August 23, 2021 Biff Byford of Saxon Talks Inspirations
There are few who can say that they are part of the building blocks of Heavy Metal music, and England’s Saxon are one. Formed back in 1977, the band was a part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that would explode in the early ’80s. Known for killer riffs, memorable melodies, and strikingly powerful vocals, Saxon are among the elite in Heavy Metal lure.
Sustaining stylistic changes and trends, the band still rock as hard as ever and proved this fact again with their 2018 album, Thunderbolt. Not slowing down all too much, in early 2021 they dished out their all covers album, Inspirations, and now eye 2022 for yet more new music. As motivated as ever, Lead Vocalist Biff Byford recently sat down to chat about the history of Saxon, the story behind Inspirations, plans for a new album, his latest collaboration with his son, plus more.
Cryptic Rock – Saxon is one of the most legendary Metal bands out there. You have been together for over four decades, released a ton of music, toured the world, and influenced many others. How would you describe the band’s journey to this point?
Biff Byford – I think the band’s standing is pretty good, I think we’ve managed to weather the storm really well. It was pretty crazy in the ’90s. The last 15 years, we’ve produced some great albums, one after the other. We’ve stuck to it and I think, at the moment, where I’m standing is as good as it has been since the ’80s.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, Saxon has done a great job of sustaining themselves throughout the years, and that can be a challenge for any artist.
Biff Byford – It’s always difficult writing songs because you’re waiting for inspiration. You’ve just got to kind of keep it rolling and keep the inspiration. You try not repeat yourself. We try and make every album its own entity, so it’s competitive with the one before. I don’t think there is anything easy about trying to try to come up with new songs all the time, but we have managed it, and that’s good.
Cryptic Rock – Agreed. You released the new Saxon album, Inspirations, in March of 2021. Prior to that, 2018’s Thunderbolt charted very high in many countries, actually, higher than any other Saxon album before it. That’s really impressive.
Biff Byford – I think that’s where we stand: you’re only as good as your last album. Thunderbolt moved us on a bit: we crossed over into a younger audience, and a lot of the older/established fans really liked it. We lucked out on Thunderbolt. We spent quite a long time writing songs for it. I wanted it to be interesting, not boring. It’s always a challenge not to be set back on your past glories and to try and push something that’s new.
Cryptic Rock – Thunderbolt certainly accomplished that. Let’s talk Inspirations, a covers record, which is a compilation of tracks that have influenced Saxon. What inspired you to select these particular songs and put them together for an album?
Biff Byford – We had the idea very quickly in October of 2020, recorded it in November, and it was finished by the beginning of December. We wanted to do something fun. I’ve always wanted to use a big house as a studio, like they used to do back in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
I first saw The Beatles in 1963 on TV. My musical career started when I was 12 or 13. Each song has a story and some songs influence life in a certain way. Some bands inspired us to start the band. We tried not to pick the obvious track of these bands. I think it turned out pretty well.
Cryptic Rock – It came out great. The songs are true to the originals, but they sound like Saxon, which is really cool, as well. As you had mentioned, this was recorded at Brockfield House near York, UK. It was recorded completely live with everyone together, correct?
Biff Byford – Everybody was in the house. We had Nigel (Glockler) in a big hallway, if you can imagine it. There’s a video on YouTube you can watch a documentary. It’s a big house, a big hallway, we put Nigel in the big hallway for the big drum sound. Then next door there was the library, which is a huge library, and we had the doors open. We were in a different room, but we were playing live. The cables ran through the doors and down the hallway, through the window and back into another room somewhere else. I produced the album, so that’s why I wanted to try and create that sort of live feel. We all lived there and ate there – it was great.
Cryptic Rock – That sounds like it was a fun experience. Things have changed so much with technology nowadays. What was it like to go back to that type of recording approach that people used to do years ago? It had to be refreshing.
Biff Byford – The technology side of it is just at the end of the cables. On the other end of the cable where we were, it was pretty old school really; vintage guitars, Marshals and Peaveys, things like that. It was very sort of live and old school. The boys did use some of their modern guitars for playing solos and things. We used a ‘65 Gibson, a ’74 Rickenbacker for the bass.
We rehearsed quite well and then we just played the songs very quick. We got that sort of passionate and exciting feel that these guys got back in the day; that was the idea that I had. Some of these guys were teenagers when they performed these songs, not many of them were over the age of 25. So we have to try and create that passion that, sort of, first playing feeling. It was great really.
Cryptic Rock – And it is an intriguing listen. Since this is a mix of different bands from the ’60s and into the late ’70s, there are different vocal styles that each original vocalist had. That said, how did you approach these songs, vocally?
Biff Byford – For my own voice, I didn’t try and change my voice to the guy that was singing. I wanted it to sound like Saxon and I think it turned out well. Some of the songs I’ve never sang before. It was really exciting to get through these songs and try my voice out; it was very fun and I just went for it. Like I said, we recorded it very quick. I think we did three versions of the song and then we picked the best version.
Cryptic Rock – Those who have not heard the record yet are going to really enjoy it. Saxon is no stranger to covers, you’ve done covers in the past.
