Saxon have had many ups and down during their storied career. The loss of close friend and touring partner Lemmy Kilmister however, must surly rank among the most sombre of days for the band. About to kick start the ‘Battering Ram’ tour once again, which ended when the Motörhead main man passed, the band have put together a fantastic package that will have old school fans punching the air like crusaders. We spoke to main man Biff Byford about the tour, the band’s upcoming live collections, and their long association with artist Paul Gregory. Donning the denim and leather: Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Biff, how are you this evening?
I’ve great. We’re working on the new album, and things are going good. The first day in the studio was Monday. Are there any hits on there? Yeah, they’re all hits!
How does the first few days in the studio work for you; is it a case of getting a few drum tracks down?
Yeah, we got about nine drum tracks laid down. We’re running two studios at the same time, so we’re writing in one, and recording in the other, and we’re tripping backwards and forwards when we’re working. We’ve got a lot of ideas already; me and Nibbs [Carter, bassist] have got shitloads, and we’re just working through ideas with the band, really.
That’s quite impressive; nine drum tracks in four days.
It is, yeah – we have to slow him [drummer Nigel Glockler] down!
How long will you be spending in the studio working on this new album?
We’ll be in until the end of this week, and then we’re off to Sweden to a festival. Then we come back in about a week before the tour, and we spend a week recording, and then we go straight on tour on the 28th October. So yeah, we’ll have a three week break in the middle, but I’ll probably be writing lyrics and doing melodies then – I usually do that on my own.
I wanted to ask what your input is these days, because you did play bass on one of Saxon’s 1980s’ albums, didn’t you?
I did, yeah. I mean I’ve been playing guitar on one too. I tend to arrange everything; Nibbs comes up with a lot of ideas, and I work with Nibbs quite a lot on basic stuff. Whenever we’ve got something, we work on it, really.
You revealed during our chat at the Golden Gods Awards that you were working on a song dedicated to Motörhead called ‘They Played Rock And Roll’; is that going to appear on the new album?
Yeah, that’s on its way. I’ve finished the lyrics for that, and it will make the album. I asked Nibbs to write me a song that was similar to Motörhead, and he did, so I just put some lyrics to it and that’s how it came about, really.
I’m guessing that that will be quite an anthemic tune.
Well it’s about the eighties, really. It’s about the ‘Bomber’ tour, and ‘Ace Of Spades’. That’s when we first met them; on the ‘Bomber’ tour we supported them, so it’s about that, and the album ‘No Sleep 'til Hammersmith’, and the subsequent eighties’ scene.
Have you a release date in mind for the new album?
Well we’re shooting at sort of, Summer next year.
Before that, you’re hitting the road for the ‘Battering Ram’ tour. Are you looking forward to getting back out there?
Yeah it’ll be good. Because Lemmy passed on, it’s a bit of unfinished business for us, because we didn’t finish the ‘Battering Ram’ tour [as it began] with Motörhead and Girlschool. So we put some dates together, and it sort of snowballed from there, really.
You’ve assembled a great bill for this tour, haven’t you?
Yean, we’ve got Girlschool coming out with us, and Fastway too. Fastway are brilliant, and it’s rare to see Fast Eddie [Clarke, Fastway main man] out, so it’s a bit of a treat for the fans. He’s a great guitarist, and he’s written some iconic songs in the early days of Motörhead, so it’s great to have him out there with us.
Did you choose to take Fastway out to retain that link to Motörhead?
Well, it’s a bit of a nod, isn’t it, but not really. We’d played with Fastway before, and they’re great guys, and we get on pretty well. They don’t go out very often, and people like them, so it’s a good addition to the package. And the added bonus is that Eddie was in the early Motörhead, so I suppose in that respect, it’s quite good. But obviously, you can’t replace Motörhead, can you? We might get up and do ‘Ace Of Spades’, I don’t know, we’ll see what happens.
So there’s a chance that you’ll tip the hat to Lemmy during these shows?
There might be, yeah. We’re not planning any tributes - we did one in London, but we’re not planning anything. That’s life; we don’t plan anything, and we don’t play to click tracks. *laughing* We make it up as we go along, basically.
What way is the set list shaping up from the shows; are there any surprises in there?
Well we’re going to do a few songs off the ‘Vinyl Horde’ package, and we’re going to do a couple of songs that are on the [forthcoming live release] ‘Let Me Feel Your Power’ DVDs, so yeah, we’ll be doing a mixed set, including the ‘Battering Ram’ stuff. ‘Dogs Of War’, we do like to play; we don’t get to play it a lot, but we do play it. But we’ll try to make a nice, interesting set.
‘The Vinyl Horde’ comes out on gold vinyl, which is a real treat for fans, isn’t it?
Yeah, I wanted it to be like a treasure trove; like somebody finding treasure, so I wanted it to look like that. Paul [Gregory, long time Saxon cover artist] did some great artwork for it, again, and it’s a great package, regardless of if you play it or not, really. It’s a really limited edition, and it’s good to have gold vinyl.
It’s a great time to be a Saxon vinyl collector.
Yeah, definitely; the last one [the ‘Eagles And Dragons’ set, which was released in March 2016] sold out very quickly. I’m not a big believer in limited editions – I’d rather everybody be able to get it, but I understand why record companies do it. It’s a good chance to get something that won’t be available again, so I suppose in that respect, you should go out and get one, if you collect vinyl.
You mentioned Paul Gregory’s artwork there. He’s been collaborating with you since ‘Crusader’ in 1984; have you any favourites from the covers that he’s done for you?
I like ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’; the guy with the flag, on the horse. I love ‘Lionheart’, it’s a great cover, and ‘Dogs Of War’ is a great cover, I like that as well. But all his covers are great; there’s isn’t one that I don’t like. ‘Killing Ground’ with the Viking helmet is pretty cool. I mean, his forte is painting ‘scenes’; like battle scenes. When I ask him to do like helmets and things, it’s a bit like; “what, just a helmet?” He likes to do the full painting, with background and the lighting source, and he’s really great at that.
So you still keep a real hands-on approach, right down to the artwork?
Me and Paul work quite closely. I give him the idea, and sometimes he’ll come in and listen to a song; like ‘Battering Ram’, he came down and listened to the song, just to give him a little flavour. So with the next album, he’ll probably come down here and listen to the [title] track and then he’ll go from their; he’ll send me the first sketch, and I’ll work with him and then once we have a meeting of minds, off he goes then and does his own thing.
It must be nice to have that consistency – it’s something that seems to be lacking in metal these days.
Well there’s some awful album covers; cheap, cheap album covers around *laughing* I like working with a real artist. It’s all about something being created from the basics. Obviously once he’s painted it, it’s digitally photographed and then it goes digital, but the initial artwork and the sketching - it’s all been built up in layers of war paint. It’s like making an album, I suppose; it’s very sort of, natural, if you know what I mean.
The original ‘Crusader’ artwork hangs in your house: do you still like to get your hands on the originals?
He won’t let me have them now. He hangs them in his exhibitions, but I sometimes get a sketch out of him. Sometimes he does limited edition prints, and I get number two; he gets number one, I get number two, which is quite nice.
Finally, given the fact that you’re the heavy metal crusader and lord of the realm, isn’t about time that you were given an OBE?
Yeah, an OBE, I think so yeah. I think they should give me one for services to heavy metal, and whatever else – staying up late when everybody else is in bed! Writing lyrics when they’re all snoring up there! I think they should give me an award for that, definitely.
Check out eonmusic's exclusive interview with Nibbs Carter and Doug Scarret here.
Saxon's U.K. Tour kicks off on 28th October. For a full list of dates click here.