Renowned Airforce Drummer and Former Iron Maiden Member, Doug Sampson, Expounds on Their Latest Album and the Noteworthy Return to the Cart & Horses for a Singular Performance

NWOBHM Icons Airforce Set to Soar with Highly Anticipated Album Release...


Interview by Mark Lacey


Doug Sampson’s earliest musical career saw a short, but important tenure behind the kit for Iron Maiden, and featuring on their earliest studio recordings. His journey as a musician was hugely influenced by his older brother Sam, whose own tenure with Sam Apple Pie, saw him supporting the likes of the Faces in their heyday.

After leaving Maiden, Doug played with many groups before becoming part of Airforce in 1987; starting another series of chapters that have spanned the next almost 40 years. When the band’s core line up of Chop Pitman, Tony Hatton and Doug Sampson re-united in 2016 after a period apart, it kickstarted a renewed focus for the group, and introduced new fans to their musical legacy. Releasing demos of their earlier material as the ‘Judgement Day album, brought a call for fresh material, and ‘Strike Hard’ quickly followed. Recent tours alongside British Lion, Alcatrazz, Raven, and Girlschool has seen Airforce’s audiences grow further, and with a new album on the way, 2024 could well be their pinnacle year.

Doug talked to about his life in music, and a busy year ahead for Airforce.


MGM:  When did you first become aware of the drums as an instrument and decide that was something you wanted to play?

Doug: All my life, really. Since I was a kid, I’d be tapping around on comic books with a pair of pencils. So, it was always in the back of my mind. I got to about 14 and I thought, I’ve got to really take this up now. My brother was in a professional band and I was telling him about it and he had a word with his drummer, and he got me one of his old kits. He brought it round my house and set it up, much to my mother’s dismay, and that’s where I started practising and upset all the neighbours. You’d try to dummy them down, but it never really worked. That’s how it started.

MGM: How much of an influence was your brother, who was in Sam Apple Pie?

Doug: He’s eight years older than me. I’d always been in a house full of music; geezers coming around with long hair and guitars. I’ve been brought up with it. It was always in the house. It was just a normal thing to do, really.

MGM: Apart from your brother’s band, who else were the key drummers at the time that got you thinking about playing?

Doug: That was The Who, Keith Moon and Zeppelin with Bonham, Ian Paice, all the real big names. It was just a matter of watching these people, and going around all the local clubs. There was a lot of clubs around at that time, and a lot of semi-pro bands and pro-bands, and you’d just watch the drummers. There was Cook’s Ferry, Wake Arms, and the Red Lion down Leytonstone High Road. You could go and see a band virtually every night of the week. It was so much going on at that time. There was quite a heavy rock circuit going on in them days.

MGM: When did you go from being a 14-year-old, trying your hand at the drums, to playing in bands and playing pubs? Was that pretty early on?

Doug: My first band was called Bear’s Breath. I was about 14. That turned into The Jets. We were doing a lot of end-of-term school dances and talent contests and things like that. But then we all went our separate ways. A couple of blokes lost interest in it. I was left on my own, and so after about six months I thought, I’m going to have to get something going here. I’d run out of people to ring up. I was looking through the Sounds music magazine and I saw this blues rock band looking for a drummer. They asked me down for an audition, and took me to a place, Brimsdown, Enfield way, and that’s where I met Steve Harris because he was their bass player. I done the audition, and they wanted me to join. They auditioned some really good drummers, but they saw me full of piss and vinegar and I was young and enthusiastic, so they said, we’re going to give you a go. And that’s how it all started. I would say that Smiler was like our, and Steve’s, apprenticeship. We were doing pubs around East London. It was like our learning curve.

MGM: Was Smiler a covers band at that point or were they playing originals?

Doug: It was mainly covers; ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown, that sort of stuff. It wasn’t mainstream cover stuff; it was album tracks and that. But it was a good band. We done a couple of our own songs. I think we done ‘Innocent Exile’, one of Steve’s songs. I remember playing that. But it was a fairly good band. And then Dennis (Wilcock) decided that he wanted to go off and do something else. Steve said that he was going to form a band, and he asked me if I was interested, but I said, I was going to have a break from music for a little while because I was out of work at the time. We still kept in touch. Then he got Iron Maiden together, and I went down the Cart & Horses and it was great. It was packed and full of energy and aggression. That was with Dennis Wilcock. I never actually saw them with Paul Day. I used to go down there more or less every week, and go and see them. That went on for a couple of years.

