I have been in the presence of many fellow music journalists, all of whom had at least one disappointing tale to tell of meeting with a music idol who failed to meet their expectations.
Though I dreaded the same, I decided to put my fears aside and arrange a face to face interview with Saxon’s frontman Biff Byford. Luckily for me, the man who is responsible for the creation of some of the most amazing Heavy Metal tunes ever recorded, many included in the band’s latest studio album “Sacrifice”, also happened to be quite an accommodating and respectful interviewee – a proper gentleman indeed.
In an amazingly comfy room of a central London hotel Biff spoke to me about all things Saxon, how the band’s twentieth studio album came to life and the possibility of seeing these NWOBHM legends go…acoustic.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis
Hi, Biff. It is an absolute pleasure talking to you in person. It is something that I have been thinking of doing many years now but I always ended up stopping myself thinking “maybe it’s better not to meet your heroes” just in case you end up becoming disappointed with them.
Biff: (laughs) OK, I see (laughs). So what changed your mind then?
Well, a couple of years ago I ended up talking to Doug (Scarratt: guitars) at a Dean Guitar exhibition and he was super friendly and accommodating, so that gave me the courage to aim for the ‘big guns’.
On top of that, there is an amazing new album entitled “Sacrifice” out soon, so this is as much the right time as any! Actually, my colleague who wrote our website’s review for the album has called it potential “album of the year”, even though we are still in early February!
Biff: (laughs) Thank you. Now, that is a good start indeed!
It is, but I cannot really blame him for describing it like that as it is a phenomenal album! I have been listening to this music enough years now to understand how important it is for a band that has been around as long as you guys to be still capable of recording such amazing music.
The album is absolutely sensational! You can really feel that it is a product of a labour of love and that there has been plenty of passion involved behind its creation. What is the secret of your success?
Biff: Well, with this album I wanted to step back a bit as I have produced it myself. I wanted to step back and right straight from the heart rather than the brain and, you know, everybody in Saxon are excellent musicians and I happen to play well also, so we are capable of doing quite intricate songs.
I wanted this album to be more of a mixture of our live power and of our song writing, so I just stepped back a bit and sort of thought of what it was that made us great in the 80s…; what did people like as well as what it is that makes us great now and what people like about us today. These are songs that, as I said, we just wrote naturally without thinking too much things like “is this bit too hard” or “is that bit right” but generally wrote songs that we can play live.
In my humble opinion, “Unleash The Beast” (1997) was a pivotal album in the sense that it brought Saxon firmly to the forefront of modern Metal as well as to the attention of a younger and hungry-for-Metal audience.
I always felt that, since the release of that album, there has been a constant struggle to bring the Rock n’Roll elements of your glorious past into some sort of harmony with the modern Heavy Metal riffs in your later material and I feel that “Sacrifice” is the first album where this harmony has finally been achieved
Biff: Yes, you are probably right. It’s a great mixture of different elements. Some songs are quite modern, songs like “Sacrifice” and “Made In Belfast” with the latter incorporating elements of Celtic origin, but we also went back and we re-visited the 80s with songs like “Warriors Of The Road” and “Stand Up And Fight”.
Some of the remaining material contains some pretty intricate songs and I am referring here to “Guardians Of The Tomb” which is a Prog-y type of song but we also wrote some simple stuff like “Standing In The Queue” and “Wheels Of Terror” – the latter containing a very modern-sounding riff which makes it sound like a modern-day “Wheels Of Steel”. This song reminded me a lot of stuff by bands like Machine Head, you know what I mean? It is modern and heavy but we tried to make it sound more like “Wheels Of Steel”.
This is a very difficult balance to achieve and people are bound to react to it in a variety of ways. I bet you that you will have some people say “wow, this is too modern for me” while others will say “why did they go all classic on us now”? You can never please everyone, right?
