The legendary English heavy metal band Saxon are back. The band, formed in 1977 in Barnsley, is known as one of the leaders of the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM). During the 1980s, Saxon released such classic metal albums as; “Wheels of Steel,” “Power & Glory,” and “Crusader” and established themselves among Europe’s most successful metal acts. To this day, the band has sold more than 15 million albums, and they still tour regularly around the world. In February of 2022, Saxon will be releasing its 23rd studio album, “Carpe Diem.” It was time to pick up the phone again, and talk to the band’s vocalist, and founder member, Biff Byford. We had an interesting discussion, of course, about the new “Carpe Diem” album, but also his recent health concerns, solo album, the Heavy Water -project, and the future of the mighty Saxon.
First of all, Biff, I want to say that it’s really nice to talk with you again. The last time we spoke was in 2018 at Nummirock -festival. Do you still remember that?
Biff Byford: Yeah, yeah. Up in Finland, yeah?
Yeah, however, a lot has happened in the last three years. Let’s start with something that wasn’t a lovely thing. In September 2019, you became seriously ill and were hospitalized for a while.
Biff Byford: For a little while, yeah, with my heart problem. Yeah, definitely. I was definitely burning the candle at both ends. But, yeah, I mean, that came in, yeah, September of 2019. It was sort of around my solo album release.
When you were recovering from a heart attack, you spent some time in the hospital and apparently started writing this new Saxon album there?
Biff Byford: Yeah. I started doing that– the thing is, I was in hospital quite a long time before anybody did anything. They were doing a lot of tests on me, but it wasn’t like a Hollywood heart attack. It wasn’t the cardiac arrest or anything. It was actually non-acute angina, which I had, and it was basically affecting my heart. So, they had to do a lot of tests because there were a few things they could do. They could put me in what they called stents, which would be a temporary thing. Or they could do a bypass. Well, they went for the bypass. So, I was actually in hospital for about three weeks doing nothing. I just sat there doing nothing, really. So, I was thinking of ideas, writing lyrics and things, and putting ideas together for the new Saxon album.
Of course, heart symptoms are always a serious matter. Did you have to make permanent changes to your life after recovering from a heart attack, such as how to eat, drink, rest, exercise, and so on?
Biff Byford: I mean, it took me about four months, five months to get over the operation because it’s a very big operation. It’s open-heart surgery. So, your whole chest is open. So, it takes a while to get back to– it takes a while to heal, the operation. But, yeah, I’m sort of back to — I’m back to working good now. I think you’re always going to be left with something that wasn’t the same as before because you’re on medication for the rest of your life to stop it from happening again, basically. So that does affect you. There are side effects. It’s very hard to — your weight; it’s been going up or down, all over the place. So just metabolism is weird. But apart from that, everything’s fine. I can sing great, yeah, which is the most important thing, I suppose. And, yeah, I still do everything else. It’s just that it’s not quite the same as it was before.
But you’re still here with us, and that’s the most important thing. [laughter]
Biff Byford: I’m still here, yeah. And I go out on my bike, and I go for walks. And I do work and things. But you’re just always aware that you’ve had this operation, and you can feel certain parts of your body that aren’t the same as they were. That’s all, really, yeah.
CARPE DIEM, (SEIZE THE DAY)
Unlike many bands of your generation that today are only nostalgic bands, just playing their old hits, Saxon continues to release high-quality albums year after year. And I think “Carpe Diem” is a perfect example of that. It’s your 23’rd studio album, and as you’ve said before, it’s really important to keep the band moving, stay fresh, and not just rely on the past.
Biff Byford: No, you’re right. And I think; basically, I’m in control of a lot of the material and a lot of the way the band material is written and what we actually put on an album. And I think my vision is for every album to be better than the one before, if that’s possible. So, we’re always trying to achieve that. And I think on this album, I wanted the guitar riff to become important again. The guitar riffs are very important if you listen to the ’80s albums. And sometimes, these days, the guitar riff is just a chunky rhythmic thing a lot of bands do. Whereas I think guitar riffs, the guitar boys playing is now a really high level of playing. So, I think that’s the way I approach it some. I wanted the guitar riffs, every one of them, to be great. And I think we achieved that.