MGM: East London seemed to be a bit of a hub for club and pub music at that time. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was really starting to take its roots too. What did it feel like to be around that?

Doug: You just felt it growing. You didn’t really know anything else, so it felt quite normal. It just took off. But, looking back on it, it was great to be a part of; just being there with it. Magazines like Sounds took it on board, and gave it its name, NWOBHM. It was exciting times, and there were so many bands coming up through the ranks, just giving punk a run for its money.

MGM: You joined Iron Maiden in early ’78, and played with the band for almost 2 years, including playing on their first recordings; the Soundhouse tapes. But you moved on from Maiden very shortly after, citing the stresses and strains of playing a lot of shows. How do you look back on that time now?

Doug: I always look back on it with great fondness and great memories. There’s no regrets. I’m just really pleased that I had the opportunity to do it when I did. In the long run, I knew at the time, that for health reasons, I couldn’t have carried on the way it was with the touring and that. In my opinion, I think it worked out the way it did and the way it should have done.

MGM: What did you do after you left Maiden in December 1979?

Doug: I was doing a bit with Tony Parsons and his brother. They had a band called Press Gang, and I was doing a bit of work with them. I kept my hand in. I didn’t officially join anybody, but I was with doing stuff with different bands. Chop had a band called EL34, and they wanted to do a demo, and he asked if I’d be interested in doing some drumming for him. That was the first time I’d done anything with Chop. A bit later on, I can’t remember exactly what happened, but we took the demo round to Steve’s and he had to listen to it and he said, you need to get another singer, so I said to Chop, let’s forget about EL34 and get a different band together. I had a world with my brother, Sam, and we got him in. That’s when we done the next demo, which was ‘Wargames’, ‘Falcon’, and ‘Blood from a stone’.

MGM: Airforce goes back a lot further than many people will realise, partly because all of your album release have been relatively recent. Did you put any music out into the public domain back in those early days between ’86 and ’97?

Doug: We never really pushed anything out. We touted around the tape that we had to a few people, but I don’t think there was anything on general release at that time.

MGM: After that first 11-year stint, Airforce paused for about 10 years until Chop re-energised it on his own. But it wasn’t until 2016 that you, Tony and Chop got back together. What was the catalyst for the three of you deciding to play together again?

Doug: Well, we got that demo, and there was a chap called Erwin Lucas, and he wanted to get all the ex-Iron Maiden members together and put a CD together with different projects on. He got in touch with Chop and said, have you got anything I could put on this thing called ‘Origins of Iron’? We had them three tracks with Sam. So, they put the tracks on the album. It seemed to be going down really well, and it was quite successful. So, Erwin said, I’ll get all the stuff that you’ve done over the years together and put that out as an Airforce album. That was the first album that we’d done. It went on from there. We started doing a couple of gigs, and it just seemed to be going down really well. The rest is history.

MGM: Airforce were invited to play at Burrfest about that time, and you’ve subsequently done several tours with British Lion, and you’ve performed in the US and Europe too. It’s only recently that you’ve got your singer, Lino. Amazingly, your ‘Live in Poland’ CD release was his first ever show with you. That’s some feat.

Doug: It was just absolutely mental. We rehearsed the night before we went there. The Italian chap that we normally used couldn’t make it. So, Chop went down the Cart & Horses to see Lino’s band, the Iron Beast. It’s a Maiden tribute. Chop asked him if he’d be interested to come to Poland with us to record a radio show, and he said, yeah. He learnt all the songs, came down, done one rehearsal, and the next day, got on a plane over there. That was the first time I ever played with him.

MGM: Lino’s voice is very reminiscent of Bruce Dickinson. Fans will be amazed to learn that he is also a policeman in his native homeland, Portugal. But of course, since that first show he has really cemented himself in Airforce. What do you think he brings to the band?

Doug: He’s brought a completely different dimension to it. His idea of portraying the songs is so unique. He picks out different phrasings and it’s quite amazing what he’s done with our original songs and how he’s improvised and improved them. He’s the second or third singer we’ve had that’s singing these songs, and he’s put a different spin on them completely. He really thinks a lot about what he’s doing. He does a really bloody good job.

MGM: You have a new album coming out later in 2024, and this will be the first studio album to feature Lino on vocals. What can you tell me about the album?

