Hell, Fire and Damnation: An interview with Biff Byford from SAXON
Interview by Meathook Mike
With the mighty SAXON due to release their latest album, Hell, Fire and Damnation upon the world on January 19th 2024, I spoke with the frontman of one of the pioneers, veterans and legends of the NWOBHM scene Biff Byford. Despite some technical issues (due to the high winds and storms in the North of England) delaying things, it was going to take more than a storm to stop Biff speaking to Horror Metal Sounds.
HMS: Hi, How are you?
Biff: Good! It's my last day of promoting the album today, so tomorrow Christmas will start, so doing good. Just glad that everyone we talk too thinks the album is a monster. So that's good.
HMS: I've just reviewed it, I can't praise it highly enough I think it's amazing. I've described you as Pioneers, Veterans and Legends. Thank you for talking to Horror Metal Sounds. It's like, "Wow I'm actually talking to Biff Byford". It's amazing I've got to congratulate you on the album – it's superb and as you say you've had positive feedback as well.
Biff: Yeah it's good I mean we've pulled it out the bag, we didn't have a lot of time to make it and we all pulled together and Brian (TATLER) put some ideas in there as well which made a big difference, everything went perfectly well it all went a bit magical for us with this album.
HMS: It sounds magical and you just said you put it together very quickly. So when did you start writing it?
Biff: We basically starting writing these songs in sort of March-June of this year (2023) and we had quite a few ideas. I was a couple of ideas short so I said to Brian "Have you got any songs you've not used? Anything lying around?" He sent me a couple of ideas and I thought they were fantastic so I added them to the list of ideas we had and the rest is history as they say.
HMS: Yeah, I mean you're a very prolific band in terms of writing and releasing. I think on average it's every 2 to 3 years since 1979.
Biff: Yeah I think this year we've had quite a lot. I've done one with my son a band called HEAVY WATER and we've done an Inspirations album as well, so we've been pretty prolific recording wise. I think since I've got a studio at home now and that maybe has something to do with it, I can just nip in there and do some work, you know what I mean?
HMS: Yeah, I think a lot of people have home studios now so it makes things a lot easier. Going back to the writing, you mentioned it start with a jam where you asked Brian if he had any ideas.
Biff: We do play together quite a lot. We did jam these songs as a band while we were on tour in Europe doing the festivals, so we'd like do 2 shows and have 4 days off and then another 2 shows so we had a base in Germany so we could fly into Germany and we rented a hotel with a cinema attached to it and we used the cinema to record and write and to rehearse the songs so it was pretty intense. I would say in June, July, and August, were pretty busy making this album and we didn't finish until October 15th this year, so it's not been that long since it's been finished really.
HMS: That's a quick turnaround! Going back to lyrics do you have a book that you write ideas down in and pull them out?
Biff: Yeah, I've got ideas coming out of my crazy head all the time, really. A lot of it's history based obviously because there's a great unused element of ideas there – and stories. I'm a storyteller. Basically, if you're talking about history it's full of stories. I think (Iron) Maiden do the same thing really. You know it's probably a very British thing, the history thing maybe.
HMS: I think it's a very British thing, you've touched on stuff like 1066 (from the new album) and obviously I know it's not British but "Madame Guillotine", that's my favourite song on the album. I think that's arena gold, the melody was bouncing around in my head for like 2 days after I heard it.
Biff: (Starts to laugh at this declaration from me) Yeah it's catchy that song definitely that tune catches you. It's one of my favourite songs that, I get to, I get a bit Alice COOPER on the chorus so it's cool I like it.
HMS: Well that's not a bad thing and that riff as well. I like the bass line and the riff that comes in and it builds up, it's what I call a 1, 2, 3, 4 riff – it just builds and builds and then your vocals just slam in there.
Biff: Yeah it's a great song, it's put together really well and we worked quite hard on that song, arranging it and everything.
HMS: It follows the title track. The title track is absolutely a statement of intent. It slams into you, especially after Brian Blessed's voice just booms in. Then you've got "Madame Guillotine" which is just pure singalong, you're going to get fists up in the air for that one I guarantee that!
Biff: I think it's going to be a big song live, that.
HMS: 100 per cent. You're surrounded by great musicians, when you recruited Brian Tatler who is basically metal gold, he is metal royalty! Was there a friendship there before? Did you reach out to him or did he reach out to you?
Biff: Well Paul got COVID last year or it might have been the year before we were doing the Steakhouse Festival in Wales. But when Paul got COVID we might have had to cancel. We didn't really want to cancel as they're a small festival and they can't afford it when bands pull out so we asked Brian to stand in for Paul and learn the songs. Luckily enough he already did that, so he'd got a foot in the door so to speak. We didn't really have anybody else in mind, it was always Brian. So he was the first guy we asked really and he said yes. We were very lucky to get him. We replaced one legend with another!
