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Interview conducted February 1 2018
Interview published February 5 2018

"Anybody can write. You can write a song for us. It makes no difference."

British long-running heavy metallers Saxon's undisputed leader and vocalist
Biff Byford visited Stockholm for a couple of days right before the release of the band's brand new record Thunderbolt [Out February 2nd] and Metal Covenant didn't let anything stand in their way in order to once again seize the opportunity to get a few moments with one of the greatest characters that ever made it somewhere in our beloved metal scene.

"We do push the envelop a bit of being an older band"

Tobbe: What would be your personal reaction if I would say that the new Saxon record is a record without any real surprising stuff? I mean, like Kingdom Of The Cross on the last record.

Biff: Um… [Long pause] It's a new album. I mean, we don't relate to albums; we write songs, and each song is a separate project for us, so whatever comes with the new album, it's totally unpredictable. You can't predict what Saxon do. I think that's one of the reasons why people love us, and sometimes people hate us, because we don't stick to rules. You know, we're always in the same genre, but now we treat things separately and when the songs are finished, then we put the album together and then we decide what songs go on the album and what don't go on the album.

So, you know, Kingdom Of The Cross, for instance, as an example, wasn't on the album; it was just a poem I wrote and it's just one of them things that Nigel [Glockler, drums] had a keyboard part that I put together, yeah, so. But it's a radical thing we did there, getting an actor to do the talking. We're not scared of trying things; we never have been and the new album's the same.

Tobbe: Would you ever dare to go as far as to say that a new record nowadays is one of your best ones ever?

Biff: I would never say that, because it's not up to me to say that. It's up to guys like you to say that. You see, for us, the people that matter to Saxon are the fans and we wait to see what they think of the album, you know. That's how it is. We have old fans who've been with us since the '80s. We have new fans that will get into us on this album, 'cause we're a bit more prevalent now in the media. We have fans that came to us in the '90s. We have fans that came to us on Battering Ram. So, you know, the band is quite relevant, because it's pulling new people all the time and we're still keeping our older fans. So, you know, what we're doing must be right.

Tobbe: Well, it's a great luxury to have a couple of generations of fans.

Biff: Yeah, and I think they'll be the ones that decide whether the album is special or not. I mean, the critics have already said it's probably our best album ever, or since 1981 or something. You know, the thing is, and I have sometimes reviewed albums, you get to listen to it once, twice maybe, and it's always the first impression when you're asked to listen to an album. Whereas with the fans, they listen to it a lot. They don't move on to the next band to review. So it's important what they think. That's my answer and it's not up to me to say it's the best album ever. But we've had a lot of great reviews, especially from America, and they love the album, so let's see. We keep our fingers crossed. I'm already thinking about the next one.

Tobbe: Oh yeah? One of my questions was gonna be something like: if you ever think about not releasing any records anymore and just go out touring.

Biff: Yeah, but it's what we do. Why would we do that, you know? It's like stop showering, you know what I mean? It's good at the moment, so we might as well keep playing. And next year we probably won't release another studio album. Could be a new live album maybe. It's our 40th anniversary next year, so we'll see if we can do something special.

Tobbe: You and Nibbs [Carter, bass] write the lion's share of the material today, but to what degree are you willing to let the other guys put their input to the album as well?

Biff: Anybody can write. You can write a song for us. It makes no difference. You know, I'll get all the ideas in and then I go through the ideas and see what inspires me to arrange, to write the lyrics, to melody, melodize, you know. I mean, Nibbs is a very prolific writer. He writes a lot, so I have to filter his work. Mr. Paul Quinn [guitar] might write two, you know, in the space of Nibbs' 50. But it really makes no difference. Sometimes the boys are busy. When I want to write an album, they're not ready, so I have to go with people that are ready. There's no animosity involved. It's just how it is, you know.

I mean, Nigel writes music as well. Nigel's input is Sons Of Odin. It's his riff. That is his writing. Later on the boys put in their parts anyway, so. When the band get the songs, it morphs anyway, into something else, so. I like working with Nibbs, 'cause he's very fast, and if he sends me an idea and I say "No, no, no. I want this, this, this and this.", he will do it really quick, within an hour. So it's very easy to work with a guy that's crazy like Nibbs, you know what I mean?

