Saxon just released Inspirations, a covers album featuring songs by bands that inspired them. Artists covered range from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to Deep Purple to the Beatles. I spoke with frontman Biff Byford about the album, some of his other projects and more.
Chad Bowar: How are you all holding up during the pandemic?
Biff Byford: Not too bad, but I live in the country. So it was a lot safer here than in the big city. Doing okay. Had the vaccination a couple of weeks ago. So yeah, it seems good.
What inspired you to make this one a covers album?
Obviously we’re in massive lockdown here in the UK and there’s nothing to do really apart from writing music. The record company wanted us to think of something we could do. And I came up with the idea of doing an album of some influences and bands that inspired us to be in a rock band. It’s just a bunch of songs that we thought would be cool to do. It’s a fun project, it took us about two weeks to do it. I didn’t choose the blatantly obvious tracks. I tried to keep it away from the more sort of well known tracks of these bands.
Some of these bands obviously look like they would be influences on Saxon, but the one that most people might find surprising is Toto.
The way that Steve Lukather plays that guitar riff on “Hold The Line,” I was playing a lot of guitar during those days when we used to write songs. It’s basically a two string chord, a two note chord. And he plays it up and down the neck and it’s quite an innovative thing that he did there. We learned that style of playing from him. So I think with “Hold The Line,” some of our songs like “747” and “And The Bands Played On” are played in a similar style. We learned the plan, not the style from him, so that’s why I put it on, because I think you have to be honest when you say influences and inspiration, you have to be honest with people and say, yeah, that song did influence us. I don’t think “Africa” influenced us, but “Hold The Line” definitely did.
With “Evil Woman,” are you covering the original Crow version or were you inspired by the Sabbath version?
We’re using Sabbath because Sabbath inspired us to become what we are. We could have done “Iron Man” or “Paranoid.” I just wanted to do something a bit different that Sabbath played. Although it’s not their song, it still sounds like Sabbath. The band inspired us, so that song got put on the album.
Tell me about Brockfield Hall, where you recorded the album.
It’s a big estate on a couple hundred acres. It’s been home to two families since it was first built in 1700 and something. The house was empty because they’re renovating it, they’re doing a big renovation on it. It’s very historic. It’s open to the public for one month a year, so you can actually go and check it out if you’re in England, around York. Some friends of ours told me it was available and I said, that’d be fantastic, that’s just where I want to be. Back in the day, a lot of these bands would rent a chateau or rent a manor house, or rent some castle and make albums there. The mobile would be parked outside with the cables running through the door. I wanted to bring that sort of spirit back. It was really good, fun. We all lived there and we spent two weeks there recording. It was a great feeling. I was producing the album, and recorded everything pretty much live, in the moment.
Did you use vintage equipment as well?
Yeah, we used a lot of of Marshalls, a lot of old Fenders and Gibsons with some modern guitars as well. We used a couple of basses from 1974. Some of the guitars, one of them was 1965, a couple of 1974. So yeah, we did use quite a bit of a vintage equipment, although we use state of the art recording. But we used a lot of old stuff, a lot of old microphones. So it was good fun, really.
How did you approach arranging the songs?
We didn’t do much with the actual changing of the song. We didn’t want to create new versions, we wanted to play the versions we loved. Obviously we did take quite a few things out because in the early ’70s, a lot of bands were into improvisation, going on and on. We shortened “Speed King,” for instance, and we shortened “The Rocker,” made it more to the point. I just sang in my style, really, in my voice. It was a bit of a challenge. I’ve never sang these songs before, but it sounded great actually, and we just went for it.
Are you doing all the vocals on “Paint It Black” or is there somebody else in on there?
No, my son was doing some vocals with me. My son is in a band, so he was doing quite a few of the harmonies with me, like the Kinks song (“See My Friends”). We had good fun doing it.
Which track was the most challenging for you vocally?
They’re all very challenging. When these songs were written and recorded, the guys were like 19 or 20 years old. So we have to try and create that sort of excitement and passion with it. “Immigrant Song” was quite challenging, there are a lot of highs and lows in that song. And Deep Purple, Ian is a bit of a screamer. I didn’t really want to copy their voice. It was a good challenge. I sang everything three times and then we picked the best version of it. It’s all pretty live and instant, really.
How was the response to last year’s solo album School Of Hard Knocks?
Fantastic, actually. Obviously the pandemic came along and put a stop to any touring we were going to do, but yeah, it’s doing really well. It’s still getting fantastic reviews. I think there’s a great mixture of styles. The songs on my solo album are very similar styles to the ones on the Inspirations album. I like the mixture of trying different styles, because I can’t really do that much with Saxon because you know, people don’t really want songs about my wife and things on a Saxon album. So the solo album allowed me to be a bit more musical, and write songs in the style that I liked outside of the metal genre. I’m making an album at the moment with my son. We’re making an album together, so that’s going to be the next album that comes out after this one. So I think that one’s going to be out sometime in July.
What is the status of the next Saxon album of originals?
The next Saxon album, we’re ready to go at the end of September. I’m doing the vocals at home with my son. So he’s recording the vocals with me. All the band is finished now. The songs are ready, I just need to do the melodies and the vocals. So I think that should be out in early February.
There’s a Saxon book coming out in June. Did you have any involvement in that?
No, not really. Not that one. There’s another book out, my biography, called Never Surrender, which you can get on Amazon or any of those shops. But yeah, there is one coming out about early Saxon. I’ve seen it and I’ve read bits of it. The guy told me about it, let me read it. It’s pretty good actually, but it’s mostly made up of interviews over the years that me and the band did, I think.
On your calendar, you have some shows scheduled in early May. How confident are you that those will happen?
Not very confident. We’re waiting because at the moment now they’re releasing all sorts of information. We already have the dates lined up for later on. So we do have alternative dates, but I can’t really say anything yet until the promoters and management come back and say, okay, we’re not doing this, or we are doing this.
Are you going to have time to do any solo shows, or are Saxon shows going to be the priority?
Saxon are going to be touring next year, obviously. I’d like to do some shows, I really would, especially with now my solo album and I’ve got this album with my son. We could definitely make a couple of good set lists between those songs between us. We might do some touring in these smaller venues. Sometimes the smaller venues are better.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
It’s been a miserable year for the entertainment industry and rock concerts in particular. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed. The UK and America have got the vaccination thing going forward really fast. So maybe we’ll be across the Atlantic sooner than we think. So we just keep our fingers crossed, really.
(interview published March 22, 2021)