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An Interview with Biff Byford of Saxon

Biff Byford of Saxon Artist's Facebook
by Jeff Muendel
November 2013

Maximum Ink: I want to introduce you to Maximum Ink and Max Ink Radio and let everyone know about the band.  I’d like to briefly touch on the history of the band.  Obviously, you guys are considered to be a part of the new wave of heavy metal that included not only Saxon, but Iron Maiden and Def Leppard as the biggest bands… How do you feel about having that label?
Biff Byford:
Yeah, it’s ok, it’s not a bad label, really, I mean, it probably means more in Europe than it does in America.  It’s a good label, I don’t mind it, I think Def Leppard doesn’t like to use it.  But I think Maiden are okay with it, y’know. But yeah, it just appeared in time from 1980 until about 1986, ’86 when all that music was coming out of England.

MI: It’s interesting, probably because Def Leppard’s the band that moved away from heavy metal altogether and maybe became a little bit more of a pop band.
I suppose they’re a little more rock n’ roll like we were in the early days and somebody coined the phrase, “new wave of British heavy metal”, which meant we weren’t really Sabbath or Zeppelin, or Purple.  We were a new generation of bands.  Obviously, we were heavily influenced by these bands but I just think some journalist picked a point that we were the newer generation.

MI: And so, since that time, you guys have put out a lot of albums, a lot of great albums, had some lineup changes.  I know for a while there, there was a little bit of an issue with Graham Oliver and somebody else from the original lineup.
There was an issue with the name thing through the courts, but that was settled years ago. I mean, we won that, obviously.  I think Wikipedia can be blamed for a lot of misinformation. People can change things on there, can’t they, quite easily.  No, but all that’s really settled now, we allow them to use the name of Oliver/Dawson Saxon, which seems to work alright… they tend to do quite a few tribute festivals and things like that.

MI: So, are you pretty friendly with Oliver and Dawson, now, or…?
I wouldn’t say we were friendly because there’s too much gone on between us, but we’re not really hostile at the moment, if you know what I mean – there’s no court proceedings going on, and obviously we do have interests together from the old material, so it’s not as bad as it used to be.

MI: That’s good to hear. So, I really want to get into the new album and the tour, I think that’s what we really want to focus on, here.  So, the new album is called, “Sacrifice”, is that correct?
It is, yeah, and it’s got some fantastic reviews.  Whatever we did to it, people seem to like it.  We tried to have a spirit of the 80s on it and a modern edge to it and I think we probably succeeded, according to the critics and the fans. So, yeah, it’s a really well-received album, this one.

MI: That’s great! And your album previous to that, “Call to Arms”, I think, from my perspective, was very similar.  I really loved that album as well, because as you said, it had that feel of the older rock n roll Saxon but with a modern edge.  And it sounds like that’s something you guys are consciously doing, would that be correct?
Yeah, I think we tapped into our blues influences more on the last two albums, on this album and the last one. The guitarists sort of let go of it, their solos are quite jammed, less worked-out, and a little bit more of a passionate, wilder edge to it, really, and I think people can hear that on the album.

MI: And on the new album as well, the “Sacrifice” album, there are some remakes of older songs, is that correct?
That’s right, yeah, there’s a couple of re-recordings, there’s a few things which are orchestrated, there’s a couple of unplugged acoustic tracks, as well. Yeah, we were just sort of messing around, really, trying to give people something a bit extra.

MI: I like that, the orchestrated version of “Crusader” is quite interesting.  Is that newly recorded or just adding the instrumentation on top of an existing recording?
No, it’s newly recorded, and it’s a different vocal.  It’s one of our biggest songs around the world, “Crusader’.  Seems to conjure up a lot of emotion, that song. We love making our songs a little bit different sometimes, and that one totally sounds great with the orchestrated.

MI: I think it’s great that you’re redoing songs like that, too, and I really like the remake of “Just Let Me Rock”, which was a great song – was that on the “Crusader” album originally, as well?
No, I think that was on “The Power and the Glory” album – that was quite a big MTV hit, that song, in its day. Got a lot of airplay on MTV, so I think probably people in America recognize that song more than Europe, maybe. We just wanted to give it a big kick in the backside, give it more of a heavier feel, it’s quite lightweight on the album, but I think it sounds great with the heavier guitars, the different vocal style.