And the thing is, when I write melodies, if I write a melody without a lyric, just singing, humming something, then I’ll sometimes change the song’s arrangement to fit that. Sometimes I’ve already got lyrics, and I fit them into the song. I mean, ”Carpe Diem,” for instance, I wrote the lyrics based on Hadrian’s Wall, about the Roman invasion of England. And I think Julius Caesar actually invaded England first. But, yeah, so getting that into a mindscape. And then, I altered the song a little bit to make it work. So that’s the way we work. So, we’re constantly– well, I’m constantly looking at the songs and looking at the quality of the music and the control of the song. And the boys always play great. So, I think it’s hard to stay relevant, I think, with so many bands around. But I think the new Saxon albums, I think this one is a benchmark for bands that have been around a while. If you’re going to listen to an older band and then listen to ”Carpe Diem,” it doesn’t sound like an old band. So, I think that’s the criteria.
I agree with you here. And I just read the interview we did last time, and then we spoke about the previous Saxon album, ”Thunderbolt.” It had been out for a while, but that was the latest release back then. And then you said, “Honestly, I think that ”Thunderbolt” is the best Saxon album we’ve done.” And, yeah, I’m saying, “It’s a great album. There’s no doubt about it.” But after a few listens, I would say that this new one might be even better because, in my ears, as you said, this album is more melodic, there are more riffs, and there are a lot of vibes from the early ’80s. And that’s all very positive stuff for my ears, at least.
Biff Byford: Yeah, I think it’s a positive album, I guess. A lot of the songs are positive. And it’s aggressive, which– and we’re not like a bunch of guys running around, singing about fucking groupies and things, pretending we’re young. We’re trying to write serious fucking music in our genre, and that’s what we try to do. And I think, on this album, we achieved it quite well.
As you said, you started writing new songs when you were still in the hospital, so did you get the idea for this” Carpe Diem” theme then as well?
Biff Byford: No, I didn’t. No, I got that later. I actually got that– originally, I was going to call the album ”Pilgrimage.” I had the ideas for” Pilgrimage.” But when I came out of the hospital, my wife took me away for a short break into a part of England called Northumberland, which is in the north, just above Yorkshire. It’s in the north of England. And we visited the Roman Wall, Hadrian’s Wall, which stretches across England, a bit like the Wall of China. But it’s Hadrian’s Wall. And, yeah, there’s quite a bit that’s still there. So, we were exploring the Roman forts and the castles and things. And I just kept seeing this carpe diem thing everywhere. That was like, “Have a nice day,” for the Romans. And so, yeah, I thought, “What a great idea for an album title, ”Seize the day, Carpe Diem.” So that’s where it came from.
Maybe the title track “Carpe Diem” was born at the same time then?
Biff Byford: Yeah. I’d already had the music. I’d already arranged the music; I’d already arranged the song. We rehearsed with the band a little bit with it. But, yeah, so I just fitted my lyrics to that song, really. And once I got the lyrics and the melody, we just changed it slightly. I asked them to change it slightly to suit what I’d written. So that’s how ”Carpe Diem” came up, quite late in the process.
I remember when I first saw the album cover, listened to the song and the lyrics, and then saw the video (Carpe Diem), and I think that everything is very well tied together.
Biff Byford: I think we always try and do that. We always try to connect the artwork with the video, with the song. I think it’s the first single off the album. So, I think we wanted to have as much impact as possible. So, I think tying everything in, with the artwork, yeah, I think that’s the– I think that’s the way to go these days because the imagery is very important, especially if you want people to buy the physical product and not just download it on Spotify or Apple Music or something. So, if you’ve got a good package and you do something special, like a colored vinyl or something in the CD pack, I think it encourages people to buy physical products rather than doing a download or just stream the album.
I have to say that the Hadrian’s Wall and the whole landscape look great in the video. To be honest, I’ve never heard of such a place before. Sorry for that! [laughter]
Biff Byford: Well, it’s a fairly desolate place. I mean, it’s there on top of some of the highest peaks in England. So, it’s quite high. And it goes up and down. It’s like the great wall of China. It goes down the cliff and then up the other side of the cliff. And it was then winding across. I mean, it’s an absolutely amazing feat of technology from two and a half thousand years ago.
