Hit The Lights: Saxon: 'It's A Fantastic Time For Rock Fans At The Moment'

artist: Saxon date: 10/26/2011 category: interviews
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Hit The Lights: Saxon: 'It's A Fantastic Time For Rock Fans At The Moment'
For every artist like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath who receive their due recognition, another is unjustly ignored somewhat and overlooked to an extent. Such a case can be made for Saxon, whose early eighties popularity in the United Kingdom was great but has sadly lessened when compared to the likes of Maiden. Many gems exist in the Saxon back catalogue, a catalogue worth investigating if you've yet to do so. Saxon's nineteenth studio full-length, "Call To Arms" was recorded at Chapel Studios in Lincolnshire and Brighton Electric Studios in Brighton, United Kingdom. Comprising eleven tracks, the album was co-produced by vocalist / songwriter Biff Byford and Toby Jepson of Little Angels fame. Keyboardist Don Airey (having performed with Ozzy Osbourne, Rainbow and Deep Purple) guests on "When Doomsday Comes" and "Mists Of Avalon". This track - alongside fellow track "No Rest For The Wicked" - will feature in a forthcoming film entitled "Hybrid Theory". For "Hammer Of The Gods" and the title cut, music videos were filmed. Two versions of the title cut are in existence, one a regular version and the other an orchestral version. Issued on June 3rd, 2011 in the United Kingdom through the outfit's own label Militia Guard Music, "Call To Arms" was subsequently released on September 27th in North America through UDR Music / EMI. The record's North American release includes a seven-track bonus disc, entitled "Live At Donington 1980". Selling 700 copies in its first week of issue in that country, the album debuted at No. 51 on the Top New Artist Albums (Heatseekers) chart. On September 16th at 17:20 GMT, Saxon mainman Biff Byford telephoned Hit The Lights' Robert Gray to discuss "Call To Arms". UG: Hello? Biff Byford: Hello. Is that Robert? This is Robert, yeah. Hi. It's Biff from Saxon. How are you Biff? Alright? Yeah, I'm good. Yeah, I'm doing well. Let's talk about this new Saxon album then Biff... You said that you feel 'Call To Arms' is the best Saxon album of the last twenty years. Why do you feel that is the case? Well I suppose "best" is a bit too confident, but I think we've rejigged it a bit. We came at it from a different angle recording wise and maybe writing wise, and it's a little bit more retro in the way that we put it together and recorded it. We concentrated more on performance and the passion and vibe of the song rather than relying on production things really - we didn't bolster the song with choirs and loads of samples and keyboards. It's quite a basic way of recording really, so yeah, that's where we went really. Less is more is what I mean. We enjoyed doing it; I think it's the album we've most enjoyed doing of the last twenty years, actually. So a lot of these tracks could definitely go down well live? Yeah. Obviously we've been touring since March, and they're going down really well live. We haven't toured America very often on an album release; we just usually go there more ad hoc if you know what I mean, but this time it's a proper release. It's released the same week as the tour starts, so it's a bit more full on this tour. Is there a different reaction to Saxon in America compared to say Europe then? In Europe, I think the popularity of eighties music has gone through the roof in the last two years. In the UK we've just done tour shows and we're about to do another five, so the profile of the music is really, really high at the moment. I think the next big thing in the UK is gonna be the Brit rock thing. I think Little Angels are reforming aren't they, so it's just coming around again. I think it's a fantastic time for rock fans at the moment; there's great, new bands and a lot of established bands that are either staying there or getting back together again. Speaking of Little Angels, what was it like to work with the band's vocalist and guitarist Toby Jepson on 'Call To Arms'? Great. Toby's a friend. I think it's great that Saxon was more seated in the eighties, but I think he wanted to bring back that more of a blues element to our music that used to be there in the early days. So really, he concentrated on the performance element of the album and I concentrated more on the arrangements and what people were doing basically - it was a great combination, actually. For the first time in ten years, we sent the album away to be mixed by a separate person; Mike Plotnikoff mixed it in LA, and that was a different angle on the album as well. He was totally aware that we wanted to sound British, so I think it does really. I think that's the big difference with this album and maybe the last two or three albums which have all been fantastic albums, but maybe sounded a little bit European. Can you tell me about the two tracks that Saxon wrote for the forthcoming film 'Hybrid Theory', "When Doomsday Comes" and "No Rest For The Wicked"? The producer came down to see us - he's a big fan. He listened to the songs that we had and basically wanted two songs really, so we wrote them for him. One was already a song and I changed the lyrics, and the other one was a brand new song. "When Doomsday Comes" was already written although it wasn't called that, and "No Rest For The Wicked" was a brand new song we wrote. It's slightly different sounding because it was a different drumkit (laughs). We had basically finished recording by then, so we had to go back in and record that song. I think the production starts in January for the film. Films can sometimes take years to come to fruition.

