When it comes to heavy metal royalty, you can’t get much higher than the legendary Saxon. Their debut album came out in 1979, and they’ve never gone more than two or three years without releasing new music. Vocalist Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn are the only remaining original members, but the band is far from a revolving door of musicians. Drummer Nigel Glockler first played with the band in 1981 on the Denim And Leather tour. Bassist Nibbs Carter joined in 1988 while “new guy” Doug Scarratt’s been playing guitar in the group since 1996.
Saxon just released their 20th studio album, Sacrifice, and show no signs of mellowing out anytime soon. I had the great pleasure of talking to Byford and Scarratt in New York City, and we all wore denim and leather. The transcription is below:
Will you be meeting up with Lady Gaga while in New York?
Biff Byford: I’ve got no plans, no. We’re just doing this promo run before we go to Fort Lauderdale. We do keep in touch, though.
You went to one of her concerts in London and got full VIP treatment, right?
BB: Yeah, she and her mate Lady Starlight are both big fans. I need to send her a text actually.
So you’re heading to Fort Lauderdale to play the Monsters Of Rock cruise. Have you played a metal cruise before?
BB: We’ve done one before, 70,000 Tons Of Metal, which went down to Mexico. This one is going through the Bermuda Triangle on its way to the Bahamas. There’s a song for ya—”Triangle Of Death.” We do South America after. Then we start in the UK after Easter through June and start hitting the festivals in Europe.
Hopefully there will be a U.S. tour after that?
BB: Yeah, we have a new agent now, and hopefully we’ll get something after summer. That would be great. All depends on how this album goes.
When you were writing the song “Sacrifice,” did you imagine your South American fans bouncing like crazy to it?
BB: It’s based on a South American Mayan culture. I’m sure they will.
You produced the album but Andy Sneap mixed it, right?
BB: He did, yeah. We used the guy that does our live sound to engineer it, which is pretty cool. It gave it that live feel.
Doug Scarratt: He doesn’t speak great English, but we love him.
Had you worked with Andy Sneap before?
BB: No, but we’ve known him for a long time. He’s got a good ear for it. He’s a metal fan and he’s obviously a fan of Saxon. We will be working with him again because it worked out so well. Very uncomplicated. The transition from recording to mixing was quite smooth.
DS: The whole band is very happy with the mix this time.
BB: That’s quite rare, especially from drummers.
DS: Everyone can hear what they want to hear. It is hard to do when you want guitars that heavy. Something usually suffers.
BB: The guitars are quite loud in the mix, which is what I wanted. Sometimes it’s a battle between vocals and guitars in the same frequency range.
As a guitar fanatic, I’d love to know what gear was used on the album.
DS: Most of it is a Gibson Les Paul Axcess, which is a Les Paul with a Floyd Rose tremolo on it. That’s been my favorite guitar for three or four years now. We don’t really use Strats live, but we do use them in the studio for some things. They add an extra kind of jangle to the fat block sound. You can hear a lot more ringing of the strings on a Strat. I use the Les Paul mainly when we play live.
BB: Paul [Quinn] is pretty much the same, isn’t he? Paul does use Explorers as well.
One of the things I’ve always loved about Saxon is the way the guitars work together and complement each other.
DS: Yeah, we like to do that.
BB: We do work quite hard on the arrangements of things. We like the guitar solo sections to be powerful. We change keys a lot for the solos or have a totally abstract part. On this album, I wanted them to play a lot more twin guitar parts. On two or three of the songs you get this abstract guitar harmony part that comes in, which I think is quite cool. Reminiscent of the ‘80s, I think. “Made In Belfast” on the new album sums it up, really. That’s a totally unique and unpredictable song. Mandolins, heavy riff, dark metal verse. That really sums up our attitude. Keep it within the heavy framework but experiment a bit.
Saxon’s guitar sound now is much heavier than on earlier albums. Do you make any accommodations to try and replicate those original tones when you play live?
DS: The only thing I do is if we’re playing something like “747” or “Strong Arm Of The Law,” I turn the volume pot down on the guitar to reduce the gain. Whereas if we’re playing “Sacrifice,” the guitar is wide open.
BB: Back in the ‘80s, we didn’t have the technology. In the early days, we had purple American export Marshalls. They’re quite rare but they were forever breaking down. We had them in the repair shops all the time. Fantastic sounding amps but quite a thin, mid-rangey sound. We couldn’t really work with that sound anymore. We move with the power of the guitars.
“Warriors Of The Road” and “Standing In A Queue” are more hard rock oriented while the rest of the album is pure metal. Is that diversity something you’re even conscious of? If you write too many rock songs, do you feel you have to write metal songs?
BB: Before we started the album, we had a talk about that. I suggest that we should have an album that had some ‘80s influenced tracks on there and some quite modern riffs as well. We’re well aware that we wanted to cover the past and the present. Pretty much the same as the last album, but this album is heavier because there’s no ballad on it. It’s pretty full on.
Who writes the music?
BB: It’s a shared thing. We credit everything to everybody but some write more than other people.
You used to be a bassist, Biff. Do you still play sometimes?
BB: Yeah! I’ll strap on a bass anytime. In fact, on this album, I played the majority of the bass while we were writing. Nibbs’ wife was ill and he wasn’t there much at all. I forgot about that, actually. Nibbs plays bass on the album but he ripped off my style, man!
Lyrically, Saxon have always covered a lot of different subjects. Do you ever feel the need to write a car song after writing a bunch of historical ones?
BB: I do write songs about cars; “Warriors Of The Road” is about cars. I try and keep it pretty much Biff Byford lyrics. I don’t write a lot of cliché rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. I’ll leave that to people that are a lot better at it than me. I’m not going to suddenly do a major shift and start competing with David Coverdale, but I might write a raunchy sex cliché lyric about the cruise. Who knows? Saxon are unique and that’s the way it should be.
DS: We’re a very unpredictable band.
Speaking of “Warriors Of The Road,” you’ve written so many great transportation songs. Who has the best car collection in the band?
DS: None of us!
BB: Not these days. There’s a 4×4 in the garage. I do get a bit reckless sometimes. I bought a BMW convertible and me and Doug did all of Spain and Italy in an open-top convertible. That was good fun. Like a road trip tour.
DS: He got banned for speeding so I had to do the driving.
I finally got to watch the Heavy Metal Thunder documentary DVD. How did that come about?
BB: Some guys that used to work at BBC. We did a Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall program about us and the guy wanted to do a documentary, so we said, “Yeah, go ahead.” We had artistic control, but it wasn’t our project. A lot of people don’t know the history of the band. Some of our fans now don’t even know who the old members were.
The chapters about supporting Motörhead on the Bomber tour in 1979 are incredible. If I had a time machine, I’d love to travel back to that era.
BB: That was a crazy time. Motörhead were bigger than sliced bread then. They weren’t really part of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, they kept it going before that. It was a great tour and we’re still big mates with Motörhead. They’re a great, great band. There wouldn’t be Heavy Metal Thunder if it wasn’t for Motörhead. They heavily influenced us.
And you toured the UK with them again in 2009?
BB: Yeah. And we did a tour in Spain—Judas Priest, Motörhead, Saxon. They called it the Big Three. It was great because the promoter didn’t let anyone go on stage until the place was full, which is pretty cool. We all got to play to 15,000 people a night.
Saxon’s latest album, Sacrifice, is available now. For more information, go to saxon747.com.