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.
[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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
also: review of
the album Thunderbolt