The iconic band Saxon released their new album Thunderbolt at their release party in Stockholm on the first of February. In connection with his visit in Sweden, Rockbladet got the opportunity to talk to the singer, Biff Byford, who talked to us about the new album, about Vikings and about the period when the band first met Motörhead, and toured together with them. Biff also talked a lot about song writing, and he told us how he came up with the idea to invite Johan Hegg of Amon Amarth to sing on one of the new songs.
What can you tell us about your new album, Thunderbolt?
- Well, it’s fantastic! That’s it, really! (Laughter) What can you tell me about it? You just heard it!
I just heard it, and I love it!
- Well, I love it too! The thing is that it’s difficult for me to say what I think about the album, because I’m too close to it! We know what the critics think to the album already, but we don’t know what the fans think to it yet. That’s more important to Saxon than a 25 star review, it’s better for us if fans think it’s fantastic! That’s what Saxon’s all about really. So, I don’t know really, I’m waiting to see! (Laughter) So far, everybody likes it!
Johan Hegg from Amon Amarth is singing together with you on Predator...
- Oh, Hegg has just sent me a text! Shall I read it to you? He says “If someone told the ten year old me that I’d be singing on a song together with Biff Byford and Saxon when I grew up, I would have thought they were insane!” (Laughter)
How did you come up with the idea to use Johan on the song?
- Well, you know, the main riff is quite modern, but the chorus is quite classic. The bridge is quite classic eighties style, but the verse is definitely more in the Rammstein area of Metal. I sang it on low octave to myself, because sometimes my high voice doesn’t sound hard enough. Well, I sang it, and I thought that it would be great to get somebody in to sing that. My first thought was Johan, because you can hear what he’s saying, which is important to me. I have some friends who are really dark singers you know, but I didn’t really want it that low. I wanted it so you could hear what he was singing! Me and Andy (Sneap, producer) decided that if Johan sang it great we’d give him some land on his own, not just to do it, and he did a great job! Me and Andy were patiently waiting for the file to come back with him singing, and it was great! We were blown away! I think Andy would have took me off altogether, he liked it that much! (Laughter) But yeah, we came up with a good compromise and it sounds great. It’s a bit controversial for some of our more hard core fans from the eighties, you know, but I think they will like it. It’s a good rock song in the end of the day!
It’s a good rock song, but maybe a bit unexpected?
- Yeah, but we’re never predictable. I try hard not to be predictable, I hate that! Growing old, relaxing, being predictable, I don’t like that! I push the band for great guitar riffs and excellent playing. I’m not interested in people relaxing, it’s Rock N Roll! That’s the mentality behind all Saxon albums now. Me and Nibbs (Carter, bassist) wrote most of the album, like Battering Ram. I think we wrote three songs together with the boys, as a band. They obviously jammed the songs, but me and Nibbs got the original, initial ideas together. He’s a fantastic musician, Nibbs! He plays drums, he plays keyboards, he plays bass, he plays guitar… I don’t know if he plays the trumpet or the bagpipes, but he probably will! He’s very prolific, Nibbs. He’s always writing, so I have a huge pool of ideas from Nibbs that I use. It’s very good for me to have that there, so I can go into my studio and pick out some ideas and fire off vocal ideas and lyric ideas that come to me. Or I’ll send him some ideas, and he’ll work on that! Whereas Paul Quinn (guitarist) is more of a live man in the room-guy. He’s one of those genius guys that doesn’t realize when he’s being a genius. He’ll play something, and you’ll say “What was that you just played? That was great!”, and he’ll say “I don’t know, I can’t remember!” Then he’ll go off, and come back in three hours and ask “This one?” But it’s not the one. (Laughter) Then we will find it, and change it around, and work together with Paul one-on-one. Me and Nigel (Glockler, drummer) wrote the main part of Sons Of Odin, but I would say 85 per cent of the album is my and Nibbs’ original ideas, so that’s how we work.
You mentioned Sons Of Odin...
- Johan would have sung on that one, I think! That would have been his song! I didn’t send him that song, though! (Laugther)
Well, some of your songs over the years have been inspired by Norse Mythology. Is that something you’ve always been interested in?
- We’re Saxons, the same tribe you know! (Laughter) I mean, the part of the country that I live in, Yorkshire, was heavily ruled by the Danes back in the day, Daneland. I think all people in Yorkshire are sort of interbred with Norsemen. Danes or Swedish or somebody who’s tall! I thought it was a good time to write a song about Odin. You know, the gods and the world of the Vikings, it wasn’t all about pillage and plunder. A lot of it was about settling in different places, going from the wintry north to the more temperate climates, and about trading. I think in the last sort of 45 years a lot of the finds that they’ve been making of Vikings and Saxons have changed how people see them. They see them more as trained people now, making fantastic gold, you know. It wasn’t all about swords and shields and dragon boats. I think there is a big Viking culture there that probably hasn’t been seen before. With the new technology that people have now, they can find things quite commonly. Especially in England!
