Interview with Biff Byford (Saxon)

Your new album Sacrifice is due out soon. Are you looking forward to finally getting it released?

Yes, I’m looking forward to it very much. The music has been finished quite a while now and all we’re waiting for is to see the finished booklet so it’ll be all ready to go after that and we can’t wait for people to finally hear the new album.

How long did you spend writing for the album?

Altogether we spent about four months writing and recording and that’s about normal for us.

You spend a lot of time out on the road. Is this when you tend to do most of your writing or do you do this in the studio?

We didn’t spend too much time on the road last year but the year before we did over 200 shows but last year we were mostly writing and recording and only played about 20 shows so we were concentrating on the album.

You’ve been writing songs for over three decades now. How has your song writing developed over that time?

Our style comes and goes. This album is a mixture of old school and a harder, heavier direction. I produced the album so this is how I want Saxon to sound rather than someone else’s idea of what we should sound like. I wanted it to be an exciting, intense album and I think we’ve achieved that. We didn’t write a ballad for this album unlike with A Call To Arms. This one is more direct and in your face.

How do you write as a band? Do you all contribute ideas or does each of you contribute certain parts to the songs?

Usually we have a few ideas from different people and we listen to them then pick an idea and work on it. I might come up with titles or melodies and someone else will have a riff and we work together developing the song. It’s pretty much a band thing.

Do you tend to write with the live performance in mind so that your songs can be recreated on stage without the need for samples and keyboards?

All of the songs have been played live in the studio a lot so with this album in particular, the songs should sound great live.

There’s ten songs on the standard album. Does that represent pretty much everything that you wrote during those writing sessions or do you have a few songs left over for future use?

There’s a few riffs and ideas left over but we decided not to carry on with those and concentrated on the ones that have ended up on the album. We might resurrect them for the next album and work on them again or they might stay in the bin forever.

As an album it’s fairly short by today’s standards clocking in at around 40 minutes. Are you going for a sort of smash and grab impact here?

We don’t really go in for quantity, we go for quality. I think 10 or 11 songs is great and you don’t want 18 or 19 songs on an album as they start to sound a bit the same when you get that many. We like to keep it short and to the point with just great songs. People just listen to their favourites anyway, so there’s no point writing too many.

The deluxe version has a bonus disc containing reworked versions of 6 Saxon classics including orchestral, acoustic and re-recorded band versions. Why did you decide to do this?

We actually recorded 15 unplugged and orchestrated songs. This is our 20th album so we wanted fans to be able to buy something a little special and thought they might like to hear our ramblings into the ways of orchestras and acoustics. They sound pretty good. “Crusader” is an orchestral version and sounds fantastic while “Frozen Rainbow”, which was originally from our first album, is all acoustic. It’s a really great stripped down version of the song and the vocals and the lyrics really comes to the forefront of the song.

Musically, your last couple of albums in particular have seen you hitting a rich vein of form. Sacrifice sees you heading in an even heavier direction.

I wanted this album to be an intense listening experience. I think you have to keep one foot in the past and one in the present. Some songs are quite modern sounding like “Guardians of the Tomb” but we still have sight of where we came from and keep in touch with our roots. I would say this album is heavier and thrashier than before.

“Standing in a Queue” is a song that will undoubtedly strike a chord with many people?

I wrote that as something of a tongue in cheek song. I was standing in an airport a while back wondering how many queues I’d stood in over the years. I got home and started queuing in the supermarket as well so I thought I’d write a song about it. I don’t know if the whole band was in favour but I got my own way as I was producing it. It’s a good Rock song with a tongue in cheek chorus with a great early ’80’s feel to the riffs.

Where did you record the album?

We recorded the album in LS Studios in Yorkshire, that’s a big complex and has fantastic facilities. We then went to Derbyshire to mix it with Andy Sneap. We spent 5 or 6 weeks recording then a couple of weeks mixing it.

As a band you’ve been very consistent in releasing albums over the years. You’ve never gone more than 3 years or so without putting out new material. Is it important to you as a band to keep moving forward and be creative rather than sit back on the nostalgia circuit?

I think you need to keep producing new material if you want to stay relevant and make albums for the fan base. The likes of Maiden, Priest, Motorhead and Deep Purple as well as ourselves all put out new albums. We’re not scared of not selling a million albums any more. Some bands are scared that they won’t have a hit so they don’t bother. We understand that album sales have gone down and downloads are the thing now. We’re prepared to make an album for our fans, put it out there and see what people think. We do it for ourselves too as we love to create music.

Last year you released the Heavy Metal Thunder movie that tracks your history as a band. This was initially funded by your fans. How did you get them involved in the funding?

We asked the fans to pre-order the DVD and we had a great response. The first 2000 copies that were sold were funded by the fans who got their names in the credits and a special edition of the DVD. The general release version is slightly different but it’s a great movie for the fans and also people who wouldn’t usually listen to Saxon can enjoy it too.

