cello players only got to play in the orchestra so I thought I was pretty lucky! You could play different styles--it’s easier for you to play different styles. Every style of music has a bass player from jazz to big band to esoteric. [Laughs] It’s like everybody has a bass player so it’s nice to play the different types of music.
GGM: Courtney, what do you find compelling about playing Adrian Smith’s guitar parts? Or is there something you’d like to share about the experience of playing Iron Maiden’s music?
Courtney: When I started listening to Maiden, I immediately attached myself to Adrian’s playing. I was just mesmerized by his melodic phrasing and how he approached each note. The fact that you could tell the two guitar players apart by the tone and note choice was very cool and revolutionary to me when I was a young teen. When we play the material live I really connect to what he was feeling while writing his part. Every Maiden song feels larger than life when we play them and every bend I hit just reminds me of why I fell in love with the instrument and genre in the first place. I love what I do.
GGM: How do you approach reproducing the songs? Do you split up the Dave Murray and Adrian Smith guitar parts with the other guitar players in the band?
Courtney: In the guitar department, I’m currently the only permanent member. It has been that way for the last four years now. The four permanent members have been through thick and thin over the last year and it is just easier to keep it that way. Juggling that many schedules and other bands is quite challenging sometimes. It is my job to split the parts and either give the parts out or teach the parts to the subs that we have play with us. We currently have two subs: Nita (Strauss) and Nikki (Stringfield) on the Dave Murray parts. We usually stick to how Maiden divides the parts, but over the years, I know when I came into the band anyway, that some of the parts are reversed. I decided not to fix that because it’s cool to switch it up sometimes. I’m a fan of Dave, too!
GGM: Do you ever improvise in this tribute band?
Courtney: I improvise all of the time. Regardless if I’m playing in a tribute band or whatever, I am still my own player. I can’t stop myself from playing what I feel inside my heart. After playing in the style of Adrian Smith for the last few years, it is easy to improvise in his style. I know all of his key phrases and note choices so when I go off and do my own thing, it still sounds like Maiden. I’m not saying I do this on every song, but there are one or two that I add my own flare.
Wanda: Since we’re a tribute band, I try to play the bass lines exactly as they are on the CDs.
GGM: How many times have you seen Iron Maiden live?
Wanda: A lot. I don’t have an exact count, but I think at least 10 times. Whenever they are in California, I try to see them.
Courtney: I’ve seen them four times so far.
GGM: When you first started in this tribute band, how did you go about studying the band’s moves or playing styles?
Wanda: Since I first started listening to Maiden, I tried to play those bass lines so this was really just building on something I had already done but just needed to get down better. Watching videos helped a lot.
Courtney: There was no studying involved really because I was already a Maiden freak. When I found out the band needed an Adrian Smith, it was a no-brainer! I already knew everything about him, knew the outfit, how he moved, and all the expressions. We incorporate all that stuff live, but mostly we are just our goofy selves most of the time, making each other laugh, pulling pranks, drinking [Laughs]. Heavy metal!
GGM: If you have seen Iron Maiden live after being in your band, what was that experience like? Did you have a different perspective?
Wanda: After playing in an Iron Maiden tribute band, seeing Maiden live was definitely different for me. I now pay closer attention to Steve Harris and how he plays and moves on-stage. There are little things I notice now that I didn’t pay as much attention to before. For example, I notice that there are times he doesn’t move around as much when he’s playing some of his more intricate lines; watching that actually made me feel a little better because I couldn’t move around much during playing those specific bass lines either.
Courtney: It’s always larger than life. Maiden is one the last bands around to really put on the full stage production like most bands did back in the 80s. It is very rare to see a show on an arena-size stage unless you’re at an all-day festival. So it’s always a mind-blowing experience to see them. It’s also good homework. Every time I see them live, I always catch the small things we don’t do and we fix that! Anything new that they do, we do. It’s also nice to catch up with them backstage if we have the time to catch them walking around. They are very nice guys. It’s also nice to have a day off from playing the tunes [Laughs].