HMS: Absolutely, I mean you've got a great guitar duo there, I described them in the review I think they've probably got a case to say they're the best. Certainly in the genre of heavy metal that SAXON are in, they're the best guitar duo out there.
Biff: Yeah, they've done some great solo work on the album, every solo on the album sounds really great. They've shared the solo work, either Brian or Doug will start and Paul did a couple of solos as well. I'm looking forward to writing the next album with them as I'm sure they're going to come up with some great riffs together.
HMS: Without a doubt that's going to be the case, I mean going back to that solo in "Madame Guillotine" that fools you with that nice bend into it and I thought it was about to shred but then all of a sudden all this melody comes in and it's like a guitar ear worm. I had to replay it a couple of times.
Biff: Yeah, it's a beautiful solo. It wasn't like that originally. I said to them let's do something like "Dallas 1pm" where it stops and there's a slight break and then the guitar solo comes in. They were like "Oh Okay, we'll try that" and it worked really well.
HMS: I was going to mention "Dallas 1pm". It's one of my all time favourite SAXON songs.
Biff: Yeah it's a sort off similarish groove.
HMS: It's definitely got that groove, like "There's Something in Roswell" has also got that groove as well.
Biff: Yeah it definitely has, they're very 80s influenced I think, those 2 songs. I think Roswell's going to be the next video single we have out.
HMS: Great choice.
Biff: Probably Guillotine as well.
HMS: Guillotine's got to be a single.
HMS: That's never going to get out of your head, when people hear that that's never going out of your head.
Biff: It is a great chorus, I sang it, it just came into my head you know "Just let me introduce you to Madame Guillotine". It's a great hook.
HMS: Don't lose your head, fantastic – really catchy. So regarding the Internet nowadays, do you think it's good or bad for music and musicians in general?
Biff: I think it's a double edged sword, the internet. Social media is a double edged sword, we use it really well but we don't go too far, we don't do too many stupid things to get views if you know what I mean! But it can get a bit crazy on the internet especially with social media. We tend to keep away from things like Tik Tok and base it more on Facebook and Instagram. But I think it can be good for young bands and it can be bad as well because you have to be careful. Sometimes it is quite nice to be mysterious and just to have the music without images. And then sometimes it's the other way round – you can look fantastic and the music is not quite up to par. So it's a great thing but it can be a dangerous thing as well.
HMS: I tend to agree with you there, a little bit of mystery can be a selling point because people are like "I really want to know more about this band".
Biff: Yeah I think so it doesn't always go to tell people too much about, especially new bands and artists a bit of mystery is always good, people have to try and find you.
HMS: Yeah, I agree. Sometimes those hidden gems that you uncover are the best ones.
Biff: They are yeah, they definitely are.
HMS: And SAXON you've been out there a long time but there are still people who are still going to discover you because there's the younger generation and they're going to hear this , they're probably going to hear Madame Guillotine and go "Wow, where has this band been?" They'll look and go they've been around for years.
Biff: (Laughs) You're probably right! We've picked up a lot of the younger audience over the last you know 5 or 6 years, so people aren't really as bothered about age anymore it's the music that seems to be more important, especially with the internet, like you say you can discover, hear a song on the radio or someone says have you heard this? Or Apple Music or Spotify has it on as the track of the week or something, people hear it they just like the song and they look back and go "These are the guys that wrote Denim and Leather" So it's great really.
HMS: Yeah, "Strong Arm Of The Law", that's another one that sticks in my head. I absolutely love the old stuff obviously because I'm from that generation. My most memorable memory of you was of the Crusader tour in '84 at Hammersmith, I've still got my gatefold album all signed by you.
Biff: Brilliant! That's absolutely brilliant!
HMS: Obviously I'd heard quite a bit of you, but when Crusader came out out I was like, "yeah, that's it I'm going to this" and I waited backstage and you guys turned up and you all signed it for me, you were top top gentlemen.
Biff: Ah brilliant, I'm glad we signed it and didn't walk straight past you.
HMS: No, no, no. You signed it and when I asked what you were opening with you said "Power and the Glory of course". (LAUGHS)
Biff: Okay, cool.
HMS: It was, you took time to speak with me and other people that were there, it's a fantastic memory.
Biff: Brilliant, that's great! It's all about memories, mate.
"I'm a storyteller. Basically, if you're talking about history it's full of stories."
HMS: Oh definitely, which brings me onto my next question. You've played a lot of gigs on this planet, any particular gigs that hold a special place in your heart?
