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Interview conducted December 14 2023
Interview published February 17 2024

British heavy metal legends Saxon's frontman and undisputed leader Biff Byford, as well as new guitarist Brian Tatler, also of Diamond Head fame, made a stop in Stockholm in December to promote their January 19th making Hell, Fire And Damnation.

Band lineup:
Biff Byford - vocals
Brian Tatler - guitar
Doug Scarratt - guitar
Nibbs Carter - bass
Nigel Glockler - drums

Tobbe: It feels like Carpe Diem was just out, but here we are with a new Saxon record at the doorstep.

Biff: Yeah, we think it's a great album. We think it's a monster.

Tobbe: Saxon is pretty unique in comparison to most bands of your generation because you still release albums frequently. It's been ten albums, I think, since the millennium change. What keeps you guys going?

Biff: I think it's me, really. I'm a motivated, driven person, so I want to create songs and albums. I like it.

Tobbe: And with this new album, what was your initial plan when you first started writing?

Biff: What was the plan? There is no plan. That's the plan. There's no plan. It's just the passion to write great songs, really. We don't like being predictable. I like to keep people guessing, so I think when every Saxon album comes out, people are like, "Whoa, there's a new Saxon album coming out. What's it gonna be like? Is it gonna be better than Carpe Diem? Is it gonna be like Denim And Leather? Is it gonna be great? Is it gonna be rubbish?".

So I think we've always had to work very hard for our success. I think some bands have had it a lot easier. (Brian:) Not naming names. (Biff:) Yeah, not naming names.

Tobbe: Strictly production-wise and sound-wise, do you think this album sounds a little bit different than the last couple of Saxon records?

Biff: I think all the Saxon records sound different though. You know, Thunderbolt is not like Carpe Diem, and Carpe Diem is not like Hell, Fire And Damnation. You know, Brian coming on board, doing some songwriting with me, made a little bit of a change. He's obviously had some of these metal riffs in his back pocket for some time waiting to be reborn.

So yeah, I think it just worked out quite special for that to happen. Yeah, I mean, I like the album. And if you listen to the album all the way through, it has a great feel to it, I think.

Tobbe: Yeah, it's still heavy metal music to the bone. Would it be just stupid to expect otherwise with a record from Saxon?

Brian: Yes, I'd be. (Biff:) You know, we're not gonna turn into Ed Sheeran overnight. Although some of his money would be all right, wouldn't it, right?

Tobbe: Brain Tatler, Saxon guitarist. Life sometimes takes unexpected turns, right?

Brian: Indeed. It did for me. Yeah, I mean, I never expected it. It all started in 2022 with a phone call from the management, who said, "Paul Quinn's got Covid and we're doing a festival in the weekend called Steelhouse, in Wales, and would you be able to learn the set and do the gig?", and I said, "Yes, of course.".

So off I went. I went into Spotify and went on YouTube and started learning the material. And then by, about, the Thursday, Adam (Parsons) called back and said, "Paul's gonna be fine. Fortunately he's okay to do the gig. So thanks for learning the set and we'll see you at some point.".

So anyway, we did the big tour with Saxon in, I think it was, October and November of 2022, where we did 33 dates across Europe and the UK, and we got to know each other. You know, we got a bit closer to the band and we'd bump into each other in the catering and things like that. And then in March of 2023, I got another call from Adam to say, "Paul Quinn is stepping down from Saxon. Would I be interested in taking over, taking his position on stage?", and I said, "Yes, of course. That'd be fantastic.".

I was very flattered to be asked. 'Cause there's a thousand guitarists. We all know there's incredible players all over the world. So to pick me, I was very honored. I thought, "Well, I've sort of learned some of the set, so I'll just continue where I was at.", but this time I knew those gigs were definitely gonna happen. There were festivals booked for July and August. I got all the dates through and I just cracked on doing that. So that's how it came about.

And my first gig was in Athens at a festival opening for Deep Purple. Deep Purple were the headlining band and we were on before them. So there was no soundcheck; I just went straight on stage. The guitar tech popped the guitar over my neck and said, "Off you go.". The intro tapes about to climax and, "There is your position on stage.".

It was very nerve-racking. It's one of the hardest things I've done. 'Cause you don't wanna ruin the Saxon legacy. I wanted them to think, "Well done, mate. Good job.". For my own satisfaction I wanna do a good job. I get a lot of pleasure from what I do and from doing a good job, so.

Tobbe: So there was no hesitation when you got the question?

