Interview | Biff Byford

Biff saxon_live_111124_001

21st November 2014
by Gareth Hunt

2014 represents the 35th Anniversary of the release of Saxon’s eponymous debut album. To celebrate their longevity and continued success, the quintet have embarked on a lengthy European Tour. On their travels, they are focusing on hits from their three most popular albums – Wheels of Steel, Strong Arm of the Law, and Denim and Leather.

Frontman Biff Byford took a few minutes out from his busy schedule to take a phone call from the Fake Geeks team. He discusses the current tour, looking forward to playing in Yorkshire again (at the Leeds Academy on December 2nd), as well as revealing what he’d have been doing these past 35 years if he hadn’t have been a frontman.

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Fake Geeks: So you’re currently on tour in Germany at the moment as part of the Warriors of the Road 35th Anniversary Tour. How has it been so far?

BB: Yeah, it’s been great, it’s going great – it’s sold out tonight. So it’s been fantastic, [and] we’re doing very well.

FG: What has been the highlight of the tour so far for you?

BB: Erm… I think all of the gigs have been good far. I mean, Greece was nice – a crazy audience in Greece. No, they’re all pretty good actually. We’ve had four or five shows at the moment that has been pretty amazing. We’ve not really had one that’s been better than the other yet.

FG: That’s excellent! So, you’re on tour with Skid Row and Halcyon Way at the moment. Do you take time out to watch the supports, or do you guys do your own thing?

BB: Yeah, yeah we watch them, have a party afterwards. It’s all quite a friendly atmosphere.

FG: So they are on tour with you for the mainland Europe leg. Hell and Stormzone are down for the UK leg…

BB: No, we’ve got Hell and a new German band called Beyond the Black, with a girl singer. Stormzone had a problem in their family unfortunately so it is this new band, Beyond the Black. So that should be interesting.

FG: Have you had chance to see Hell before?

BB: Yeah, I’ve seen Hell, yeah they’re great – very theatrical. It all revolves around Hell. They’re a good entertaining band, yeah, quite different to us.

FG: We caught you a few years ago with HammerFall and Crimes of Passion and that was a fantastic gig. That’s one thing I think the fans like about Saxon, you take other good bands on tour with you. It’s not like some mainstream acts who might go for the safe approach with support bands, bands who don’t have much chance of upstaging the headliner. Instead, when you go to a Saxon gig you know that, from the top to the bottom of the bill it’s going to be a great night’s entertainment.

BB: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, we like bands to go for it. We like the whole show to be great, not just our part of it.

FG: This current tour culminates in a 12 date leg that stretches the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland, including a stop off at the Leeds Academy on the 2nd December.

BB: Right, the only Yorkshire gig actually.

FG: So with this concluding leg, how does it feel to be finishing on home soil, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the gig in Leeds, back in Yorkshire?

BB: Well, it’s great. Well, we’re traditionally a Yorkshire band – though a couple of guys are from down south – but yeah, we like playing Yorkshire. It’s good to get back on the home ground, and get a good Yorkshire audience. London has sold out nearly, so it’s doing very well. I believe there are still tickets in Leeds, so if they want to come and see the band you should really get yourself down there.

FG: They really should! If anyone hasn’t checked Saxon out before, it is a crime. One of the best live acts of all time, I think.

BB: Thank you very much!

FG: This tour is celebrating 35 years of Saxon. 35 years is a very long time, countless artists have come and gone, bands have split up, have been a flash in the pan… what’s the secret to your band’s longevity?

BB: I don’t know really. We just like writing great songs together, and that keeps us going a bit. Our latest albums are all great albums and get great reviews, you know, moving along with the times. Keeping one foot in the past and one foot in the present – that’s the secret.

FG: On the point of the albums, they are all good albums one after the other, and there isn’t a distinct difference in quality (in that they are all very good), but there was a curious thing we noticed with 2011’s Call to Arms and 2013’s Sacrifice. Both of them were your highest charting albums in the UK since 1988’s Destiny. What do you think has been the key to your resurgence?

BB: I think probably the media, like magazines like Classic Rock and Metal Hammer support us quite heavily now. A lot of radio stations like Planet Rock and Team Rock play us all the time. I just think the last four or five years in the UK there’s been a resurgence in the audience, a lot of young fans getting into the music again. I think it’s the culmination of many things really. We’ve come back to quite a high profile again in the UK. We’ve won quite a few awards over the last two or three years, people sort of recognising we’ve contributed to the music scene.

FG: Do you think that rock music is on its way back into fashion?

BB: Well, I wouldn’t say that. I think it’s at its biggest point it has been for a long time. You are getting a lot of newer bands that are rock based on the radio.

FG: So you wouldn’t agree with KISS’s Gene Simmons’ claim recently that rock music was dead?

BB: Well I don’t know, I don’t know what he’s talking about? Maybe he means there’s no more new bands coming up, I don’t know.

FG: To put it better context, it was to do with file sharing-

BB: I know Gene Simmons, he might have been quoted out of context.

FG: Yeah, it was along the lines of that file sharing was killing music for new rock bands, that there was no way of making money out of it.

BB: Yeah, well he’s got a point I suppose. He got a point. You have to be in the charts to make money I think. It’s difficult for young bands, they don’t have the club circuit anymore, really, that we used to have.

FG: Is the club circuit one of the big differences between now and when you guys first started out?

