By Thomas S. Orwat Jr.
At the age of 64, legendary heavy metal vocalist, Biff Byford, is still creating some of most intense and profound metal music ever recorded. As the leader of the 80’s British band- Saxon, Byford has remained true to his original vision, and never compromised his musical integrity for anything; not then, and certainly not now. Although Saxon wasn’t the most popular metal band during the 80’s, they certainly left their mark with some great metal anthems, such as, “Denim & Leather,” “Princess of the Night,” “747 (Strangers in the Night),” and “Motorcycle Man.” Byford, with Saxon, helped pave the way for heavy metal music, and influenced many up and coming bands along the way.
Currently, Saxon is one of the most respected and highly regarded bands in metal. Every record that they have released in the past two decades has been top notch; they truly get better and better with every release. In 2013, Saxon put out what many consider their most solid record: the epic metal masterpiece, ‘Sacrifice.’
Saxon just finished up a successful tour of the UK, and will be playing North America this spring and summer. They are a band that you do not want to miss.
What follows is an exclusive RMS Interview with one of metal’s MVPs- Biff Byford.
Rock Music Star: Saxon has just wrapped up a tour the UK, and from what I’ve read online, it seems like it was a very successful tour.
Biff Byford: Yeah, it was great. The last three shows were sold out. So yeah, it was great. It was really good.
RMS: Do you think that, at least over in the UK, that Saxon is more popular now than ever before?
BB: I don’t think we’re more popular than we were in the 80’s, because that’s hard to achieve. But, yeah, I think we’re more popular now than we have been for a long, long time, yeah. Definitely.
RMS: It seems like there’s been a lot of Saxon product that has been released, especially here, in the United States. Is there a reason that you are putting out so much product right now?
BB: I think there’s a lot of stuff (coming) out and a lot of stuff (yet) to release. People have a lot of new interests. There’s a lot of DVD releases, is what there are. Yeah, I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s too late in our career to overblow ourselves (laughs), so these things are just popping out now, because they’ve been in the pipeline for quite a long time. I supposed the record company is taking a chance, while we’re really popular, to sell lots of things and to make the books balance, I suppose.
RMS: Yeah. You just released ‘Heavy Metal Thunder,’ and ‘The Saxon Chronicles.’ Can you tell us a little about the ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ release?
BB: ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’… a lot of bands did that a while ago. It’s a re-release, actually. It didn’t get much of a look, in America, when it first got released. It’s a re-recorded classics, basically. The reason we did that was just for a little bit more quality. We didn’t try to upstage the original versions, because they’re fantastic. They have an energy all of their own. We did a bit more hi-fi quality versions of the old songs, really. So, that’s why we did it.
RMS: And then ‘The Saxon Chronicles’….
BB: ‘The Saxon Chronicles 2’ just picks up where the other one left off, really. I suppose ‘Saxon Chronicles 2’ is more about this band, rather than the old band. It’s just a piece in the history.
RMS: One of the things that is impressive abut this current line-up, is that every record that you put out is better than the previous one. It seems like Saxon is really hungry now, even at this late stage in the band’s career.
BB: Well, I think we’re focused on our quality control and our songwriting. So, we only take things forward that we really, really like, and that really mean something to us. This band is in the stage of its career where we couldn’t be releasing rubbish (laughs). But, we’re quite proud of our heritage and what we started back in the 80s. We need to keep a foot in that history, as well. We’re just trying to create- not a new style- but, we’re trying to move things forward, a bit, from the 80s bands. I think it’s good to try to move into different areas, and try to bring a lot of enjoyment with it.
RMS: Yeah, that’s the thing I really like about ‘Sacrifice,’ and some of your more previous releases- is the fact that the band is progressing musically, but you still have that trademark style, and that’s very prevalent in the music, as well.
BB: I think, in London, we played “Sacrifice’” after “Motorcycle Man,” and just as many people sang the chorus of “Sacrifice” as “Motorcycle Man.” You just have to write songs that our fans like. They’re never going to like them as much as “Crusade,” or “Power and the Glory,” or “Denim and Leather.” But, they do like the songs. If they didn’t like the songs, they wouldn’t really react to them (in the way they have).
RMS: How difficult, for you, is it to put together a set list, since you have such a large history.
BB: It’s nearly impossible. I mean, you have to play nearly two hours to cram them in. It’s a hard gig, as Nigel’s illness proved. It’s a very hard gig to do every night. But, yeah, it’s great, to be able to cram as many songs into the set as possible. Obviously, this tour is the 35th anniversary tour, so it’s more leaning towards the classic tracks than the newer tracks. But, we do put tracks in, from the newer albums.
RMS: How physically exhausting is it, for you, to play a two hour gig a this point in your career?