Brian: Oh, not a second. (Snaps his fingers) Just, "Yes, I'll do it.". And I went and spoke to my wife and explained it to her. And we were both a bit chocked. Both thought it was really weird. And then I let all my friends know, and they were like, "Oh, bloody hell.". It was really great. It's a lovely feeling.

Tobbe: I was actually thinking about asking you a question about what your wife thought about this decision to join a frequently touring band who makes a lot of records still?

Brian: She said, "I'll never bloody see you.", for a start, but she realized that it'd be good for me because it'd be easier because in Diamond Head there's been a lot of traveling in vans and setting up your own gear. We can't afford a crew.

And she knew that Saxon being a much more professional outfit was gonna make life easier for me on the road. I'd be looked after, I'd have crew, and I'd, you know. I think we knew everything would just go up a level. It was a great offer, for somebody of my age, to get an opportunity to play with such a legendary band. It was perfect for me.

Tobbe: Biff. You told me a couple of minutes ago that Brian indeed wrote a couple of riffs, or whatever, on this album, and I was thinking, "Isn't the Saxon template to write music so strong today that it's hard to let someone in who can create music together with you guys who are so experienced nowadays?".

Biff: Hmm, well, yeah, I mean, yeah, not really, no, because, you know, I mean, Brian's parts are better for guitar riffs and rhythm; they're not songs. I mean, obviously he thinks they're songs, but they're not songs. (Brian laughs) They're not songs until actually they are songs, yeah. I mean, it's just an accident, really.

I said to him, "Have you got any ideas?". We were pushing, because we've got the Judas Priest tour in March. We were gonna release the album much later. So we had to get it together really quickly. And I was, like, two songs short of what I thought was a great album. So we were in the process of writing another two songs and I said, "Brian, have you got any ideas?" and he said, "Yeah, yeah. I'll send you some.". So he sent me some ideas, and I liked three of them, immediately.".

(Brian:) Biff's quality control for Saxon, as you can imagine. So if he hadn't liked the songs, the ideas, the riffs, then he wouldn't have used them, you know. All I could do was say, "This is what I got." and fortunately he said, "Oh, I like that one, I like that one, I like that one.". (Biff:) I mean, anybody could have sent them in, really. I still would have liked the riffs, you know.

(Brian:) You weren't being charitable. (Biff:) No, I wasn't, no. In fact, it probably would have been easier for us just to carry on and not bother, you know. Writing some songs, and, you know, Brian would have played them live. But it didn't work like that. That didn't happen. Luckily for Brian and Saxon we found some little gems in his back pocket.

Tobbe: Many people, or fans, see Brian as more a metal guitarist, while Paul is considered more a bluesier kind of guitarist.

Biff: That's right. I think the guitar playing on the album is excellent though. I mean, Doug and Brian really complement each other fantastically. I mean, Paul and Doug did, but differently. I mean, Paul likes Brian being in the band. He thinks it's great. That's good enough, isn't it, really? Paul likes him, then that's fine.

Yeah, Paul is more of a schizoid blues player. He has a unique style, Paul. You know, he's a fantastic guitarist and no one will ever be able to take that away from him. He's a really gifted, unique guitarist. He doesn't wanna play anymore and there's nothing I can do about that, so Brian is taking his place.

I think 99,99 percent of Saxon fans accepted Brian immediately. I mean, they didn't see it coming. We actually knew before, but we kept it a secret a while and let it go on a specific day. You know, Paul's a really loved guitarist. People love him, and he's an original member. But people understood his reasons and accepted it. You know, we've done all the festivals across Europe, and we've just done South America, and the fans are great. They were really excited to see Brian in the band.

(Brian:) Yeah, it's been great. I didn't expect to get that kind of receptance and acceptance. There's not been any, you know, "Where is Paul?". Nothing like that. It's been really good and it makes me feel good to be part of the band and to be accepted. The crowds in South America were awesome. I've never seen anything like that; I'm not used to that.

Tobbe: Was it at times hard to record with a new band now and get the real Saxon feeling into your veins?

Brian: I don't know, really. All I can do is, "This is the riff. I'll play it as well as I possibly can.". You know, it needs to be exciting, it's needs to have some energy, but you're not totally aware that, "This has to sound like Saxon.". You're onto the next song, aren't you? "This is the next song for the new album."

(Biff:) The guys were all involved. I think Doug suggested you'd change the chord round into the chorus of a song, didn't he? So people were involved in the actual routine of writing. You know, people had input.

