A Will Of Steel: A Conversation with Biff Byford of Saxon

With a full 22 albums and more than 40 years under his battle-worn stage coat, Saxon vocalist and founder Biff Byford has damn near seen it all as the front man of one of heavy metal’s legendary and formative acts.

Through the ups, the downs and everything in between, the West Yorkshire-born Byford — who first joined up with now-former bandmates Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson as Son Of A Bitch before being renamed Saxon in 1979 — has managed to keep the band a working, viable entity at varying levels through the decades by simply refusing to stop.

“Things have changed over the years, but for us, our attitude has always been the same, and that’s to give it 100 percent, and most importantly, never surrender,” he said in a recent phone interview.

And give up they haven’t. Saxon is currently Stateside and in the midst of an extensive tour in the guest support slot for fellow English metal stalwarts Judas Priest.

Byford and current bandmates Paul Quinn (guitar), Nigel Glockler (drums), Nibbs Carter (bass) and Doug Scarratt (guitar) are reaping the rewards of their stick-toitiveness. The band’s new album, “Thunderbolt,” (released in February 2018) has been the group’s best-selling album in America since “Crusader” in 1984, and the venues have been packed.

At 67, Byford continues to love what he does and do what he loves: play Saxon music.

“Things have been really good,” admitted Byford.

Saxon and Judas Priest will give Minneapolis a taste of steel on April 2, when the bands (accompanied by opener Black Star Riders), roll into The Armory downtown.

ListenIowa spoke to Byford about the new album and tour, the importance of continuing to put out new albums on a consistent basis, and being an integral part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the early 1980s.

You’ve toured with Judas Priest a number of times over the years. How far does your touring history with them go back?
The first time we toured together was in 1980, which basically was our first tour of Europe. Their album was “British Steel,” and ours was “Wheels of Steel.”

That’s a lot of metal.
Yeah, it was the two steels touring together. (laughs) It was a massive tour all the way across Europe. We used to do a lot of tours together back then, and we did a lot of TV together, too, in those days.

Did you see (Judas Priest guitarist) Glenn Tipton recently when he came onstage to perform the encore?
Yeah, I had talked to him. He was excited about the tour and the album doing well, and wants to be involved and play as much as he can on stage.

What was your reaction when you learned of his Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis?
I don’t really think there’s really much you can do about it. You just have to carry on. He’s got Parkinson’s, is living with it, and handling it very bravely. When these things come at you, you have to carry on and try to live life the best you can.

Saxon’s new album “Thunderbolt,” is the band’s 22nd, which in itself is quite a testament to the group’s longevity. Why is it so important to you to keep putting out new material? You could easily go into “coast” mode, but you choose not to.
I think making new albums is the lifeblood of a band. We could all go around and play our big hits, but to write new albums, stay relevant and bring in new fans into the family, that’s what it’s all about. People get excited when you put out a new album, and it’s always great to tour on a new album rather than doing the greatest hits.

One standout track on the new album is “They Played To Rock N Roll,” a homage to another NWOBHM band, Motorhead. What was your relationship with Lemmy and the boys?
The first tour we did with them was 1979. In fact, it was our first proper tour we ever did with a bus and all. The song is about that tour, really. It’s about meeting Motorhead for the first time, the environment in England at that time from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. We became friends with Motorhead and stayed friends since then. I thought we should write a song about those days, specifically about the original guys. Every night, Lemmy used to say, “We are Motorhead. We play rock ‘n roll,” so we thought a good song would be “They Played Rock ‘N Roll” as a memory of the boys.

There’s a lot of great guitar work on the album as usual. Are there any tracks on “Thunderhead” that you were especially pleased with how they turned out?
Everything is fantastic! (laughs) “Nosferatu” has a new video that just came out. “Ticket to Fly” is a great tune, too. People are definitely getting into the new songs.

How many of those new songs are you incorporating into your live show?
It depends on whether we’re headlining or are special guests. If we’re special guests, we’re doing around four, maybe five. On the headlining show, we’re going to do about seven new ones.

It has to be a luxury to have a guy like your guitarist, Paul Quinn, who has been with you for such a long time that you can probably read each other’s minds, musically.
The chemistry of the band is great, and has been for a long time. We’ve also got Andy Sneap on the road with us, who is our producer for the last three albums, and he just did Judas Priest’s “Firepower” album, so it’s a bit like a family, this tour. It’s really good to be out here with a lot of friends.

Talk about the 1980s when Saxon was putting out “Wheels of Steel,” “Strong Arm of the Law, “Denim and Leather,” etc. That was the time period when Saxon was really becoming a worldwide force and hitting its stride. What were those early- to mid-80s like for Saxon from your perspective?
It was crazy. In the 1979-80 period, so many bands were putting out great stuff. There was Judas Priest with “Breaking the Law,” we had “747” and “Wheels of Steel,” Whitesnake put out their second album, and there was Iron Maiden “Killers” and “Number of the Beast.” Motorhead, too. There was so much great music then. I don’t know what it was, unless it was something in the water (laughs). I don’t know. Something happened in the 1980-1982 period that went around the world like a wildfire. People called it the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. We were on radio every half-hour, and rock music ruled the airwaves in Britain at that time. Then it shot ‘round the world to Japan and America. It was really a crazy time.

Toward the end of that string of albums, Saxon released the “Innocence Is No Excuse” album, which was a bit of a more mainstream offering comparatively, and people seem to love or hate still to this day because of that very reason.
I think if we’d have been doing it now, it would have been different. It’s a bit on the lighter side of Saxon. I still think there are some great songs on there. The track listing (sequencing) isn’t great either. It could have started with a more upbeat track, you know? But it was just that time. It was a hugely successful tour, and a big-selling album. But I think some of our fans wanted something a bit heavier, especially after “Crusader.” People love it or they hate it. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground with that album.

How tough is it to pick a setlist at this point with such anexpansive catalog of songs to choose from?
It’s really difficult, especially when we’re special guests. We have to cram in as much stuff as possible in 50-55 minutes. We’ve got to support the “Thunderbolt” album, obviously, so it’s about 50/50 new and old, but we’re switching things around a bit at times. We played “Crusader” for the first two shows with Priest. We change it up a bit at times to keep it exciting for the fans. If people want to see us playing all the songs, they’ll have to come see us when we’re headlining as well. (laughs)

So are the fans in the States are going to get a headline tour as well at some point?
You might get one next year. We’re busy all year on the “Thunderbolt” tour, obviously, but we’re going to keep our options open. We’d like to come back to America, maybe do a co-headline tour with somebody or come back with Priest if they do more shows. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

What can fans expect from Saxon at the Armory in Minneapolis on April 2?
We’re going to be playing new songs, old ones; it’s going to be like a party. We’ll definitely be playing some different songs, and it’ll be a good night for all!

Judas Priest/Saxon/Black Star Riders
When: Monday, April 2
Where: The Armory, 500 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis
Doors: 5:30 p.m.
Show: 7 p.m.
Tickets: http://armorymn.com/events/judas-priest/
Contact: info@armorymn.com