PARTIAL TRACK BY TRACK
“Pilgrimage” is an interesting and epic song on this new album. Tell me more about that song?
Biff Byford: Yeah, as I said, there’s a positive link throughout the album. ”Pilgrimage” is obviously about pilgrimages, whether they be 1,000 years ago or whether it would be just somebody last week who went to look at Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris. Or went to see a battlefield where their grandfather died. All these things, where you travel to see, worship, touch, or visit something like that, is a pilgrimage. And I just think the word is very cool. So, I wrote songs around the world and the different elements of pilgrimage. That’s what the song’s about.
Musically, to me, “Pilgrimage” sounds like something that could have been included on the album “Innocence Is No Excuse.” Do you have any comments on that? [laughter]
Biff Byford: Well, it’s– The actual groove is very close to ”Crusader,” actually. It’s that sort of guitar arpeggio with the sort of mid-tempo drumbeat. So, I think it’s very sort of ”Crusader-ish,” which is obviously the album before in this sense. Yeah, you’re probably right. But I would say it’s a little bit more ”Crusader-ish” than ”Innocence,” actually.
But I got close. I was only one year away! [laughter]
Biff Byford: Yeah, exactly, just one year out. Yeah! [laughter]
One of my favorite tracks on the new album is ”All For One” because it’s a proper old-school Saxon song. It’s basically a very simple song, but there are some really catchy riffs, and the lyrics, and the chorus, are pure old-school metal.
Biff Byford: It’s a great track, and I’m sure it’s been done a million times before. But I was just humming along to the chorus in my studio, and I was just bumbling away. And, ”All for One, One for All” fitted really well, and I thought, “Is that too, sort of, old-fashioned?” But I was like, “No, fuck it. It’s great.” So, yeah, I wrote the song around that. It’s an Alexander Dumas book. ”The Three Musketeers” is what it’s based on. It’s a very French song. It’s about time I sang a song about French. So, yeah, I mean, it’s good. I probably could’ve sung that in French back in the day, but I forgot all my French now, so. [laughter]
”Living on the Limit” is another strong track because, for my ears, it sounds that could have been a Motorhead song. In the “Battering Ram”-album, there’s a song, ”They Played Rock ‘n Roll,” which was a direct tribute to Lemmy and Motörhead, but this song has the same kind of vibes and attitude.
Biff Byford: Well, yeah, I think you have to remember, all these songs, like ”20,000 Feet” and ”Princess of the Night” and all those types of songs, were all influenced a little bit by that Motorhead groove that really fast stuff. So we just played it a bit faster and sort of ”Saxonized” it, really. But I think you’re probably right. Yeah, it sounds very Motorhead-ish and very early, Saxon. Things like ”Motorcycle Man” and all that is such fast music. So, yeah, I think you’re probably right. It’s ”Motorhead-ish” and early ”Saxon-ish,” I think.
And my last, but not least, picking is the latest single and video, “Remember the Fallen,” which is NOT about ancient history, but about a very current subject, Covid-19.
Biff Byford: Well, there are only so many songs you can write about the ancient stuff, and we’ve covered pretty much everything. (Laughs) So, I wanted to write a song about Covid, about the people that have died, and give my perception of how it seemed to happen. There are certain aspects of it which are quite mysterious, and of course, it hasn’t finished yet, has it?
SOLO ALBUM, AND HEAVY WATER
Let’s go next briefly back to February 2020, when you released the solo album “School of Hard Knocks.” I remember that you have been guesting on many albums of bands like; Avantasia, Fastway, Doro, Helloween, Motörhead. However, I think that in addition to the album ”Scintilla Project” (2015), you have never released a record outside of Saxon. So why did you believe that it was the right time to release a solo album after all these years?
