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Having made the most of the present, Biff Byford and Saxon are wasting no time in promising us hell on this new delivery...
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Between "Carpe Diem" released last year, a second "Inspirations", and the new Heavy Water interlude with his son, to be released in 2023, news of Saxon and Biff Byford, its charismatic leader, has rarely been so dense. And as if that wasn't enough, it took a call from Judas Priest for a tour that will bring them together in 2024 for the English band to deliver another lesson in their usual heavy metal... This new interview reveals the reasons behind their workaholism, a few of their trade secrets and also lifts the veil on the reasons behind Paul Quinn's absence on this album, replaced at short notice by Brian Tatler of Diamond Heads...

Biff, this is already our fourth interview, the last in 2018 and Brian, we met when we were promoting 'The Coffin Train' in 2019. A lot of time has passed since then, especially with the pandemic. How have you managed this uncertain period?

Biff Byford: Actually, by making albums (Laughs)! Nothing's changed except that we haven't been on stage...

Since then Saxon have released a studio album and two cover albums. How do you explain this bulimia of work?

Biff: I've also released an album with my son, Heavy Water...

Is it fair to say that you see time as an enemy?

Biff: I think time is always an enemy for a band... Bands appear, others disappear: time is indeed an enemy. And if you let too much time go by without news, people forget you!

Biff, as you said, in addition to the cover albums, there's been a solo album and Heavy Water with your son. Should all this be seen as a sort of anthology, a first assessment of a life and a transition to the next generation?

Biff: I think so! Right now, the band is as prolific as it was in the 1980s. A new generation is emerging. And it's true that my son and I enjoy composing together, which explains these two albums. But we're not particularly in a hurry, it's just that we respect the deadlines we're given...

In a recent interview, UDO said he wanted to work until he was 80. Can you still see yourself on stage in eight years' time?

Biff: Oh, but there have always been artists like the Rolling Stones and other even older bands who continue to perform. So, yes, I don't see what's stopping me as long as we can continue to write and produce good music. On the other hand, if you release crap albums, yes, that's a problem...

Biff, your attitude might also bring to mind Ronnie Atkins, the lead singer of Pretty Maids, who was condemned to death by illness but is fighting against time by releasing albums on a regular basis. Is that the case?

Biff: No. In fact, the reason for releasing this album is that Judas Priest called us to tour with them. But the tour starts in March (laughs)! That's why we're releasing this album so early, we had to meet this deadline...

Is that why Brian was there, to get some inspiration?

Biff : Brian did come up with ideas and it was always a magical time. But we would have released this album anyway: we've released albums without him in the past (Smiles)...

Brian: (Laughs)!

Biff, your latest productions seem a bit melancholy, between your solo album, which is a look back at your history, the albums with Heavy Water, which have their roots in the 1970s, and the two albums of Saxon covers. What is the reason for this insistent look to the past?

Biff: Well, you can write songs about the future, of course, and about the present too, but I think that history and things that happened in the past are much more interesting... In the same way, my son loves the flower power period - Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and all those bands from that fantastic period in the United States in the 1970s, at the origin of rock like the Byrds... - but he also likes System of a Down, bands like that, and he mixes it all up in his own way...

Time marches on and you left Paul Quinn by the wayside earlier this year...

Biff: That's not true (Laughs)!

... 45 years together is no mean feat. How do you feel without your long-time accomplice?

Biff: I'm very sad that he's no longer with us.

Initially, he was just not going to tour any more... How did you decide to leave completely?

Biff: It's just a question of circumstances... We hadn't planned anything in fact, we'd started writing this new album together. It's just that he decided he didn't want to tour with the band any more: so we did the last few festivals in Europe without him and continued writing this album at the same time... so if Paul isn't there, it's just a question of circumstances. Paul should be present on the next album, it's just that it didn't fit for this album...

But what about Brain for the next album?

Biff: Paul won't be touring any more: it's too much stress for him! We tour far too much for him: it wasn't possible for him to carry on, that's the truth...

To replace him, you've recruited Brian Tatler from Diamond Head, who's a safe bet...

Biff: Not really (Laughs)!

Brian: (Laughs)!

... and someone from your generation - the NWOBHM generation - taking on an experienced guitarist was the idea, given that you could have taken on a young guitarist like your son for example?

Biff : My son isn't a solo guitarist, he's first and foremost a songwriter...

If you couldn't have got your son, could you have got a younger guitarist?