BB: I mean, we are not the sort of band to just stand there, or I’m not. I’m running around and jumping up and down and generally within the audience. So, it’s not really a sort of, “stand by the microphone and sing” type gig for me – never has been. I think it is quite physically demanding. Especially the bigger shows with the bigger stages. Because, obviously, at a smaller club, you just stand there and try to create some intimate atmosphere. But, when you play the bigger shows, obviously, you have to use the stage a lot more. So, it is quite physically exhausting, when you’re doing quite a few of these things “on the trot,” as they say in England.
RMS: Now, I thought I heard some rumors that you guys were going to be playing some dates in the U.S. this spring.
BB: I’ve just confirmed some shows in the U.S. in May. They’re just putting the details together now. So, I don’t really know the details, but, as far as I know, I think we’re doing some shows with Judas Priest over there. We’re doing a festival…a couple of festivals. We’re doing some shows with Armored Saint on the East coast and the West coast. So, it looks like it’s a good little tour that we’re going to be doing. It should be announced tomorrow, or the day after, so people will just have to look out for it.
RMS: Okay. I heard one of the dates might be the festival in Columbus, Ohio?
BB: I think that’s on there, yeah.
RMS: Yeah, Rock on the Range.
BB: I think it’s confirmed, but you know, I’m not the agent, so I can’t really give you any details, if you know what I mean.
RMS: Yeah, that is going to be a very high profile gig. There are tons of all sorts of different bands on that gig, and I think that it’s great that Saxon is playing that. I really do.
BB: Well, you know, those are the sort of things we should be on. We’ve been to that area of America a lot through the 80s and the 90s, so I’m sure there are a lot of fans there that haven’t seen us in a long time. So, we’re really looking forward to it.
RMS: Now, when you tour America, do you prefer to play as a co-headliner with another popular band, or do you prefer headlining in the clubs?
BB: We don’t mind, really. Obviously, in Europe, we’re the headliners. But, we do go out, sometimes, with friends on a package. Co-headlining is alright if both bands get on and there’s no egos around, you know? Once the ego comes in, it can be a bit of a problem, but I don’t see any problems. I think we are doing a couple of co-headlining shows with Armored Saint, and then a couple of the show, they’re honored guests. I think people have to get their head around it, if you can get your head around it – the different changes. Obviously, we’ll be special guests to Judas Priest. I think you just have to be adaptable. You have to be able to headline in front of 90,000, and you have to be able to go special guest, as well.
RMS: You played a tour with Fozzy in the United States. How did that tour go over?
BB: It was great fun. They’re great guys – the Fozzy guys. And, of course, Chris is a big mate. It was good. It was a great atmosphere. Their music is a little bit more groove-rock. But, it went well together. We had a great time. We shared a tour bus for like, five or six weeks, and obviously, when you’re sharing a tour bus, it has to go well. But, yeah, they’re a great band, and they put on a great show. It was a good tour for us – one of our most successful tours, actually. So, it was great.
RMS: Yeah, I feel like Saxon is really building up some momentum again, in the United States, and that’s why I am excited that you guys are doing more dates. I think a lot of people regard you as one of the best metal bands out there right now.
BB: We’re a bit of a cult band in America, which is quite a good place to be, really (laughs).
RMS: Yeah, your fans friggin’ love you in America.
BB: We have a lot of bands who are massive fans of Saxon in America. We like America. We love touring in America. We have a great heritage to an American Saxon. It’s nice to tour America; we like it. If you’re in a rock band, you have to tour America. It’s like being in an American rock band, and you have to tour England, don’t you? Like, you have to do one show in England.
RMS: One show can cover it, but in America, you have to do like 50.
BB: Well, a lot of bands come in and tour. But, I’m just saying, if you’re touring in Europe, you have to play England. If you go to America, you have to play New York. You have to play the middle. You have to play the West coast. We have to play Texas, because we’re quite big down there.
RMS: I’ve always wondered this…during the downtime, when heavy metal wasn’t very popular and Saxon kind of took a break, did you find that you had to do something else besides music for a living for a while?
BB: Well, no, not really. I was a carpenter when I was fresh out of school. I had turned my hand to a bit of house restoration here and there, but not for a living. Usually, it’s my own house. I think, when Nirvana came along, and Pearl Jam, I think it kicked everybody up the ass. I think everything was getting a little bit the same; the blonde hair, the hairspray, and the MTV. I just think, bands like Nirvana went back to a more punkie sort of attitude, where we originally came from. I think it was good to clean out the attic (laughs). A lot of the bands that are left are better for, I think.
RMS: Currently, do you listen to any music, like Iron Maiden or UFO?
BB: Yeah, I listen to the albums. I listened to the new Priest album; I like the new Priest album. Maiden hasn’t had anything new, has it? The new AC/DC album, I’ve been listening to. I’ve also been listening to bands like Royal Blood and Sword. I listen to a lot of music, different types of music. Anything with a great riff, I’m a sucker for. I saw the Led Zeppelin (DVD, Blu-ray release). Those releases are fantastic.
RMS: Are you somebody that collects music, or are you the type of person that downloads music, like most people nowadays?