(Brian:) We did a lot of work in Germany when we convened as a band and we'd do, like, eight hours a day for maybe four days, going over all the new material. And people would make suggestions. You know, "What about if we'd do this, or change that chord? What about this?". We were learning the songs, but we were also tweaking them all the time. And you (Biff) could be objective, and you didn't have to sing; you could sort of just listen.

(Biff:) Yes, that's right. I was just listening. Because the music has to be entertaining in its own right, I think. You know, a guitar riff has to have a life of its own, I think.

Tobbe: Biff. You are the only original member of the band. Could that fact bother you sometimes just a little bit?

Biff: No, not really. That doesn't bother me, no. I don't even think about it. I mean, technically Paul still is in the band. You know, he's not left the band. He might leave the band tomorrow; I don't know. But spiritually he's still in the band. You know, he might get up and jam with us on one of the Judas Priest shows. If he sent me a great guitar riff tomorrow, we'd work on it. I don't think there're any rules.

Tobbe: Brian. Do you think that you have found your position in the band already now?

Brian: I guess so. I know where I stand. I'll keep trying to come up with ideas. Now I've been sort of accepted by everybody. It's nice to know that I can just come up with ideas and give them to Biff. He's got the final say. You know, he can either say, "That's not working for me." or "I think that's great.".

You know, I speak to Nibbs and Doug and Nigel about it and all we can do is provide Biff with some great music, some great tracks as best we can, and then if he likes it, he'll run with it, and if he doesn't like it, it won't get used and you just put it on the back burner. You don't have to be precious about anything.

Tobbe: And on stage?

Brian: I'm where Paul was. I'm exactly where Paul was, of course. Nothing's changed on stage. (Biff:) You've done a lot of gigs now though. (Brian:) I think I've done 18 now. I'm getting used to it now. At first I was getting very nervous and, you know, I felt like I'm making mistakes and I was worried about things, but as we're going on I'm getting more and more enjoyment and relaxing and I can really take it in and enjoy the moment.

Tobbe: I think most fans actually don't realize if you're making a little mistake here and there.

Brian: Hopefully. I do. Well, it's gone in a second, but I don't take anything for granted, you know.

Tobbe: When you tried out that set in 2022, which you didn't eventually play, how many hours did you…

Brian: I probably did it every day for probably four hours a day, or something like that, and tried to get it under my skin, so that I wouldn't be panicking on stage, you know. And then on my first gig, because it was my first gig, lots of people were capturing it on their phones and putting it on YouTube, "Brian Tatler's first gig with Saxon.". And I was aware of that, "Oh, don't fuck it up.".

Tobbe: That must be horrible.

Brian: It is, a bit. It never used to be like that. You know, if you fall over on stage, everybody's captured it. There'll be 100,000 hits on there.

Tobbe: And pretty much every song is recorded by someone, and definitely like the first two or three songs where there are hundreds of phones up in the air.

Brian: And first gig. People were aware, "Brian Tatler is doing this one. Let's see if he fucks Crusader up.". (Laughs)

Tobbe: Right. Especially the intro.

Brian: Aaw, imagine it.

Tobbe: As a guitarist, had you played some of the old Saxon stuff before, just like anyone could try out the old Diamond Head stuff?

Brian: Only a little, yeah. I mean, you know, some great riffs. I've obviously worked them out and probably tried to think, "Could I steal anything from this arrangement or this idea?". But yeah, I've learnt a few over the years, just as I'd learned some Black Sabbath riffs or some Judas Priest riffs. We all, you know, learn and copy from each other that way and think, "Oh, I like the way they did that.".

Tobbe: Those riffs you wrote, that we were talking about before, which now are Saxon riffs, did you had those riffs already fully done with Diamond Head in mind?

Brian: Well, that's what I was doing before Saxon, but we never did anything with them. They were just ideas and demos. Occasionally I would send stuff to Ras (Rasmus Bom Andersen, vocals) and we'd do demos and that, but nothing was like, "This'll be the next Diamond Head album.". If anything, only Hell, Fire And Damnation we even had a little go at in the rehearsal room.

Madame Guillotine, I'd just done on my home studio. We'd never even done that with real drums or anything; it's just a drum machine. And then 1066, I'd done a quick demo with a friend, who's very good at programming drums. Better than I was anyway. That rhythm I thought was a little bit like Sacrifice and I thought, "Oh, that could be good.", 'cause it's got a good, fast drive. So that was one that I sent to Biff, that he liked. But we'd never rehearsed it. Nobody else had heard that. It's just brand new, really.

Tobbe: Is Diamond Head shoveled away a little bit now at the moment as you're in Saxon now?

