“It’s never too late” was what Biff Byford told me about becoming a new fan of his enduring metal band SAXON. It’s also apparantly “never too late” for an iconic, old school metal band to release a truly top notch new album. If you’re a rivethead from way back you’re probably well aware of the bands legacy, nineteen albums and counting. The bands’ catalog is vast and powerful, songs like “Denim and Leather” and “Motorcycle Man” haven endeared them to pretty much every band that dares to consider themself “metal” including of course Metallica. I hung my head a little bit and hid behind my typical American hard rock record collection when Biff called recently on tour. There was no need of course as Biff is one of the kindest legends in the biz. He was happy to tell me about the amazing new album and what it takes to keep such a metal monster alive after all these years. Read on…..
Q: The new album is great…how is the American tour going?
A: It’s goin great actually. We had some packed houses on the west coast and the album seems to be selling good. All is well. Things seem to be picking up momentum and going well.
Q: I’m almost scared to admit this to a METAL LEGEND….I have always been aware of SAXON but only recently became a fan of the band. For whatever reason I never actually heard too much of your stuff in my own little warped American rock collection. I’ve since had to beef up my collection. How does that make you feel to hear that after all these years people are still “discovering” your classic band?
A: I think that’s fuckin perfect John….it’s never too late is it? I think that’s great and that’s the most important thing for any band, constantly reaching new people and retaining the original fans. We’ve got a great new album and we are getting some great attention from press. I think it’s very cool that you’ve just got into the band, that’s what it’s all about. I think this is the most people have been psyched up about SAXON in a long time which is amazing, the old fans seem to really be reactivated and into it as well. We’ve been at this for a very long time so to still be turning new people on at this point is fantastic.
Q: To be fair, your new album “CALL TO ARMS” doesn’t sound like a band’s NINETEENTH album. It explodes out the gate with some serious balls out rocking on the first three cuts. Did you set out to blast some eardrums from the starting point?
A: We wanted to get back to a little more of that classic 80s vibe. We do have some darker albums in our catalog like Metalhead but this time out there was an intention for sure to get back to our roots as they say. The way we went about it was to try and do a lot of the recording much more “live”. It was all recorded in the same BIG studio but it was done much more live in the bass and drum recordings with all of us together. That was really the best way to get that vibe, that old feeling of getting together to play some great old songs. The team that we used to make the record did an amazing fuckin job too, we have a modern edge but still sound like the classic British band we are.
Q: The album is basically as classic looking as it sounds. How did you come to end up using this classic British war poster?
A: It was my idea really. We were going to call the album something else. We were going to call it “Surviving Against The Odds”, that was the other title. When we decided to go with “CALL TO ARMS” instead I knew that I really wanted to use that poster. It’s such a great image, he’s like the “Uncle Sam” image you have here in the States. It’s a title with dual meaning because the song describes a soldier’s feeling being away but it’s also a call to arms for rock fans, for SAXON fans.
Q: Forgive me, I ask a LOT of merch questions because I am a KISS fan by trade.
A: Oh, its okay really!! We like all that stuff too and I think it’s important to fans. We work with our Art director and pitch in on all those things like t-shirts and all of that. We are constantly working on new designs and it is fun. We have 3 or four new new shirts for this American tour alone and a great bunch of people at our website www.saxon747.com who pitch in with other ideas. A lot of really cool things if I do say so. We like coming up with interesting takes on that thing.
Q: I know one of the reasons Metallica and others hold you in such high regard is the amazing guitar riffs that seem to flow out of SAXON Endlessly. After all these years how do you keep coming up with catchy yet heavy riffs to add to the stockpile?
A: We just keep things really BASIC when it comes to the songwriting. WE do things old school and go into a room and jam together and they just seem to happen. I’ll play bass and Nigel plays keyboards and our bass player plays drums so we’re all pretty involved and it’s usually a situation of jamming. We might go into the situation with a few guitar riffs sure….I might have a few titles or lyrics but a great deal of this album was created on the spot, in the studio. I think with Saxon it is often a case of “less is more” to be honest. As for the lyrics, I write most of them and I read a lot of books, I like history a lot, motorcycles, classic things. I do like our guitar riffs so it’s satisfying to work on that end. I don’t want a really great riff to be wasted on a terrible title (laughs). A song like “Afterburner” on the new album is a fast, thrashy song so the lyrics need to fit that riff. We do get into the fantasy, Excalibur stuff lyrically sometimes, we really like a lot of topics other than the occult.
Q: Looking at the song credits for “Back in 79” begs the question…how in the hell did you get that many people into a room to record those gang vocals? It looks like a helluva lot of people there.
A: (laughs) Yeah….79 people actually. We had over two hundred turn up. It was a great time really we just cracked a bunch of beers and had a party really. It was a great day everybody turned up, a lot of bands came in too. There were a lot of younger acts that came in.
Q: We’re finding that a lot of the metal fans are in the select group of people who still want to hold the physical product, even in the MP3 age. You guys came up with a great design and layout for this album with the cover and the entire packaging. Is that something you enjoy workin on?
A: Yeah. We do like to do that end of things. I do think that while some of our fans download there are a lot of Saxon fans still like to hold the product and go over it all whether they actually go into a store and buy it or just order it on the internet. They like the cover art and all of the packaging. We also included this fantastic bonus CD of the 1980 Donnington show also, it was a rare recording but the sound is phenomenal. We found it recently and it had been lost for 30 years. WE mixed it and I Thought it would be a great idea to give it away free with the album. There’s a song on the album called “Back in 79” and this really is a snapshot of sorts of the band at that time. That whole time was so exciting with all of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands coming up. I Think if you listen to it back to back with the new album you can draw a comparison. We were happy to include it so people could check it out.
Q: I’m sure you’ve been asked this question so many times but what does it feel like to actually play a gig at a place like Castle Donnington and have that mass of people responding to you? Is there even a way to describe it?
A: It was great! It was of course the first major festival of the eighties and we were like the young bloods on there. Everyone else was really big and established, Scorpions, Priest, Rainbow. We just went up there and STORMED it….it was magnificent. Fantastic feeling.
Q: You guys were one of the first bands to play back to back gigs there, how has the festival or the gig at the venue changed over the years?
A: It changed to Download and adapted a bit but it’s pretty similar once again now. They’ve gone back to a more classic rock lineup so the last time we played year before last it was like us, AC/DC, Judas Priest. We hope to back back there this next year. It’s the same site so it’s pretty special to people and I suppose we have a special relationship with the site also.
Q: After nineteen albums is it almost impossible to come up with a setlist? Are there certain songs you know you have to play in order to escape alive?
A: The setlist needs what it needs and people would be so upset if we took a lot of those songs out so we just tend to play a little bit longer. We play at least two hours so that’s plenty of time to hit most of them, we don’t want anyone going home without hearing the best we have.
Q: Now that you’re getting a chance to play gigs here in the States again are you running into a lot of familiar faces you havent seen in many moons?
A: Yeah! We’ve met a few people. Last night we met a lot of people who were following us in the 80s and had lots of stuff with them. It’s great. We’ve had quite a few British fans make the trip over to see us here in the States.
Q: That’s another level of dedication. To make that trip says a lot about your legacy. Thanks for talking to us Biff and for taking it easy on me for being a new fan!
A: Thank you! We’re happy to have you on board!