GGM: Courtney, how do you prepare for a Maidens’ show?
Courtney: The band really puts in the time before every show. There are a lot of behind the scenes work that is done every show. Weeks before the show, we flyer the venue every week, send out press releases, buy Co2 for the show, send out event announcements, we spam all the social networks. It is A LOT of work in this band! Personally, before the show, I lose myself in my iPod: listening to music other than Maiden (Saxon, Queensryche, MercyfulFate, and Kreator are my go-to bands). I then just sit at the bar with fans, have a few beers or glasses of wine and just hang out until we go on. I don’t have a warm-up routine other than a few stretches to protect myself from injury. Right before the first song, my adrenaline kicks in, or the alcohol, [Laughs] and I’m ready to go!
GGM: Tell me about preparing the set list and the arrangements for the band. Do you ever incorporate new or obscure songs? I’m sure the fans what to hear the standards “Run to the Hills” and “The Trooper.”
Courtney: Of course they do. We make sure to incorporate the famous hits that everyone knows and loves and then we make sure to add songs that Iron Maiden themselves don’t play live. We also change the set every time we play the same venue to keep things fresh. We are open to the entire Iron Maiden discography; nothing is off limits.
GGM: What if any challenges are there performing live with your type of stage setup…the props…high energy levels?
Courtney: Getting out of the way is definitely a big one! Haha. The Co2 cannons we have on stage are freezing, so when you run in front of one by accident, its fricken COLD. Knowing where all the monsters are is a major part as well. Monster collisions are not pretty [Laughs] they are funny though.
GGM: Describe the crowd at a Maiden’s show, from your perspective up on stage? That must be insane!
Courtney: Definitely. They are loud, energetic, and just crazy. They also know every lyric and riff to every song. They are the best friends in the entire world!
GGM: Do you get a lot of fans approaching you after the shows?
Courtney: Yes. We actually set up a meet-and-greet after every show to sign merch and just say hello and hang out.
GGM: What do you feel is the most challenging Iron Maiden song to play…and why?
Courtney: I always feel like a jerk answering this sort of question because I don’t find any of them challenging. They’re not challenging because I grew up with these songs. They are so drilled into my head that as long as I can sing it, I can play it. That’s the rule.
Wanda: “Phantom of the Opera” because there is a very exposed bass solo in it…it’s not really a very difficult part to play but, as a bass player, you don’t get a lot of chances for it to be “only you” so when that happens, there is a tendency to get a little too worked up before the “big moment” and that makes you more likely to make a mistake.
GGM: Wanda, do you sing backing vocals at all? Is that challenging: singing and playing bass?
Wanda: Yes, I sing backing vocals. It can be challenging singing and playing so usually I’ll sing when the bass part isn’t too hectic. If I have something really intricate to play, then one of the guitarists will sing. We switch off.
GGM: I notice you play mostly finger-style, do you ever find certain songs call for using a pick?
Wanda: Not for anything I’m doing now, but I used to play in this one band, and sometimes they would play more punk style and actually the songs sounded better when I used a pick. But it’s not my preference, but if it makes the song sound better, then I’ll try it. The less stuff you have to think about on a show and as far as gear and equipment is concerned, the better. I am not so much of a technical person. It’s very interesting and I realize these are things I need to know…My dream amp would be just an amp and I could just press the on button and it sounds great. [Laughs]
GGM: What type of bass sound do you strive for with the Maidens? And if you want to talk about a different sound you go for outside of them.
Wanda: I try to emulate the bass sound that is on their CDs so it sounds more authentic to the audience. For other styles of music, I’ll just twiddle the knobs around until I get something that sounds right for what I’m playing.
GGM: Courtney, do you have a favorite guitar pedal or other effect?
