“Venerable” and “Saxon” go together like milk and cookies. Fruity Pebbles and milk. Vanilla (not chocolate) cake and milk. You get the idea. For 35 years Biff Byford and the boys have been around, which is a hell of a lot longer than most bands. Even more remarkable is that they’re still pumping out albums of quality, including this year’s excellent Call to Arms. Stocked with a myriad of melodic, fist-pumping anthems like “Back in 1979,” Chasing, the Bullet” and standout “Mists of Avalon,” Call to Arms rocks way harder than it should for a bunch of guys in the 50’s and 60’s. And just like 2007’s The Inner Sanctum and 2009’s Into the Labyrinth, there’s a real sense of songwriting know-how that Saxon possesses; the ingrained ability to not repeat oneself, even after 19 albums. Sweet Jesus. Nineteen albums.
At the helm of it all is Byford, who phoned Blistering while on a stop in Los Angeles to talk about why his band is still going strong, the new album, and some classic memories from the early 80’s. Good times indeed…
Blistering.com: You guys have put out so many albums and are nearing 20 albums total. Is the feeling still the same upon its release?
Biff Byford: We’ve always put albums out…it’s what we do. It took a long time to get this one to be a mixture of our earlier and more modern styles. I think this one is great because it connects our career together, really.
Blistering.com: With the success you’ve had with Into the Labyrinth and The Inner Sanctum, does it give you more motivation to put out albums?
Byford: I just think we wanted the album to sound fresh, like if we played them live. We just wanted it to be raw and sound as if we’re playing in your living room. It’s all about getting the passion right with the whole band. It’s what the songs do for you.
Blistering.com: It is a lively sounding album.
Byford: We’ve been touring since March on this album. We did about five or six live and they sound great.
Blistering.com: “Mists of Avalon” stood out almost immediately.
Byford: Yeah, “Mists of Avalon” grows on you. It’s not a track that everybody immediately likes, but if you listen to the album, it tends to grow on you.
Blistering.com: What prompted you to use a World War I army poster for the album cover?
Byford: It came with the title. We wanted the album to be called Call to Arms and it seemed like a great idea for the cover. The actual title track is a sad song in a way; it registered with everyone dealing with death on a daily basis. It’s called Call to Arms for rock and metal fans that this is the right time to come full circle.
Blistering.com: “Back in 1979” is an obvious ode to your early days. What got you thinking about a song like that?
Byford: It’s a bit like one of our earlier songs called “Denim and Leather.” It’s a similar style; quite modern, but the drumbeat is old-fashioned. We wanted to write a song about fans-the, and fans-now. You can be wild, there’s no difference. It’s about music.
Blistering.com: Things are a little different than they were in 1979, wouldn’t you say?
Byford: They are different, but I think there is still a spirit there. These days, things are coming back around. A lot people from the 80’s are coming back out again, a lot of younger fans are getting into the music. I think Saxon, Maiden, Judas Priest are as big now as they have been for a long, long time.
Blistering.com: Some of the bands you mentioned like Priest and Maiden had some very periods of being down in the 90’s, yet you trudged along. What kept you going?
Byford: Just a passion for the music. It’s what we do. For most of our lives, it’s something we believe in. We believe in rock music and taking it to the fans.
Blistering.com: Your lineup has remained mostly intact too.
Byford: It’s been very intact for quite some time. The chemistry of the band for writing and playing live is really great now. Everybody is friends and we all get along. We all give each the space we need, which is sort of important.
Blistering.com: One of the notes I had about the new album and the last couple is that your voice still sounds really strong. You’ve never sounding like you were straining. You’re no spring chicken anymore, so what’s the secret?
Byford: I didn’t have a lot of bad substance abuse early in my career, so I think that helped. I think they still fit really well and you can also get really paranoid about your voice, which causes a lot of stress. I think that causes problems for a lot of singers.
Blistering.com: You still have a pop sensibility too, like “If I Was You.” [from The Inner Sanctum]
Byford: The thing with that is, we don’t write a lot when we’re touring. We concentrate on playing live. Some bands write continuously all the time, whereas we write when we’re on break we do it all in one session so we get the spontaneity and chemistry right away. We’ll just work on that, really. If it sounds great playing in the studio, we’ll make the decision that a song works, then we’ll move onto the next one. It’s quite a long process, but we like it. It’s intense. We’re trying to write songs that have great riffs and melodies. We know pretty early on if we have one or not.
Blistering.com: Your style of songwriting is a bit of a lost art among new bands, wouldn’t you say?
Byford: Some of the hardcore bands tend to rely on the riff and vocalize on that whether they’re being more aggressive. It’s just a style, really. Our style of metal is more melodic, always has been. That’s where I think we are unique.
Blistering.com: Let’s go back to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the early 80’s and when the scene splintered, leaving only you and Maiden. What do you remember most when basically, everyone was playing the same style and sounding the same.
Byford: It was a “style.” I think a lot of it was passed on from early 70’s bands and a lot of it was based on pop music. I think Maiden, ourselves, and Motorhead, wrote aggressive, fast songs, and I think a lot of that came from punk music, so we took that and assimilated it. And Def Leppard, but I don’t think they were that involved with that movement. Regardless of what they say, they were metal back then. They were signed up pretty early and took a different path, but their earlier stuff was pretty rocking.
Blistering.com: That was also when you were cranking out an album a year.
Byford: Two a year, really. It was record company and management pressure. We did really well. We wrote some fantastic songs [laughs]. It’s bit like a production time, really. After that three-year period in the early 80’s, a lot of bands came with their greatest work.
Blistering.com: You tacked on an extra DVD for Call to Arms of a live set in 1980 from Donnington. Any specific memories of that show?
Byford: It was a big show. It was the first big open-air festival in England. The first festival dedicated to those bands of that era. It was great. I think our album Wheels of Steel had gone Gold by the time we walked on the stairs to get on the stage. We were the underdogs. I don’t think Rainbow knew what hit them; they were headlining. Judas Priest and Scorpions were on there as well. We all had big albums out at the time. It was a great day. Seventy-thousand people going crazy.