INTERVIEW AND LIVE PICS BY MARKO SYRJALA
Saxon was one of the early leaders of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, alongside such bands as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, and Motörhead. Saxon was originally formed in 1977, and the band enjoyed significant success in the early/mid 80’s when they released the classic albums WHEELS OF STEEL, DENIM, AND LEATHER CRUSADER. After four decades and several line-up changes, the band is still going strong! THUNDERBOLT, the band’s 22nd studio album, was released on February 2, 2018. The group visited Finland last month and performed at Nummirock Festival in Kauhajoki. I had the pleasure of sitting down with vocalist and founding member Biff Byford and discussing the new album, touring, and other things in life.
Biff Byford: Right, it is.
THUNDERBOLT is an excellent continuation of the strong albums that the band has released in this decade. If you compare this album to the previous releases, is it something you would like to pick up?
Biff Byford: I think it’s probably a little bit less diverse this album. It’s perhaps a little bit more focused, heaviness-wise. And then, obviously, there’s a song, “The Roadie’s Song,” which is quite a rock and roll. But I think most of the album is the serious guitar playing.
In my opinion, it’s not as heavy as your previous albums. It’s more melodic and sounds a bit like an 80’s Saxon. But that’s just my opinion.
Biff Byford: Well, it’s one of those albums everybody seems to like, but everybody has an opinion of what they think it is. So, I don’t get involved in the opinion game. If people like it, that’s good enough for me, so. I mean, the Americans loved it. The British love it. The Scandinavians love it. So, it’s selling really well, and the songs go down great life. We’re really happy that it’s a successful album and people like it because a lot of people say, “Oh, it’s your best album ever. It’s your best album since–” but when we make albums when any band makes an album, you can’t predict anything. You can only make sure that the songs are the best possible songs you could write at that particular point in time. We took a lot longer on this album writing the songs because– just how it went.
You started writing this album in the spring of 2016. Initially, the band was supposed to be on tour with Motörhead then, but the plans unfortunately changed.
Biff Byford: Well, it didn’t happen because Lemmy got sick, and we lost him. But, yeah, the album was planned back then. But I took quite a long time to do the lyrics on this album and to arrange a lot of the songs, but I was just trying to stay focused over a long time. We worked with Andy Sneap quite a bit on the song choices and what we were going to do because Andy produced this album on his own. Whereas, before, he’s co-produced it with me, so I think Andy wanted to get it right if you know what I mean, so.
Speaking about producers, I have noticed that you have used many different guys in the past. So, you never had the “sixth” member on the band as many others had?
Biff Byford: Well, not—Not on the last three albums. Andy’s done the last three albums. And earlier, we had Pete Hinton on two albums, and we had Charlie Bauerfeind on at least a couple of albums, so no, that’s not exactly true.
But in the ’80s, it was different?
Biff Byford: In the ’80s? Yeah, in the ’80s, it was a record company thing going down in the middle ’80s. Definitely, yeah.
MORE ABOUT THE SONGS
Lyrically, THUNDERBOLT is full of stories about mysticism, myths, and history. Among other things, King Arthur, Merlin, and the Vikings are mentioned there.
Biff Byford: It’s a pagan album. No! [laughter] It’s just the way it panned out. The thing is, we don’t write a record. We write separate songs, and then it comes together as an album. So, when I’m writing the lyrics for “Sons of Odin,” I’m not really thinking about THUNDERBOLT, if you know what I mean. There are two different mindsets for that. So, the fact that there are a few songs on the album about gods and ancient religious beliefs is just really a coincidence, to tell you the truth.
So, there’s no deeper meaning in those lyrics?
Biff Byford: Well, it goes deep in that I’m telling stories, and I’m singing about the Vikings and Saxon’s sort of settling in lands and “Sons of Odin,” it’s about their way of life. In the last 20 years, people discovered more about the Norseman sort of history and their legacy. Most of it is being found in England, actually, a lot of the jewelry, many of the writings. So, it’s interesting to write about that sort of history. But I don’t go into the specifics. For me, it’s all about the legend of that, yeah, what people think about it. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. So, I can’t really say what the Vikings did, or a warrior said, or how many women he had or had not.
But you like to write about those myths and legends?
Biff Byford: Yeah, I do. I like the whole structure of it. It’s great to sing about.
NOT A NOSTALGIA BAND
Unlike many groups from the ’70s or ’80s, Saxon continuously releases albums, and the band is also playing new songs live. How important is it for you to create and do something new instead of just a nostalgia band?
Biff Byford: Well, I think we stopped being a nostalgic act in 1990. Usually, when we’re on an album tour, we typically have an array of songs off the new album, which is quite unusual. I mean, today, we won’t do that because we haven’t got two hours to play. But today, we’re boarded by four songs off the new album, which is not usual at the festival. Usually, festivals are the greatest hits things, but we’re doing a few things. We do a few things like “Sacrifice” “Battering Ram.” So, yeah, we mix it up a bit, and we’re not just going to come here and play “Wheels of Steel,” “Princess of the Night,” and go away. But we will play those songs, but we mix them up with the more recent songs as well.