With sites such as Pledgemusic and Kickstarter, do you think the self-funding route will become more important to bands over the coming years?

There’s been massive changes in the music business. It’s changing all the time and we’ve lived through it all and will hopefully continue to do so. These platforms will be great for bands to fund albums in a way that just couldn’t be done even a couple of years ago.

In the movie most of the current and former band members participated. Was it important for you for everyone to get their say to give a full picture of the band’s history?

They had to be involved in the DVD as they were part of the band and it turned out really cool.

Steve Dawson, our original bass player, was just telling funny stories about Lemmy and the like and didn’t really say much about being in the band but it was fun to watch. He’s a really funny guy, Steve.

The current line-up of Saxon has been together as a unit for 17 years and is still a creative force. Is the door open for original members Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson to maybe make a couple of guest appearances at festivals?

Our door is always open but some people just can’t seem to let go of the past and they are too wrapped up in the ’80’s and why this and why that? If they were able to move on I’d have no problem with doing something with them in the future. I can tell you though, I haven’t been offered millions of quid for a reunion of the original line up!! I wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of interest and we wouldn’t be headlining Download or anything but I think it would be something cool for our fans to see at some point. I’ve actually kept the band alive with this line up. When the original line up ended we were looking pretty ropey around that period around 1994. It was really hard for Rock music back then. With the current line-up we dragged ourselves back up again and made our music what it is today. I made the decision to look after the band and take it back to its British Metal base again instead of experimenting all the time and moving away from what we were all about. We’re back now and we couldn’t be happier with where we are at now.

Talking of shows, you have a full UK tour lined up in April. Are you looking forward to getting back out on the road?

We’re looking forward to it very much. We live for the gig really. It’s the focal point for our band and being on the road is what we love.

Have you any thoughts on the set list?

We’ll play some of the new songs and see how they go. There’s 7 or 8 that will work well on stage and we’ll play a few of them on the tour. We’ll always play the classics that people want to hear and we’ll play some that we haven’t done for a while so there’ll be something for everyone.

On 20th April we get to see you at Newcastle O2 Academy. How do you find crowds up North?

The Northern crowds are great. We always love to play in Newcastle, it’s a great gig. The North of England was a big stomping ground for us in the early days. We’ve played all over Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, the whole area is special to us. We still meet people who came to see us at gigs back in 1977.

Over the years you’ve played many times at The City Hall in Newcastle. This is now threatened with closure. What are your memories of playing in that Hall?

We loved playing at The City Hall. I remember when Robbo from AC/DC came down to see us. It’s a brilliant venue to play and the atmosphere in there is just amazing. It would be a terrible shame if Newcastle lost such a wonderful venue. If they are going to close it then you must get as many bands together to play the last gig as possible. We’d be well up for that.

Do you have a message of support for those who are fighting to keep it open?

I have two messages. “Stand Up and Fight” and “Never Surrender”!!

Over the decades trends have come and gone but Metal has endured them all. What do you think it is about this music that just keeps it going?

It has something to do with the songs. Rock DNA runs through the songs of Zeppelin, Purple, Sabbath, Maiden, Saxon, Judas Priest and Dio. These bands wrote really great songs in the early days and these songs keep the bands together. Without “Wheels of Steel”, “Never Surrender”, “Princess of the Night” we wouldn’t be still here. If there wasn’t “Breakin’ The Law” or “Number of the Beast” or “Ace of Spades” then those lads wouldn’t be still around. I think it’s just that period of time where great songs were written that keeps us going today. I think those songs still resonate today to audiences around the world and I think that’s the secret.

It seems to be going through something of resurgence again. Do you think this might be linked to parents bringing their kids to shows?

There’s a lot of younger fans coming now and families too. There’s a lot of fans that have been there all the time and some that have been away doing their thing but come back to see us after a few years and many come and bring their kids now too as they want to see a great Rock band. I think the scene is really healthy at the moment.

Last year you got up on stage with Metallica to play “Motorcycle Man” to help them celebrate their 30th anniversary. How did that feel?

They are good lads and we’re good friends so it was great to go over and play with them. It was a special night for them. They bought me a nice ticket for the plane and I flew from Norway and did the show then flew back and just made the show in Warsaw in Poland. I had a great couple of days over in The States with Metallica.

Metallica have virtually bankrolled the likes of Diamond Head over the years by the covers they have done. Did you ask Lars why he never covered any of your songs?

I don’t know. Maybe we weren’t in their good books back then or something!!

With your album due out any day and a UK tour to look forward to. What else do you have on the horizon for 2013?

We’ll just be touring now until December really. We might be doing some more shows in the UK after the summer but we’ll have to wait and see. We’re also doing a festival in the summer where we might bring our full eagle lighting rig but I think we’ll be pretty much on tour for the whole year.

Saxon’s latest album, Sacrifice, is out on 4th March and their UK tour starts on 18th April at The Assembly Rooms, Leamington Spa.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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