MI: I agree, I love that song. Another song I’ve always thought would be a great one to hear you guys redo is “Play It Loud”, which I think was on Denim and Leather, if I’m not mistaken.
That’s right. That’s a great song as well, we do play it live, sometimes.  In the middle of the set, we tend to have a request spot, and we might do that over the water, used to go over really well in Europe and UK, where, in the middle of the set, I’ll go, “Ok, this is the human setlist, it’s your turn to choose a song”, and if you can’t get it together, then usually I’ll go through a couple songs, and whichever gets the biggest cheer, we play. But, it’s stressful for the band, do you know what I mean? I only have to learn the lyrics, really, they have to learn the arrangements and everything, but they usually pull it off.  I must say, we’ve had some really wacky ones over the past, on this tour, I’ve been doing it since January and we’ve had some really wacky requests and I must say, we pulled it off.  You know, 99.9 times.

MI: Right, so you’ve never gotten stumped on anything so far.
No, not really – we’ve got a bit lost in the middle a couple of times, it’s a bit of coughing on the microphone – but it works really well, we’ve done it on a few festivals this year, played in front of nearly a million people on festivals in Europe, and some of them are over 100,000 people, so it’s a bit risky to do that, in front of that many people, but hey, you know, it’s music, it’s supposed to be fun and it’s supposed to be a thrill to play it.

MI: One thing that I saw recently on the internet that was really interesting to me, that probably a lot of people here in the United States don’t know about, was that you, the band, was on some sort of television show where, and maybe you can fill me in on what I was seeing, because it was on youtube, where the band was put together with some sort of promoter.
A fly on the wall show, yeah? It’s a bit like they followed us around, we had this mentor from Squire, a famous promoter in England, he was supposed to put our career back on course in the UK, and I wasn’t having any of it, so it was a bit of an argument thing between me and him most of the time.  It’s quiet entertaining, though, it did us a lot of good.

MI:  I’d love to be able to see all the shows, how many episodes were there?
It was a little bit like, “You have to change your image.” You know it was like, “Why do we have to change our image?” “Well, you have to become sort of more mainstream.” I was like, “Why do we have to become more mainstream? There’s no way I’m cutting my hair, and we’re not wearing jackets with bowties. This is what we are, we’re a heavy metal band, we wear what we like, It’s mostly black.  Our music is heavy, you know, so shove it.”  Basically, and that was the show.

MI: Wow, I’d love to see it sometime. I only saw clips on youtube. I wonder… if it’ll ever become available, that’ll be fun to see
If it comes out on DVD, I suppose that would be good.

MI: Yeah, I’ll keep an eye out for that.  I think that would be a good idea. So talk to me about the tour of the United States that you have coming up that you’re playing, I want to let all of our Maximum Ink readers and Max Ink Radio people know that you played in Milwaukee as part of the tour.  You don’t seem to tour the United States nearly as much as you did in the 80s and early 90s.
I think a lot of our American fans lost us a little bit in that period, we didn’t come as much, our manager died, which wasn’t good, we had some big troubles with the record company, which wasn’t good, so I suppose we sort of lost our way a little bit on the American side.  But you know, we have a lot of fans there, a lot of fans from the 80s who used to love the band.  I think this tour, really, coast to coast, too, we haven’t done it for quite some time – 25 shows.  So yeah, we’re expecting people to come check us out – a lot of the shows, there’s a noise restriction – so a lot of young fans can get in to see us as well. So we’ll keep our fingers crossed and hope it’s great.

MI: It’s interesting to me, because there are so many great DVDs of the festivals you do in Europe… Wacken is one of the big ones that you guys always do and you just have a huge, huge following in Europe – I always feel like the United States SHOULD have that same level of following for Saxon, but it hasn’t happened.
It’s like half a dozen of one and six of the other – I mean, we’re very popular in Europe, and I suppose we have to be thankful for that, really, I mean we’d like to be more popular in America, obviously, but it’s just a matter of the 80s thing, we were on the verge of breaking huge in America on “The Power and The Glory” album, and then things went a bit weird for us with the change of record company and the manager dying and everything else, and it just took the edge off our touring a little bit and I suppose we stayed out of America for 3 years, and by that time, the grunge thing was happening with Pearl Jam and Nirvana and stuff, you know, so I suppose it’s just a matter of bad timing, really.

