Interview with Saxon — “It’s a strange thing writing songs, you go down these roads where your mind takes you.”

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The mighty heavy metal act SAXON recently released their new album, “Hell, Fire And Damnation.” We chatted with vocalist Biff Byford about the release of the record and much more. Read the complete interview here…

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview and Happy New Year to you. How have you been?

Good, Happy New Year to you. I’ve been good actually. I’ve been… We’ve been in South America. I’ve been doing some promo work in Scandinavia. But yeah, everything’s going pretty well. Getting good reviews that made us happy.

Yeah, even though the new year has just started you’re releasing your new album next week, I guess. So do you think 2024 is going to be a good year for SAXON?

I hope so, we are hoping for that. We are touring, obviously with JUDAS PRIEST and URIAH HEEP across Europe. So yeah, we’re looking forward to it should be good. I mean, we’re promoting our new album, which I think is fantastic. Looking forward to it.

Considering the upcoming tour, did you ever tour with JUDAS PRIEST and URIAH HEEP before considering you’re all from the UK?

We’ve toured with JUDAS PRIEST before. The first time we toured with JUDAS PRIEST was the first time we played in Europe, it was in 1980 or maybe ’81. We’ve never really toured with URIAH HEEP before. We do know them, we have done festivals with them many times, but we’ve never toured with them. So it’ll be good.

Are you looking forward to the whole experience? I guess it’s such an epic lineup of bands for fans of heavy metal and music.

I don’t think it’ll happen again [laughs]. So I think if people can go and see it, they should go and see it. Just because JUDAS PRIEST and SAXON got two brand new albums out. I think URIAH HEEP‘s album came out last year sometime, so it’s going to be epic. It’s going to be an epic metal package I think.

It’s a shame that the tour isn’t stopping in Finland. Anyway, when we talked two years ago – when you released “Carpe Diem” – you mentioned that you wanted to write that album a little bit differently. In “Carpe Diem,” you started with writing riffs first, which is something you didn’t really do before. Is that something you continued in “Hell, Fire and Damnation”?

It is really, it is. I got some great riffs, put my titles on the riffs, and then wrote the song from there. So that’s basically how we did it again. We did this one a lot quicker because of the deadlines. I think the album is probably one of the best-sounding albums we’ve ever had actually. It sounds incredible.

This method that you have used now for these two albums, do you feel that gave you a new sort of energy after songwriting for decades.

Something magical happened on this album. I can’t really explain it but it all came together in a really great way, so I don’t know why, but it just did. So it’s a special album, quite a magical album. I was like two songs short of finishing the album and Paul left the band touring, and Brian stood in for him. I just asked Brian if he had any ideas that we could use. And he sent me a couple of guitar riffs that were wow, so we used them, it just was magical really, that sort of destiny/fate thing. I don’t know, it just all came together really well.

The previous album was recorded during the pandemic, we talked about how it was a struggle for you to meet and get it done, since it required a lot of planning. Last year, the world turned back to normal considering the pandemic, was it good for you to be able to do things the way you have been doing before?

Oh, yeah, I mean, it was slightly different because Andy [Sneap] was in Florida with JUDAS PRIEST so we had to do it ourselves, basically, recording drums and bass, the guitars, and what we did is we rented an old cinema and we use that as our base in the summer while we were doing festivals, and we were rehearsing and writing and recording the drums and bass at the same time. So we were able to get a lot of power and excitement into the original tracks. So a little bit different. It was a bit of a partnership between me and Andy on this album.

Did you feel like working so closely together was working for you?

I think it worked great, yeah. It allowed us to make the album while Andy was making the new JUDAS PRIEST album, and I think he did the ACCEPT album as well in the middle of that. So it worked pretty well for us. We already had written the songs so we didn’t change anything. There’s nothing changed in the studio, it was all rehearsed and written before that. It was quite easy to record it. We just have to keep the excitement, the power, and the rawness on the album.

The first track of the record starts with an intro featuring Brian Blessed OBE, quite a legendary British actor. I noticed that he also did an intro speech for you at Bloodstock festival. I was wondering how you first got in touch and why you decided to get him on the song.

We’ve known him for quite some time. We’ve done some work with him before for different charities and things for the coal mines in Yorkshire. We met him a few times, so we do know him, I wouldn’t say he was our best mate, but we were friends with him. I had the idea to do this prophecy fairly late in the day. I just wrote to him saying, “Would you do this for me?” I wrote it in a text message. “Would you do this for me? Here are the lyrics.” He said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” So that’s pretty cool. I think I think it needs something before “Hell, Fire And Damnation” to explain what the song is about because it’s not really about the occult. It’s not a death metal song, it’s about the fight between good and evil, dark and light, so it’s a good intro to the song.

Did you already have the instrumental track beforehand before you decided that you needed some kind of a voiceover on it?

Yeah, we did. Nibbs brought me a piece of music, keyboard music and I use that as the basis for it.

You mentioned what the title check is about and I thought it was a pretty epic start to the album as well. I remember you said something in our previous interview about how you often pick titles before you write the song then that inspires you. Was that the case with this track as well?

