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Interview: BIFF BYFORD (Saxon)

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Saxon release their new single "Live To Rock" as a download on 17 October, gearing up for the Autumn tour with Motorhead. The band's new album, 'Into The Labyrinth', is released In January 2009.

This interview was done before the album's title was announced.

The new single "Live To Rock" is about getting an education and career options, but choosing a life of rock'n'roll. Is this a personal experience?

It's a story from my youth, basically, I thought people would relate to it. It's the same today as it was then, really. I wanted the song to be like "Won't Get Fooled Again", you know, "Brown Sugar", that kind of song. I think it's pretty cool, actually.

Pretty catchy?

Yeah, although, well, the album's not like that. It is like that, but not all like that, if you know what I mean. Because we're not the sort of band that writes 12 songs that are all the same. We like to entertain ourselves more than that. It's half rock'n'roll, half heavy metal, in a sense.

Saxon, Into The Labyrynth

Any long epics, like on the last album?

Yes there's some epics, there's a few. I can't really say too much about the album. It's out on the 12 January so I don't want to steel anybody's thunder.

So you can't give me a title?

No, not yet. I can give you a few song ideas though. One of the rock'n'roll songs that's on there, people like it, that have heard it, is called "Slow Lane Blues" [that's what it's sounds like he said].

Part of the album's quite bluesy, we've gone back to a more bluesier feel. It's about when the French police took my car off me, when I was caught speeding.

There's some historic songs, a song called "Valley Of The Kings", which is about the Egyptians and Tutan Khamun, the curse of the tomb, how the guy found it, from his point of view, so it's quite interesting.

Biff Byford, Saxon

Is there anything as progressive as Atilla The Hun?

Yes, it's quite long, there's some big ones. The first one on the album is called "Battalions Of Steel", which is as it sounds, but there's nothing quite as long as "Atilla The Hun". That was the Saxon progressive metal thing, but nothing that long. There's some historic songs and there's some rock'n'roll songs on there.

I thought the intro to the single is very reminiscent of "Solid Ball Of Rock"

Well, I wanted it to be, and "Solid Ball Of Rock" is slightly reminiscent of "Faith Healer" (Alex Harvey song), that's where the inspiration came from, and I wanted it to be a cross between "Solid Ball Of Rock", "Won't Get Fooled Again", that kind of thing.

We didn't want to rip anyone off but that's why the beginning sounds like that beginning. It's the guitar chords that go on, it's just a nice beginning. A lot of people say it should open the album. Whether it should or not I don't know.

"Solid Ball Of Rock" was one of the very few times you've used an outside writer or a cover version.

It was written by three guys; Bram Tchaikovsky (ex Motors guitarist) and 2 members of his band. It's actually about Jerry Lee Lewis, it's very rock'n'roll, well, more country rock'n'roll.

He wrote two songs, one we didn't get on with, it was more lovey dovey, ballady, but "Solid Ball Of Rock" I loved it straight away. We changed a couple of things on it, I completely changed the arrangement, and used the "Faith Healer" beginning, and it totally worked, brilliant. It's a great song.

How did the Motorhead tour come about?

I think the tour came about with me and Lemmy saying we should tour again. We met at all the festivals. They do turn it on, really perform, when we're with them. I don't mean that in a derogatory way, it's just how it is.

I saw you both at their 30th anniversary show and that was good.

It was a good night, and they do rise to the occasion. It was pretty cool. And we've got new agents, so it's working out. We're not doing the whole tour, just Britain and I think Germany.

What session have you done that fans might not know about?

Errrrm. I would imagine most of them they would know about. The last thing I did was, I think I'm singing on Doro's new album, that's the last session I did. She sent me a demo of a new song and I sang the chorus on it. So that's the session I've done that no-one knows about - yet. The one before was Helloween, I did the intro.

Is there anything unreleased in the archives?

I don't think so, Graham Oliver's released it all, hasn't he? (Laughs) I have a load of old cassette tapes, I found a couple just recently. Brilliant ones actually, one from our first headline tour of America, in Oklahoma, from a Mobile that was there.

Bet that would be great to hear?

It is. I've just had it transferred to digital, and there's one from Jersey, 1980, Wheels Of Steel tour. Fantastic. So yeah, there are a lot of live things around, but it's such a legal battle, with copyrights and things.

I own the tape, I have the rights to the tape, but it's always complicated with royalties. You either put it out and take all the money yourself, or you put it out and share it with all the members that were on it, and sometimes that's not possible to do.

So, I don't know. If you issue it as a bootleg, nobody gets anything, there's no publishing, there's nothing. I think what we should probably do is put it with something else. But that's a nightmare with royalties too because you have to split the royalties up. It's an absolute fucking nightmare.

Is there anyone you'd really like to play with?

