Latest Release: Into the Labyrinth (Steamhammer)

Since playing at the Hard Rock Hell festival in North Wales, a show which also featured Paul Di’anno, Blaze Bayley, UFO, Uriah Heep and Airbourne among others, heavy metal legends Saxon have been in the studio working on what will be their 19th album. Biff Byford comes to the phone and sounds in good spirits despite the terrible weather at his end. In 2008, I spoke with him on the eve of their first Australian tour, when he said that he’d love to be able to come back and do some shows with Iron Maiden. He couldn’t have known then that three years later, that’s precisely what they’ll be doing.

“Yes we are!” he says happily. “That’s good. We need to thank our agent for that, he’s the one who works hard to get us on those shows. We’re looking forward to it, it should be great. Get out of this bloody snow for a while and get a tan!”

The band’s previous Australian tour was the first the band had done outside of Europe in almost a decade. But the impetus afforded them by a resurgence in popularity that began with 2004’s Lionheart album has now allowed them to expand their touring ambitions once more.

“Yeah we’re getting further afield now. Last time we came down we did Australia and Japan together. This time I think we’re doing Australia, Singapore and Japan, so we are moving more away from Europe. Try to, anyway! Trying to get round the world a bit more, which is great. We do South America a fair bit, but most of our stuff has been in Europe. That’s changing.”

For a band who was at one time at the vanguard of the British heavy metal invasion of the early 1980s alongside Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, with tens of millions of albums sold, Saxon’s fortunes foundered late in the decade. The band was at risk of disappearing altogether when they were dropped by their label and Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn were sued over use of the name by former members Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson. But Saxon stuck it out, and an appearance on legendary promoter Harvey Goldsmith’s TV show in 2007 and the very strong Inner Sanctum album worked heavily in their favour. The follow-up, Into the Labyrinth, was Saxon’s best selling and most warmly received album since the mid-1980s. Then there was Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie, the film about them that allowed fans who pre-ordered it to be listed as “associate producers”.

“The last three albums have all done really well,” the singer says. “Each one’s done better than the last. Last time we did Australia, we weren’t promoting the last album but the album before. The last album Into the Labyrinth went really well for us. It really sold a lot of copies worldwide and really got played on the radio a bit, so that was really good.”

The reaction has led to the legendary quintet heading our way once more. This country is a place that Biff promises to visit more often.

“We’re really making an effort to come back every second year and put Australia on the Saxon map. You have some great rock fans down there and we need to be getting down there more,” he says.

The long break between shows on the Soundwave tour will mean that the band has more time here than in 08, and with an album due almost as soon as they fly out, Byford explains that they’ll be using the time wisely.

“I think we’re going to go in the studio when we’re in Sydney. I think that’s the plan. We’ll be doing some of the album in Australia. Which is cool.”

Only the morning before this interview, metal standard bearers Judas Priest announced via their website that next year’s world tour would be their last. In lockdown under three feet of snow, this comes as news to Byford.

“We’ve been stuck in the studio in the middle of the snow… we’ve been cut off!” he says. “We don’t know [about that]! They’re doing some shows in Europe next year and we might be playing with them.”

But on whether or not Saxon might also be throwing in the towel, “No,” he says, “we’re not ready to do that yet! Not just yet.”

As to whether the veterans’ decision comes as a surprise, the singer pauses.

“Well… I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “They’ve been going a long time haven’t they? They’ve been going a lot longer than we have. So I don’t know, it’s up to them really. It’s their decision. I mean that Nostradamus thing was a bit hit-and-miss wasn’t it? Let’s hope they come back with a fantastic album and go out with a bang.

While he admits to liking some of the Nostradamus album, he considers it a “very brave” move for the band to have made. It’s not something he thinks Saxon is likely to do.

“If that’s what they want to do… it’s their band, their music. The album grows on ya, it’s just a bit of a surprise. You don’t expect Judas Priest to do a big concept album. We have thought about [making one], yes, but we always talk ourselves out of it.”

The forthcoming release is probably not going to be a concept then. And Biff is keeping mum on most of the details, other than promising that it will be a good ‘un.

“We’ve got a couple of titles [for it]. I can’t tell you,” he says with a hearty laugh. “The songs are sounding good though! Pretty monumental. We recorded it a bit more ‘live’ than our last albums, so it’s a bit more in your face.”

And while he’s not giving away even the names of the songs, Biff does say there’s every possibility that Saxon might play one for the first time at Soundwave.

“We might do, yeah. We did one… we soundchecked a track at a festival we did on the weekend, Hard Rock Hell. We did a festival in Wales and we soundchecked it, I think somebody recorded it and it’s on YouTube. So we might throw in a couple of new songs. First playing in Australia. That would be good wouldn’t it? World exclusive!”

The exclusivity of it may well be ruined if the song has made it to YouTube before it’s even been officially recorded. But rather than complain about the ability for people to use today’s technology to leak new material months in advance, Biff Byford puts a more positive spin on it.

“We like the internet. We use it. I mean, it can be a pain in the arse, too really. But we don’t fear it. We don’t fear YouTube. Some bands like it, some bands are really frightened of it, aren’t they? We like doing a tune and it being on YouTube the next day, getting half a million hits. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? For instance, somebody in Australia can go on the internet now and watch us playing “Heavy Metal Thunder” on Saturday. We played it on Saturday… so in that respect, I think YouTube’s fantastic for that.”

There’s no doubt that illegal file sharing has had an impact on music sales over the last decade, but in making artists so accessible to so many so easily it has also been a boon in many ways. For Biff and Saxon, it’s just another tool for them, another way to get their music out there and keep their name alive. As he points out, many of the bands that were around in Saxon’s early days are still around today, and still playing large shows.

“It just goes around in a big circle. We’ve been around a long time, and we’re still here,” he says. “And a lot of other bands that were around then are still here, and a lot of bands that were around a long time before that are still here. It’s cool. You can still go and see Maiden headlining with Saxon at a festival, the same as you could have done in 1980!”

Even though his band and Iron Maiden are playing more than 10 hours apart at Soundwave, Biff is simply happy they’ll be there. He’s also philosophical about the fact they’re on so early in the day.

“I think it’s a great package obviously. It’s a shame we can’t be further up the bill, but it’s cool. We can’t really do anything about that. We’ll just have to claw our way back up there. The underdogs, mate… that’s what we’ll be. The metal underdogs! We’ll just do our best and maybe in a couple of years we can come back and be further up there!”