Biff Byford: The Hellbound Interview

By Sean Palmerston

Early last week NWOBHM legends Saxon made their first stop in Toronto for a show in over twenty-five years. As astonishing as it seems, the last time the venerable British metal unit made it to Canada’s most populated city was way back in 1986. It was a long time coming, but the band played one hell of a show and, the next day, I got the chance to speak to Saxon frontman Biff Byford for a quick phone chat.

This interview was actually originally supposed to happen at the Toronto show the day before, but due to family and work schedules I wasn’t able to make the hour long drive into the city when interview times were happening. Anyway, here is the interview I had with Biff about their brand new album, the North American tour they have now completed and about just how great their Toronto show was the night before our chat.

2011 has been quite a year for me personally and Saxon has been a big part of it. One of the biggest things for me personally was seeing your band play twice on the 70000 Tons of Metal Cruise. That whole week may be one of the most memorable things I will ever do.

Yeah, it was a really great thing. Whoever got the chance to do it will never forget it. It was a great moment.

Do you have any idea just how Saxon got involved? Was it just something you were asked to do and you went ahead with it?

Yes, we were asked to do it and we were unsure at first. We thought it might be a bit too much, being on a boat, but it was great actually. It was really good fun.

It was. It was really neat that you went ahead and did two separate albums, Wheels of Steel and Strong Arm Of the Law,  in their entirety. I am assuming it’s not something you regularly do on your tours.

No, we don’t do a lot of it. We don’t do it too often.

At Toronto’s show you played a lot of your brand new album, Call To Arms. Is that something that you have been doing a lot on the tour so far this year?

Yes, we did. I mean, we are here to promote the album and it is the first time we have been over on the release date in quite some time. I thought the new songs went down great, it is obvious that a lot of the people out in the crowd have the new album already. It was great.

The new album has a real urgency to the songs. I don’t know if you approached recording the album differently than the last few or anything…

Yeah, it’s a bit more organic, if you know what I mean. It’s a lot less of the pro-tools trickery and no samples on there. The drums are quite live sounding, we recorded them in a big room like we did back in the eighties. We went back to that sort of style again and concentrated on the songs really, not huge choirs and fifty-person orchestras. So that is how we did it and it came out really well.

It sounds to me like some of the songs are live off the floor, first or second takes.

Yeah, some of them were. Some of the vocals were as well [laughs]. We were really fired up really for the album and just played them the best we could.

So was it a case of nailing them the first or second time then and just simply saying ‘okay, that’s it’?

Yeah, well we were basically in a big room where we had been rehearsing and just recorded them. We did add some stuff later but it was all mostly done in one take really.

I am thrilled that you guys have come back to North America and are doing so much touring for the record. I guess – as you mentioned on stage – that was the first time Saxon had played Toronto since the eighties.

Oh yeah, it definitely was.

That must be something that catches you by surprise when you realize it has been so long since you have been in this area.

It does, really. You know, things go by so quick when you are in a band. Everything is day by day, so it is quite surprising that we didn’t visit for so long. It’s sad really. We should have been back much more than that. But, good thing is we’ve been back now and the shows were successful so we’ll try to get back into Canada again next year or something and bring up the level even a bit higher. There are more cities would could be playing in Canada, obviously.

Last night in Toronto you played the song “Dallas 1 PM”. I understand that this is a song you don’t play live all that regularly.

We don’t play it a lot. We do play it, but not very much. I just thought I’d throw it in for the people yesterday.

It was a nice treat. I feel pretty privileged, especially after also seeing you play it on the cruise in January. That’s been one of my favourite Saxon songs since I was a young teenager in the mid-eighties.

Oh, well thank you very much. It’s a great riff that one’s got.

The new album track “Back in 79” seems like it could be the follow up to “Denim And Leather” the way it is written for the fans and in celebration of metal and your fans through the ages.

It is about the fans. We used to write songs about the fans and now we’re doing it again. Yes, it is a bit like “Denim and Leather” Revisited I suppose.

So is 2011 an exceptionally busy year for Saxon?

Well, it is definitely looking that way. The album is doing just fantastic in Europe and it has done well in North America so yeah it looks like this is going to be a big year for us. The album has done so well that they’ve booked us a second European tour this year and another UK one as well. We will have played to a lot of people this year.

Looking back at the early years of the band, there must have been no way you would have imagined that Saxon would have become an ongoing career and that thirty years later you would still be making records.

No, we had just wanted to get a recording contract. That was our main goal there. I mean, for a lot of bands that is still the goal I suppose.

Having released nineteen studio albums and having written over 250 songs must make it difficult to pick your set lists. How hard is it?

Well, it definitely is difficult. We hadn’t been to Canada for so long, so we really had to play the big hits or people would have been disappointed. So especially for something like this it is difficult to pick a set list.

How much harder is to do these tours now some thirty years later? Do you have to do anything special on tour to keep yourself in shape?

I do have to take care of my voice but it is okay right now. I’ve just done eight straight days with shows and it is holding up fine. I just have to make sure to try and get rest when I can and take it easy. Eat well and all that.

So how much longer does this North American tour last?

Well, we are in New York City tomorrow and then we have four more shows. Then we will be heading down to South America. We will be doing shows in Brazil, Chile and Argentina. We tour quite a bit in South America; we’re much bigger down there than in North America actually. But, having said that, it is nice to see the resurgence of metal in Canada and the US, especially for our style of metal.

Well, thanks for answering my questions Biff. You are on tour, so I don’t want to keep you. Best of luck with the rest of the shows.

Thank you, Sean. It’s been my pleasure. Thanks for this and please keep plugging our new album. We are very proud of it.

 

Call To Arms is out now in North America through UDR/EMI Music.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.