Doug: I can’t tell you the title yet, but we’ve got a couple of tracks that didn’t go on the last album, ‘Strike Hard’. We didn’t want to leave them out because of the way Lino’s changed them. They really were worth re-recording. Some of the songs were recorded around Pete Franklin’s studios. Unfortunately, he died. It was very, very sad news with Pete. He was the guitarist with Chariot, and was quite seriously ill. Chop contacted him and he said, come round and he gave Chop all the equipment and drives. I think that’s the last time he saw him. But it was a tragedy, really, because he was a good mate as well as everything else. I didn’t know him as long as Chop and Tony. They had a lot of history, but it was a very sad time.

We’ve got some of Pete’s recordings; some were actually complete, and some were partly done. We took them to Jez Coad, who done our first recordings with Sam. He’s come a long way since then days. He works with Simple Minds and a few big names. We asked him if he could help us out and finish this album. After all these years, he said it’d be great to do it. We went around his place and we’ve literally finished the album with him. We were very nervous about who we’re going to get to take it on. But as he knew the band from back then, it followed on.

MGM: You mentioned some of these songs were from the ‘Strike Hard’ recordings, which was about 2020, but other songs are freshly written. It must be challenging for you guys to write and record together, given that Lino lives abroad. How does it work?

Doug: We have different ways of doing it. We might come up with an idea, and then Chop will put down a rough mix in his studio, and he’ll send it over to Lino. He’ll have a listen, he might have some words or he might work something out, then it comes back. It’s backwards and forwards. It’s all done online. It’s not a problem for us at all. We’re down the studio most weeks.

MGM: Since you guys reformed, it seems to have really accelerated in the last couple of years. Obviously, you’ve had dates with British Lion, and you recently performed a run of dates with Alcatraz, Girlschool, and Raven. That was a brilliant tour. How do you reflect on those shows?

Doug: The last one with Girlschool was really great. I can’t say any more about it, really. We all enjoyed it. We done some great clubs, met some great people, and we all got on really well. I was quite sorry when it came to an end, to be honest. It was a good tour. The ones with Steve, they’re always great. British Lion always get a good crowd. It’s all mates together.

MGM: Airforce are back at the Cart & Horses on the 21st September. How do you feel when you walk in that venue and you see all the pictures on the wall of those early Maiden days? You must feel a sense of pride to be part of that legacy?

We’ve done a couple of gigs down there since it’s been done up. It’s a good atmosphere. It’s really nice to see pictures there of a time that’s long gone that people still remember, and want to look back on. I think it’s great.

MGM: Will the album be out in time for that show? And will there be other shows being announced?

Doug: Yeah, the album’s coming out on the 30th of August. We’ve got a couple of festivals in France, but we want to try and put a few more gigs together in this country.

MGM: You’re now the tender age of 67, and you’re still playing with a formidable level of intensity. How do you keep that energy up, and what do you do to prepare yourself physically and mentally for shows?

Doug: I practise quite a lot indoors. I’ve got an electric kit, and I keep in trim. I’ve got a couple of greyhounds, so I do a couple of miles walk every day. I don’t go down to the gym, but I just do simple workouts, and just try and keep as fit as I can. I’m not one for getting up at five and running around the block or anything like that. But I do try and keep healthy, and not drink too much.

MGM: Some drummers have a love / hate relationship with electronic kits. How do you find them? They are slightly kinder to your neighbours!

Doug: I’ve got a basic Roland kit. I don’t use it for recording or anything like that, but you can stick your headphones on and put on whatever music you want. It gives you a lot of scope. You can build your own rhythms up around what you’re listening to, drown the drums out, and do whatever you like. That’s the way I work on a lot of our own songs. Chop sends it to me. I play it from my phone, through Bluetooth onto the kit and listen to them and work out stuff. Where I used to live, I used to practise in the garage. My next-door neighbour used to say, I can hear this tingling sound. She didn’t know if I was doing boxing or dancing. You can hear the thump of the pads. I’m in a detached place now and the bloke next door is an elderly gentleman. I don’t think he would hear anything anyway. It’s quite secluded where I am.

MGM: What’s next on the horizon for you? The album will come out towards the end of August, and hopefully we’ll see some more dates announced. You’ve really been building momentum, and 2024-25 should be a big adventure for you.

Doug: We hope so. It’s been a long time since the last one come out. We want to get people back on side again. We have got quite a good fan base. They are quite loyal. It’s something that they’ve been waiting for, so it’ll be great when it comes out.

For more information:

Airforce will be performing at the Cart & Horses (Birthplace of Iron Maiden), London on 21st September:

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Photo Credit: Chris Rugowski

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