BB: If you don’t mind me, I must say, I like to listen to rock radio, which has got new and old in there. I like to hear different music through the day. That’s what I like. So, I’ll listen to some of these Internet stations that have the new and the old stuff. I don’t really like stations that only play hardcore. I think it can get a bit weary, listening to that stuff. It’s different when you go see it live and you’re moshing and diving. It’s different. I like great melodies and great riffs; I’m a sucker for that.
RMS: Well, that’s what Saxon is all about.
BB: I think that’s what the ages are all about, as well. I think we are trying to do that with a modern edge. I’m still trying to play the melodic chorus with a heavy riff, but with a more modern style, with younger producers like Andy Sneap.
RMS: Yeah, he’s a great producer. He really brings out the best in the band.
BB: I mean, we’re never going to sound like Killswitch Engage, but there’s a certain element of that style in our music now that’s good.
RMS: What is the writing process in the band like? Do you guys actually get together?
BB: Sometimes we do. With this particular newer album, a lot of it is me and Nibbs, the bass player doing quite a lot of the work, so far. But, we’re going in on the 23rd of February to start recording, so maybe some of the other guys will have some ideas then. Generally, we don’t really care in the initial process. It’s when we come together on the 23rd of February and start recording and bashing things into pieces. So, me and Nibbs wrote a song, but it may be a co-written song at the end of the day, if you know what I mean.
RMS: So, for the lyrics, do you wait until the music is written, and then write lyrics for the music?
BB: On this album, I have 50% of the lyrics already written. They’re mostly history-based; based on myths, or based on stories. Some of them are rock ‘n’ roll done on the spur of the moment. I’ve got a song at the moment called “Tax till You Drop.” So, I’m just waiting for a particular riff to come along for that one, too.
RMS: So, you’re pretty much thinking about lyrics all the time?
BB: It comes in spurts, you know? I’ll have a good day of writing lyrics; like I have written a poem for the First World War, and I pretty much wrote it in one hit, and am still fine-tuning the poem. Generally, it’s a poem about the First World War, and a soldier that died in it, and that’s going to be more of an ambient song with an actor reading the poem, and then a chorus. So, it’s something new that we are going to try.
RMS: That is really cool. I love that idea.
BB: Maybe somebody else will rip it off, meanwhile, now that I’ve put it out there on the Internet. But, that’s what we’re trying. Nigel’s written a nice ambient piece on keyboards. So we’ve managed to get an actor with a nice British dialect to read it, and then a chorus.
RMS: Have you ever contemplated writing a book?
BB: I have a book called, “Never Surrender.” It’s not wildly known out there. It sold a lot of copies when it first came out. But, we were just negotiating that, to get it on Kindle or iBook. So, that will be around, “Never Surrender.” It’s a bit of an autobiography. It is a Saxon book, but it goes back to when I was a boy. People can buy it on Amazon if they’re willing to wait for it. Just look up “Never Surrender.” It’s called “Never Surrender (Or Nearly Good Looking).” (Laughs)
RMS: When was that released originally?
BB: It would be a bout six-seven years ago, now. I’ve been asked to do a re-write. I think I’m out of the contract, so maybe I’ll just re-write it and re-release it straight to the Internet. Everybody knows how to do that.
RMS: How gratifying was it, to sit down and write that book, for you?
BB: It was good! I wrote it with a cowriter, a guy who writes biographies, basically. And yeah, it was good. I got to have the final edits on it, but it was good fun. I think it kind of built a lot of bridges and got rid of a lot of demons.
RMS: So, it wasn’t one of those books that burns a lot of bridges, then?
BB: No, it didn’t really burn any bridges, no. I think the movie is really based on my book. You know what I mean? I wrote the book, and then we did the film – the movie. So, I think they’re very close together. It covers a history of Saxon that not a lot of people knew.
RMS: Well, the last question I have for you, Biff, is: Is there still anything out there that you want to accomplish in your career, at this point?
BB: Yeah, I’d like a platinum album in America. That would be really nice. We’ve got a couple of gold albums, but we never actually climbed that ladder. So, if you could just have a word with Mr. Platinum and see if you could fix it for us.
RMS: Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone gets platinum records anymore.
BB: No, exactly. So, it’s a bit of a big wish.
RMS: If any band deserves it, it’s definitely Saxon.
BB: I mean, silver would be okay. Lead would be okay (laughs).
RMS: Alright Biff, I appreciate your time, and hopefully, I can catch you sometime in America in the spring.
BB: Yeah, I think we start on the 12th of May. It’s going to be on our website and Facebook sites and Twitter as soon as I know, it will be on there. Because, obviously, people need to know and buy tickets. A few of the shows have already been announced – B.B. King’s, House of Blues. Just the little bits that they were trying to get together.
RMS: I will look out for that. Thank you again, Biff. You take it easy, alright?
BB: Oh, no problem. Bye!