Courtney: I’m a fan of my delay and chorus pedal. The trick is to not over use them but they are essential to the 80s arena sound, which I love. I use them on every tune, the trick being to know when it is right to use them and when to leave them off. When used correctly, those two pedals can make a killer tone barring you have the right distortion, which in my case, comes directly from my Valve King head from Peavey. Those two pedals also create a killer Maiden clean tone! My rig is simple and I couldn’t ask for anything more!
Guitarist Courtney “Adriana Smith” Cox
GGM: What is your favorite guitar and why?
Courtney: My favorite guitar, or guitars I should say, as I have two, are my one-of-a-kind Absinthe green Adrian Smith Jackson, and my raspberry Peavey Vandenberg; both are very special to me. The Jackson was made for me personally after receiving an approval from Mr. Smith himself. The Vandenberg was pulled from the Peavey vault and was given to me as a gift. They never leave my side.
GGM: How many guitars do you own?
Courtney: Uggh, I have no idea. I have about eight to nine with me in California, and the rest of my arsenal is currently at home in Philadelphia at my mother’s house.
GGM: What was your first guitar?
Courtney: My first guitar was a black Cort electric guitar that I put red tribal stickers on. I had no idea about guitars. I just got it because it was my nickname [Laughs].
GGM: Who were some of your favorite female guitar players early in your experience?
Courtney: Um, this is also a hard question because I never really had any growing up. I have respect for other female players but never followed any of them. The only ones that I could say would be Jennifer Batten from some of her solo shred stuff and Michelle Meldrum from our drummer’s old band Phantom Blue. Other than those two, I really connected with male players. I credit them with my playing today. I also really enjoy female singers like Pat Benatar, Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, and the singer in my other band Femme Fatale, Lorraine Lewis.
GGM: Wanda, were you inspired by any female bassists when you were learning?
Wanda: Not so much. I’ve heard about Carol Kaye and Suzi Quatro and they are awesome, but I was more interested in (playing) the bass as a lead instrument. So I got into people who played like that. When I first started getting into rock music I was a little bit older, and was into people who played bass more like a lead instrument. At that point in time, I didn’t know of (or realize) any women who did that. There are a lot of female musicians I admired along my path in music, mostly women who performed with "balls" [Laughs]: Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Heart and Pat Benatar. I also looked up to my first music teacher Cynthia Endriss who got me started on bass--she was a violinist but could play bass, too. Andre Baulmer, one of my bass instructors at UCI, also helped me a great deal along the way. Both ladies had a lot of patience and played brilliantly! It's not easy being a teacher!
Bassist Wanda “Steph Harris” Ortiz
GGM: I know you perform in the U.S. a lot, do you perform overseas as well? What is the most memorable or unique place you’ve played?
Courtney: Yes, we play all over the world. We truly are blessed for that. The most memorable place for me so far would be Venezuela. The crowd we had in Venezuela was 40k plus! We were also the first all-female band to ever play there, apparently. How cool right?! Other places that were also memorable for me were Japan, Bali, Puerto Rico, and the rest of South America. I’m looking forward to upcoming shows in Australia and Hawaii!
Wanda: We’ve been to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Quam, Greece, Turkey, Spain (but festival got cancelled). Most recently South America -- quite a bit over the last few years. Brazil, Venezuela. Being the first all-female hard rock band to play in Venezuela was quite a treat. We were also in Peru, Guatemala and Costa Rica last year.
GGM: That must be quite an experience performing all over the world. I heard the fans overseas are really intense and into hard rock. Did you notice that?
Wanda: Oh, absolutely! Especially in Latin America, the fans are so passionate about the music and so enthusiastic. We just feel so very, very fortunate to be playing in front of people who enjoy what we’re doing that much. I feel like I am so lucky [Laughs].
GGM: I heard you played in Iraq for the troops in 2008. That must have been incredible…
Wanda: They were so happy we were there. It was so fulfilling to play for them. They were out there to do a job and it wasn’t a very fun job I’m sure. Just being away from your family, the heat and a place you don’t know. And they were so appreciative that we were willing to go out there and entertain them.
GGM: Can traveling overseas a lot be somewhat grueling? Any experiences you want to share?