Biff We'd love to tour with Metallica. We recently just made friends with them, again, after 25 years in the wilderness. We'd like to get them over, do a couple of songs, that would be cool. I get asked to do a lot of albums these days. Just been asked by this band from Scandinavia, they sent me a song.

What was the first record you bought?

Kinks - "You Really Got Me"

What was the last record you bought?

New Metallica album, got that today. Very recent! I didn't buy the t-shirt though, for 8.

What is your all time favourite record?

Oh that's really difficult. So many favourites. I'll what changed things, when I first got into AC/DC, it was "Dirty Deeds". That really had a big effect on me. The simplicity of the songs, the power of the riff.

I think that album, and "Highway To Hell". They probably influenced "747" and "Wheels Of Steel". Before that, me and Paul were into progressive, you know, Yes, stuff like that.

And the other two were more into Free, bands like that, more bluesy, one guitarist with a bit of wailing on top. It wasn't until I turned them onto AC/DC, we went to see them at Sheffield University, I think it was 1977. I think also the first Van Halen album. That was a massive album for guitarists. Not really for singers.

What's the most valuable or interesting record in your collection?

Probably the pressings of Wheels Of Steel and Strong Arm Of The Law, the wax / acetate pressings.

What fact about you would most surprise fans?

I'm Shy.

(this is the third or fourth time I've interviewed Biff and it does surprise me)

What music gets you dancing?

Anything with a good drum beat really. For me music is guitar riff, drum beat, melody. AC/DC, Motorhead, anything like that, if it's got two of those things it's alright.

What would you change about your past?

Probably being more courageous, in the business sense, in the early days. We got pushed around a lot.

Do you still play the bass?

Yes, Yes I do. And my daughter plays the bass. If I'm writing a song, with (guitarists) Doug and Paul, I'll play bass.

Sometimes we write songs as a four piece and I'll play bass, if one of the guys can't make it. Nibbs (Carter, bassist) will play drums if Nigel can't make it. There's a couple of songs on the new album that were written that way. Nibbs will still do it on the album, it's just the songwriting.

When did you last play bass with Saxon?

I've played live, a few times. If you go on Youtube you'll see me playing. There's a song where I play bass and a Nibbs played guitar. And our manager plays bass too. He played on stage at Wacken with us. He used to be in a band.

Do you still see any of your old Coast band mates?

Occasionally I'll see - there's only one other guy because we were a three piece, with me and Paul (Quinn, Saxon guitarist), but sometimes I'll see guys from the bands we were in at the time.

What's the stupidest thing you've ever read about yourself?

That I've read about myself? I can't really remember, actually. Some of the April Fool ones, where I had a restaurant, that was quite funny. I think, I don't know really. We all did stupid things in the 80s.

How much of Spinal Tap was based on Saxon?

I'd say the bass player is based on Saxon, Steve Dawson. I was asked that question earlier, the bass player, the actor, travelled with us, but it was such an insignificant thing, we were on tour, we didn't notice. I don't think anything that was in the film, because we would have been too young.

The band were too young, we weren't up to that level of having Stonehenge, I don't think we even had the Eagle. I don't remember any stories of us getting lost anywhere, we weren't of that type. That was more the big American bands of the 70s, or like Sabbath and Purple. But the bass player, the actor, got a vibe off Dawson.

Could you have been a teacher or a preacher?

Or a soldier? One never knows, that's what the song is all about. It was difficult to find things that worked. Obviously I could have been a soldier, because I write a lot of songs about war, a preacher, I was brought up as a Methodist, so I could have been. A teacher, I don't know, but never a lawyer. But we all could have been some odd professions.

Saxon, Live To Rock

Is there a physical release of the single?

We'd like the single to do well, obviously. I think it's going to be available for download, and all on the same day, on all platforms, there'll be a radio promo, with a b-side, and I think they're thinking about doing something like Metallica did, where you buy the single and get a shirt. I don't know yet, they're trying to get that together. It's difficult these days to get them to put a single in the shops.

It'll keep the collectors happy...

Yes it will, and the radio promos usually end up on the market. On the internet, you can buy them. We've done a version of a track off the new album, with some bottleneck, just me and Doug, one take, we did it in France, and that's the b-side. It's from our NEXT album, the re-recorded classics Unplugged. That's what's coming out, not next year, but after.

Did you get everything sorted after the house fire in France?

Yes, we get everything sorted now, but we might be moving back to England. It was very sad. We all got out OK, they're recovered now. It takes a long time actually, it's quite traumatic. It's not the house, it's everything that's in it. It's sad. I lost a couple of guitars I've had since the 70s. They've been on every album.

I hope you like the new album, I hope you won't be disappointed. It's a bit heavier,

The chorus on "Live To Rock" sounds a bit like "Innocence", which was probably the best album from a production point of view. Just not so good on the packaging and artwork.


Interview © September 2008 Joe Geesin

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