Home > Interview > Issue #612.5 SAXON Interview

Issue #612.5 SAXON Interview

Mini-Issue #612.5
October 14, 2011

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-I missed the band’s Chicago-area show last weekend (and I am still bitter!) but thankfully I was able to speak with Saxon’s Biff Byford a couple of days ago. – Tim

by Tim Wadzinski (tsw512@yahoo.com)

-Interview w/ Biff Byford (Saxon)
October 12, 2011

Saxon, one of the original NWOBHM bands, has been kicking ass for 35 years, releasing albums regularly since 1979. The current lineup — singer Biff Byford, guitarists Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt, bassist Tim “Nibbs” Carter, and drummer Nigel Glockler — has been stable for a number of years and is making some of the best music of the band’s storied career. The excellent latest album, CALL TO ARMS, was released overseas back in June, and on September 27 in North America, and the band is currently touring here to support it. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the classic DENIM AND LEATHER album, so there is certainly quite a bit going on in the Saxon camp these days. I was able to chat with Mr. Byford this week to get caught up.

[Note: Biff had a busy day of press and I was his last interview. When the call scheduled for 7:30 was late, I got a little worried. I emailed the PR folks at 7:47 — Saxon joke there!!! — but then the phone rang a few minutes later and off we went. Phew… – Tim]

DETRITUS: First of all, congratulations on a spectacular new album. I really, really like CALL TO ARMS quite a bit.

BIFF BYFORD: Thank you very much. It’s doing well. It took us by surprise a bit, really, the way people love the album. Even moreso in the US, actually, it’s really great.

D: What led to a full North American tour this time out? You guys don’t tour here for every album.

BB: No, we sort of delayed the album in America so we could tour on the release date. That’s what we wanted to do. Because you can tour here, and we do all right, but it’s much better when the album’s out. You get the full force of the promotion, all the PR people working on it. It gives everybody something to talk about, doesn’t it? Rather than just talking about the band all the time. Yeah, we like the album, and I think this album seems to be a little bit special. We’re obviously in a good place at the moment, really.

D: Unfortunately the only time I ever got to see you was back in 1998 when you were touring the US for UNLEASH THE BEAST. Have you done a number of full-length American tours since then?

BB: Not really, we usually just come in and play our strongest cities, like we’ll come in and do New York and a few shows in Texas, and then usually go off down to South America. We really wanted to make an effort this year to tour in America on the album’s release. Actually the attendance and the reception has been fantastic.

D: As far as the set list, I was supposed to see your Chicago-area show but I couldn’t make it, so I don’t know what you played. I know this is a big year with the 30th anniversary of DENIM AND LEATHER…

BB: Yeah!

D: I know you played it in its entirety in some places. But when you come here, since you don’t get to tour very often, do you do something different with the set?

BB: Well we play for about two hours, for a start. We do a couple of songs off of [1983’s] POWER & THE GLORY, you know we just feature that, we do a bit of [1985’s] INNOCENCE IS NO EXCUSE, and obviously we do all the big hits from the ’80s, really. Because we don’t tour often, we really want to please the audience. And we are playing five or six songs off the new album. It’s difficult, really, to do a set list.

D: I imagine! I was just looking over your discography. In my review of CALL TO ARMS I said Saxon is one of the few bands that really has been consistent and strong for so long, supporting true heavy metal. I wonder if you ever come across US fans who want you to play more of the newer stuff, and not just the ’80s stuff.

BB: We do, we do. We get people who want us to play “Battalions Of Steel” off the last album [2009’s INTO THE LABYRINTH], “I’ve Got To Rock (To Stay Alive)” off [2007’s] THE INNER SANCTUM. But, you know, we can’t play for five hours. (laughs) But you know what I mean? It’s difficult, really, for our American fans. We played “Battalions Of Steel” in Chicago, and some of the newer stuff. We are trying to make it a good mixture of songs.

D: I don’t envy that task… Getting back to the new album, I see you co-produced it with Toby Jepson.

BB: Yeah.

D: How did you cross paths with Toby, and why did you choose to work with him?

BB: Well Toby used to sing with a band called Little Angels, who were like what they call “Brit Rock,” in the ’90s. He was a huge Saxon fan when he was young, a teen-ager basically, or actually smaller than that — he’s from a different generation. He had some great ideas. I had the idea to do this album a bit more organic, you know, with less samples and less Pro Tools jury-bunkery [I really do think that’s what he said. – Tim], less keyboards and choirs and, you know, a hundred guitar overdubs. He wanted us to make an album more in the spirit of the ’80s, which has got more of a “live” feel. So things are worked out before and the songs are written in such a way that when you record them in a big room, you know, it sounds great. And that’s what we did. He controlled the performance of the band and I controlled the arrangements and what parts people played. So it was a great partnership.