Biff: Well, Hammersmith's always special, you know we played there earlier in the year did it without all the eagles and castles – the stuff we had to postpone because of COVID. That was special. We always wanted to play Hammersmith and when we finally did I think we did a couple of nights there, it's a fantastic place. Those sort of gigs, a lot of the English venues are famous because all the early bands used to play them like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Small Faces. Manchester Apollo, Glasgow Apollo, they're all really famous venues so when we actually got to play them it was always a fantastic feeling.
HMS: I can imagine the feeling of that, I mean The Marquee is also a legendary venue.
Biff: We only played there once, actually. We played there once just before "Wheels Of Steel" came out. But yeah it was a nice venue. We used to go there a lot to see other bands.
HMS: I used to go there a lot, the Marquee.
Biff: We never played there in the 70s. We played there when we had an album out.
HMS: That probably would have been "Wheels of Steel" in '79 I believe.
Biff: It would have, it might have been that album.
HMS: Your voice has stood the test of time, I've spoken to so may people over the last couple of months about SAXON and they say your voice has got better with time and I would agree. Have you got a regime that looks after your voice for you?
Biff: No, no. I Just learned to sing better over the years! (Laughs)
HMS: You've got such a unique voice you see...
Biff: I learned to control the power, I've a very powerful voice, I have to be careful. I have to control it a bit it's like a bit of a beast.
HMS: You could guest on any album and somebody would hear it and go "That's Biff Byford!"
Biff: Yeah you're probably right, pretty much like Bruce Dickinson same with him you'd hear him and say "That's Maiden" straight up. Yeah I'm lucky to have a voice that's, you know, unique in the rock world. That's always good isn't it?
HMS: Yeah and it makes your band stand out as well.
Biff: Yeah, it's always good to have a distinctive singer, you know, it's like if you hear Glenn Hughes you can tell it's him straight away.
HMS: Your Coverdales... your Bowies...
Biff: A lot of successful bands do have distinctive singers, definitely.
HMS: I read somewhere back in the day, I think Kerrang or Sounds – and this could could be stuff of legend or whatever, you used to drink a Yorkshire pudding mix to lubricate your throat.
Biff: (Laughing) No, no, I never did that. That's disgusting, that's disgusting. (More laughing)
HMS: I thought so but I had to ask you. (laughing)
Biff: That's one of those things they would say back then, you know, think of something to say.
HMS: All these rumours!
HMS: Like my wife when she's making Yorkshire puddings... it looks bad but when it's made it tastes great.
Biff: It's not so bad if you're making cake.
HMS: As you know at Horror Metal Sounds, we love Heavy Music and Horror films. Do you like Horror films?
Biff: I do like Horror films. Yeah, I'm not a connoisseur of Horror films but I do like a good scary film, you know, like I always remember Exorcist, it had a big effect on me like everybody else, that type of thing. Michael Myers all that, I like that type of Horror, the shocking horror, you know what I mean?
HMS: Yeah, the stuff that grabs you.
Biff: The stuff that grabs you round the back of the dark doorway, that sort of thing.
HMS: Yeah, don't run into the loft or the basement but they always do!
Biff: "Lets split up and see what's going on" (Laughs) and he first time you split up one of you always gets killed. Always stay together that's what I say.
HMS: Just make sure you can run faster than the person behind you. Tell us a guilty musical pleasure, do you like a Ballad, Jazz, or a musical film score?
Biff: I quite like musical theatre.
HMS: Nice. Les Miserables.
Biff: Sometimes me and my wife will go down to London and watch a show. I like musical theatre it can be really funny or it can be sad, but I do like it, especially if the songs are great.
HMS: Yeah I went to see Les Miserables years ago and it blew me away. Have you got a favourite musical?
Biff: Yeah. I like a lot of them, I quite like Moulin Rouge, that type of thing. I think my favourite film music would have to be the greatest showman I think. I think the songwriting in that's superb. They were going to take it on tour but COVID came along.
HMS: COVID, ruined a lot of things but things slowly are starting to get back.
HMS: Do you have any advice for all the new bands that are on the circuit or are beginning their musical journey?
Biff: Yeah, just try and be as unique as possible, enjoy it and never surrender really. Just keep at it.
HMS: Never Surrender (laughs).
Biff: Try and write some great songs, that's the key.
HMS: Definitely. Biff, thank you for your time and have a great Christmas!
Biff: Have a great Christmas and we will see you in the new year no doubt.
HMS: Hopefully I'll see at Wembley with the mighty Priest.
Biff: That's going to be a great show!
HMS: Definitely, from what I've heard of their new album that's going to be killer as well. Thanks for talking to me and Horror Metal Sounds, our best wishes to you, the band and your loved ones.
Biff: Thanks and see everybody in the new year (2024).
Meathook Mike, HMS