BB: Well, we were playing very small rooms to, like, a hundred people, before we got signed. There were a lot of pubs and clubs you could play. And you didn’t have to have an album out if you know what I mean? I don’t really think that really exists much now. You could play pubs I suppose, but a lot of pubs and people want tribute acts now, they don’t want bands writing their own music.

FG: Could that be indicative of the pub scene in general in the UK?

BB: I think people like to go out and have a drink and listen to favourite songs, so they go and see a tribute act. But I like writing original music, helping young bands – I’m not really into the tribute scene.

FG: If I recall correctly, you worked with Crimes of Passion I believe.

BB: Yeah, I worked with them yeah. Good band. They’ve got a new album coming out soon, I think they’re just finishing it now.

FG: Yeah, we’ll definitely have to check that out. I did pick up the last one that they were touring on when supporting you, it was very good.

BB: Yeah, very good!

FG: Just getting back to the tour. You are performing a wide variety of songs, but focussing mainly on what fans consider the Holy Trinity of Saxon albums.

BB: Yeah, we’re doing a few songs off those albums we haven’t played for a long time like Suzie Hold On and stuff like that. We’re doing a couple of songs off the first album as well. We’re changing the setlist more or less everyday.

FG: Yeah, there’s different trains of thought when it comes to setlists on tour – some bands have one setlist and that’s what they rigidly stick to, but from what I have seen from your own gigs, that is not something you do, and I think that makes a gig that bit more special because it is unique for those people there.

BB: Yeah, it’s unpredictable, it’s nice.

FG: Wheels of Steel, Denim and Leather, Strong Arm of the Law – the ‘Holy Trinity’ – what do you think makes those three particularly enduring?

BB: I think it’s the songs really, they are packed full of great rock anthems aren’t they? So, I think it’s the songs really that make those albums special. I mean, Power and the Glory is a great as well but it doesn’t quite have as many tracks on as those three do.

FG: You’ve been around for 35 years. Here’s a puzzler for you – if you could pick just three songs to make a short EP of Saxon to say ‘this is the quintessential Saxon, this is what we are all about’, from your entire history, what would they be?

BB: Oh, it’d have to be… let’s see… It’s difficult that, really. I mean, obviously it’d change every hour. It’d probably have to be 747, Heavy Metal Thunder and Sacrifice maybe.

FG: That’s a nice mix of old and new there.

BB: Yeah.

FG: So, as we touched on earlier, over your entire tenure together you’ve toured with some incredible bands, large and small, including Rush and Motorhead. Do you have a personal favourite?

BB: Yeah, I liked the Motorhead tours, they were great. I think the tour of America we did with Iron Maiden was great. That was our Power and Glory tour and their album, Piece of Mind. That was a great tour, it was good fun.

FG: What do you think separates the larger bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, like Iron Maiden, yourselves, Judas Priest, from the slurry of bands around at the time that didn’t quite make it?

BB: The songs I think.

FG: Purely songs? Stagecraft maybe?

BB: Erm, could be image I suppose, or maybe the singer wasn’t- I dunno. There was a load of great bands, and I just don’t think they had one really big song that a quarter of a million people really hooked onto, you know?

FG: Yeah. So, in your entire time with Saxon, what is your proudest moment?

BB: I think probably getting a deal you know? I think 35 years on the road could be the proudest moment for me, you know, being around is quite a big thing really.

FG: Similarly, do you have any regrets?

BB: Er, no. None.

FG: Well, that was an easy question!

BB: Well, I mean, I regret marrying a few women, but about rock and roll, no, not really.

FG: If you hadn’t have fallen into music and become a musician, this front man we’ve all come to know and love, what would you have been doing for these past 35 years?

BB: A criminal… or carpenter! Something like that you know – well there’s not much difference is there? I’d have probably been a carpenter that stole wood!

FG: Haha, that’s certainly a unique answer! So, finally, you’re wrapping up with tour with a sold out gig in London to finish it all off just in time for Christmas. What’s next for Saxon after the break?

BB: We’ve started recording the new album – just finishing writing and recording – and we’ve just confirmed a tour in America in May.

FG: What’s the new album called?

BB: Oh, we’re not telling you the title yet!

FG: Haha, okay, fine. So, what can we expect from it?

BB: You can expect the unexpected… nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Yeah, it’ll be heavy and melodic like all our other albums are.

FG: Excellent! Well, thanks very much for your time. Enjoy the rest of the tour and hopefully see you soon.

BB: Good talking to you mate.

FG: Thank you very much. Bye.

BB: Bye.

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There you have it! We would like to thank Biff for his time, and to wish Saxon well on the rest of their tour. If you would like to catch them in Biff’s home county, they are playing the Leeds Academy on Tuesday 2nd December. As of the time of publishing, tickets were still available from the usual places.

Here’s the full list of UK/Ireland Tour Dates
30.11.2014 UK Bristol Academy
01.12.2014 UK Bournemouth Academy
02.12.2014 UK Leeds Academy
04.12.2014 UK Manchester Ritz
05.12.2014 IE Dublin Academy
06.12.2014 UK Belfast Limelight
07.12.2014 UK Glasgow ABC
09.12.2014 UK Newcastle Academy
10.12.2014 UK Nottingham Rock City
11.12.2014 UK Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall
12.12.2014 UK Oxford Academy
13.12.2014 UK London Shepherd’s Bush Empire

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Images used are courtesy of The Publicity Connection.

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