Saxon’s Biff Byford: Sacrificing Nothing

By Jeb Wright

The new album by Metal stalwarts Saxon may be called Sacrifice, but rest assured this is one band that has sacrificed nothing.  Indeed, they have done the opposite; they have gone back to the future and created an album that easily stands up next to their classic release Wheels of Steel.

It sounds a bit coy to say that the new album is a classic—doesn’t every band put that out there upon the new albums release only to have the truth be much different than that statement? 

In this case, it is true.  And it was done be design.  Vocalist and band leader Biff Byford planned for Saxon to look inside and discover what so many people loved about the classic Saxon.  Once the flame was lit, then the music flowed.  The result is a one of the loudest and most powerful albums the band has ever released. 

Don’t believe me?  Just crank it up for yourself then.  One listen to the song “Sacrifice” and you will be running around your house with your mouth agape and your hand will automatically transform into a devil sign.

Yep, this one is that good.

Jeb: Sacrifice is a killer metal album.  Why was the release date pushed back until the end of March?

Biff: There was something wrong with the booklet, so we had to stop the production for a few weeks, but it will be out the 26th of March.

Jeb: This is the 20th studio album for Saxon.  Not a whole lot of bands release 20 studio albums.

Biff: No, they don’t.  And the album is pretty happening, actually.  We are pretty on it at the moment. I produced this album myself and I think this album sounds like Saxon should sound, at this point in time.  I went back to the old days a little bit.  It has a bit of the spirit of the ‘80’s on it.  There is a modern edge to it, as well.  It is a real Saxon album, as I don’t think anyone could make songs like these other than Saxon.  

Jeb: Talk about the title track.  

Biff: I went to Mexico and went to the Mayan ruins.  We were on tour there and we got a private tour of the ruins.  This gal was telling me about all of the human sacrifices that went on there and I thought that was a cool idea for a song.  I kept it in my head and then it popped. 

There were stories of ripping peoples’ hearts out while they were still beating.  There is a bit of Raiders of the Lost Ark going on there.  I just thought it would make a great song. 

Jeb: “Made in Belfast” is a great song.  

Biff: Originally, it wasn’t like it is on the album.  I wanted to put a Celtic style on it.  We brought in a mandolin and we came up with this Celtic riff at the beginning and then it went straight into this bone crushing Metal riff.  It is a very unique song that we wrote.  We went back to the bygone age of the ship building times in Belfast.  

I was in Belfast, as our agent is from there.  We were hanging out in the pub there and, one day, we went to the new Titanic Museum there.  

It is in the place where the old shipyards used to be.  It got me to thinking that hundreds and thousands of people used to work there making battleships and cruisers.  I just thought it was a cool idea at the time.  

Jeb: Were did you travel to in order to come up with “Guardians of the Tombs”?

Biff: [laughter] Nowhere, really.  Coming up with that was like finding something in your garden; imagine you are digging in your garden and you dig up a pyramid underneath your house.  It is a cool story.  It is a fantasy song, really.  I am just fantasizing about going through life.  

Jeb: Did you know this album was great? 

Biff: When we put “Belfast” together and we listened back to it, then we thought it sounded fucking fantastic.  We knew we’d written a great song there.  

Jeb: I have talked to a lot of musicians who say they could never produce their own albums because they would never stop changing things around and trying to make them better.  How did you not fall into that trap?

Biff: If I was a guitarist, then that might be the case.  As a singer, I don’t fall into that trap.  I have co-produced a lot of albums and I had an idea how this album should sound.  I wanted the guys to be natural and just do what they do; play a Les Paul through a Marshall amp and make it sound great.  That is really what my philosophy was.  I wanted to bring back some twin guitar parts because we’ve not been doing that for a while. 

I enjoy the creative process of producing.  I get involved a little bit in the songwriting and the arrangements.  You just need a good engineer to lay out the sound for you.  You have to be careful with the digital recording not to put too much on there.  If you have a good engineer then you can steer it where you want it to go.  

