by Mark Kadzielawa
Saxon is a well respected moniker in the heavy metal world. The band exploded onto the scene in the early 80s, and were one of the prime movers of the infamous New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement. Saxon's trademarks of course included extremely catchy tunes, crystal clear vocals, and blistering leads. The band's first few records are still considered staples of heavy metal, and forever cemented Saxon's place in the genre's history. After the successful 80s, Saxon, faded a little, at least in the U.S. only to properly resurface in the late 90s. The band still kept solid ground in their native Europe. Saxon released records consistently, and was visible on the touring front. Of course as it is in the music business, Saxon experienced some drama as well. Some former members put together their own version of the band, things got ugly, courts got involved, but wisdom luckily prevailed.
Today, Saxon includes three original members: Biff Byford on vocals, Paul Quinn on guitar, Nigel Glockler on drums. Glockler of course replaced Pete Gill in 1981. Joining the original trio are: Nibbs Carter on bass, and Doug Scarratt on guitar. This version of Saxon had been together for the last 15 years, only with Glockler taking time off here and there due to health issues.
In 2011, Saxon is back with a new album titled, "Call To Arms," and touring the world, including sometimes the ignored United States. The fan base is responding to the new album strongly, as it displays the spirit everyone fell in love with back in the early 80s. Simply put, 30 years down the line, and things couldn't look more promising for Saxon.
Saxon's vocalist, Biff Byford, talks about band's glorious return onto U.S. shores, and explains the origins of the new album.
It’s been a while a while since Saxon graced the Midwest stages, what’s been going on?
Biff Byford: We’ve been to America in 2009, we just didn’t come to these parts. We did New York, and San Antonio, Austin. So, we’ve been here. We just haven’t been up here.
Now, that you are doing a longer and a more organized tour, did you notice any differences in the way the market operates on this side of Atlantic?
Yeah, two things were different on this tour. One, we are touring on an album release, and two, the album is being made in America. That’s a massive difference. In the past, we were always touring way past the album’s release. It was always after. And SPV would import the European copies of the records here, and once they sold them out, they didn’t bring anymore. It just stopped us from selling more albums than we could. This time EMI is printing albums here, so they can just continue to print, and we’ll continue coming. It’s as simple as that.
Also, you did the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise, which was also an American venture.
Yeah, that was in America. Not many Americans on the cruise, mind you, it was mostly Europeans actually. There were a few Americans on there, but most of the crowd came from Europe, especially from Germany.
What was the experience like?
It was good actually. We liked it. At first we were a bit hesitant, but it was great. The fans are great, respectful of the bands. The cheapest cabin was about $3,500, so it was a lot of money. Then you got add the cost of the flight, if you were coming from Europe, or US. So it was a very middle to upper class tour.
The new album has a very fresh vibrant sound. Can you describe the process of making the record?
Well, we started before last Christmas, and we finished it in January 2011. We were actually pretty rushed to get it finished. We tried a few different techniques on it. We were trying to bring it more into the spirit of the 80s feel on there.
Do you think you were successful in recovering that spirit?
Yeah, less is more you see. The album is recorded quite live, not totally live obviously. The drums are one take, no samples or anything like it. We didn't go for any tricks with Pro Tools. Not a lot of BVs or keyboards really. So, less productions techniques, and more passion, and more working on great songs. I think some bands try to make mediocre songs great by overproducing, but we wanted to move away from that style. It stalled for a while, so we changed the team, and it worked really well. We like it.
When it comes to writing songs, you’ve been at it for over 30 years. How do you do it now? Do you still rehearse as much as you did back in the beginning, or have you developed a new formula for writing?
Sometimes we jam it, and the songs come out, and sometimes people bring things in, and we develop it. Usually what happens is I’m usually in charge of all the arrangements, and what riffs we actually use. So, I go to my hard drive and work on things. For example the riff for “When Doomsday Comes,” which is a little bit Zeppelinish, is a Nigel’s riff. And he played it one day messing around on keyboards, and I recorded it secretly. When we were asked to do a film soundtrack, I played that riff back to him, and asked Nigel if he remembered doing this. So we wrote a song from that actually. The guitarists came up with their parts, and it all came together. So, it’s a little bit of a melting pot process I suppose. Sometimes I have lyrics, and different things. The guitar pats in “Mists of Avalon,” and “Ballad of the Working Man” are mine. I wrote those. On the other hand, the guys might write some lyrics too. It depends really. Usually, we have one guy in control of all these pieces that are flying around, and that’s generally what I do. I put them all together, and make songs really.
So it appears that songwriting ideas could come from every member of the band.
Everyone contributes in one way or the other. It takes a long time to make a song from a guitar riff, or a vocal melody. It’s not a song, and a lot of work gets done after that fact. But yeah, everybody puts in their share of the songwriting.
Do you happen to have riffs recorded and lying around for years before the right idea comes?