D: It was interesting to me because I’m familiar with his work in Little Angels, and I just saw Dio Disciples here in Chicago…

BB: Yeah, he’s on that tour, singing four or five songs. He’s not singing enough, actually. He’s great. Toby is a bit of a cross between Robert Plant and sort of a, I dunno… He’s a really great singer.

D: I had no idea he was a metalhead, but here I see him working on your album, which sounds great, and I saw him doing the classics with Dio Disciples.

BB: He’s a total metalhead! He likes that early blues rock influence, you know, and the punk influence that we had back in the ’80s. So he wants us to go back to that because he thinks that’s what the fans want. And obviously he’s right. (laughs) I can’t really argue with that. The album’s already sold nearly twice as many [copies] as our last one. So really there’s no contest there.

D: Wow, great — congratulations. Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new album. The lyrics of “Back In ’79” make it seem like a sequel to “Denim And Leather.”

BB: Yeah, it is. It’s “Denim And Leather” revisited, because that’s what we wanted to do. I wanted to sort of go back there in the zone of that working class person in a rock band. You know, we’re obviously talented musicians but we’re still within the ranks of our friends and the people that are out there on the streets. I just wanted to get back to that. Toby wanted me to get back to that style of writing, like “Back In ’79,” “Ballad Of The Working Man,” “Surviving Against The Odds,” that type of thing.

D: “Mists Of Avalon” is one that stuck out to me, because I’ve been on a King Arthur kick. Throughout all your albums, and being British of course, is this really the first time you’ve ever written about Arthurian legend?

BB: Yeah it is actually, it was kind of fun to do. I was gonna call the album — thing is, Iron Maiden came out with a song on their last album [2010’s THE FINAL FRONTIER] called “Isle Of Avalon,” and I thought, “Aw, sh*t.” I was gonna call the album EXCALIBUR but that sounded a little bit cheesy. So the record company encouraged me to go with the “Mists Of Avalon” idea that I originally had. So I’m sort of glad I did, really. But yeah, it tips its hat a little bit to the prog rock thing, you know? I love that song. I love playing it live, ’cause I get to sing different styles in that song.

D: The songs “When Doomsday Comes (Hybrid Theory)” and “No Rest For The Wicked” are going to be in a movie?

BB: Yes, they’re going to be in a movie that goes into production next year. They’re just waiting for the actors to become free. But yeah, “Hybrid Theory” it’s called. It’s a British film and the director [James Erskine] is a huge fan, and thought that we should be on some film soundtracks.

D: So they sought you out and requested a couple of tracks?

BB: Yeah, they sought us out. We’ve had a bit of success on some video games, like, you know, “Grand Theft Auto” and things. They just wanted a British band — more of a “cult” band than, say, AC/DC, ’cause they get a lot of soundtrack stuff — so yeah, it’s really great.

D: Then there’s a song like “Afterburner” that just comes out and kicks your ass for a few minutes. Is it easier for you to write a song like that, rather than something that has more parts, or is more progressive?

BB: For me, lyrically, I have to have a topic. That topic is about an aircraft carrier; that’s what’s really where the song originates from. You know, the planes taking off from an aircraft carrier with the afterburners on full thrust. But yeah, it’s that sort of thrashy, thrash metal stuff that we write a lot, from “Motorcycle Man” [on 1980’s WHEELS OF STEEL] to “To Hell And Back Again” [on 1980’s STRONG ARM OF THE LAW], all that sort of quite punky, thrashy stuff. We still love to write it, really.

D: You’ve always been the band’s chief lyricist, right?

BB: That’s right, yeah.

D: With all your albums and all your songs, is there anything you haven’t written about that you really want to?

BB: I don’t know… I might do a song about the Mayan / Incan empire on the next album. (laughs) Not to set you up, where it goes… I mean, the guys have to come up with a fantastic riff which sort of brings me to that point, you know what I mean?

D: Is there any topic that you would just never write a song about?

BB: Eh, we don’t do a lot of “sleaze rock,” you know what I mean? Yeah we don’t do a lot of, what can I say, “sleaze rock,” basically. We tend to really… It has to be about life, or anthemic, that means things to people. That’s what we seem to be good at. On this album that’s where we tried to stay. In fact “Hammer Of The Gods” is a classic Saxon track. Fantastic Paul Quinn riff that opens the song. It’s a Doug Scarratt riff on the verse, so the two styles blend together perfectly. It’s a song about Vikings, you know, so it’s a classic Saxon song, really.

D: What is the glue that holds the band together? You’ve been doing this so long with remarkable consistency, as I said earlier.