So, you want to keep it fresh?
Biff Byford: Right. Unfortunately, we don’t play Finland a great deal, so there are some great Saxon fans here. We got followers in Finland been with us for a long time. And we don’t play a lot in Finland, really, so it’s nice to come and play Finland even though the weather’s fucking shit! “Laughs”
The album came out in February, and the band has been continuously on tour since then. So, there are no sights that Saxon is slowing down?
Biff Byford: No. We’re not slowing down. I don’t think we will slow down, to tell you the truth. I think the whole– our music’s not slow if you know what I mean. We don’t write happy music. We write fairly in-your-face metal. So, we don’t have a lot of major cord changes in there, if you know what I mean.
Last week, I was in Sweden Rock, and the headliners were Judas Priest, Ozzy, and Iron Maiden. For God’s sake, all those bands are like 40 years old, and they’re all from the UK! “Laughs”
Biff Byford: Yeah. Well, we might be our niche here. Maybe, that would be good.
That’s great to hear. It’s a fantastic festival.
Biff Byford: It is amazing. But Sweden Rock is unique, though, because they have an excellent feeling for what people want to see at the festival, I think, more than– sometimes more than other festivals. I mean, I’ve seen some great bands at Sweden Rock, random things like Ted Nugent? Great. That sort of thing, they can get bands to come over from America and play shows, so it’s great, but yeah, I would have liked to have been at Sweden Rock this year, but we were playing somewhere else.
MORE ABOUT ANDY SNEAP AND JUDAS PRIEST
A couple of months back, Saxon toured in the US with Judas Priest. Of course, you are long-time friends with the Priest guys, but now your trusted producer Andy Sneap is playing guitar with the band. How was it to see him with the band on stage?
Biff Byford: He did really well, Andy, yeah. He played great guitar, played a few solos. Yeah, doing good. He’s doing good. He was very focused for the first few shows. It was really good, really good. He looked great, got on well with everybody. It was great. I mean, he’s a good boy, Andy.
Many classic bands have been forced to change some of the members to keep the game going. What do you think about that?
Biff Byford: I don’t really know. And that’s a personal choice. That’s down to them. I don’t really have a thought on it.
But with the Priest, how did they succeed in replacing an important member of the band?
Biff Byford: It’s a bit unfair because Glenn Tipton did play quite a lot of shows in America. On the encore, he did three songs, so I think everybody liked that. So, he was there, basically, so I don’t think you can count that. But I think sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. But I think it worked great with Judas Priest. Especially when Glenn came on for the last three songs, that was absolutely fantastic.
He’s a part of the family still, so it’s a bit of a different situation.
Biff Byford: Yeah. It was great. It was great. And Andy did the album, so obviously, he knew all the new songs. And he’s a big Priest fan anyway. They’re probably his favorite band of the ’80s.
What’s also a new thing for the band is that you have a new manager. You worked a long time with Thomas Jensen. Why did you decide to make a change after 16 years of cooperation?
Biff Byford: I think the thing is, I mean, Thomas had children and got married, and I just think that it was time. We were getting bigger again, and I don’t think he had the time to manage us 100% of the time. So, it wasn’t a nasty split, though. I mean, Thomas knew exactly what was happening. We talk to Thomas. I speak to Thomas all the time. So, I don’t think he was happy about it, but it wasn’t like a bad split, you know what I mean? But he still works with Saxon because he was my manager for a while. So, we still have dealings with Thomas, and I talk to Thomas at least once, twice a month, just friendly chatter or talking about other things. So, it wasn’t a—Adam Parsons, our new manager, also talks to Thomas. So, yeah. I think it was just time for us to move on and time for him to move on and spend time with his family.
No hard feelings?
Biff Byford: No. No. None whatsoever. No. I mean, I think he liked to manage Saxon, but I just think he just got too much when he, his wife, was ill as well, so it was just taking a lot of his time.
And maybe he wasn’t expecting that Saxon become a bigger band again?
Biff Byford: Maybe, no, I don’t know. I don’t know? But we had a great time with Thomas; we did, he was fantastic, a great guy. We had some really fun times with Thomas. So, yeah. No hard feelings whatsoever. We have great memories of Thomas.
THE AGE QUESTION
If I’m right, you’re 67 years old now?
Biff Byford: That’s right
What is your main motivation to still carry on, make records, and tour around the world? Where does all that inspiration and energy come from?
Biff Byford: Well, let’s see [laughter]. Take it day by day.
This question came to mind because your long-time colleague Phil Mogg of UFO just announced his planned retirement a few weeks ago, and he’s not that much older than you.
