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| 4 April 2018 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Saxon’s twenty-second album is the thunderous roar of classic melodic metal, played loud, by demigods of the genre: perfectly fitting considering its title track, Thunderbolt, references the Greek Gods themselves. Founding father of the band – and one of the chief architects of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal itself – Biff Byford lent us some time to talk about the record.

100% ROCK: Thunderbolt is your twenty-second studio album. Is it a challenge to bring something new and exciting to each recording?

Biff Byford: Yeah, we don’t like being predictable, so it’s always a challenge to try and get something that is a bit special, you know what I mean?

100% ROCK: Well the songs are what stood out for me – great song writing and such breadth of lyrical coverage as well, you are all over the place, singing about Zeus and Greek Mythology and much more.

Biff Byford: It took awhile to come up with the ideas, basically to make it a bit special, if you know what I mean. I’m always hunting around for ideas for stories and stuff.

100% ROCK: Are you consciously on the alert every day for little bits of stories for songs?

Biff Byford: More or less. I’m [always] thinking about things forthcoming. When we are working on an album I will be looking for inspiration all over the place.

100% ROCK: Well like I said, you cover a lot of ground on this one. It never gets dull listening to your different stories and lyrics, which is great. With the title track about the Greek Gods, there’s the lyrical element of that danger of combining folly with abundant power. Is there an allegory in there about any current world leaders, perhaps?

Biff Byford: No, not really [chuckles]. No, not really, it’s just I read about Greek mythology, about the wars of the titans, all good stuff. But no, not really. The line about what comes through power obviously is a bit poignant sometimes, but it’s not really meant to be.

100% ROCK: Thunderbolt is the name of an album, which comes from that song – it’s also a very heavy metal sounding name. Is that why it stuck out to you as a possible title?

Biff Byford: Yeah, I am always looking for good words and good slogans for titles and album covers. I just think it fit, really. It was one of the first tracks we wrote, and it stayed a front runner all through the writing sessions, really. Sometimes you have an idea for an album and then another song comes along and takes over, but on this album it pretty much stayed the same from day one.

100% ROCK: And no doubt, everyone is asking you about They Played Rock ‘n Roll, which is not just about Motorhead, but about your first tour which was with them, so it’s about Saxon’s history, and the times in England in the late 70’s. That would be a mighty long thread to pull in for many, but you make it seem so effortless lyrically. Does it take a long time to develop lyrics like that or do they just come – bam!?

Biff Byford: Yeah, it’s not easy, but I suppose you just keep with it, you know? I mean, the music that we wrote, I wanted it to be a bit like the [early] ‘80s – a bit like that sort of punky, aggressive style that we had and Motorhead had; a bit like Iron Maiden had in the early days. It’s a song about that period in history – the ’79-‘80 period when our type of music was exploding around the world. So it’s about Motorhead but it’s also about that time when we arrived on the scene, so to speak.

100% ROCK: You mentioned punk. I always thought that that the NWOBHM was pretty informed by punk, but there seemed to be an attitude at the time of the two different tribes at war, almost.

Biff Byford: Yeah, I think that that sort of style we created in those early days, there was a lot of punk attitude in the music. I think it was still based on blues music and some of the older bands around like Zeppelin and Sabbath and things, but I think we just had a new sort of style of playing really. It was heavy rock with a different edge, I suppose.

100% ROCK: Definitely. I mean, I believe you even shared a bill with The Clash one time and jammed with Joe Strummer a couple of times.

Biff Byford: Yeah, we did. We did a couple of shows with them and they were aware of the band. And when we had the big hits in the ‘80s they were strong supporters of the band.

100% ROCK: The years that followed from your first album through to Crusader or Innocence Is No Excuse, they were such a golden age for rock n’ roll and heavy metal. Did you have an inkling at the time that the tide was about to turn?

Biff Byford: I think the tide always turns eventually. Because other bands come along, other styles of music come along and sweep across the planet like grunge did, you know. So yeah, I just think that new things come along every five or ten years, [and] a younger audience picks a younger band. So I think it’s just a big cyclical thing, music generally. There’s no new Tchaikovskys or Beethovens, obviously, but there’s definitely some new bands come along and take our place.

But you know, I suppose we’ve survived through those bad times, got through those changes, and have come out the other side, really.

100% ROCK: Absolutely – and making some of the best music of your career, I think.

Biff Byford: Yeah, it seems that way, yeah. Don’t ask me why, it just pans out that way really.

100% ROCK: A lot of acts just tour as heritage artists nowadays and play their old stuff – it’s obviously important to you to keep creating.

Biff Byford: Yeah, part of the longevity of the band is creating new music – otherwise you’re just a greatest hits band, aren’t you? You just go out, play big festivals, do your greatest hits and then go home. We’re not really that type of band. We like to create music, and I think that a lot of the bands that are still around have been able to create music over the years and it’s sort of kept them with a more youthful outlook, if you know what I mean.