Biff : People suggested it but no... We didn't want a young shredder like there are lots of very good ones out there: we're on tour a lot, so we'd have had to get on with him, which is very important... Plus, we'd already toured with Brian on the previous tour, so we knew he'd be pretty relaxed and do the job (Smiles)...

In the end, Saxon are one of the rare bands, along with Iron Maiden, to have managed to last over the long term, whereas Diamond Head and others have had their share of ups and downs. Apart from simple talent, how do you explain that?

Biff: That would be more up to Brian to answer... but I'd say the songs, quite simply...

By that you mean Diamond Head didn't do any?

Biff : No, Brian wrote some great songs. I just think that Diamond Head songs were ahead of their time... Our songs from "Wheels of Steel" in 1980 stood out: our music was accessible in a way, music that mixed punk, metal and melodic things... and I don't think Diamond Head could have written a song like '747'...

Brian : That's true!

Biff : We were a bit more mainstream in a Def Leppard kind of way, which wasn't the case with Diamond Head. And it took Metallica covering their songs for us to realise what a great band Diamond Head were... No, I really think they were ahead of their time which prevented them from being as important as we were in the 1980s, a fantastic period when a lot of incredible bands appeared... It's not because he's by my side, I really do. If you listen to their music and songs like 'Am I Evil' and others, they're great songs that were ahead of their time, quite simply: if they'd been released one or two years later, Diamond Head wouldn't have had the same career...

The new album that brings you together is called "Hell, Fire and Damnation". You'd think this title came from the imagination of an angry metalhead, but it seems to have come from Biff's father, who used to yell at you with this phrase?

Biff : That's true (Laughs) but people still use that phrase... It's a fairly common phrase in our rural slang.

Brian : It's like preaching too...

Biff : It does have religious connotations, which is often the case in the countryside...

Isn't there a psychological and therapeutic side to everything that's been going on over the last few years, like exposing yourself - that's the idea, and it's rare in the end to open up like that?

Biff : I've already done quite a few interviews for this album and a lot of people have asked me if this album and this title have anything to do with what's going on in the world at the moment. I say no, or at least not consciously, but maybe unconsciously. I've had this phrase "Hell, Fire and Damnation" in my head for years but I've never had the opportunity to convert it into a song, I'd never had any ideas of what to sing... And Brian came up with an idea for music and some very pleasant chords and at that precise moment I knew what I was going to write and I started with this title in the back of my mind...

You mentioned this idea for the music that Brian suggested, which unlocked everything for this track. How do you explain the feeling that you've been working together forever?

Biff : That's the magic of music, and in this case, there's some sort of deep thing that happened that I can't quite put my finger on...

And did you know in advance that it would fit like this?

Biff : No! He sent me a lot of ideas that he hadn't used on Diamond Head or anything and one of them was this guitar riff. I've always loved riffs and I haven't changed the way I work.

You mentioned some riffs you didn't use on Diamond Head. As a natural question, does Brian joining Saxon call into question the future of Diamond Head?

Biff: In any case, that song won't be on any future Diamond Head album (Laughs)!

Brian: In this case, it's just a riff I had in my head that we hadn't done anything with - no live performances, no vocals - it was just a riff I'd been kicking around for a while.

Looking back, isn't it frustrating to be playing this track as a sort of gift to Saxon and not your original project?

Brian : As Biff said, I sent him a lot of material and he explored the stuff he liked, so there's this track...

Biff : It's destiny!

On guitar it seems that Brian Tatler who teamed up with Doug Scaratt on the record but Paul Quinn wasn't involved?

Biff : Paul plays on the album, he plays on two tracks. He won't be touring with us, but when he made that decision he did leave us a few guitar parts...

We're wondering about that because the album relies heavily on guitar duels, which give it enormous power and freshness and energise the tracks...

Biff: I know what you mean. The majority of the guitar parts are played by Doug and Brian, Paul plays a few solos on a few songs. We've always spent a lot of time on the guitars, but the ones on this album are extremely powerful. Despite this, the sound on this album is also extremely clear - you can hear everything - and in the middle of all that, there's also space for my voice...

The result is an extremely dynamic album.  It's short already, so it was important not to overload the subject matter too much. Ten songs including an intro is the ideal format?

Biff: I really think so: we prefer quality to quantity! We make albums! The concept is to make albums - it doesn't matter whether there are 15, 10 or 9 songs - that tell a story: that's the criterion...

We were talking about dynamism and we were blown away by 'Fire and Steel', 'Kubla Khan And The Merchant Of Venice' and 'Super Charger', which are real heavy bombs that sound like a cross between Motörhead and Judas Priest.