I’ve always written history lyrics, because I find it very interesting, and it’s an ever-growing source for lyrics! I mean, most of my songs are poetry, because they rhyme, which makes it much harder for me, but I quite like it. It’s a discipline that some people are really great at, and others aren’t. I spend a lot of time rhyming things, and I try to get many images into the songs. The Secret Of Flight has got Icarus, Leonardo Da Vinci, the Wright brothers and Einstein. I could have put more in there, but I ran out of verses! Things like that are interesting for me, and I think it’s interesting for the fans too! But a lot of people don’t listen to lyrics much, really, they read lyrics! I think a song has to sound great even though people don’t listen to the lyrics if you know what I mean. The lyrics have to sound great, but the melody is very important. More important than the lyrics sometimes! I think one of the Saxon trades is to have great melodies, on quite dark songs sometimes. That’s a style that we have, I think.
There is also a Motörhead tribute, They Played Rock And Roll, on your new album. Can you tell us something about that?
- Well, it’s turned into a Motörhead Tribute, but it was meant to be a song about us meeting Motörhead for the first time in 1979. Our first album came out then. We sent Motörhead the demos of Wheels Of Steel, and that’s what they got into. We travelled with them on the bus, and in the hotels. When we toured with them they were absolutely huge in England! They were really nice, but they were crazy bastards, what can I say? Each guy was a character in himself! It was great and we learned about meeting our fans after the shows, and things like that, all from early Motörhead. They were a band of the people, really, and we took that on board. I think Motörhead were very influential in helping that new wave of British Heavy Metal, of the newer bands to come out, and so were Judas Priest. We toured with Judas Priest in 1980. We didn’t travel on the bus with them, but they took time to listen to what we were doing. We were higher than they were on the charts, and then they were higher than we were, so the albums were racing on the charts together, Wheels Of Steel and British Steel. You know, it was a great time and I think those two tours helped.
Also, the political environment in England in 79/80 was terrible. There were strikes and fighting and riots and IRA bombs and all sorts of stuff going on. The industrial north where we came from was changing, and Margaret Thatcher was changing it. So, you know, out of that came that working class band mentality that Iron Maiden had, that Saxon had, that a lot of those bands had. So yeah, that’s where it came from. To, you know, escape… Escape the police! (Laughter) Escape that sort of really closed environments! We were working lads, factory workers, from the coal mine and textile mills. That song is not just about the Motörhead boys passing on, it’s about that period!
When Eddie (Clarke, Motörhead guitarist) died, we had already scheduled the video and the single to go out. I asked people on Facebook what they thought to us releasing it. I don’t want people thinking that we’re cashing in on anybody’s death or anything. I was very careful, but most people, I think 99 per cent of people, said “Yeah, put it out!” It has turned into a tribute now, but I don’t want it to be a sad song! I want it to be a song about those three guys that started Motörhead. They were a fantastic band!
You’re an iconic band that started more than 40 years ago, and you’re still going strong? What’s your secret?
- I don’t know, I think that it’s the mentality of trying to write great songs, not just relying on big hits. To have had the big hits in the eighties is fantastic, it’s what keeps us here today, but you know... I love playing the hits, but I want to play other songs as well! I can’t really see myself just going onstage playing twelve big hits and then leaving the stage, it’s not where I come from! I’m a songwriter, so I want to write!
Yeah, and speaking of being on stage. You are known for being a great live band. Have you got any favourite songs to perform on stage?
- I like ‘em all, really! I like ‘em all! I mean, the hits belong to the audience now! They are not really our songs anymore. Denim And Leather belongs to the audience really, so we’re just performing songs for them! I suppose when bands play their big hits, the audience know them better than the band sometimes! We try to choose songs that we like to play, we’re not a band that struggle with songs that don’t sound good! We make sure that the songs sound great live, ‘cause we’re a live band! We might change a song slightly, we might make it shorter, because sometimes there is no point in playing it for seven minutes. It’s better sometimes to play it for five minutes, and then get on to the next songs. We’re getting more songs in the set that way, and people seem to like it! We don’t do it a lot, but we’ll shorten Power And The Glory or Crusader for instance. Things like that, really.
Will you be touring a lot this year?
- We’re touring all year, actually. We start in February, and we do about eight shows in the UK and Europe. Then we’re on to America with Judas Priest for ten weeks, and then we do festivals back here, and we start again in Europe in October. I think we’ll probably be going all the way to Christmas. It’s the year of the Thunderbolt! (Laughter)
When you were a new band, can you remember the moment when you realized that you really made it and that you were here to stay?
- It’s difficult that, because back in the day, the punk thing was still quite big and the new romantic movement was really big. You know, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and all that lot, and we were around in that. It was a bit like the Mods and the Rockers again, so I don’t think anybody thought that our or Maiden’s style of music would last more than one or two albums. I think that when we got to five albums, we probably realized that we had a strong enough fan base to last, really.
Which song was the first Saxon song ever written?- Well, it was in 1979, on the first album, that Saxon really started. Before that, I was in a band with Paul and the other two were in another band. We got together to join Son Of A Bitch together, but we had this sort of band as well, me and Paul, so it wasn’t really Saxon then. The first album was a combination of songs that me and Paul wrote, in our band, and songs that the other two wrote in their band, but the first song we wrote together was Stallions Of The Highway. If you listen to Stallions Of The Highway, you’ll hear immediately that’s where the chemistry of that early band came from!
