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Met een carrière van bijna veertig jaar, tweeëntwintig studioalbums en talloze shows over de hele wereld heeft Saxon uiteraard geen introductie nodig. De band behoort wat mij betreft tot de categorie koningen van heavy metal. Dat hun heerschap nog lang niet voorbij is werd onlangs keihard bevestigd met de nieuwe plaat ’Thunderbolt’; wederom een ijzersterk album van de Britse legende, die zelfs weer een traditionelere kant opgaat. Vlak voor de release van het album en de grote tour die eind deze maand van start gaat sprak ondergetekende opperhoofd Biff Byford over de nieuwe plaat.

Door: Nima | Archiveer onder heavy / power metal

Hello Biff, nice to talk to you again! Well, where shall we start? First of all let me say happy 40th anniversary under the name Saxon!
Thank you very much but actually we’re celebrating it next year in 2019, seeing that the first Saxon album was released in 1979, haha. But all good, thank you very much.

Haha, well alright then; aaalmost forty years Saxon and you’re still going strong, and your new album is about to be released in a couple of days. Is it still an exciting time for you when a new album is about to be released?
Oh yes, definitely. I mean, we’ve spent a year making the album and it’s always exciting to see if the fans like it or not. The critics have been very good though. Have you heard it?

Haha, yes of course and I love every second of it. You know, ’Battering Ram’ was a also a great and a very successful album, and even though it was utterly Saxon, it also showed a different side of the band; a heavier and at some points even more progressive side. ‘Thunderbolt’ is again quite contemporary, but on the other hand it has a more traditional vibe to it…
Yeah, for this album we went for a more vintage guitar sound, definitely. So the vibe is a bit more in the spirit of the 80s. It wasn’t really something that we did intentionally. It’s just how this guitar riffs came out so greatly and have that traditional vibe, so the more vintage guitar sound fit perfectly, you know.

Andy Sneap is again responsible for the production of the album. If we compare the album with ‘Battering Ram’, I think ‘Thunderbolt’ also sounds a bit more “organic”, if you know what I mean.
I gave Andy the full production of this album. I co-produced the last one with him and he mixed ’Sacrifice’. So you’d have to talk to Andy about what he did with all the guitar sounds, haha. Obviously I was there when he played them, and I work quite closely with him, but he had the free hand this time. That gave me more time to focus more on the lyrics, the melodies and some of the arrangements. So I was more a band member on this album than on the last one, if you know what I mean. But Andy is very clever and he’s a great fan of the 80s. He’s been with Saxon for six years now, so he knows very well where Saxon has to be.

How about the songwriting for ‘Thunderbolt’? If I remember correctly the majority of the songwriting for ‘Battering Ram’ came from yourself and Nibbs (Carter – Bass). Was it different this time?
No, Nibbs and I did most of the songwriting for the new record as well, so there haven’t been that many changes since ‘Battering Ram’. I think we did about 85% of the tracks and then brought them to the band to complete them. Nigel (Glocker, drums – Nima) wrote the original ideas for the song ‘Sons of Odin’ for example, and Doug (Scarratt, guitars – Nima) did ‘Sniper. But you know, it’s not really a big deal in Saxon who writes the songs, but simply about how good are the songs, haha.

Haha I agree, and it always has the Saxon stamp on it. You guys have been working in the same line-up for so many years that the unity is quite audible. I mean, as soon as a song starts and you start singing it’s immediately Saxon. So on that matter I don’t think ‘Thunderbolt’ is really a surprising album, but a genuine Saxon heavy metal rock n’ roller…
Well, yeah, but I think the album is unpredictable, as every other Saxon album really. I mean, you can never predict where we’re going with an album. You know, as bands get older, people expect them to slow down or to get more mellow, so we don’t! That’s as simple as that.

That’s actually one of your trademarks isn’t it; not being predictable. Something else I admire is the fact that you are not one of those classic bands that releases new albums for the sake of it, but still has to rely on the old glory, you know?
You know, I suppose it’s me that drives the band forward. But I believe that if you can write a great song in 1980 it’s always the chemistry of the band that can retain that. You can still write great songs forty years later, but I think you have to push yourself technically and have to work for inspiration to come. I think that’s important. I mean, if the inspiration doesn’t come, we wait. Don’t put just about anything out only because you’ve written it. Not everything we write is great.

Fortunately you don’t have to wait too long, as it seems. You are quite active and release new albums on a regular basis and every album is just of high quality. Something I mentioned and also truly believe in is that that since the ‘Dogs Of War’ album – which was an amazing record – you have only released strong albums!
‘Dogs Of War’ was a great album, and yeah we’ve been quite on the roll for I’d say the last fifteen to twenty years, definitely. Well actually since Doug joined the band. We have never changed our style really but we have never put out the same record twice, not even in the 1980. I think that’s a good legacy to have. It’s important for us to always try to entertain our fans, but also to be different sometimes and not doing the same thing over and over again. When we’re writing songs and I’m writing lyrics we treat every song as an individual project and a separate entity. We don’t connect them with an album, If you know what I mean.

Do you think that is also the key to both your success and survival over the last four decades?
I think so, yeah. We’ve been the underdogs for a long time. We’ve certainly put out some great albums for people to listen to, from the 80s on until now, especially the last ten albums. I think now is a great for Saxon; we’ve paid our dues and now we’re enjoying ourselves writing music and going on tour.

