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Shetland Lives / From Brighton to Brae for rock musician who enjoyed chart success in 90s

‘There’s been a lot of history of great music in Shetland, so if I could link that up with a bit of Brighton, that would be good fun’, guitarist and music educator Bruce Dickinson says after moving north

Bruce Dickinson on stage.

HIS band reached number one in the UK albums chart in the 1990s, and they also supported global rock heavyweights like Van Halen, Bon Jovi and Guns N Roses.

Musician Bruce Dickinson also later co-founded what is now the hugely successful British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM).

But it is a case of Brighton to Brae for the guitarist and educator, whose family has moved to Shetland – further highlighting the pull the isles have for people seeking a better quality of life.

“Lifestyle and the nature, different priorities and slightly less materialism and a bit less rat race,” he replies when asked why he and his family have made the move to Shetland.

“It’s a bit of a contrast to my working life, which is quite full on.”

Estate agents and local agency Promote Shetland have both highlighted the increased interest from people in moving north over the last year, with the pandemic perhaps realigning people’s priorities.

Dickinson – no connection to the Iron Maiden singer of the same name – is perhaps one of the more intriguing cases when it comes to folk who have recently moved to Shetland.

His band Little Angels formed in the 1980s but achieved success the following decade, reaching the summit of the UK albums chart after signing to Polydor Records and performing in venues like London’s Royal Albert Hall and Wembley Stadium.

They briefly reunited in 2012 to perform at the much-celebrated Download Festival at Donington.

After the band broke up 1994 as they went “out of fashion” in the rise of grunge, Dickinson shifted his attention to music education, running the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford and co-founding the BIMM group of music colleges in Brighton, Bristol and Dublin.

More recently he founded his own music college Water Bear, which is based in Brighton and focuses on the “independent musician”. Among their roster of tutors include members of acts such as Jamiroquai, The Temperance Movement and Vulfpeck as well as session musicians and educators.

Dickinson’s plan is to commute between Shetland and Brighton for a few years, splitting time between the two areas, and travelling in a “responsible way and working around the latest rules and regulations” in the Covid era.

It is a hefty commute, but he can get work done on the plane, he says – and stepping away from the day job hustle helps to view the business with a different eye.

“I can get a bit of objectivity,” Dickinson says. “I run businesses so it’s quite good to be able to be look at them objectively rather than be too consumed by the day to day.

“Geographically it is a [long commute], but practically it’s not too bad. I can get to Shetland as easy as I could get to see my folks in Scarborough.”

A lot can be done remotely, however, such as filming content – if the Brae broadband speed can keep up.

“I find it harder to put in a full day’s work [in Shetland],” he adds, “because I’m looking out at the views, wanting to be out fishing.”

“Everyone has been really lovely and friendly and helpful and made us feel really welcome. We definitely have really valued that. It’s not the same in other parts of the world.”

It is fair to say that living in Brae is a vivid contrast to life in a chart-topping rock band in the 1990s, a time when major labels were throwing cash at albums and grand tour buses.

“We were part of a golden age – there was huge money in the music industry then, because it was before file sharing. We supported everybody who came through, from Aerosmith to ZZ Top, Bon Jovi, Van Halen.

“It was a different lifestyle. There was a lot of excess still then, with some of those American bands, and some of them were quite down to earth, and sometimes it was really, really crazy.

“I wouldn’t change a thing. Me and my wife have been together since those days.”

He also cites Van Halen – one of the best selling rock groups in history, who created tracks like Jump – as the craziest tour buddies, and in particular guitarist Eddie Van Halen.

“I don’t think bands behave like that anymore,” Dickinson says.

“I feel very lucky to have lived through it, but I don’t miss it at all.”

Now Dickinson’s heart lies in music education, and giving young performers the tools to make a splash in the scene.

“My job in life is to improve music education, higher education specifically,” he says.

Dickinson has more recently formed the Water Bear music college.

“I think there’s some really good stuff going on in Shetland in terms of music education as far as I can see. It’s very well provided for. For the size of the island and the population, it’s amazing.

“I really like collaboration and hooking up musicians with other musicians. There’s been a lot of history of great music in Shetland, so if I could link that up with a bit of Brighton, that would be good fun.”

He has no doubt become one of the most decorated contemporary musicians in Shetland, but don’t expect to see Dickinson rocking any local stages any time soon.

His music gear has not made the trip up north with him, and it appears fishing rods are more likely to see action than the guitar.

“I’m more like a tennis coach – I’m working with a lot of young musicians and a lot of young guitar players, so I don’t feel the need to play guitar myself. I know what it’s going to sound like,” Dickinson says.

“I’m not an obsessive guitar player like a lot of my friends are. When I do it, I commit to it and I’ll get in shape for doing a tour or something. But I do fishing for recreation. I’ve done a lot of guitar playing over the years – I could be very relaxed about never playing guitar again.”

Topping the charts, touring with musical heavyweights, founding music colleges – Dickinson has plenty of experience, and he is keen to pass on his advice to young musicians.

He believes making a career out of music has very, very little to do with luck. “It’s to do with an artist having a vision, knowing who their audience in and then having a work ethic and a plan.”

So what advice does he have for any young musician in Shetland? “You’re only one song away from changing the world for yourself and everybody else, but you’ve got to understand what good is,” he replies.

“The trouble for young musicians is, if you can sing pretty well and you can play a bit, you can make average material sound good. There’s no filter now, so you can just put it out, and all your friends and family tell you it’s good. And you hit your glass ceiling very quickly.

“The artists that get through have a higher level of quality control. They understand what good means in the context of modern music.

“It’s all about the quality of songwriting – it always has been, and always will be.”