Biff Byford: Well, the thing is, I had quite a few ideas, and I had quite a lot of friends that wanted to do it with me. And most of the lyrics are about me and my life. So, if you know what I mean, I was able to do songs about me, about how I feel, rather than what Saxon feels. But obviously, it’s the same because I do the lyrics for Saxon. But I do lyrics for Saxon a little bit more general rather than just about me. So, I think that “School of Hard Knocks” and the songs that are on there, I think that those songs are just generally more connected to me than the Saxon songs are, basically. I think that’s the secret. I mean, it’s like the ”School of Hard Knocks” is about where I was brought up. ” Welcome to the Show” is obviously about coming to a rock show. ”Scarborough Fair” is an old Yorkshire folk song that Simon & Garfunkel sort of copy. So, yeah, I mean, the whole thing is more personal to me. That’s why I released it.
The album features guest players like Fredrik Åkesson, Alex Holzwart, and Phil Campbell, among others, but I would say that the record still sounds pretty much like Saxon. Maybe you should have mixed the album in a very different way to make it sound more like something else?
Biff Byford: Well, it will always sound like a Saxon album with me singing it. I mean, the thing is, the ”Heavy Water” album doesn’t sound like Saxon.
Yeah, I know.
Biff Byford: We came to a point where I was writing with my son, playing bass, and singing backing tracks on that album. And that was a very good musical– there’s quite a lot of things going off there, really interesting. So, I found that really great.
As you said, it’s a very different material compared to the Saxon material, not only because you’re not singing leads. How would you describe it, the sound of Heavy Water?
Biff Byford: I just think it’s the way Seb writes guitar riffs. It’s very sort of bruised, old school. So, I mean, the ”Heavy Water” album’s very next…. I mean, there are some ballads on there. There’s some quite sort of folky stuff and some heavy stuff. But it’s a bit more like Sabbath to me. There’s very definitely got Sabbath influences in there, definitely.
I just remember that Seb is also singing background vocals on the new Saxon album.
Biff Byford: He is. He sang backup vocals on the ”Inspirations” album as well. I think he might’ve done something on ”Thunderbolt.” But yeah. So, yeah, he’s been working with the band together for quite some time, actually. I mean, he recorded the vocals on the new Saxon album with me, and he recorded the vocals on ”Inspirations” and Heavy Waters. So, yeah, he’s pretty good in the studio. He’s a good engineer.
So, I guess that you have plans to write more music together?
Biff Byford: Yeah, we’re planning another Heavy Water -album. And we’d like to a tour on it, a club tour. So, I think you have to establish the band. So, I think we probably need two albums rather than just a one-off. Do you know what I mean? So that would be good.
When “School of Hard Knocks” came out, you couldn’t play shows to support the album for several reasons. But do you have any plans to do solo shows in the future?
Biff Byford: I think we could do a– I think we could do a solo and Heavy Water – together, and then we could do a tour on that. That would be great because then there’s enough material, and we could maybe throw in a couple of cover versions and maybe a couple of Saxon tunes. That would be quite interesting for people, I think.
That sounds like a great plan. And it would be a completely different gig experience for fans compared to a regular Saxon show.
Biff Byford: Yeah, totally different from a Saxon tour. People might buy into that and come along and have a listen and join the fun.
THINGS IN LIFE
You had a birthday on January 15th, and if I counted right, you’re now 71 years old; congrats on that. Did you celebrate your anniversary somehow?
Biff Byford: It’s my birthday, yeah. I keep forgetting my birthdays. As you get older, a birthday becomes less important, I think. Although I’ve never really– to tell you the truth, I’ve never really had– I’ve never really had one of these secret parties that people throw all the time. So, I don’t really relate to birthdays very much, to tell you the truth. I mean, we have family birthdays, which is pretty cool, where we all have presents and cake and things. And we just had one for my son a few days ago. But generally, you know how people have huge 40th birthdays and 60th birthday and 70th? Nobody’s ever done one for me. So, I don’t know? [laughter]
So, do you think age is just a number and nothing else?
Biff Byford: I think so, yeah. I think it’s just a number. So, yeah.
I totally understand. That’s how I think as well. I always turn 25 again and again. [laughter]
Biff Byford: [laughter] Yeah, definitely. I don’t think you have to tell yourself anything. I just think you have to get on with it, mate, and seize the day. I think that the message here, isn’t it? You just have to get on with it. I know everybody’s not as fit as they’d like to be or as thin as they’d like to be. But even so, I still think you should get on with it.