Biff: You're right, and that's how it should be!

And are you planning to play these songs live with Judas Priest in particular?

Biff : I'm not sure about the Judas Priest shows because our set will be short, but we should play two or three songs from the new album. I particularly like 'Fire and Steel', it's a beautiful song, as is 'Super Charger', which has that 1980s spirit of fast, furious rock songs?

In the end, offering heavy, straightforward songs with no frills is one of your trademarks?

Biff: Definitely!

After a career spanning more than 45 years, this album and your approach are still as fresh as ever, whereas Iron Maiden, for example, haven't been doing this kind of track for years. How do you explain such dynamism, which could be the envy of younger bands?

Biff: I see what you're getting at. I can't really put my finger on it, but I'd say that I try to control the material we use, knowing that I'm always on the look-out for exciting music that the guys, and now Brian, might come up with... So I only select things that have the right dynamic for an album. So when I start writing songs, I write for the album and if I don't think something works, I decide we won't keep it. If there's no dynamism, if it's not powerful enough, I don't keep writing, even if the music is brilliant, if I can't write brilliant melodies or lyrics, I'd rather move on to something else.
But the guys who play on this album play incredibly well with that same power. And I've never heard anyone say that our albums are too loud, too heavy... Doug and Brian had a lot of fun making this album with their Gibson, they also tried Stratocasters... many different layers of sound. But the overall and main sound of the album is Doug and Brian...

As is often the case with Saxon, this album is about history, general culture and literature. How do you explain this need when so many of your colleagues ignore it? History is represented by songs like '1066', which deals with the Battle of Hastings, 'Madame Guillotine' and 'Witches of Salem'. This has clearly been Saxon's DNA for many years now, so is it because you feel the need to share some of the lesser-known aspects of history?

Biff: I'm not a history teacher, but I do love history. If something interests me - it could be a title, an idea - I'll work on it. But it's the same with Iron Maiden and all their songs about history or mythology... I'd say it's a typically British thing.

In a way, '1066' is in the same vein as 'Crusader' from the album of the same name or 'Conquistador' from 'Metalhead', the epic adventure song par excellence. Is that also a trademark, a song with a historical epic feel?

Biff: Absolutely! I came up with the idea when I was writing a song about the Vikings and I wanted to write one about the Normans. It's an interesting story that's talked about at school and I'm sure that was the case here in France too, even if we don't have to study it any more...

... I can confirm that...

Biff : It's still part of French history. But 1066 clearly marked English history, the country changed at that precise moment. Once again, '1066' is a very interesting story and also a great title...

Finally, 'Hell, Fire And Damnation', 'There's Something in Roswell' and 'Pirates of the Airwaves' are right in line with the Saxon sound, with their subtle blend of strong melody, heavy power and powerful vocals. These tracks seem tailor-made for the stage, writing songs like this seems natural, what's the secret?

Biff: Once again, it all comes down to the guitar riffs. When riffs are created, they have to be thought through from a live perspective. And generally speaking, the louder these riffs are played, the better they sound, which explains why most of these fantastic riffs sometimes sound better live than on the album.

You mention these riffs, but is it out of modesty? You don't talk about your magnetic vocals. You're over 70 years old and you haven't lost any of your vocal strength. You still have a natural strength where a lot of people of your generation have either lost strength or are helped by technology. Once again, what's your secret?

Biff: I don't really have a secret: my voice is still powerful. I'd say I sing a lot: the voice is like a muscle in a way and you have to exercise it to keep it strong. But yes, I'm pretty happy with my voice....

Brian: Yes, it's a distinctive voice too: nobody sounds like him and that's obviously Saxon's trademark!

Finally, you're going to be doing these two concerts in France with Judas Priest, I suppose you're looking forward to it?

Biff: Of course! We've already played quite a lot with Judas Priest. And the first tour we did in Europe started in France with Judas Priest.

Let's hope you don't come full circle in 2023...

Biff: That's right, that's right! But no, we've got other concerts planned, particularly in November/December to celebrate the band's 46th anniversary: I think we'll be doing something special for the occasion...

We look forward to seeing you again with this beautiful album... Thank you!

Biff: It was a pleasure!

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SAXON: Hell, Fire And Damnation (2024)

Epic, heavy and melodic, "Hell, Fire And Damnation" is a lesson from Saxon at the top of his game.
SAXON: Hell, Fire And Damnation
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