Exclusive Interview: Biff Byford from Saxon
Saxon, one of the leading bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement, released their 19th studio album, Call To Arms last year. As evidenced by crushing tracks like “Hammer of the Gods” and “Call to Arms,” the group hasn’t lost their grip on composing hard-hitting yet anthemic heavy metal.
Comprised of Biff Byford (vocals), Doug Scarratt (guitar), Paul Quinn (guitar), Nibbs Carter (bass), Nigel Glockler (drums), Saxon is responsible for penning some of the 1980’s most enduring metal anthems, including “Wheels of Steel,” “Strong Arm of the Law,” “Motorcycle Man,” “Princess of the Night,” and “Never Surrender.” Along with the likes of Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, Saxon helped breathe life back into a metal scene that many at the time had left for dead.
It’s been 35 years since Saxon was originally up and running, and the group can still easily hold their own with the headbanging competition. “It’s important to keep one foot in the past and one foot very much in the present,” says Byford. “At some points in your life, whether you’re younger or older, you do have these wonderful periods of ‘state of graceness’ where everyone likes everything you write. But you can’t keep being your own tribute band, you have to try and write great new songs, and you have to try to appeal to a younger audience. Saxon has been successfully doing that for the last decade, and the result is we still have our old fan base but we also have a whole new, younger one too.”
We spent a few minutes with Biff discussing the classic Saxon sound, writing and recording Call To Arms and the dedication of their always loyal fans.
Saxon is one of those bands that album after album always retains their signature sound. Has that ever been challenging as a band?
We did have a period where we did go a bit softer but not too far. It’s important that we stay true to our roots and what people expect the band to be. Call To Arms is more like our earlier albums. It’s a bit more raw, aggressive and in-your-face. The last three or four albums have had a lot of backing vocals and this one is more straightforward, really.
That’s what I love about a band like Saxon. The last thing I want as a fan is a new record that sounds completely different.
Yeah, we’re not gonna put out a Def Leppard album! (laughs) I do like Def Leppard, though. We’re a rock ‘n roll band that plays heavy metal.
At any point in your career has someone suggested the band lean in a different direction?
In the mid-80s the record company wanted us to be a bit more commercial. They wanted us to write radio hits. I don’t think we really did that. (laughs) We’re a bit like Iron Maiden – we’re true to our fans. We have a lot of fans that really don’t want us to change.
I think Call To Arms stands a classic metal record because it’s about the whole package. It’s not just about one or two songs.
It’s also about the way we recorded. We recorded it pretty much live. There are no samples. The guitars are more-or-less one take. We played a lot of the songs live in the studio before we recorded them. We have a great atmospheric live feel on the album. We sent the songs of to America to be mixed. Everything clicked really well for this album. It all fell into place.
It definitely sounds like you guys in a room, knocking out the songs live. You really captured that sound.
You can almost picture the Marshall cabinets and Gibson guitars! (laughs) The picture the album paints is great.
How do you approach songwriting and recording now?
We’ve embraced the internet and new technology. We use it all the time. We use it to keep in touch with our fans. We use it to make our music sound fresh. Sometimes we use analog. Most of the time we record with ProTools. It’s all about how you record it and the feelings and chemistry of the band. That’s what’s important to us. It’s about the passion of the music. It’s not about making the perfect sound. When we recorded the guitars we recorded them flat – no EQ, nothing on them. If it didn’t sound great straight away, we’d use another guitar. That’s how we did things.
The fan dedication you guys have is something most bands will never be able to appreciate for themselves. Tell me more about your fans.
The fans from the 80s are still fans. The newer fans are loyal to Saxon. A Saxon fan is a Maiden fan. A Maiden fan is a Priest fan. There’s no rivalry between metal fans. It’s all good music. The song I wrote, “Denim & Leather” – that’s what it’s about. It’s about the bond between the band and the audience and the bond between the entire audience. It’s really important, especially in this day and age of the internet. You could be talking to someone and have no idea who they are. Being connected to something and someone you know is real is a great thing.
Do any lyrics or songs stand out on Call To Arms as something you knew you had to get across?
There’s quite a few on the album. “Call To Arms” is a song for a soldier – now, then or anytime. They have to leave home and fight far away. We write songs for soldiers, whether they read them or not I don’t know! (laughs) We do feel for their sacrifice.
That message comes across on the album artwork, too. I think it also means a “call to arms” for all metal fans, too. Buy this record! (laughs)
Definitely! It has two meanings. It’s a call to arms for metal fans to put on their black t-shirts, come to shows and buy the album. Rise up! It’s time!
We lucky Americans got a live DVD with Call To Arms of Saxon live at Castle Donington in 1980. Tell me about that show.
There’s a few bootlegs out of it and they’re not really good quality. We got an email from an old manager who said he found some old tapes in his attic. He didn’t give them to us – he asked if we wanted to buy them. Typical manager. So we bought them from him. We took them to this special place in London that bakes the tapes because the oxide was so old. One of the tapes was the multi-track from Donington that hadn’t been played in 30 years. We had it mixed properly and I suggested to the record company that we give it away with the albums.
So you’ve got a few more tapes that may see the light of day?
There’s a few. There’s one that’s flying around from the King Biscuit Hour. They recorded it by accident, actually. They were scheduled to record Journey two days after us and King Biscuit asked to record our show just to make sure the equipment was working! (laughs) It just happened to be our first headling show on the Crusader tour. Accept was our special guest. That is around somewhere. If anybody knows where it is please give us a call!
Biff, I certainly appreciate you taking time out for this. What would you like to say to the fans to wrap things up?
I’d like to see us come back to American on a more regular basis. Keep the faith and never surrender!
Saxon’s upcoming DVD, Heavy Metal Thunder – Live – Eagles Over Wacken is scheduled for release on April 20th in Europe, April 23rd in the UK and May 22nd in North America.