Jeb: This is the strongest Metal album that you’ve done in a long time.  

Biff: There is no ballad on this album.  I didn’t want a ballad, so we left that behind on this album.  

Jeb: “Stand Up and Fight” is another great song.  

Biff: I wrote that song for a lot of the younger bands out there.  They ask me, all the time, how we survived as long as we have.  We just stand up and fight and we believe in what we are doing.  That is what my message is, so this song is for them.  

Jeb: There was a time in Saxon’s career where you strayed from the classic Saxon sound in an attempt to break in America.  

Biff: Our management gave us record producers that were there to try and give us a more commercial style.  If you look underneath it then I think you can still hear Saxon in there trying to get out.  

Jeb: “Crusaders” is a great example.  The album had some commercial attempts but that song is pure Saxon.  

Biff: “Crusader” is a great song.  There are some commercial tracks on that album.  Some mistakes were made by people.  Maybe we were just too naïve and we should have told them to shove it.  You just don’t think that way at the time.  

Jeb: You include a bonus disk on Sacrifice with some re-recorded songs and you do a version of “Crusader” that is orchestrated.  

Biff: The big experiment over the last few years that we have done is to make different formats of our songs.  We’ve done a couple of unplugged tracks.  This time we sent a few songs to this guy to orchestrate them and he did a great job on “Crusader.”  We did “A Call to Arms” on the last album.  This one really sounds great.  It makes the song more majestic.  It brings a different style to the song.  It really made it into a class act.  Doing the song with the orchestra made it so much bigger.  “Crusader” really means a lot to a lot of people.    

Jeb: I love the unplugged version of “Frozen Rainbow.”  That song goes clear back to your first album.  

Biff: I lived in France and we did these songs in the studio there.  We were just messing around.  We transposed some songs into acoustic songs.  “Frozen Rainbow” I wrote, way back when, on an acoustic.  It is really like the original, only a little bit quieter.  The lyrics become the most important thing when it is done this way and it really is an all new concept for the song.

Jeb: Where does Sacrifice fit into the Saxon history?

Biff: I think it fits right up there with the landmark albums that we’ve made.  With Call to Arms we got close to this album.  With this one, we really nailed it, because it has that aggression that we used to have in the ‘80’s. 

Songs like “Stand Up and Fight” and “Warriors of the Road” are very aggressive.  It has some sophisticated songs on there, as well.  I think it encapsulates everything we’ve learned and everything we’ve stood for.  I think this album is a great marker that says, “This is it.  This is where we are twenty albums later.” 

Jeb: A lot of your peers are still out there doing it but they are not doing it this good. 

Biff: You have to ask yourself, “What made us great?  Why did people like us in the ‘80’s?”  We are still asking that question now.  We want to get that spirit of how we felt when we were 19 or 20 and were doing this and we want to do it a bit more. 

Jeb: Heavy Metal Thunder – The Movie is out.  This is one of the most in-dept documentaries I have seen on a band. 

Biff: We didn’t do it; some of the people who used to work with the BBC did that.  They are big fans of the band now, and big fans of the band from the past. They wanted to tell the story and fill in the gaps. We had editorial control but we didn’t stop anything.  We suggested they use the old members and get their side of things.  I think the whole package is great.  It is funny, it is sad and there is some great footage.  It is a great thing to watch. 

Jeb: Saxon went through a lot of highs and lows.  You tell it all and let the other members have their say as well. 

Biff: We have a lot of new fans that may have never heard of [Graham] Oliver and [Steve] Dawson. It is good for the younger fans to know the band and to see what all of the fuss was about.  Steve was a bit of a stand up comedian and Graham was living in the past a bit but they still get their point across.  

Jeb: How do you judge the movie? 

Biff: You look at it and you see yourself talking about these things and you see the others talking about things and it really takes you back.  I think the ‘warts and all’ style is the way to do a documentary.  If, at the end of the day, you look cool and you keep things from being stupid, then I think you should do it.