MI:  Yeah, that’s an interesting point – the grunge thing changed a lot of things for a lot of bands.
A lot of bands moved on to that, you know. It was a bit more like punk music, I suppose.  It was a bit more raw, great songs, simple songs, not a lot of guitar solos going on there, and just real “attitude” music. I liked it myself, thought it was a breath of fresh air. Bands like ourselves, and so on, we dropped down a lot during that time. But we’re still there, still doing tours of America, still playing the hits – the new tour will be 4 or 5 new songs and then it will be all the big songs, one after the other, “Denim and Leather”, “Princess of the Night”, “Crusader”, “Wheels of Steel”, “747”, I mean, I could go on, “Dallas 1 PM”, you know, we’re going to play all those songs on tour.

MI: That’s gonna be great. So, I want to talk just a little bit about longevity, you’re sort of referencing it right now, I think there’s definitely something to be said, we’re starting to see so many bands, you look at the Rolling Stones, you look at Black Sabbath, bands that have been out there for a very long time, still doing it, and you guys are still out there, doing it.  Where do you find the ability to go forward with the band, relative to your personal life, relative to the natural ways of aging?  I think it’s amazing that bands like even these other bands are still out there doing it.  Can you share with me anything that motivated you to do that?
I think one of the motivations is writing new music; I think that’s one of the biggest motivations for bands. The other thing is, as well, when you’ve been a professional musician, playing concerts all your life, it’s in your blood, really, it’s in your DNA and it’s very very difficult to stop doing what you do, because we love it so much. We love making albums, and we love touring on those albums – it’s what gives us the juice, y’know, and we love playing to audiences around the world. I mean, we play Europe, we play South America, we play Japan, we do America, it’s a great job, really, to be involved with. It’s difficult to stop. We can’t really do anything else, we’re not a multiplatinum album band anymore, so what we do, we do for the love and the passion, if you know what I mean.

MI: That’s great, and when you’re talking about that passion and continuing to write music, has the songwriting process changed over the years, or has it remained the same, is it a group effort or an individual?
No, actually, we’ve gone back to an earlier style of writing, playing live in a studio together and then coming up with stuff that we love and not accepting songs that aren’t great.  You know, they have to have lots of melody for me, and they have to have a great guitar riff, and if they don’t, then we just throw them in the bin.  We’re into quality, not quantity.  If the song doesn’t get us off, then we throw it away.

MI: I just wanted to talk about the band members really quickly – correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s really you and Paul Quinn that are from the original lineup, still?
I’m sorry, Nigel Glockler joined in 1981, I think, so he’s been around a long time, now, and the other two guys – I think the last time we had a member change was 1995, so this band’s been together since 1995, now, which is quite a long time.

MI: That’s awesome, I was not aware of that.  So you’re talking almost 20 years, really.
That’s right, yeah. So Doug, the guitarist, was the last guy to join, and he joined in 1995, his first album [with us] was “Unleash the Beast”, which is quite some time ago.

MI: So with regard to Paul Quinn, is he the person that you’ve known the longest out of the band? It would seem so.
Oh yeah, I’ve known Paul the longest. We were in a band together before this band, so I suppose we were like teenagers in a band together, really.  You know, like a school band, so we’ve been together quite some time.

MI: So, do you have a special writing relationship with him or a personal relationship with him?
Well, we know each other very well, and we can fight quite easily.  The thing is, I can get the best out of Paul, and he can get the best out of me because we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, if you know what I mean.  So it’s a bit like brothers, really.  It’s a pretty good bunch of guys, when we tour, we tour for the music and to meet the fans and obviously, for the wine. But we pretty much live for the gig, really.

MI:  Yeah, that’s awesome. So, I don’t have any other dedicated questions that I wanted to go through today, just want to see if there’s anything you wanted to share with the fans, encouragement for them to see the show.
We want all the fans that are into the band to come down, and we also want people to just come down and check it out because we have a long history of playing in America and we have a lot of fans there that used to be into us and we have a lot of young fans as well and want to check us out, so it’s a great show, 3 bands, so shows have got 4 bands on – but yeah, Elsian Way is a new young band on first, and obviously Fozzie, and then Saxon, really.  And that’s going to be a great bill for people to see.

MI: Great! Well, we’ll put the word out in the Wisconsin and Chicago area about you guys coming through.  I’m looking forward to it, I really want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
That area you’re in is one of the great rock areas of the planet and people want to check it out, or Saxon Facebook page and there we are.

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