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| 3 February 2016 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Biff Byford Saxon 01

After twenty-one albums & 15 million sales most artists mellow and lean closer to the middle of the road. Not so British metal progenitors Saxon, whose latest release, Battering Ram, is one of their heaviest albums yet. SHANE PINNEGAR spoke with frontman Biff Byford.

Not only is Battering Ram as steadfast refusal to mellow out in any way, it continues the evolution of the band’s sound that started with the return-to-form Lionheart in 2004. Byford credits producer Andy Sneap with helping to keep the last couple of albums sounding fresh.

“Yeah, I refuse to go mellow,” the singer chuckles. “[On] this album, obviously Andy, the producer, had a bit to do with the sound. It’s a great mixture of cutting edge and [being] sort of quite retro still, so we’re quite happy where we are at the moment in that area. Being a legacy act, and a relevant rock act.”

Twenty-one albums makes for over 210 songs – many of them classics of the genre. It must make writing a set-list difficult with so much great material to choose from.

“Yeah, it is difficult with the set-list because you can’t play for as long as we’d like,” says Byford. “It’s difficult to please people, because you get quite a lot of new fans that come to concerts, they want to hear the old songs, and some of the guys that have been coming for years have heard the old songs too much and they want something new, so it’s a nightmare.

“You can never please everyone and it’s actually a bit stupid trying, really,” he continues. “Just put some good songs together and promote the new album, and that’s where to be, really.”

Biff Byford Saxon 02

After damned-near forty years fronting the band he formed in Barnsley, South Yorkshire in 1976, Byford is mostly proud of all he has achieved at the helm.

“Have Saxon achieved everything I initially dreamed the band could? More or less. There were certainly countries we probably could have been bigger in. Australia’s one of them, places like that. I don’t think our management at that time really thought we’d ever be anything more than a British band, you know what I mean? I don’t think their vision included the world.

“It is a shame, because I think Wheels of Steel and those albums could have been much more in people’s minds outside Europe. I mean, America was all right, we did okay in America, but other countries could have gone better I think.

“But I think we’ve achieved most everything, really,” he reflects. “You know, we’re still making great albums, so I suppose that’s something.”

Saxon - Battering Ram cover

After some average albums during the ‘90s, Battering Ram keeps quality high after a hot run of great records for the band that started in the mid-2000’s. On top of that, it should be noted that despite various members coming and going, Saxon never broke up or went on a ‘hiatus’. That’s a tremendous achievement/

“That’s right. Sometimes that can add to your success now, obviously, because it creates a huge media buzz,” he ponders. “We’ve always had the same singer, when singers leave and then come back it’s usually quite a big event. Maybe I could leave tomorrow and then come back, that’d be a laugh.”
While Biff has always been Saxon’s lyricist, the music is usually credited to the band as a whole.

“I think with Saxon it’s pretty much whoever’s got the ideas, we go with it, if you know what I mean,” he says. “This album was more of mine and Nibbs’ [bassist Nibbs Carter] work initially. Different people, different ideas, at different times, so we just go with it, you know, if everybody’s happy with the riffs. We don’t really put on the albums who wrote what musically, we usually just say Saxon but it’s different from album to album. Some albums Doug might write more stuff, other albums Paul, other albums [whoever]… It’s just how it goes.”

With different members contributing to the writing and playing of the music over the years, I wonder if it has been easy for Biff to ensure the essence of Saxon’s sound remains pure.

“Yeah, definitely. It’s the same guitarist playing the riffs, it’s just about the guy who first came up with the idea of the riff or whatever. Song-wise anything goes, but we do record things as a band. Nibbs has grown a little bit as a songwriter/guitarist over the years, so he was on it this time. That’s just how it goes.”

Byford’s lyrics are a key factor in Saxon’s success, and the new album features some epic and entertaining stories in song form. He is quick to cite his personal favourites.

“There’s some quite good stand-out tracks, though I think maybe Queen Of Hearts [about the climactic chess game in Alice In Wonderland] and maybe The Devil’s Footprints [almost a song version of a Hammer Horror movie] are for me the stand-out tracks. Obviously, Kingdom of the Cross [which recounts the horror of World War One’s trench warfare in parallel with a story about The Crusades] is quite [epic]… It’s a poem really. So I think that’s quite a dangerous thing to do, but I think it worked, people to seem to have like it, so obviously I made the right decision there. You’ve got to push the envelope a little bit, put on some different things.

