We chat with the Saxon frontman about new album Thunderbolt and a fair bit more besides...
In one of those aligning-of-the-planets moments that makes life worth living, NWoBHM veterans Saxon, forty years into their career, are enjoying one of the most successful periods now of their professional lives. Armed with their best album in years, the excellent Thunderbolt, and on tour in the US with the similarly renascent Judas Priest, it’s seemingly never been a better time to be a Big Teaser from Barnsley. So of course when Sentinel Daily was offered a chat with head housecarl Biff Byford just before he and the band headed Stateside, I pulled rank and got on the phone…
The new album is brilliant. And it’s been out for a while now and I still don’t recall a bad word being spoken about it – you must be very pleased with that reaction? “Yes, it’s been really good. I think you’re right – I don’t think we have had a bad word about it, which is a bit of a surprise really. It’s doing really well. People seem to like it. Which is really good because that’s why we made it!”
You’ve been doing this a fair while now, Biff – are you past worrying about reaction when a new album comes out? “You still get apprehensive. You might have an inkling that you’ve put out a good album but you still don’t know whether it’s going to be accepted as a ‘special’ album. So yes, we’re always a bit apprehensive about what’s going to happen.
I think it’s fair to say that Thunderbolt is a special album. You say you have an inkling that an album might be a good one, is that what you felt about this one as it came together? “Not really, no. To tell you the truth we do every song like it is it’s own little project. We don’t really think in album terms until we put them all together. When me and Andy (Sneap, who produced the album) were putting the track listing together we felt it sounded pretty good. So we knew it was a good album. But whether it becomes a special one is down to the fans and the critics really. We just keep our fingers crossed. I suppose it’s the English way… Expect the worst but hope for the best!”
Since the band started the industry has changed out of all recognition, particularly the relationship between putting an album out and going on tour. It used to be that putting an album out gave you the opportunity – and funds -to tour, whereas now you do the tour and if you have an album out it’s a bonus but it’s not where the money comes from. Does that new Status quo suit Saxon? ‘’It does, but we’ve always done a lot of touring. That side of it really hasn’t changed for us. What’s changed is that more people are coming to see us! But we’ve always been a live touring band. The eight shows we’ve just done in England, quite a lot of those sold out very early – before Christmas – so it’s a good time for that balance really. We are selling physical product, we had a few surprising chart positions – number five in Germany, top thirty in England… I think for us at the moment it’s a good blend between albums and touring.
You’re just about to head to America with Judas Priest – are you looking forward to that? “Yes, it should be good fun. We took a pay cut for that tour! The album is doing well in America so it’s good timing again, Priest have got a new album out so everyone is excited about the tour, Black Star Riders are opening – you don’t usually get bands that good opening – so it’s going to be good!”
Whenever I see or hear interviews with you, you are always keen to stress the aspect that Saxon are professional songwriters. And it seems to me that Thunderbolt, at least in terms of heavy metal, is a very songwriterly album. Every song is a story. That being the case, do you reject a lot of material if it doesn’t fulfil that songwriter’s obligation? “Yes, I do. I’m the only singer in the band, obviously, so everything seems to flow through me, really, ideas wise. If something doesn’t inspire me to write a great melody or story around it then I don’t use it. So there are quite a lot of riffs or backing tracks that we don’t use. And on this album I was super-focussed on what I wanted to do. I’d already written quite a lot of the lyrics, so I was just waiting and looking around for things to put my lyrics to, really. So I was a bit hard on the guitarists (Doug Scarratt and Paul Quinn) on this album. But I think it paid off”.
It certainly did. I think a lot of bands even half your age in terms of longevity seem to just ‘toss off’ albums. The songwriting seems like an afterthought. You can very clearly tell with Thunderbolt that above all it’s a work of quality songwriting. “I also think that sometimes as bands get older they lose a certain fire. It’s my job to keep that fire burning. A lot of bands that you listen to who have been around a while… do get a bit boring sometimes. An album might have one good song and the rest is a bit self indulgent. I don’t really want to go down that road. I’d rather not release an album unless it was going to be a good album. Fans buy into the idea of a band, they support the band, so giving them a good album is obviously the way to go”.
And I guess you have to make album that you like yourself to a certain extent. If you don’t like it, there’s no reason to expect that any one else will. “Initially you’re writing stuff for yourself, that you like. And that’s not easy, actually. A lot of stuff gets rejected before you reach the stage that you’re happy with a song”.
Does the fact that you’ve been doing this for so long make the writing harder in terms of finding new things to write about? “It’s always hard. It’s always hard to come up with something that’s a bit different. I don’t like to be predictable. I like to stir things up a bit. People are saying this album has got more of an eighties spirit about it. And that has something to do with the songwriting as well as Andy Sneap’s production, which features some pretty ‘vintage’ sounds. He did a great job on the album”.
Definitely, one of the first things I like about the album was that it seemed to take me back to the time of (1980’s) Wheels of Steel in terms of sonics. But you still have that modern Saxon edge to it on songs like Sons of Odin and Predator. “You’re right. There’s a mixture there of both Saxons, old and new, and people are recognising that”.
You’ve got a big back catalogue – do you feel there have been any songs that you’ve liked in particular that you don’t feel have been rated highly enough outside the Saxon circle? “I don’t think there’s any point reflecting on whether songs could have been great or greater; People are revisiting our back catalogue all the time, particularly younger fans. Everyone has their favourite songs. We made some stupid mistakes ourselves musically but I don’t think we’ve been badly treated”.
Now, one last question, and it’s the question Sentinel Daily readers most want answered – any chance of an Australian tour? “We’ve told our management we want to tour Australia again. I don’t think we’ll have time this year, because we’re touring right up til December in Europe, but definitely January of February is on the boards. The plan is to do Japan, Australia and New Zealand then”.
Read Scott Adam’s review of Thunderbolt HERE