Interview and Live Photos By Robert Cavuoto
Saxon was one of the bands leading the charge during the 80s for the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” movement. They are responsible for penning some of the most enduring metal anthems, including “Wheels of Steel,” “Strong Arm of the Law,” “Power and the Glory,” “Princess of the Night,” and “Denim and Leather” to name just a few. They have been going strong for 40 years and don’t show any signs of slowing down.
This summer Saxon released Live at Nottingham Rock City, a live CD which captures the energy and power of the band in 1989, a box set, Solid Book of Rock, featuring nine studio albums recorded between 1991-2009 along with bonus material, and in November will be releasing another best of set, Decade of the Eagle which featuring songs from the band’s first nine albums. If that wasn’t enough, they will be releasing their next studio CD, Thunderbolt, in 2018.
Comprised of members Biff Byford (vocals), Doug Scarratt (guitar), Paul Quinn (guitar), Nibbs Carter (bass), Nigel Glockler (drums) are on the road with UFO touring North American for 18 shows from September through October.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Biff Byford just hours before the first show of the tour to chat about all of their new releases and what it was like to ride the British wave of metal.
Robert Cavuoto: You have a new release coming out in November called Decade of the Eagle. What can you tell us about it?
Biff Byford: Our old back catalog was acquired by BMG, and they are going to be releasing loads of different packages. It’s pretty good actually. It’s two or three songs from each of the first nine albums – about 34 songs. The album cover has a metal coin embossed on it. We’ve had tons of new releases, this summer we released a new live CD from 1989 called Live at Nottingham Rock City and the box set Solid Book of Rock.
Robert Cavuoto: Can you give us an update on the next studio CD, Thunderbolt?
Biff Byford: I finished doing the vocals on September 20th, and Andy Sneap is mixing it at the moment. It sounds really good. There are no big surprises on the CD. We haven’t turned into Lady GaGa [laughing]. I like Lady GaGa, as it’s a bit of a compliment. We haven’t changed into a different kind of band.
Robert Cavuoto: In the 80’s Saxon was riding the crest of the British metal scene, but a lot of bands didn’t make it past that point. Why do you think that was?
Biff Byford: I don’t mean any disrespect to any of those bands, but a lot of them didn’t have the songs that captured a generation of people. Don’t ask me what songs they were as I think it was a bit of luck. There were a lot of bands from that era that went big like Maiden and us. The ones who didn’t make it blamed their management or their record company. Some of them were right. I still think if you listen to their music now, the songs aren’t strong enough. At that particular point in time, during that 3 or 4-year span, when it was all happening they just didn’t have the songs that people bought into. I’m sure they thought the songs were great, but millions of people didn’t.
Robert Cavuoto: Denim and Leather and Power and the Glory really spoke to me as a metal fan and guitarist; do you think they still speak to kids nowadays?
Biff Byford: I do, totally. Those songs are part of our genetic DNA. Even if they don’t know who played the songs, they can still relate to “Denim and Leather” or “Heavy Metal Thunder.” A lot of young fans in America know the songs; they just don’t know that we play them! Things are getting better, and we are moving up in America again.
Robert Cavuoto: There is something to say about the magic of those original versions with the guitar tone and the production. It really added the flavor and vibe to the song.
Biff Byford: It was really raw! It’s virtually punk on those earlier albums. We took a lot of influences to the way we sounded and looked. We were sort of a biker band. We dropped into that role quite easily. Some of those albums were recorded in five days. It was really loud when I was singing the vocals and would sometimes pass out on the high notes! [Laughing] Shit, it’s all there. It did capture that raw wildness. It wasn’t like we wanted to sound like Deep Purple or Black Sabbath. We were more into the impact of the songs.
Robert Cavuoto: Was that the best sound possible at the time due to the technology?