Biff: (laughs) You are right, you cannot win this battle. I am sure that the same kind of problem will be found in the Iron Maiden camp, the Motorhead camp and the Judas Priest camp so what you have to do is to simply write music which excites you first and then you see if other people like it. “Metalhead” (1999) was an album that was before its time but it is an album that is very much liked by Rock bands, but I believe that we were quite right in creating it as it brought us gracefully into the next millennium.
I remember wanting to write a dark album just because we fu*king wanted to and simply because we could – it’s as simple as that really! I mean, why should everybody else write albums like that and not us? I think we made a great job even on melodic moments on the album like “Conquistador” – a song which I believe would have fitted excellently in an album like “Denim And Leather” (1981). It has a great melody and a great riff and the guys blended the Mexican/Spanish influence into a Rock/Metal song which is a very hard thing to do.
I believe that for the band’s successful musical evolution a lot of credit ought to be given to you as you have a great eye and ear when it comes to choosing bandmates. Nibbs (Carter: bass), for instance: what a great signing, if it is OK to use a football term, was that back in 1988-89? I mean, he is an uncontrollable force of energy!
Biff: That he is (laughs).
He brings an amazing energy into the band and Doug, he is what I call ‘silent but deadly’. He is quite a humble person to meet but such a powerhouse on stage – exactly what this band needs!
Biff: Doug is a monster of a guitar player.
So what we have in the era 2013 is a band that is fresh and invigorated, which is able to compete with anyone and which, most importantly, always manage to sound like Saxon should.
Biff: Thanks for that. I think that Doug did a great job assimilating into this band. His first album with us really was “Unleash The Beast” and it is evident what he brought into the band. He brought a lot of top musicianship which is something that Paul (Quinn: guitars) was always responsible of supplying since the early days, with Graham Oliver (ex-guitarist and co-founding member) supplying the more ‘charismatic’ moments so to speak, burning guitars and basically taking his clothes off a lot. So, we kind of lost that Spinal Tap element a little bit when Graham left and Doug replaced him as a superb guitarist and eventually he also became a great song writer.
Earlier on you mentioned that you handled production duties for “Sacrifice”. Now, correct me if I am wrong, but was that not a job assigned to Andy Sneap?
Biff: No, we never intended to do that. Andy was actually busy so he couldn’t do the production but, you know, I was always going to produce this album myself – I just didn’t know who was going to mix it. The guy that mixes the last album (note: “Call To Arms”) was called Mike Plontikoff from Los Angeles who did a great job for us but I wanted this one to be more British…there isn’t such a thing as British-sounding but I wanted it to be ‘Gibsons and Marshalls’, you know what I mean? Now, because the Killswitch Engage album was delayed he got an opening so we already talked to some festivals in Czech Republic about working together and so I asked him (note: Andy Sneap) to mix it, basically.
So, he came down into the studio a couple of times to check on what we were doing and I told him my plan of making this album a little bit more organic-sounding and, yeah, he was into that. So it worked out pretty well; it was a great combination of things. My job was to take the album into a state that it would not be bogged down with too many choirs as it is in “Guardian Of The Tomb” with these huge keyboard parts…it is very easy these days to go too far with such tricks in your music so we made sure that we did not go down that road. We did not use many samples, only a few keyboard themes in the more atmospheric bits but generally this album is pretty much a representation of how Saxon play live, really.
To be honest with you Biff, if I was the singer of a band like Saxon I would have made sure to stay as far away from the main console as possible – I would be scared to death of even attempting getting involved in the recording duties.
Biff: Well, the thing is that I have done this a lot as I have co-produced every album since…probably since “Dogs Of War” (1995) so I have a lot of experience in the studio and the rest of the members in the band do as well, you know. I think that…I felt as if this whole album had to be more connected to Saxon rather than being connected to somebody else’s idea of what Saxon are all about and I really wanted that to be clear.
I mean, we worked with Charlie Bauerfeind who has done some fantastic jobs for other Metal bands (note: Angra, Blind Guardian, Helloween, Rage) and I have co-produced many albums with him but he always comes up with that ‘slick sound’ which Charlie is known to bring – a perfectionist, Charlie, who is a fantastic person to work with.