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I think it’s also admirable that after almost four decades you’re still so energetic and enthusiastic. When you hear songs like ‘They Played Rock N’ Roll’, ‘Predator’, ‘Sniper, or any other song for that matter, you can still hear utter enthusiasm and if someone would have never heard of Saxon, you can easily pass for a young new band with that same youthful energy and enthusiasm…
You know I think that as an older band you also have to think for yourself that when you listen to a new record, if this happened to be your first record, would you get a record contract and would people like it? And with the last few albums that we’ve put out, I think the answer is definitely yes.

Let’s look at two songs that particularly caught my attention. The first one being ‘Predator’ which is because of the growls. My additional info sheet didn’t have any info on that, so I was wondering if you used effects or a guest vocalist for the growl parts.
Oh that’s Johan (Hegg, Amon Amarth – Nima). I did the growls first myself in lower octave. But when I heard it back my first thought was to ask Johan to do it. I really like Johan’s voice, because you can hear the words when he’s singing, so I thought it would be great to ask him. And we sent him the song, he loved it, did his part and sent it back and we absolutely loved it. I think this is one of those unpredictable songs that we do. I sang it pretty straight and in a higher voice, so I think the mixture of the vocals works pretty well. I don’t think it’s been done before in that style. It may have been more “normal” if Johan sang ‘Sons of Odin’ with me, you know, but it just works perfectly with ‘Predator’, because you’re painting something a little bit evil. I don’t think Johan will be able to tour with us, haha, so we’re gonna try to do the growls by ourselves on stage and see if Nibbs can pull it off.

Is that something you might consider doing in the future again?
We never make any plans for the future. We’ve just done the new album and we’ll be touring the rest of the year. The future brings what the future brings.

The second song – and also one of my personal favourites is ‘They Played Rock N’ Roll’… and for me has a very emotional value as well, so shortly after Eddie Clarke’s passing…
You know a lot of people have been saying that this is one of their favourites off of the new record, for many, many different reasons. I asked the fans on Facebook whether or not it was a good idea and if we should release it, because I didn’t want people to think that we were trying to cash-in or anything on Lemmy and the boys. The fans liked the idea so we released it. It was scheduled for release before Eddie died, but I can see the emotional value you’re taking about. Anyway, it’s song about 1979/1980 in England and being on the road with Motörhead. You know, it was our very first tour, we had just released our first album and we went on tour with Motörhead. That’s what the song is about: Motörhead and Saxon and England in the late 70s, early 80s. And we had been friends ever since. Have you seen the video we did for the song? I think that has come out great.

You know, in the past few years so many legends have passed away, and of course it’s a part of life, as sad as it is. You have turned 67 a few weeks ago and fortunately you are still in a great shape and still going strong. But having had so many fellow musician friends passing away made you more aware of your own mortality, so to speak?
I think it’s made me more nostalgic to look back at the old days, you know? I think it’s quite sad that all three original Motörheads have died in such a short period of time. And with Eddie it was definitely a shock, because he seemed alright. But you know, when your name’s on the bullet, there’s not much you can do about it really.

With so many bands retiring and so many legends passing away, do you think that the legacy of heavy metal will pass onto and still live on through a new generation of bands or will it slowly be the end of the story? I mean, let’s be honest, the majority of the big media had pretty much ignored a great deal of the newer generation and the main focus was on the bigger bands, until Ronnie James Dio died and gave everybody some sort of wake-up-call…
I think at some points there is going to be – well, maybe not metal in general – but some sort of “rock explosion” again in the next four or five years. There are definitely some good bands out there.

So you don’t think that in ten years we’ll be only looking at holograms?
Haha! Well, I really don’t like this hologram thing! I’d rather a watch a DVD instead. Fortunately there aren’t that many people interested in that kind of thing. So I don’t think they’d be doing arenas or anything. But, I don’t know, the technology has to improve a lot to make it interesting. I think it’s more a curiosity thing that people want to see it, and I’m not sure if they will continue to go and see it. I don’t know. Personally I don’t like it. There something a bit… wrong with it with me. I’m really not interested in it to be honest, and I don’t think it’s going to be a big thing. Maybe if they did that in Las Vegas and they’d put Elvis on, maybe that work. Though I’m not sure if Elvis would have liked that.

Ok let’s move on to real live action; you are about to do a huge world tour starting at the end of February… how do you prepare nowadays to keep yourself in shape for such a tour?
Yes, we’re doing the UK/Europe first and do about eight shows to support the album, and then we will move on to the Americas with Judas Priest. To be able to do such a tour, well, you have to watch what you do. You have to try an exercise and watch what you eat, don’t get too drunk every night, things like that. Have a good time, but not in excess if you know what I mean.

So does your catering rider look any different nowadays compared to, let’s say, thirty years ago?
Haha, not really, it’s pretty much the same thing. Bread, meat, M&M’s, wine, beer, the usual things. We don’t have that big a deal really, and we have options for lunch and dinner, because we aren’t up at the time for breakfast, haha.

Ok Biff, unfortunately our time is running out, so let’s make it fast with one last question. Having released twenty-two studio records, many live albums and DVDs and having rocked the world for over forty years, and also with so many colleagues retiring, has it crossed your mind that you’d wish to call it a day in the next couple of years?
Nope, not really, haha. At least not me, personally, maybe some of the other guys have, I don’t know. So hopefully we’ll have a couple of good years ahead of us still…

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