As befitting a band who takes their status as metal band for working-class fans seriously, Rocks Off reached Saxon lead singer Biff Byford via cell phone on the band's tour bus, where he has just finished a no-frills meet-and greet with a group of fans. Now, said bus is currently parked outside a laundromat where band members and road crew are getting their clothes clean, which only accentuates Saxon's image as the band continues its current tour in support of new album Sacrifice (EMI).
"We wanted to get back to our roots, and make a record with a more '80s style of writing," Byford says. "But we also broke some new ground with other songs. They came together, fairly quickly, like a dam bursting!"
If so, that dam certainly has blocks made of many different materials. Sacrifice's subject matter includes gruesome rituals of past civilizations, rock bands on the road, rebuilding skyscrapers after Sept. 11, fast cars, the Nazi blitzkrieg, and a Game of Thrones-style wolf attack.
Even among that potpourri, two others stand out -- "Made in Belfast" and "Standing In the Queue."
"I wanted to do a song about that period in time when they built all these big ships in Belfast like the Titanic, [sister ship] the Britannic, and warships," And we had some great riffs. At one point, they had 200,000 people who lived there specifically to work on ships."
As for "Queue," or "waiting line" for us Yanks, it's both a literal tune about waiting in an airport, and an allegory for a larger lesson about the frustrations and drudgery of daily life.
"I was actually standing in a queue at the airport when I decided to write that song!" Byford laughs. "But it didn't really fit in with the rest of the record, so we put it on the end! Still, everyone can relate to it."
Saxon came together in 1976 -- originally calling themselves Son of a Bitch -- releasing their first album three years later. On the vanguard of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal along with bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Motorhead, the band scored with a string of albums including Wheels of Steel, Strong Arm of the Law, Power & the Glory, and Denim and Leather. The title track of the latter album became something of an anthem for heavy-metal fans worldwide.
But for whatever reason, Saxon never reached nearly the commercial or popular heights of those other bands in the U.S., but have maintained a much larger fanbase in Europe. Nevertheless, they continued to churn our records and tour heavily, including many spots at open-air metal festivals like Germany's Wacken.
And though Byford doesn't whine about Saxon's place in metal's pecking order, he is gratified that the band is selling "loads" of the new record at merch tables on this tour. Saxon's current lineup includes original members Byford and Paul Quinn (guitar), classic lineup member Nigel Glocker (drums), and bassist Nibbs Carter and guitarist Doug Scarratt, who have been with the band since the late '80s and '90s, respectively.
"Paul is such a fantastic guitarist, and we help each other out when writing songs," Byford says of his longest-serving bandmate. "There's a great chemistry there."
Interview continues on the next page.
One thing that Byford says is exciting to the band is their audiences are now comprised of early fans, as well as a newer generation. It's not a rare sight to see a middle-aged guy -- decked out in denim and leather, of course -- bringing his family along to gigs.
"I like a lot of new metal, but a lot of it is about aggression and groove," Byford opines as to classic metal bands' current popularity. "Our songs are more timeless in a way, with the [sound] and lyrics. And, of course, people like [Iron] Maiden have kept it alive."
And indeed, Sacrifice sounds very much like classic Saxon, down to Byford's distinct vocal style and range. Though the singer, now 62, takes no nodule for granted.
"I work hard to keep the voice in shape and try to get four or five hours of sleep a day minimum. And you can't party all the time. Maybe you can get wrecked once a week!" he laughs. "People come to hear me sing, not to hear me croak."
After the current leg of Saxon's U.S. headlining club tour winds up in September, the band will play something called the Rock Classic Cruise on the Baltic Sea, before heading to Europe to support Motorhead. Byford and Lemmy have been friends for decades.
"I just talked to him yesterday, actually," Byford notes. "He's a little sick, but he's getting over it!"
Though -- if you've seen the documentary Lemmy -- something that makes the indestructible singer/bassist a "little sick" might just be a death sentence for most mere mortals.
Saxon plays Saturday, September 28 at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Chris Jericho's Fozzy opens.
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