Tobbe: Some songs I think give a nod to the older times, but what were you generally looking for when it comes to the lyrics?

Biff: Something interesting. I'm always looking for something interesting, you know. I mean, singing a song like Sons Of Odin is a bit sort of typical for us. It's a bit of a Crusader type song. But I wanted a song that connected Saxons and Vikings. They had the same gods, the same ancestors, the same boats, the same shoes, the same weapons, you know, and they spent most of the time fighting each other. But I like it; it's a good song.

The old Valhalla thing appeals to me. I must have Viking in my blood. I'm from Northern England, so. And Thunderbolt is Greek myth, Greek gods, same thing, pagan gods, you know. And also, what you have to remember when you're trying to write songs, the lyrics are important obviously to me, but even if you're not listening to the lyrics it has to sound great, you see what I mean? You know, you can listen to a song and you have no idea what the guy is singing, but you really love the song and you sing your version of it, you know what I mean? So I think that's a secret as well, with especially rock music.

You know, the choruses are nearly always the key to the song, whether it would be Thunderbolt or whether it would be Princess Of The Night. I've met a lot of people around the world who got no idea what I'm singing about in Princess Of The Night. It doesn't really matter as long as they love the song. You know, it's just lyrics I find very interesting. I'm telling stories, basically, in poetry, 'cause I write rhyming lyrics, which is a lot harder, especially when you've been doing it for 40 years.

Tobbe: Does it matter to you at all that the new record is also released on cassette, just like in the old days?

Biff: I asked for a cassette. I like cassettes. When we were in America last year, me and Doug [Scarratt], the guitarist, went to a few sort of shops and they all got cassette days. You know, when young kids are coming in you can buy their demo cassette. I thought it was cool and like it used to be in the '80s. Guys that were, like, making cassette recordings instead of, like, you know, MP3s. I don't want to go back to the '80s; I'm not that type of guy. I look to the future; I don't want to dwell in the past.

But I just think that a cassette was such a cool thing. You know, a Sony Walkman revolutionized, being able to walk around listening to your favorite bands. So, I think it's a good thing. So we got a cassette. It looks good; it looks real good. You know, my son [Sebastian] records on cassette and he's, like, 19, 20.

Tobbe: Your voice has great capacity still and are you even surprised that you actually are able to sing so good still?

Biff: I don't really think about it, to tell you the truth. I mean, when I'm singing I'm just singing in my own world and Andy [Sneap] just keeps what he likes.

Tobbe: Sooner or later you guys in Saxon will lose your absolute skills of course as you're getting older and do you ever talk about that inevitable moment? Like, the guitar players are getting slower maybe.

Biff: Well, I don't know. I think it's a bit, like being a guitarist, you know. There's some brilliant guitarists that as they get older they slow down and don't really push it anymore. But certainly Paul Quinn is not like that either. I mean, he still plays furious, crazy guitar like he used to. I think he'd like to slow down a bit, but. We do push the envelop a bit of being an older band. I think us and [Iron] Maiden are probably, you know, the ones that have kept that energy. And the new Judas Priest album; hopefully it's gonna be kick-ass. I don't know; I haven't heard it, but Andy did it the same time as ours, really, so let's see.

Tobbe: When you look at different career choices, people tend to talk about your bad career choices, but you must have met a lot of crossroads where you actually took the correct decision.

Biff: Yeah, I think it's not just down to what the band do though. It's down to the team that surrounds the band. We've had some bad teams and therefore we've had wacky decisions. But I think in the last 20 years we've been on the right road, definitely. Since Doug Scarratt joined in.

Tobbe: I remember when he played with you in Sweden the first time, in like '96, and you were playing clubs and then a few years later you were, like, headlining festivals. You had a great comeback there.

Biff: Yeah. And the same thing with Motörhead. They did the same thing. They went down during that period. But we stuck to it and we just played for our fans that wanted to come and see us. And at that time, you know, we would play small venues and that's the way to do it, to survive. Never surrender, you know. We played a Chinese restaurant in Gothenburg and it absolutely rammed. You know, it was a lot of people in there. We never played it again, but that's not the point. The point is that we did play it, you know.

Tobbe: In what way do you look at heavy metal's future today? It's an old genre and maybe kids don't embrace it the way that you and I and fans of my generation did?