Brian: Well yes. Saxon's a lot busier than Diamond Head, so I've had to put Diamond Head on hold, really. So we're not gonna do anything in 2024; we're gonna take a break. We might work on material. You know, we can do Zoom interviews, and Zoom calls, and things, but my priority really is to focus on Saxon. I think it's a brilliant opportunity for me. It's a fantastic challenge. I wanna give it my best shot. I wanna put a 100 percent into it.

Tobbe: Also not about Saxon, Biff. You just recently put out a new record (Dreams Of Yesterday) with Heavy Water.

Biff: Yeah, it's a great album. I mean, I like writing with my son (Seb). He's, like, really into, you know, '60s and '70s music, and he's also into, like, the '90s stuff as well. So he's into different styles of music. It's our voices together that work really well on those albums, you know. They're good singing albums, the Heavy Water albums. Not so much metal. They're very raw, riffy stuff.

Tobbe: You have been doing quite a lot of stuff besides Saxon in recent years. How come it took so long for you to do stuff like Heavy Water, the solo album (School Of Hard Knocks), and then the Inspirations albums?

Biff: The opportunity was there. My solo album is all about me, so I wouldn't really do those songs for Saxon. "I this." and "I that.", you know. So it was just an opportunity to write some songs about my life, and nothing to do with Saxon, really. It's more rock 'n' roll than Saxon. It's not as heavy as Saxon is. Although the couple of songs I wrote with Fred (Åkesson) from Opeth are quite heavy. You know, they're quite metal prog.

Tobbe: In your position, do you realize what kind of impact and inspiration you personally had on other bands who have probably listened to Saxon just like you listened to the bands that are interpreted on the Inspirations albums?

Biff: Yeah, we're aware of it now. I don't think we were aware of it maybe 10 or 20 years ago. A lot of bands have come out and said where their influences are and, you know, we're on the list of most bands' influences. Yeah, that '80s movement was very strong; went around the world.

Tobbe: Have you ever listened to Saxon songs interpreted by other bands?

Biff: Sometimes. They don't really do them much. Probably they're too difficult or something; I don't know. We're not covered a lot. We have been covered, usually by young bands, and we had, you know, a few orchestras do versions of our songs, but we don't have a lot of bands that cover us. Certainly nobody famous has covered us. Not like Metallica with Diamond Head. You know, Metallica could have done a Saxon song quite easy, but they never did, so. That's all right, that's cool.

Tobbe: Saxon has quite often released live albums. Is there time for another one coming out soon?

Biff: Not that you can buy. (Laughs) There is a live recording on a box set in Germany, of the Balingen Bang Your Head festival. But no, we don't have any plans for a live album yet, no. I mean, we do record everything when we're touring. Every concert is recorded, when we're headlining, so there's a massive catalogue of recordings.

I think it's just because you can now. You just need a hard drive and the right software and you can record 48 tracks quite easily now. We just do it, you know. I'll say to the sound guy, "Record tonight.". I don't tell anybody else. As soon as people would know they're being recorded they play differently, you know what I mean? The paranoia sets in, so we don't bother telling anybody now. At the end I'll go, "We're recording tonight.".

Tobbe: About live albums again. Is it hard to top the first The Eagle Has Landed record? Because that's still the Saxon live album number one to most fans, I think.

Biff: Yeah. I mean, a lot of those early albums, like UFO and Thin Lizzy; they can never be bettered. They got that spirit to them and I don't think you can ever bring that back. You know, you'd have to do something like Brazil, or something, to get that excitement that was there in the '80s. But, you know, at least we had a big live album that people really like. It's up there with the Top 10 of live albums, I think.

Tobbe: Brian. Have you taken over Paul's duties live or does Doug play some of Paul's stuff?

Biff: No, that's interesting. I'll answer that, if you'd like. It's interesting, because Doug's taken over the start of Princess Of The Night. He's taken that. Doug is quite good at playing downstrokes. (Brian:) Yeah, better than me. A faster downpicker than I am.

(Biff:) And Paul had stopped playing downstrokes. He was playing it up and down, in his later years. But Doug plays it like the original. You know, the fast downstrokes. He likes that, so he took that one. You still do Crusader though.

(Brian:) Yeah. I can do Crusader. But yeah, I struggled with Princess, so Doug offered to do it. I mean, I might get up to speed one of the days, but it was nice of him to say, "I'll do it.". You know, save me stressing about it. 'Cause we played it a few times on soundcheck and Biff would say, "It's not fast enough. You got to play faster than that." and I'm thinking, "Aaw, this is as fast as I can.". Very tricky.

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