Biff Byford: Well, we toured with Phil twice. He was singing great. I just think he’s lost the will to tour. I just think he’s had enough, do you know, I mean? He didn’t really like touring anymore. I think he quite likes the one-offs, but I don’t think he likes the bus because he doesn’t drink anymore, and he doesn’t take drugs anymore, and I think it’s good. I mean, he was singing great in America. He really was. And we’re all massive UFO fans. They influenced Saxon massively. So, it’s always sad when somebody retires, but I think he’s not retiring because he’s lost his voice or can’t perform. He’s retiring because he’s just fed up with touring, I guess.
He doesn’t retire because somebody asked him to do that.
Biff Byford: No. No. That’s right. I think he might do a solo thing, maybe. I don’t know. But he’s a good man. Funny, funny guy, and we love him.
How about you, have you ever been thinking about it? Or are you the kind of guy who will go on until somebody says, ”Please, Biff, come off from the stage?”
Biff Byford: No. I think what governs Saxon is that if a band remains successful and keeps moving forward, then we’re all right with that. I believe that if we start to stagnate a bit and not come up with ideas anymore, then I think that’s probably the time to stop. But you have to be careful what you do or say because the thing is with the music business generally, there are no guarantees. The only thing you have in your past, whether it would be the THUNDERBOLT album or WHEELS OF STEEL. We’re only ever as big as your last album or as great as your last show. That’s the secret. You can have 100 fantastic shows, and then one really shitty show, and that’s the show that everybody remembers. That’s how it is.
The last time I saw Saxon live was in December of 2015 when you were on tour with Motörhead. And that was one of the last shows Lemmy ever did.
Biff Byford: Right. It was, yeah.
On the new album, you have the song “They Played Rock and Roll,” dedicated to Lemmy. What’s the story of that song, and when did you first get the idea to write it?
Biff Byford: Yeah. I had the idea to write the song about the first tour I did with Motorhead. I started having the idea before Lemmy died, but I thought, ”Yeah, when he died. I’m going to try and finish the lyrics for that because it was a great moment for us, and it was a great moment for Motorhead, 1979. It was our very first tour, and the first album came out. Motörhead, they were high on the charts in the UK, which helped us a lot, so the song is about that. There’s always been a connection between Saxon and Motorhead, and that’s what the song is about.
So, in the end, what is your best memory of Lemmy?
Biff Byford: Lemmy. I mean, Lemmy was very well-read. And we got along very well because you had the same interest, history. I mean, he was a funny guy. He had a really, really dry wit, and I’ve seen him throw people out of the dressing room on various occasions. I don’t want to tell you deaf stories about Lemmy, but he was a great guy, and we have great memories of Lemmy. You could meet Lemmy and not meet him for a year, and then you could just strike up the same conversation you had a year ago. That’s the sort of guy he was, and, yeah, he was a good guy initially, and I’d sit in the dressing room with him, be playing his gambling machine, losing and then winning so. That’s what he liked to do. That was his thing. He loved to gamble. He was a unique guy.
I remember that in Helsinki, no matter how ill he was, he went to Casino after the show and stayed there until 04:00 AM.
Biff Byford: That’s what he liked to do.
He was there with his assistant, who helped him with everything. He must have been in horrible pain, but he was still really friendly to everybody. I felt so sad seeing him like that, but at the same time, it was great that he always wanted to spend some time with the fans and other people.
Biff Byford: Yeah. But the thing is, you have to remember there’s nothing anybody could have done at that point. Nobody knew what he got. Of course, he knew, yeah, but nobody knew. So, there was nothing anybody could do. I mean, what are you going to do? Put him in bed. He was good. He did the last show in Germany, and we were ready to do the shows after Christmas, but it never happened. I thought he was a hero. We did a lot of shows together in America and some shows he couldn’t do, and he finished, and I thought he was great. I mean, a lot of people would have just gone away, and he used to walk on stage and apologize to the audience. “I can’t go on, and my back’s hurting.” Some people went a bit crazy, but most people just went, “Yeah, fair enough.” So, I think he was a bit of a hero in the end.
The last question. You have a fantastic tour coming in the fall with Y&T and Raven.
Biff Byford: That’s right.
How do you like doing package tours like that?
Biff Byford: Oh, we think about it. Our management thinks about it and what would be a great package. I mean, Y&T is a great band, and they are Saxon fans so, we know them quite well. So, they’d rather tour with us instead of doing a club tour. So, it’s a good package, and Raven hasn’t been around for a long time, I don’t think. They do a few festivals here and there.
Back in the ’80s, there were many grand package tours, and it seems that those are coming back.
Biff Byford: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. From a fan’s perspective, I think it’s great that the package tours are coming back. Yeah. That’s what a thing was in the 80s. You get more volume for a ticket.
Alright, Biff. The time is up. Thanks a lot and see you soon.
Biff Byford: Yeah, good to see you.
SAXON LIVE PICS FROM NUMMIROCK FESTIVAL