How do you think the music business has changed since you first started?
- Well, I suppose we changed a lot of it. People tend to think that bands like ourselves or Maiden or Priest, we’re not involved in the digital thing. It’s a really wrong perception of things, because we’ve been around through all the changes, from vinyl to cassette to CD. We’ve been in some of the best studios in the world, at the forefront of technical innovation really. We use the Internet, like we used to use magazines. It doesn’t really bother us! As soon as Facebook came on, we were on it, because you have to be! We grew up and morphed into what we are today, and somethings are worse, some things are better! I think you have to embrace all the technologies and that. I think that’s how we survive, really! We’re lucky that we still sell physical products, in shops as well. And you know, we’re releasing cassettes on this album! I love cassettes! That doesn’t mean to say I missed cassettes, but everybody’s got cassettes these days! Young bands, like my son’s band (Naked Six) releases cassettes all the time! Young musicians and young fans like them! People like to find something new. It’s been around before, but to a new generation of people it’s new, and it’s a bit retro, which is really popular, isn’t it? Something that’s retro but really cool, that’s what people want, and cassettes fit that bill!
Do you think it’s easier or harder for a new band to be successful today?
- The thing is that our success was different than just one band writing a good song! There were hundreds of bands writing great songs! We were lucky enough to have some great songs that the radio people liked. We got played on the radio, we did TV and the movement was so massive. We would sell a hundred thousand records in a week or something. We used to sell a lot of singles. I think 747 did like half a million singles, like silly numbers now! If we did half a million singles now we’d be number one for like five weeks or something! Things have changed a lot, but all people in the band have to believe that it’s what they want to do. Then each person supports everybody else and you have a purpose in life to become a band. But it’s very difficult to get three, four, five people, all in the same mind set, to tell their girlfriends they’re not going out tonight because they have to rehearse, or tell their father they don’t want to do that job because they want to be a musician! It’s still as difficult today, actually, for young people to say “I wanna be a musician”, because the chance of making it is very slim! Being a musician and staying together for a long time is hard, you have to sacrifice a lot for that!
How old were you when you when you realized that you wanted to be in a band?
- Sixteen or seventeen. I was a guitarist first, not a singer, you know. I think all singers want to be guitarists and all guitarists want to be singers! That’s why you get a singing guitarist, you get the best of all worlds! Or the worst of all, I guess that’s one way to look at it! (Laughter)
So how did you start singing?
- I was just singing in local Youth Club things, doing backing vocals and stuff. I knew from an early age that I could sing, so I just kept singing a little bit here, a little bit there, but my passion was guitar! I was quite good, but I wasn’t that good on playing lead, so I got shoved on to the bass, you know, as you do. When some flash kid comes along who can play much better, you always end up on the bass. But I liked the bass! I used to play a Rickenbacker, and I’ve still got it!
Did you like music class in school?
- I did actually, I was very good at music. My mother was a pianist! She played the piano and organ!
Do you think that your teachers or your classmates expected you to become the lead singer of a band?
- No, I don’t think so! Not there! I was just in a small village school, it wasn’t like a big school. We didn’t even have a car when I was a boy. My uncle had a car, he was the rich uncle!
Finally, you’ve got many fans in Sweden. Have you got any message for your Swedish fans?
- I do actually! There are certain countries that remembered Saxon through those nineties years of the grunge explosion. Germany was one, and Sweden was the other! In Sweden, we were probably the most popular of all the bands of the eighties, at the time. Don’t know why? Maybe the girls loved the Spandex, I don’t know! (Laughter) You meet a lot of people that were there, you know. They were maybe fourteen, fifteen then, and they’re sort of fifty now. They have great memories of those times, and we have a lot of younger fans in Sweden that heard about this thing that happened in the eighties, and they want to know what it is. To be able to stay popular in a country, I think your fans have to stay loyal, but I think you have to regenerate new fans as well! That’s the key! I mean, we had our release party in Stockholm! That must tell you something! (Laughter) We could have had it in Berlin or London, but we chose Stockholm! So, you know, Sweden means a lot to us! It was the first country where we saw so many girls in the audience. Sweden opened our eyes a little bit, and prepared us for America!
After the interview and photo session, Biff told us he was going to Harry B James in Stockholm to listen to his son’s band, Naked Six, who were playing there later that evening. Before we parted, the photographer from Rockbladet couldn’t resist standing in front of the camera lens for once, together with the icon. Biff Byford is not only a living legend, he’s also a very nice person, and the two of us from Rockbladet really appreciated the nice interview with him!
REPORTER: Tamara Chastain (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PHOTOGRAPHER: Richard Westermark (email@example.com)
FACTS - Saxon
Biff Byford – Vocals
Paul Quinn – Guitar
Doug Scaratt – Guitar
Nibbs Carter – Bass
Nigel Glockler – Drums