INTERVIEW: SAXON's Biff Byford On The NWOBHM Movement - "It Was Like Riding A Bullet"
Saxon are nothing short of an influential institution in the realm of heavy metal, and one of the forerunners of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which simultaneously emerged with the decline of punk rock, while in fact borrowing elements of its aggression and speed, combined with the virtuosity and ear for melody that classic heavy metal acts that preceded them brought to fore. The band, which has been around in precursory forms of various sorts since 1970 was initially known as Blue Condition, and then SOB, and finally Son of a Bitch, before being renamed to Saxon in 1977. Known for their propulsive song structuring, catchy song-writing ideas and crunchy, candor-driven and inspired riffs, the integrity Saxon has displayed across their prolific career, reinventing themselves while never straying too far from the classic sound we've come to love is admirable, as is their longevity. Their influence across the waves of heavy metal bands that would come after them is immense, with heavyweights which came to fore with the 80's thrash metal wave, such as Metallica and Megadeth having cited them as among their primary influences. Far from calling it quits, the band continues to strive and surge forward, continuously churning out fantastic releases.
Metal Wani correspondents/writers Achintya Venkatesh and Rohan Thomas recently had the opportunity to interview their iconic frontman Biff Byford. Known for combining sonorous and operatic vocal histrionics with a hook-laden approach, the seasoned vocalist touched upon a variety of topics, including the latest Saxon releases (which includes a forthcoming live album), their song-writing process and the ethos that drives them, among other topics. Read the interview below –
Greetings from India Mr. Byford, it’s a pleasure having you on Metal Wani! How are you doing today, and what is keeping the rest of the band occupied in the Saxon camp nowadays?
Biff: We are doing good at the moment we are doing a few headline shows in Europe
The band recently announced its plans to release the ‘St. George's Day Sacrifice - Live In Manchester’ live double CD. What was the motive behind a release of this nature, and what will it comprise of?
Biff: We have a lot of live recordings so it is good to let the fans hear them - this concert was a special one and the Patron Saint Day.
The band also released the compilation ‘Unplugged and Strung Up’, which featured re-energized versions of classic tunes by means of introducing orchestral dynamics to the compositional structure for further dimensional value. Do you have any specific thoughts on the motivation behind this release, and the reception it has gotten so far?
Biff: Again, I wanted to do something different so we had recorded some acoustic tracks as an experiment and we took it from there the orchestrated. Ideas came along from the original Crusader which we tried with orchestra.
While Saxon has never truly strayed from their root sound, ‘Sacrifice’ certainly seemed like a return to the classic sonic values of the band à la the ‘Wheels of Steel’ era, albeit more crushing and bombastic. How did the band go about retaining the classic Saxon sound, while still incorporating memorable, propulsive hooks and catchy riffage without descending into a re-hash?
Biff: Well we are always trying to write great songs we don't want just be just playing the hits. So, we spend time trying to be original within our genre and the team we have (Andy Sneap and Jackie Lehmann) are all on the same page as me.
What is the song-writing process like for the band in general? Are there any primary song-writers amongst the members, and do you in any way contribute to riff ideas, or is it restricted to the conceptualization of vocal melodies and delivery?
Biff: It depends. I sometime supply riff ideas but mostly it's Doug, Paul and Nibbs. Nigel also comes up with stuff so I tend to concentrate on arrangements melody and lyrics.
How do you construct and conceptualize lyrical concepts and the thematic leanings of a given song/album? Does it occur to you when you sit in a room and confine your thoughts in a single stream or does it flash when you travel and come across things that might have the potential to be incorporated in a song as how you did with ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘Made in Belfast’?
Biff: I am assimilating ideas and thoughts all the time - I am also aware of our early songs and I do try to capture a feeling of that but a lot of the time I like to do write more deeper lyrics as in Belfast after staying in a penthouse over looking the Holland & Wolf Shop Yards. I started to write lyrics about the people that built the great liners.
You’ve made a number of prominent guest appearances across the span of your prolific career, but the latest one with Avantasia undoubtedly stands out the most. What was it like working with Tobias Sammet, and what are your thoughts on Avantasia?
Biff: I know Tobias, and he did want me to sing on the first album but I was busy. I like the albums, I am a prog rock fan.
‘Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie’ is out and has opened to an overwhelming response from the fans . It tells you the journey of Saxon right from its formative years to what it is at present featuring appearances from Lars Ulrich, Lemmy Kilmister, Phil Campbell and Mickey Dee. Why has it taken close to 40 years to make this documentary?
Biff: Well if you want to do something special it does take time and money.
You have songs in your 38 year catalogue such as ‘Stand Up and Be Counted’,’ 'Stand Up and Fight’, ’All Guns Blazing’ and ‘Never Surrender’ that are basically an ode to the ‘never give up’ approach towards life. Your journey towards rock ‘n’ roll utopia from South Yorkshire via Saxon is one that has seen its share of pit falls and punctured tires. What is it that drives you to continue to pursue your musical and creative endeavours which has resulted in the longevity of Saxon, especially after parting ways with Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson?
Biff: I think I have always written working class lyrics as well as deeper stuff but my upbringing was if you don't get out you will be here all your life . The coal mines and weaving sheds so my ethos is to never surrender always keep trying.
The band was recently awarded the Metal Hammer Golden God award for best UK band over new age sensations such as Tesseract and Black Spiders. Even with a fall in album sales post-Destiny, Saxon is a brand of heavy metal that still stands tall and proud among the youth who recognize the band as one of the architects of the NWOBHM and heavy metal in general thus cementing your relevance in present day heavy metal culture. Do you think you survived because of the phenomenon of Youtube, Internet and digital media? What is your take on music being digitally available?
Biff: I think over the last ten years there has been a movement back to classic rock and our brand of heavy metal. Older fans are back, younger new fans are now with us, so a regeneration of our genre has took place. Also to continue to write great albums helps.
You have been really good friends with Lemmy Kilmister from the time Saxon opened for Motorhead on the Bomber tour. Lemmy has guested on a track from your album ‘Into the Labyrinth’ and you will be joining forces to cover ‘Starstruck’ for the Ronnie James Dio tribute. Tell us a bit more about Lemmy apart from the general public perception of him i.e a rock n roll legend surrounded by booze and women? Could you perhaps tell us an interesting anecdote about Saxon and Motorhead from the Bomber years?
Biff: I once got of the tour bus in the UK and his mum rang up and gave me a hug - she thought I was Lemmy!
You were one of the few if not the only person who supported the (for a lack of a better word) canonization of heavy metal which is quite ironic considering the fact that heavy metal is all about freedom and vehemently opposes norms set by society and religion. According to you, what does the religion of heavy metal preach and what are its limitations?
Biff: I think to a lot of people music is a kind of religion and it is a bit of people power to get them to vote.
Did your childhood or the general social environment growing up affect your views, and in turn, the music of Saxon in any way? What was it like in the heart of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement?
Biff: It was like riding a bullet.
Biff: Yes, I am writing some songs and I may also do a prog rock project and we have started writing the next Saxon album.
It is rumoured that you are a huge fan of Indian cuisine. What have you heard about the heavy metal scene in India, and what are the prospects of Saxon playing in India any time soon?
Biff: Yes we all fans of the curry - Jalfrezi with extra green chilies is my favorite. We may come to India in future who knows?
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Biff. It’s been an immense honour.
No problem! Keep the faith.