Wanda: It can be. I think our most grueling trip was traveling from Thessaloniki, Greece to Istanbul, Turkey. We were on a train for 22 hours. When the gigs were first booked, our manager asked if we would get rooms with beds on the train, and we did, but accommodations in other countries aren't always the same as here. The train "rooms" were more like tiny storage rooms with little bunk beds in them. It wasn't exactly a smooth ride, which made it harder to get adequate rest. It was bit of a rough ride. We had fun though. I wouldn’t have given it up for anything. We all feel really lucky and very fortunate that we get these wonderful opportunities to travel and meet new people and play in front of people that enjoy us.
GGM: Do you have side projects outside of this band?
Courtney: I play in various other bands on the side, mostly other cover bands and such to have fun. I also plan to dive back into the original world when my schedule frees up a bit.
Wanda: We all have different jobs in addition to playing music. That way if it gets a little bit slower, we have a back-up plan. There some musicians that kind of look down on that if you do other things besides music. I think everyone’s different and whatever works for people is whatever works.
GGM: What keeps you going….do you do it for the live thing, creating, playing, etc?
Courtney: The drive keeps me going, that drive to be better, to do greater things, bring happiness and joy to others. Playing is only half of the life of being a musician, the other is performing. People go to shows to be entertained. Nothing makes me happier than seeing an excited crowd just rocking out because those people in the crowd are me when I’m listening to music or at a show. I love what I do and I believe I was meant to live this life the way that I am. I wouldn’t change anything for the world. Long live rock and roll!
Wanda: It’s fun! I do it because I enjoy it.
GGM: Wanda, I know you support promoting music in public schools. Elaborate on why you feel this is important for students.
Wanda: This is a special interest for me because I got my start playing music in public school. If there was no music in school, I’m sure my life would have taken quite a different direction. Having music in public schools helps keep it accessible and affordable for all kids. I’ve also read that the kids who study music end up doing better overall in school.
GGM: What player who is no longer here on earth would you have loved to have jammed with?
Wanda: Since there are so many great musicians that have passed on, it would be hard to choose only one. I remember deeply regretting missing a Buddy Rich concert because he passed away and I never got a chance to see him play live…so maybe Buddy Rich. It would also be fun to imagine what it would be like playing in an orchestra with Beethoven conducting!
GGM: Any advice for someone who wants to enter the music world…or a tribute band.
Courtney: Stay true to yourself. Play music, be in a band, do whatever, because you love it. Also know that no matter how good one person is, there will always be someone who is better. It’s a waste of life to have an ego. We are all in it together. Heavy metal is the law and beer is great! [Laughs] Up the Irons! Also, always have an extra Allen wrench!!
GGM: One last fun question: Favorite version of Maiden’s Mascot Eddie…Vintage or Modern?
Courtney: Vintage, favorites being Powerslave, Somewhere in Time, Aces High, Brave New World and Live After Death Eddies.
The Maidens’ Machinery
Jackson Adrian Smith San Dimas DK (white)
Jackson Adrian Smith San Dimas DK (Absinthe green)
Peavey Vandenberg (raspberry)
Peavey Valve King half stack
BBE boosta grande/BBE sonic maximizer, Boss DD-3 delay, Boss ch-1 Super Chorus, Line 6 wireless relayG50
Dunlop Jazz Tortex 1.14MM
G&L basses, models SB-2, JB-2
Schroeder Superior Sound Cabs
BBE Sound B-Max T PreAmp
QSC PLX 3102 power amp
One made in Romania and a 5-string made in Hungary.
Bel Canto (by Thomastik) strings.
Bernd Dolling bows
For booking info or to find out more about The Iron Maidens, visit: http://www.theironmaidens.com/index.html
Photo Caption: Group shot = (Left to Right) Nita “Mega Murray” Strauss, Nikki “McBURRain” McDonald, Kirsten “Bruce Chickinson, Wanda “Steph Harris” Ortiz, and Courtney “Adriana Smith” Cox.