It is not hard to spot Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith making his way down Windsor’s Thames Street: he is head to toe in fishing clobber. The 63-year-old’s first book, Monsters of River and Rock, is a beautifully written account of his experiences in the 100m-selling hard rock band and a seemingly very different life as “Iron Maiden’s compulsive angler”.
He has spent two years writing it on planes or in hotels. “There’s a lot of downtime in the band,” Smith considers over a coffee before our visit to a favoured fishing spot on the Thames, a metalhead barnet creeping from underneath his fisherman’s hood. “But when you hit the stage it’s like a rush. Angling is the same. You’re sitting and waiting for those big old wily fish to come up on your bait, but when the action happens it’s incredibly exciting.”
In the book, Smith explains that as soon as he gets Maiden’s tour schedules, he looks for nearby rivers. He has carried worms on the tour bus (“When you open it up to get the luggage out after a couple of days it is not a nice aroma”) and often fishes at night. He has even slept on the riverbank, much to the bemusement of early-morning walkers.
Once, on tour in the US, he drove out to “some reservoir in the middle of nowhere, and didn’t catch a bean”. Then the hired car wouldn’t start, and he only made it back to the gig in time because two guys passed and picked him up. “They were drunk as lords,” he chuckles, “so it was a bit hair-raising, but even at my age I like the adventure of going off into the unknown. It’s an escape from our increasingly regimented lives.”
We head for the river, where Smith meticulously sets up two rods as twilight dances across the water. “I sometimes bring a book and don’t even look at it,” he says. “Fishing just absorbs me.”
Smith grew up in east London and was taken fishing in childhood by his father, a painter and decorator. The sight of a “beautiful silver roach” in the polluted gasworks stretch of the Grand Union canal got him hooked before fishing trips to Hertfordshire broadened his horizons. “I’d never even seen countryside before. I’d wake him up, going: ‘Come on Dad! Let’s go fishing.’”
After hearing Deep Purple’s Highway Star in his mid teens, hard rock took precedence and angling did not seem appropriate for a would-be rock god. “I couldn’t imagine [Purple guitarist] Ritchie Blackmore trying to catch a carp,” he says.
Smith’s mate Dave Murray got a guitar and joined Maiden first. By the time Smith followed in 1980, they were already playing “big gigs, even stadiums in Europe. I went to that from basically a pub band [Urchin]. I never had that interim.” In the book, he refers to “shyness numbed by alcohol”; he quickly succumbed to the rock’n’roll lifestyle.
“Most of us did. Not all the band, I must say. A couple of the guys were straight arrows, which is probably why we’re still around. I’m no Keith Richards, but for a couple of years I did go a bit mad,” he says. “Because it’s so crazy. At first I just threw myself into it, running on adrenaline. But then you’re touring seven, eight, 10 months at a time. The lifestyle wears you down.”
Even in those crazy years, founding bassist Steve Harris – a West Ham fanatic who can still play a football match before a gig – led the rockers through fitness workouts: “Some of the guys hadn’t been to bed, I’m sure.” Gradually, in the mid-80s, Smith stopped smoking, started playing football and “got back into those things – like fishing – that I used to do before. That balanced me out.”
Fishing also helped him with depression, which affected him in his teens and 20s owing to “social anxiety. Fishing gives you something to focus on, which helps you out of it. In my youth, I put everything into establishing myself [as a musician and songwriter] rather than go fishing. But then maybe if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have done as well.”
Suddenly there is a beep on Smith’s rod: he has got a bite, and carefully reels in a 3lb chub, beaming with delight before letting it swim away. Smith departed Maiden in 1989 but rejoined (along with returning singer Bruce Dickinson) in 1999. Success brings the freedom to fish for sturgeon in Canada or bonefish in the Caribbean. “It’s a long way from the canal with my dad but yeah, I suppose it is the same experience.”
He stays fishing in the darkness, long after midnight, landing another chub and two barbel. “I sometimes think: ‘Am I mad?’ Creeping about the riverbank in wind and rain at two in the morning,” he chuckles. “But I love it.”
• Monsters of Rivers and Rock is out now, published by Virgin