Biff: You know, there are quite a lot of younger fans that are interested and go and see the band live. But I think young guys these days have got their own music. Mostly indie music or indie rock or a bit of alternative rock. I mean, generations will pick their bands. That's how it is, yeah. I mean, the '80s generation picked us and metal fans and rock fans picked us and a couple of other bands and that's how it goes, you know. It's just the way it is, really.

We have older fans still with us and we have younger fans that just got into us and we have fans that got into us in the '90s. I suppose we're like all the bands, Maiden, Motörhead, Priest; they all have a generation of fans. I think our generation started in 1980. Motörhead's and Judas Priest's probably started in '76-'77.

Tobbe: People kind of talk less about downloading and less about streaming nowadays and has that become the norm, even for a musician that has this as his profession?

Biff: Um… Yeah, I download music, but I'm not a big streamer. Not particularly how I choose it, but it's just how my system works. If I wanna listen to something I like to download it, have it on my phone. But I do listen to streamed stuff. You know, people like it, but it's better if you own it and it's on your phone, you know. But I still think 50 % of our sales are physical. I mean, if you look on Spotify, some of our tracks are in the millions of downloads, but, you know, we don't have millions of fans, if you know what I mean?

You know, we're not that type of band. Our facebook site has got half a million and if you look at something like Rihanna or like Katy Perry, they've got from like a billion or something. So, it's just how it is, you know. I mean, our videos, Crusader has probably got 10 million views or something, but, you know, we won't play to 10 million people. So it's all relative, you know what I mean? And I think people that download the music are keeping it 'cause they like it, you know. People will stream things to see what it's like, I think.

Tobbe: Well, you've had a splendid career and maybe it's great that you didn't become as big as Rihanna, because you can stand here on the street without getting people all over you.

Biff: I'm not saying it's a good or a bad thing; I'm just saying: in the public consciousness heavy metal is a small part of that musical, you know, thing. Music is only 7 notes, yeah, and the black bits in between. But a lot of these artists are metal fans, you know.

Tobbe: Do you feel lucky to have pursued your 40 year career at this point or would you have wanted to start out in a different time period if you could choose?

Biff: Well, I'll tell you one of the criteria that I use: I mean, when I've finished the album I'll sit down and listen to the album, probably with my wife, or with Sebastian, my son, or maybe Andy Sneap, and I'll think "If this was our first album, would it be great?" and the answer is "Yes. It would.". If this album came out as a new band, not called Saxon, a new band, album came out, called Thunderbolt, it would be a great album. And that's the criteria we use now: "Would it be a great album or are people buying it just 'cause it's Saxon or are they buying it because it's a great album?" and that's what I want. I want people to buy the album 'cause they love the album, you know what I mean? I think that's the true purpose of an album.

It's a collection of songs that have been written in the last year, and people should get it, whether they buy it physically or whether they download it or whether they stream it, you know, I think it's important. And I think that's why we've stayed together so long and that's why Maiden are still around, and Judas Priest, and Motörhead were still around, 'cause they have that ability to write songs that their fans wanna hear, you know what I mean?

I meet people all the time, young guys, 20-21, sometimes younger, and they go "I bought Battering Ram. I heard Battering Ram and I didn't know who it was. Had no idea. Never heard your music before.". It doesn't happen too much, but I do get people that say "Fucking hell. That album was so great. When I first heard the album I got no idea who it was. Somebody else was playing it and I heard it and I thought I've gotta get that album." and that is the same thing, you know. And hopefully, if you can do that sometimes, it's great.

And the old fans, from the '80s, they're willing to listen to the new Saxon. That's what's beautiful about it. Okay, we all know that Denim And Leather and Wheels Of Steel and Princess Of The Night are great songs and they always will be great songs and we're never ever gonna stop playing them. But we're writing different music now. We still keep that vintage style of writing. The album sounds quite cutting-edge modern, but actually the guitars are our vintage guitars. So we mix the two things together. That's what we do. And we're very good at it. And Andy Sneap is fantastic at it. He is great.

Tobbe: I remember asking Nigel this last summer: Could there ever be a tour where you focus on mainly the new stuff, from '95 to now?

Biff: Well, the thing is with that: It's not a problem; it's a great thing, but we have too many hits from the '80s, you know. That's the problem.

See also: review of the album Thunderbolt

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