Right, right, I heard a while ago that original Saxon bassist Steve Dawson is now permanently retired. So, I have…
Biff Byford: I don’t think he was playing that much anyway. I don’t know. So, I believe that any hopes of a reunion have gone now, I think.
I think so, yeah. But my question was going to be, what does the word “retirement” mean to you?
Biff Byford: Nothing. [laughter] It doesn’t mean anything to me because I mean, what do you retire? You might retire from– you might retire from making albums, or you might retire from doing shows. I mean, there are different levels of retirement, I suppose. I think to retire completely must be something to do with health, I think, basically. I think so.
And the unofficial truth is that the earlier people retire, the faster they often die. It’s sad but true.
Biff Byford: Well, there is that. That just happened, I must say. It just happened that people sometimes retire and sit back and then die. So, you have to be– I’m never going to stop making music, listening to music, or writing music. Even if you’re writing it in your head, you’re still composing. So, yeah, I think just get on with it, really.
THE FUTURE OF SAXON
However, there is no end in sight for Saxon, at least for a while. In fact, there are only five years left before Saxon reaches the respected age of 50. There are not many bands in the world that have been able to do that. Have you discussed this topic within the band?
Biff Byford: I don’t know. We don’t think about things like that, I must say. Nobody in the band thinks about that, really. I mean, we just take it day by day. We’re on that sort of– we’re doing 40th anniversary shows at the moment. We’ve just done two of them, haven’t we? We’ve done the Bloodstock first, and then we’ve done the Metal Hammer Germany Festival. And they were both 40th-anniversary shows. We have some shows to do in January. And all the festivals we’ll be playing next year will be 40th-anniversary shows. So, we won’t actually be playing any ”Carpe Diem” shows until the autumn when the album’s out and when the tour starts.
Do you already have any details to share of the upcoming “Carpe Diem” -tour?
Biff Byford: Well, that’s already been booked. That’s ready to go. It just hadn’t been advertised yet. So, I think that’s going to happen sometime in autumn, October, November next year. I think that’s the plan, yeah.
What if this pandemic nightmare continues still then? If all events are canceled again, and the venues remain closed, what will Saxon do if that happens again?
Biff Byford: Well, if it continues, there’s nothing we can do about it. The only thing we can do is a plan for it not to be there. You can’t plan for it to be there because you’ve no idea. This new strain, some people say it’s nothing much. Nobody’s getting really ill. So we’ll have to see. We’ll have to see. I mean, at the moment, in the UK, everything’s okay at the moment. We just started wearing masks again in shops and things. But it looks like life is back to normal in the UK.
But what if the situation goes back to what it was like a year ago?
Biff Byford: Well, then we’ll just have to put everything back again. And I think we just carry on making albums. I just hope we make the next Saxon album. Or the next ”Inspirations” album. Or the next Heavy Water -album. We’ve become a recording band over the last two years, obviously, out of necessity. So, I just think we’d carry on doing that.
There is a gap of almost six years between the albums “Carpe Diem” and “Battering Ram.” It’s a very long time, so I don’t mind if the next album is coming out a bit faster. What’s Saxon’s situation with the record label? Do you still have a record contract left for how much?
Biff Byford: I think we do have another Saxon album in our contact. So, we have one more album left in our contract. But I’m sure the record company would like us to do three or four. [laughter] But we do have one more– we do have one more left. So, I suppose we could– I suppose we could stop making records and just tour, I guess. I don’t know. But, no, I think– I don’t know. The thing is, if you hate it, if you hate each other, then I think it’s okay to retire. But if you’re still friends with the– if the band members are all still friends and everybody’s fit enough to do it, then I don’t see any reason why you should retire. There’s plenty of room for new bands to come through. They just need to write some songs that are relevant to the young audience. But like I said earlier, we don’t pre-plan things like that.
Right, we don’t see tomorrow what happens the day after that.
Biff Byford: Yeah, exactly.
However, you still have a kind of Plan B even if it’s not planned. [laughter]
Biff Byford: Never surrender. Seize the day, mate. That’s what you have to do! [laughter]