Biff Byford – We just want people to have fun listening to it. It’s out on vinyl, on cassette, on CD, you can stream it. It’s great for driving, actually. One of my cars has got a cassette player and it sounds fantastic. (Laughs) It just brings back those days of the cassette and driving around in my rusty Mini back in the day in the ’70s. It just brings back that flavor of the time.
Cryptic Rock – That’s great. Obviously, we are still in the midst of a pandemic right now. The band recently played Bloodstock Festival, but is Saxon hoping to get out on the road sooner than later?
Biff Byford – I had my solo album out last year, just before the pandemic. I also recently put out the album Red Brick City with my son (Seb), under the band name Heavy Water. I’m doing the vocals for the next Saxon album, my little bit, or my big bit, whichever way you think of it. That album will be out in February of 2022. So we’re hoping to put that out in February and tour around the album.
That’s what our plans are. Hopefully, we’ll be touring the world starting February or maybe March of 2022. Hopefully we’ll be able to get through all the points on the planet that we’d like to go and tour. That will be great for the fans, as well, to see live music at last.
Cryptic Rock – That is exciting and big news for Saxon fans. And the new Heavy Water album came out excellent, as well. You have kept extremely busy!
Biff Byford – We’ve been very busy. Obviously, we can’t play live, so we’ve gone to recording…which is our next favorite thing that we like to do. I suppose now we’re a recording act for the time being. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – New material is always great and Saxon has no shortage of material. You have always kept busy, through the ’80s, ’90s, and into the 2000s you have released music consistently.
Biff Byford – Yeah, we like to record; we like to make albums and tour on albums. And that’s what we do: it’s a lifeline and we’re missing that side of our life. Just think of how great the gigs are going to be when we actually start playing. It’s gonna be great for people, they’re definitely starved of live music.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. Back in the ’80s, there were so many great Hard Rock and Heavy Metal bands coming out. However, it was the music that came before that paved the way. What was it like growing up in the ’60s into the ’70s with so much great music?
Biff Byford – Well, the ’60s were a fantastic time, and I’d only just turned 12 or 13. That was a fantastic time for me to be around in the ’60s with the music. And then as you move towards the ’70s, obviously, it started getting heavier. That’s the sort of music that influenced our writing when we started writing music, so it was just fantastic timing with all these bands. Obviously, there’s a lot of bands that we didn’t put on the Inspirations album that influenced us, as well. Maybe we’ll leave that for the next album. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – Why not! As someone who is passionate about music, what are a couple of your must-have albums, albums that you love and you never grow tired of?
Biff Byford – Well, most of the albums are ones songs from Inspirations are actually from. Some of the songs are based on the bands, some of the songs are based on the actual song. I’ll give you an example: Black Sabbath, for instance, we covered “Evil Woman.” Which is obviously not a Black Sabbath song, it’s a Crows song, but it’s the band that inspired. Black Sabbath inspired us, but I didn’t want to do “Paranoid” or “Iron Man,” so we did something a little bit wacky to get that feel.
For instance, Toto. Toto didn’t really influence Saxon much, but that song influences to play guitar in the certain way like Steve Lukather plays that guitar riff. We took that style of playing two-string chords up and down the neck. And we use it on “747 (Strangers in the Night)” and “And the Bands Played On,” which were two of our biggest songs back in the ’80s. I included that song because it obviously goes to the style of playing.
Cryptic Rock – Very interesting to hear. You did a great job with Toto’s “Hold the Line,” too.
Biff Byford – We kept it straight and rocking. I mean, the original is great, but the thing is a little bit Soul and R&B, so I kept it straight Rock and without too many adlibs. In fact, Steve Lukather sent a Twitter message saying he loves the version, so that’s cool.
Cryptic Rock – That is very cool and must have been nice to hear. Last question. What are some of your favorite films?
Biff Byford – I like all sorts of film. Some of the films that have inspired me to write songs include Saving Private Ryan (1998); when I first saw that it had a massive effect on me. I’m across the board: I like Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Action films.
The third James Bond film, Goldfinger (1964), I thought was pretty groundbreaking. I do quite like Musicals with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I’m a bit of a film buff. I like all different styles; I’m not locked into one genre.
Cryptic Rock – Seems you have very eclectic taste in film.
Biff Byford – Yes, I am watching a lot of documentaries at the moment, as well. There’s only so many songs you can write about Vikings and things like that. (Laughs) We’ve covered pretty much everything, really. On the new album will be a song about the Covid pandemic, a song for the people that have died; it’s called “Remember the Fallen.” It’ll be a quite nice song for me to sing. I’m aware of what’s happening around; things do affect my lyric writing and affect the style of music you play. Whether you’re playing sad music or light music, the mood that the band’s in when we’re writing just comes out on the album.
Cryptic Rock – Real life always influences art. That in mind, you recorded the Heavy Water album amidst this pandemic. It feels like what is going on might have influenced that, too. Right?
Biff Byford – Yes, there are quite a lot of songs there that are about being trapped in four walls and not being able to going anywhere. That influenced our writing together.