Not really, I mean the guys already have some new riffs written as they are messing about. I’ve got 5 or 6 titles for the next album already. So, yeah, when we get an idea, we write it down basically.
“Back in 79” is a track with a true anthem quality, not heard from Saxon since the 80s. Can you tell me how that song was written?
Well, that one, it’s really “Denim and Leather” revisited. I wanted to do a song that had that type of spirit. We were one of the first bands to write songs about our audience, and still do write songs about our fans. It’s a unique thing that we started. “Heavy Metal Thunder” is about our fans as well. Toby (Jepson-producer)wanted to go back for me to write lyrics again that were more working class, that were more connected with the fans. And that’s one of the songs dealing with the topic. That one and “Ballad of The Working Man,” and “Surviving Against the Odds.” Those songs are me going into that zone I suppose, really. I wanted it to be like “Denim and Leather” and we did the same thing with the fans singing on the track like we did back in 1981. Only this time we did it by the internet, and not by the telephone. You know, it was a bit quicker.
Obviously you had a chance to try these new songs live. How do they go down, and how many are you playing?
We were playing 6 or 7 tracks off the new album. It really depends how much time we have to play. People want to hear the hits, especially in America, and we don’t come here too often. We can experiment in Europe a bit more, and play different songs. I think if we didn’t play “Denim and Leather,” or “Crusader,” or some of the big hits that we had people would be disappointed. So we have to figure it out. I mean “Power & The Glory” was a huge album in America, it sold over a half a million copies here. Not a member of the platinum club, but for the people that bought it, it was an important record. We tend to play 2 or 3 tracks off that. We mix the new songs with the old, and it goes down well.
Your old catalog is seeing the light of day again. The albums are very nicely re-mastered, with plenty of bonus tracks, and great packaging. Were you involved in bringing it back to life?
Yeah, I did a couple of the forwards for the EMI catalog. The back catalogue is what really keeps the band alive I have to say. It sells continuously. Someone told me it sells one copy every minute around the world. The back catalog sells really well. And now it’s coming out on vinyl again, so you got all the CDs and you got the vinyl. When you write so many great albums, and the first 5/6 were really big for us song wise I suppose. That's why I think this album comes close to it because the songs are great.
The packaging of the new album is very unusual, nothing like any other Saxon cover. Care to explain the idea behind it?
I hope it’s unusual.
I like it, but it’s completely off that wall.
I wanted it to be off the wall. It’s nothing like “Strong Arm of the Law” where it’s just an image I suppose. The album is called “Call to Arms.” Obviously all of the songs are very sad songs about soldiers living with death, and missing their loved ones. I think the cover is good, it has a theme going through it.
I remember asking you back in 2003 how many records do you still have in you as Saxon, and you said 2 or 3. Did anything change since then?
Well, it’s still 2 or 3 (the interview room explodes with laughter at this point.) I can’t really tell, but if the chemistry of the band is as fantastic as it is now, then obviously we will still make records. I suppose the more you stay together the more irrelevant you become because it all goes around the full circle, and there aren’t too many bands around anymore from our time. There is Iron Maiden, that started it all, you know the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Def Leppard started that too, but they sort of don’t want to be involved with that sort of movement anymore, although they are. The bands are still there, aren’t they? Diamond Head is back at it again. I mean, Metallica kept them alive for years, and that’s good.
Speaking of Metallica, you did a performance with them not too long ago. How did that come about?
Yeah, I did “Motorcycle Man” with them in Paris. It was a great fun. They love our music, and they’ve influenced us as well, so it goes backwards and forward.
I know you’ve had a lot of dealings with former members who formed Oliver/Dawson Saxon. The trademark case went to court, and there was a lot of bad blood there for a while. Did anything change?
We allowed them to use that name, Oliver/Dawson Saxon, so they can earn some money basically. They still do little clubs here and there. They do a lot of those tribute festivals where you bands impersonating other bands. So they do a lot of that, and so what, they don’t really bother us too much really.
And there are no court case pending at this point?
No, it was all finalized years ago. They tried to make things spin out a bit by putting things on Wikipedia. They have a judgment against them, and they can’t use the logo, or use the album covers, or anything really. They still continue to pretend to be in Saxon which is a little bit sad. The Son of a Bitch album ("Victim You"-1996) they did couple of years ago was actually quite decent. I quite like that album, when they came out with the guy named Ted Bullet singing. I like that album, and if they carried on with that, it could’ve been a bit of a threat I suppose, but they didn’t, so see you.
Finally, how many years is it exactly that you play together?
Saxon as a name started back in 1979, but me and Paul had been together for a quite a long time. We were in many other bands together.
What's the magic recipe for a long and lasting career then?
It’s the strength of the music, the strength of the fan base, and it’s like Lemmy said “what else can we do?”
Well, when Lemmy talks you know you have to listen.