“I just think as you get a bit older you have to be a little bit more focused and I just wanted to try and make the album a bit more stylised, rather than jumping all over the place stylistically.”

We’re unlikely to see a Biff Byford pop or country project this side of an alternate universe, but I wonder what would a solo project from the singer sound like?

“I’ve no idea, really. I don’t know,” he declares. “I am writing songs for maybe a solo project. I did have some songs, but I’ve used them all on this album – [it was] a bit more important. Pretty much self-indulgent rock music [I suppose] – anything I liked, really. I wouldn’t really have any boundaries. Kingdom of the Cross I wrote for my solo album – my possible solo album.

“I wrote the poem and put it online and then I thought I could put that to music. And Nigel wrote a synth keyboard part, which I put the poem to. Just by accident, really, like a lot of great things. One thing leads to another.”

Biff Byford Saxon 03

Having influenced so many other bands over the years, does Biff think Saxon have received the credit they deserve?

“I think we’re getting quite a lot of credit now – I think we’re doing okay now,” he admits. “I think we bore the brunt of the late eighties backlash against the spandex and the hairspray. So yeah, I think we’re doing pretty well now. We got a lot of respect from the business and the media, so I think that’s good. It’s about time, actually, but that’s just me.”

And the current run of the past six albums over eleven years must have certainly helped claw back some respect and admiration.

“Yeah, we’ve been on the rise. We’re a hard-working band, and it’s great to see some sort of realisation of our hard work. Sometimes you’re banging your head against a brick wall, but we haven’t been doing that for quite some time, so it’s getting a lot better.”

One place we haven’t seen Saxon is Australia. Biff recalls being on the Soundwave bill a couple of years ago but regrettably having to cancel their trip.

“Yeah, we had to cancel it because we were really late on the album and we had been charged quite a lot of money for being late, so we had to do it, but I don’t think the Australians forgave us for that yet.

“We’d love to come Down Under. We’d love to play some festivals, that’s the thing to do, get in front of as many people as possible. Let’s hope we’ve apologised enough now and we can come back to Australia and play some shows. I know we’ve got a lot of fans there, and our fan-base is getting bigger all the time in Australia and also down in New Zealand, so we could do Australia, Japan, New Zealand, definitely. Maybe we could go out to Argentina, we have done it before.”

Having done this for so long, Biff has never really had another job that we’re aware of. Has it ever become a drag – has he ever wished that he’d done something else with his life?

“No,” he says adamantly. “If you can be semi-successful, then it does give you a good life, the music thing, if you’re lucky enough to have some success. Thoughts of retirement? Not at the moment, no – I’ve got the hair, the voice, the legs. I’m good.”

The legs – you’re not thinking of a return to spandex are you?

“No, definitely not!” he laughs.

Biff Byford Saxon then and now

Biff says writing his autobiography, Never Surrender, in 2007 was a bittersweet experience.

“It was good fun. I think it’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster when you’re going through [and reminiscing about] your life from that young. Most books are just about the band only, but I wanted to explain where I came from and things. You know, my life basically before music. It was good, but it was bad as well. It’s a bittersweet thing when you write an autobiography, because some things you don’t really want to write about, but you have to.

“Not really [skeletons in the closet to face], just a few family things – people weren’t talking to each other and things, so after the book I sort of put those things right.”

In more recent years there has been a sense of a cleaning out of the Saxon vaults, what with the second Saxon Chronicles DVD, and an album of re-recorded classic tracks. Byford however says it’s not been any kind of masterplan.

“No, I think the record companies think we’re popular [at the moment] so they want to get some stuff out there, and get some of their money back that they’ve given us, I suppose.”

He also admits to having a lot of Saxon memorabilia tucked away.

“I don’t have many master tapes, but I have a lot of memorabilia,” he explains. “I have a lot of stuff from the eighties that I keep carrying around from house to house. So one day I’ll have to go through it. I’ve been through it a few times for photographs for different things, but I need to go through it properly at some point.”

Just before our time is up I ask what, as an aficionado of quite a lot of different music, Saxon fans might be surprised to find in his personal music collection.

“Let’s see… I like different things. ABBA Gold will be in there. I like Kate Bush. I’m a huge fan of Kate Bush. I went to see her in London, it was fantastic. But, you know, it’s not metal. I like it. It’s great, great stuff. I had a huge crush on Kate when I was a boy.”

Didn’t we all?!

Saxon’s Battering Ram is out now.

This story was originally published in edited form in X-Press Magazine’s 9 December, 2015 issue

Category: Interviews

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