Yeah, the title came first. My father used to say that when he was when he was upset, “Hell, Fire and Damnation.” It’s a very common phrase for my father and my grandfather’s generation in Northern England. So yeah, it was in there, I always wanted to write a song with that bit of English. It’s such a great three words, “Hell, Fire And Damnation.” So yeah, I have the idea in my book of song titles. I tried it on “Carpe Diem,” but I didn’t find a guitar riff that fitted but then Brian gave me this riff which is on “Hell, Fire And Damnation” now and it fitted in great.

Considering your father and your grandfather used to say this, how long have you been waiting to use those three words in any of your music?

Well, I don’t use it much, my wife uses it sometimes, but she is from the North as well, but not very often. If you can’t get something to work, you’ll say it. If your car won’t start, “Hell Fire and Damnation.” It’s just a saying, you know. I’ve just taken it and used it for something else.

There are a bunch of different themes on this record, some of the songs have a historical theme, like “Madame Guillotine” which is about Marie Antoinette, and then there is a song about the Witches of Salem and the Battle of Hastings. Last time we talked a bit about Hadrian’s wall, but in general, how interested are you in history as a whole, seeing that it inspires you a lot to write lyrics?

I like history and I like fantasy as well. I like all sorts of things but I think history interests me the most and you can’t sing songs about sex, drugs, and rock and roll when you’ve been together for 45 years and have a lot of albums, you have to do something a bit more intellectual, and I think the songs are interesting. You have to pick the right events and obviously, the song has to be great. Some words sound great with a certain melody. It’s not just a matter of picking an event, it’s about picking an event that sounds good to sing about and that clicks with the guitar part too. All the elements have to be together for it to work really well.

Is there a way for you to like, when you hear a song that’s written do you think about an historical event that could match the song or is it more like you read yourself into history or watch documentaries, and then you’re like, oh, that could work for SAXON.

History is a strange thing because most of it is about violence and war or evil or good. Especially on these songs, with a theme of good and evil and good and bad throughout the album, I don’t really mean it like that, but it just happened like that. Those were the lyrics that I wrote. It’s a strange thing writing songs, you go down these roads – like writing a book – where your mind takes you if you know what I mean. I think we have to not be scared of what we write about, you just write. If you finish writing and you don’t like what you wrote, you just throw it in the bin. You have to remember that when I write them, they’re not songs, they’re just a bunch of guitar riffs that need to be arranged. We usually arrange them around my lyrics, what sounds best for them, for the song.

When you say that you don’t use the material that you don’t like, do you ever revisit things that you wrote at some time that you weren’t happy about?

I may have done it twice. I revisited the lyrics twice and used them again. Because it didn’t work the first time around, but only little phrases, not entire songs. So, I’ve done that. Not very much though. Everything I write, I like it to be original. Original to SAXON anyway.

I think one of the songs I liked the most on this record is, “Fire and Steel,” is there anything you can say about this song?

It’s all about Sheffield and Sheffield is a big city and Northern England. That was the city I used to go to all the time to watch bands, that was the main city that we used to go to. I used to watch a lot of bands there when I was younger, I saw PURPLE and Bowie, and all sorts of other bands… URIAH HEEP I saw back in the day, bands that were already big when I was 16 or 17. We used to go there and watch the bands in Sheffield, so Sheffield was our big stomping ground. If we were going to go out and drink on the weekend, we would go to Sheffield. Sheffield is famous for steel. It used to be called the Steel Town. It’s very industrial. It goes together with metal music, which is something I really like about it.

What was the scene over there when you were younger? Was hard rock a mainstream thing there?

Sometimes we would go to the bigger venues, but most of the time, we would go there to clubs, there was just a great scene in the ’70s in England. Universities brought out bands there all the time, so the ’70s was a big time for bands.

What I also really like is the cover art of this album, it has this feel of an old Gothic painting or something like that. What was the idea behind it?

I love Gothic imagery. We’ve used it quite a lot on our album covers and I like a lot of Celtic imagery as well. We’re called SAXON, so we’ve been using that a lot. I wanted a cover that was basically the fight between good and evil. I sent the record company a picture of Paradise Lost, which is a sketch that appears in a book of poems, so I said I wanted this sort of idea. The people came back with it and I really loved it. We saw it, thought it was fantastic, and said that’s it. Paul Gregory our usual artist, was having some problems getting it together, so we went for that one.

We already talked a little bit about the upcoming European tour. Are you guys also planning to stop in the Nordics at some point? Is Finland in the works?

Unless we get festivals in the summer, the next time we are probably coming to Finland will probably be in Autumn after the festivals are over. We are going to be back on a Scandinavian tour in I think October/November of this year, so hopefully we can pop some Finnish shows in there.

I guess fans will have to stay up to date with your social media to repeat it. But anyway, thank you so much for your time. That’s it for my questions. Do you have any last thoughts you want to share with your fans?

No, not really. I hope everybody loves the new album as much as we loved making it.

Interview by Laureline Tilkin