This, however, is not what I wanted for this album especially as we made the album as we went along – nothing was really planned. I was playing bass guitar on a lot of the writing sessions and so I was not really able to do a lot of the vocal melodies and the lyrics until late into the process when Nibbs came, so everything was very spontaneously done. I had this idea, the chorus of “Warriors Of The Road” which I wrote down and which we kind of stuck in. It was all just done into the studio – a lot of it anyway.
Biff: Yes! We had some original ideas from Nibbs, Paul and Nigel (Glockler: drums) but also from myself as I did write one song but it is pretty much a team effort really when it came to putting the bits together. I suppose I was in charge of the arrangements so it was me who put in the twin guitar parts and thought, “we should bring back the twin guitars again”, as I felt that we lost a bit the twin guitars with all the Metal. I mean, sometimes you can be too Metal and lose something important.
The rhythm, for instance, becomes chromatic with no bent notes and it is very hard not to go down that road these days because it is considered modern not to bent notes. I wanted, however, to bring that back as twin guitar parts are part of the 80s sound and reminiscent of bands like Wishbone Ash and Thin Lizzy. I mean, Iron Maiden based their early career on twin guitars and they brought that stuff back on their latest album so yes, it is cool to have such guitar parts back in the fold again.
When recording these ten new songs in the studio, which would you say was the one that gave you the most nightmares, so to speak?
Biff: Hmm… “Guardians Of The Tomb” is quite hard. We kept changing our minds. We had this stupid sort of synth-y thing in a pentatonic Chinese scale, you know, the oriental scale (note: at this point Biff recreates it for me in a rather amusing manner) which we really liked but it wouldn’t fit with anything (laughs).
I had the title “Guardians Of The Tomb” and we knew that the song would be all about the Terracotta Warriors so we wanted the song to have an oriental feel. We had this oriental sequence that Nigel played on the Roland drum kit, an electronic drum kit that he has, and which we used to write the songs at my house in France. This theme sort of stuck with us and later on we changed it to real instruments…it was very difficult that song, to get in and out of the parts and to keep to an oriental flavour.
The promo disc we were given included some amazing acoustic versions of Saxon classics such as “Frozen Rainbow” and I was truly amazed how, after all these years being a fan of the band, I managed to discover a side of your musical character that I didn’t know existed.
On stage Saxon is the most dynamic band, so to have such songs performed in an acoustic setting is quite interesting indeed. I am surprised how you didn’t attempt something like that earlier on in your career.
Biff: Well, we wanted to be able to create something interesting to offer to our fans who plan on purchasing the album’s limited edition and I think that they will be pleased with what we have prepared for them.
Would you guys ever consider doing an acoustic tour of sorts? You have never attempted such a thing so far in your long career but I, for one, would be more than happy to attend such a show.
Biff: Such a thing has not been discussed but I am not against the idea of doing a handful of special shows in an acoustic setting. Our guitarists, on the other hand, who love to play hard may have a few issues with that (laughs) but who knows – maybe I would be able to convince them.
Talking of shows, your website already advertises a very extensive tour which starts from the Caribbean and South America and finds you visiting some prestigious Summer Metal festivals, such as Graspop and Bang Your Head. Are you not tired of touring?
Biff: No we are not – we love playing live as this is really the right environment for Saxon. In addition to that, with record and CD sales reaching an all-time low, it is at live shows where the money is and if you want to be able to survive as a band you will need to be on the road as long as you possibly can. We are going to do a pretty extensive UK tour in April so check out the dates and come to see us play.
I am really looking forward to the band’s London show, that’s for sure! Biff, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to meet you and to do this interview with you. I am not going to wish you luck, as this will sound almost insulting to a band of your capabilities and experience. I only hope that you enjoy playing live for us and that you will continue to do so in the years to come.
Biff: (laughs) Thanks a lot. Check out our website (www.saxon747.com) for more information regarding the upcoming tour and a few more surprises which are under way.
The album Sacrifice is released via UDR on 4 March 2013