100% ROCK: Definitely. Though with each album you’ve released, it must be harder and harder to write a set list that lets you put in the new stuff you’re really proud of and also appeases the diehards.

Biff Byford: Yeah, the set lists are quite difficult. This tour, we’re doing seven songs off Thunderbolt, which is quite a lot, and then the rest of it is basically some of the bigger hits. Because this album seems to connect to the ‘80s for some reason – I don’t know why. So we’ve put together more of an ‘80s set list around the new songs, which is working great.

100% ROCK: You worked with Andy Sneap producing the album again, of course, but you let him take the producer credit alone this time. There must be a big difference between being the artist AND co-producer, to just being the artist and letting someone else handle the production reigns.

Biff Byford: Well, it’s just… you know, before we did it together and this time I sort of concentrated on the lyrics and the vocals more and let him deal with the band more and generally the studio stuff, which left me a bit more free time really, actually. So, I rewrote a couple of songs while the boys were doing guitars and bass – it worked out pretty good, actually, and I think he did a great job.

100% ROCK: Definitely – the album sounds huge! And you got Paul Raymond Gregory in to do the cover. You first had him do a cover for Crusader many years ago and he’s done a bunch of work for you since – his work is just magnificent.

Biff Byford: Yeah, they are. He’s a good friend, Paul, and he always pulls the stops out for us. This one is basically all his idea as well – the eagle and the thunderbolt. The lightning bolt is a sign of Zeus, so it works pretty well. It’s an old school cover, really, which I like.

100% ROCK: Well, talking of old school, you’ve been re-embracing vinyl for recent releases, but I believe you’ve also released Thunderbolt on cassette!

Biff Byford: Yeah we have. I like the cassette. I think it’s a forgotten piece of technology.

100% ROCK: It doesn’t get much more retro than that, does it?

Biff Byford: Well cassette was the first thing you could take out of the house on a Walkman, run down the street and listen to music, or in your car, you know! It was a big piece of technology back in the day. A lot of young bands use cassettes [now], so we thought we’d get a bit retro and release a cassette. They’re selling really well, actually.

100% ROCK: I’ve still got a few dozen lying around, don’t you worry, from back in the day.

Biff Byford: Everybody’s got cassettes lying around somewhere… propping the table up or stopping the chair from rocking!

100% ROCK: Absolutely. It must be getting pretty overdue time for a proper tour of Australia.

Biff Byford: Yeah, we’d like to come to Australia. We just never seem to… we didn’t go to Australia back in the day, I think we didn’t come to Australia for quite a long time and then when we did come it was in a strange period. But we have a lot of fans in Australia. We know we do and we’d like to come, definitely. I keep talking to our manager and agent about maybe doing Australia and New Zealand later in the year or early next year, that’d be good.

100% ROCK: Well we’d love to have you here, that’s for sure.

Biff Byford: Yeah, maybe if the new album gets some good airplay we could come down there, that’d be good.

100% ROCK: I’ve head talk that you’re planning on doing a solo album next. How do you think that will differ from the established Saxon sound?

Biff Byford: I don’t know… I don’t think it’ll be like Thunderbolt, but it’ll be heavy rock, some metal in there. I’m not as good a guitarist as the boys, but yeah, I’m working on [an album]. It’s gonna be a bit more rock and roll, I think. But not too… I don’t want it to be too self indulgent, if you know what I mean. I want some good songs on there. I’ve got six or seven good tracks already. So I might write a couple with a few friends, I don’t know.

100% ROCK: Yeah, exciting. You recently turned 67 – happy birthday for January. You’ve been on the road since the late ‘70s – you must have seen it all and done as much of it as you felt comfortable doing at the time. Does the touring lifestyle still excite you?

Biff Byford: It’s all about the gigs really. It’s all about the concerts and the fans. And obviously we’re promoting an album. This album’s definitely the most popular album we’ve had since probably the ‘80s. So we might as well go out and promote it. You never know, you might not get a second chance.

100% ROCK: Yes, people are falling like flies around us unfortunately we’re losing far too many legends.

Biff Byford: Yeah, that’s how it goes.

100% ROCK: You’ve been out on tour recently with Diamond Head, Rock Goddess, Magnum. You’re going out in America, I believe, with Judas Priest. Is it important to you to share time on the road with those guys from the same era?

Biff Byford: The UK, European shows are headline shows, so you know, we’re pretty much involved with all the aspects of it. We picked Diamond Head, Rock Goddess – they don’t do a lot, but it’s good to have them on tour. Now with Judas Priest, we’re a special guest to Judas Priest. So that’s a different mentality. But yeah, we’ve done a lot of stuff. We don’t really go out with bands we don’t like, if you know what I mean.

100% ROCK: And I’d imagine you’ve got history with them all as well?

Biff Byford: Yeah, we have a lot of history with Judas Priest. The tour we did after the Motorhead tour in ’79 was with Judas Priest. The first time we went to Europe was with Judas Priest. So there’s a lot of history there.

Thunderbolt is available now.

Category: Interviews

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Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE

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