Biff Byford: It was the best we could do with the equipment that was available. We didn’t have a lot of time or top-of -their-game-producers. We had to do it ourselves along with the A&R guy who was the producer [laughing]. Out of those three albums, we did in that period; Wheels of Steel, Denim and Leather, and Strong Arm of the Law, we got to spend a bit more time with Denim and Leather, so it was better sonically. It sold a million albums; that was a fact even the record company couldn’t disguise.
Robert Cavuoto: Your voice is instantly recognizable and every bit as good as it was back in the early days, you’re still a powerhouse. What do you attribute that to?
Biff Byford: My voice back then was a bit sweeter and crystal clear. I’ve retained that side of it, and I’ve also learned along the way to find my head voice as well. I can use my diaphragm voice and my head voice at the same time so they could really cool. It’s a bit of the trick of the trade.
Robert Cavuoto: Many bands have given up on making new CDs and just go out as nostalgia acts. Why does Saxon continue to make music?
Biff Byford: I guess we can use Twisted Sister as the analogy for that. They toured Europe in the past at big festival but decided to not write music anymore. That approach doesn’t work for me. To go with the power of the old stuff and that’s fair enough. There was a point in time when they had the look and the sound like a lot of other American bands. That was the American way of metal. We will have our 22nd albums out soon, and it doesn’t diminish in any way as we can still headline festivals. We like to write music and make albums. We have worked really hard for a long time, since the dark ages, and it’s paid off. People respect us because we are still making great metal albums!
Robert Cavuoto: Your writing has always captured the essence of the working man or from the fans point of view.
Biff Byford: I used to queue for my tickets in the fucking ice and snow in England to see Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, and Van Halen. You had to queue back then because there was no internet, so you had to head to the box office early. There was a famous DJ in England that was the champion of new bands of the 80’s. He would be on Radio 1 every Friday night where millions of young rock fans would be listening. The line from “Denim and Leather” came from that show, “Do you listen to the radio every Friday night?” It was a homage to him. Same here in the US with college radio, they thought it was hip to have a band that no one else knew. They would say we have something new from Saxon – that helped us in the early days of our career.
Robert Cavuoto: I have always been intrigued by your lyrics of merging religion and war. Tell me about that approach.
Biff Byford: There is always a war somewhere with some political reason behind it. It is very rare that people have gone to war just because they don’t like each other. If that were true, we would have been fighting with the French for years.
Robert Cavuoto: Are you a history buff?
Biff Byford: I like history, and we have a few songs on the new CD like, “Secret to Flight” which explains the way things fly. It’s not complex. It starts with Icarus, then Leonardo Da Vinci, then to the Wright Brothers and ends with the atomic bomb. It has four sections. I love painting pictures with lyrics. I’m not going to teach people physics but it’s quite interesting. To think in such a short period of time men learned to fly. A few hundred years ago we were working with the stone tool, now we are flying; it’s fascinating how fast technology has grown.
Robert Cavuoto: You’re a big fan of trains as well.
Biff Byford: I love things that go fast. When I was a boy, stream trains were actually the fastest things you could ride cheaply. It’s fascinating how nuclear reactors work off steam.
Robert Cavuoto: Tell me about the logistical and financial challenges involved to get European bands to come to America. I speak to so many artists that just can’t afford to do it yet you come every other year.
Biff Byford: We are here a lot and will be here a lot next year as well. I just can’t tell you yet. We will be out with someone as their special guest. We spend a lot of time in America and feel that we have neglected America for a while. Not because we wanted to, it was just how circumstances were at the time. We revisited that as we have a lot of fans here.
It’s not difficult it’s about the money. It cost you £5,000 for the Visas and £10,000 to ship the gear; that just the smaller stuff. If you are doing a full-on production, that a lot more. The physical costs are quite expensive. To get us over here is £20,000. If you are headlining, you can make that back.
Robert Cavuoto: How do you keep yourself satisfied with touring after all these years?
Biff Byford: We love the concert, meeting the fans, and the circus of rock n’ roll. It can get quite boring waiting around to do the gig, so I read a lot. That’s where many of my songs come from. Generally, we just get drunk and lounge around. [Laughing].