Jeb: I was a fan buying those albums back then.  I love the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.  I was in the USA and a teenager, so I did not experience it first hand.  What was it like to live through that? 

Biff: It was a fantastic time.  There were a lot of bands around.  We would get reviews in the newspapers.  We played a lot in the early days with Iron Maiden.  We both would open for some of the bigger bands of the time.  I think it grew out of the colleges.  In the ‘80’s our audiences were younger.  People would latch onto the bands that were coming out and we were latched onto.  

I suppose us and Maiden were the favorite bands of that generation.  Def Leppard was involved in that as well, although they won’t tell you that, but they were.  The whole Heavy Metal movement followed the whole Punk explosion and Heavy Metal really exploded in the ‘80’s.  We were one of the bands that had the songs and were able to take it further.  

Jeb: It was a turning point for Heavy Metal.  You created the future of Metal.  

Biff: We were trying to create our own sound.  We had a style of writing and a sound that people really bought into.  Maiden, Leppard and a few other bands did, as well.  

Jeb: How did Wheels of Steel change your lives? 

Biff: We had an album out that was very mixed between softer music and heavy metal.  Wheels of Steel was really our last ditch effort to keep our record deal.  We tried to relax and just write some music that we liked with our influences in there.  

The first song we wrote was “747 (Strangers in the Night).”  It just expolded.  We went from playing to 100 people a night to playing in front of 3000 in a space of two weeks.  It really went crazy.  We did 60 shows in England and before that we did the Motorhead tour, they were really big then.  We did the Judas Priest tour of Europe.  We were playing everywhere; it was an endless tour.  We did a lot of TV, which really helped.  

Jeb: Were the songs on Strong Arm of the Law written at the same time as Wheels of Steel? They came out right after that album.  

Biff: We would have liked to tour Wheels of Steel more than we did, especially in America.  We did the Rush tour and a few small headline shows.  We did the famous one at the Whisky A Go Go where Metallica opened the show. We wanted to go out and do more touring with Judas Priest, or the Scorpions.  Iron Maiden did just that; they did a lot more touring.  Our record company and our management were scared of us being a one hit wonder so they wanted us to write another album straight away, which we did. 

Jeb: For several albums you were really on a creative roll.  

Biff: We were on a huge roll.  We were under a state of grace.  The point I am making is that because we were doing the album, we were missing out on the opportunity to tour the world.  We were too busy recording.  It would have been much better for us to tour more on less albums.  We could have written the albums, but we could have held them back for a while.  

Jeb: Saxon has huge audiences around the world but not in the USA.  

Biff: The first major tour we did in America was the Power & Glory Tour with Iron Maiden, which was our most successful tour.  It just goes to show you that getting in front of the right audience is the key. 

Jeb: Rumor has it that Saxon were hardcore tea drinkers…that’s not very Metal, Biff. 

Biff: [laughter] We were, but it was blown out of proportion a little bit by the press.  They made it a Spinal Tap thing. People go, “A rock band that likes tea?”  There were other substances; we were on tour with Motorhead at the time.  

Jeb: If Saxon and Motorhead had not changed the names of their bands then it would have been the Son of a Bitch/Bastard tour.  

Biff: [laughter] That’s right; Lemmy and I are great mates and we’ve often had a chuckle about that. 

Jeb: Is there any chance we can get Saxon to do some dates in the USA on the Sacrifice Tour

Biff: We’ve just signed with a new agent in America.   He is looking around for some packages for us to jump onto.  Wouldn’t it be great? 

This album is getting some good vibes from America and it is not even out yet.  It is looking good for us.  

We would love to be on a great package. If we can move some copies of the album then that would be really good.  There is nothing better to getting on a good tour than good album sales.  

Jeb: Last one:  How did you get the nickname Biff? 

Biff: I had this nickname in school.  My brother was called Biff, so I kind of inherited it from him.  You have to blame my brother, really.  He’s the bastard that got the name in the first place.  In America it is a bit preppy to be called Biff.  And in Back to the Future you’ve that guy called Biff as well.  

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