BB: It’s probably me that holds it, that glues the band together. (laughs) I’m really enthusiastic about everything to do with the band, and music. It’s probably me. I don’t mean that in a sort of, you know, macho way, but it’s probably me that keeps everybody on their road to awareness.

D: It doesn’t seem like you guys ever take breaks. You’re always on the road or working on an album.

BB: We’ve got 10 days after South America. That’s all right. (laughs) We’re gonna take January off, I think, and have a rest. Then we’re gonna write a few new songs, I got a few ideas in my head. So we’ll write a few new songs in January, and then try and get back into America. That’s the plan, maybe to keep the album out there, floating around, you know, selling a few copies every day. That’s what we need to do.

D: So there are — hopefully — no retirement plans in the foreseeable future, like some of your contemporaries?

BB: Not at the moment, unless somebody gets ill — that’s always a problem. But at the moment, no. We’re still climbing mountains.

D: I’m glad you said that!

BB: (laughs)

D: As far as the 30th anniversary of DENIM AND LEATHER… A lot of bands have done the 25th or 30th anniversary thing lately, where they re-release an album or play it live in its entirety. You put out an album a year, basically, throughout the ’80s. So are you going to do 30th anniversary celebrations for each, over the next few years?

BB: Well, we’ve done two or three shows with a full album. It’s generally just a section within the set that we play — ’cause these albums are only 23 minutes long anyway. (laughs) So it’s just a section within our set where we play an album. So it’s not really [where] we go on stage, play the album, and then go home. It’s just integrated within the set. I suppose in that respect it’s easy for us to do it. There’s no plans to do it in the near future. We did it in Japan — we did the DENIM AND LEATHER album a couple of months ago — and we did it on the cruise to Miami we did. [Note: The band played WHEELS OF STEEL and STRONG ARM OF THE LAW in their entireties on this cruise. – Tim] But apart from that we’ll probably do it on special occasions, maybe.

D: That was the 70,000 Tons Of Metal cruise. What was that gig like? Was that your first one?

BB: Yeah, that was the first time we’ve ever played on a ship. It was a bit… Yeah that was a bit crazy. It was great, though. I mean it was really sort of a fantastic experience actually. I’d recommend it to anybody if they can afford it. (laughs)

D: Were you able to interact with the fans?

BB: Yeah, we got to wander around the ship meeting the fans. There was no VIP area or anything — I suppose that’s the only thing you could do, really. We had a great time. We were partying with our mates. I mean, a lot of bands on there were our friends — Blind Guardian, Uli Jon Roth, and people like that.

D: I saw some of your UK live dates back in April were done in conjunction with charities. Can you talk about that?

BB: For charity, yeah. We did quite a bit for the children’s charity.

D: What was the band’s connection to the Nordoff Robbins and ChildLine charities?

BB: Well it was actually Rod Smallwood, Iron Maiden’s manager who we’re mates with, who put me onto it. They wanted me to do a bike ride across Cuba but I couldn’t do it because we were doing the Miami cruise thing. So to make up for that I’d come up with the idea of doing a charity where people come in and watch the soundcheck and have photographs taken, and they just pay, you know, £10 or I think it was £15, £15 cash on the day. So they came in and saw the soundcheck and took photographs. Yeah, it was really successful, actually. We were really surprised.

D: I thought that was a great thing. Had you done charity work in the past?

BB: Yeah, we’ve done a little bit with record sales and things. But no, we’d never done anything [like this] — I think we’re the probably the first ones to do it, actually. We might roll that out again next year. It was quite successful. We raised about $15,000 or something. Not too bad, yeah?

D: That’s great — well done! Let’s end with a cliche question. What’s your all-time favorite Saxon song, and why?

BB: My all-time favorite Saxon song? I dunno… It’s got to be “Princess Of The Night” [on 1981’s DENIM AND LEATHER] probably. It’s just a great song.

D: I thought you might say that one. I just read somewhere those lyrics were inspired by some childhood memories?

BB: That’s right, a train at night used to cross from our village. I used to sit and watch it. I was fascinated by the fire and the steam and power. That’s really what the song’s about. We play that song around the world and everyone knows it.

D: Thank you very much for your time!

BB: Ah, great. Thank you very much for doing the interview. Let’s just keep whacking at the new album. (laughs)

D: Take care and have a great rest of the tour. Come back to Chicago — I won’t miss it next time.

BB: Yeah, that would be great if we could. Okay, cool — nice talking to you.

-So there you have it, proof that Biff Byford has had heavy metal in his blood since he was a wee lad. 🙂 Thanks to Biff, Saxon, Leo Loers, and Chipster PR for arranging this interview.

Relevant links:


“Hybrid Theory” (film)

Toby Jepson

Nordoff Robbins – Music Transforming Lives


*** OUT ***

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