"It is about the First World War. It's inspired by a book of letters that I read that were written by men in the trenches in the First World War."

Do you know how these songs will feature in 'Hybrid Theory'? I think parts of the music will be used in the soundtrack, and I think it'll definitely be played at the end. I think one of them will be played on a soldier's iPod as they're driving or walking through the labyrinth where this creature is. So that's how the songs will feature - they'll actually be in the film, yeah. Is keyboardist Don Airey a friend of Saxon as well, who guests on 'Call To Arms'? Yeah. I've known Don for quite a long time from the eighties. I think the first time I met Don was when Ozzy Osbourne supported us in Europe for his first album 'Blizzard Of Ozz' (September 1980), so yeah. We were actually queuing up at the American Embassy in London for visas. We were chatting, and I just happened to mention that we were making a new album and that it would be great if he could play on it. He said "Yeah, fantastic - I'll do it", and he did. He actually played on two songs, "When Doomsday Comes" and "Mists Of Avalon". You were toying with calling the track "Mists Of Avalon" "Excalibur". Yeah. I was toying with calling it "Excalibur" mainly because Iron Maiden came out with "Isle Of Avalon" (on August 2010's 'Final Frontier') while we were actually doing the album. I didn't really want to be seen as though I'd ripped off the band in any way so I was gonna call it "Excalibur", but I thought it might be a bit cheesy (laughs). So after much advice from friends and record company management I called it "Mists Of Avalon" again - I think it works better, anyway. I would agree. "Back In '79", meanwhile, is a more anthemic track. It's more "Denim And Leather" revisited really. I wanted to sing a song about the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal - "Back In '79" basically - and bring it more up to date really and just sing about the newer audience. One of the lines say "You may be young or old / There's no difference at all". it's just a revisited song, really. I think it works great, and live it sounds great. The band came up with a riff that's really heavy; the theme is quite "Denim And Leather"'ish, but the riff is quite modern. What modern elements do you feel are on 'Call To Arms' then? I definitely think "No Rest For The Wicked"'s got a modern element to it, and I also think that "When Doomsday Comes" is quite heavy. When I say modern I'm really talking about the techniques used to record the album, and the style of how we did it. We wanted to get this rawness and passion of our live sets, so that's really what we wanted to create on this album. I think if you listen to the album, it's quite powerful in the way that it was put together. How many of 'Call To Arms'' tracks are the group performing live? I'd say about five or six songs - it depends, really. We haven't really decided yet, to tell you the truth. We did different setlists in different countries; we just played Japan and that was a totally different setlist, and Spain was a bit different as well. So yeah, we'll work out a new set when we're in Los Angeles. We're there for three days doing press, so we have plenty of time to fiddle around a bit. Five to six songs is quite a lot, so Saxon must definitely feel proud of 'Call To Arms'. I think if you can play six or seven new songs off of an album, then obviously the album's working for the band. It's just what songs you pick really because you can never please everybody, can you? You just have to try to please the majority, I think that's the secret. We're definitely playing the title track, and we're definitely playing "Hammer Of The Gods". We've been playing "Afterburner", we've been playing "When Doomsday Comes" - we've been playing quite a few of them actually live. I think we have a good chance that there might be six songs in the set. "Call To Arms" was written about the First World War. It is about the First World War. It's inspired by a book of letters that I read that were written by men in the trenches in the First World War, but I suppose the song is about any bloody soldier really who's going to war and writing letters home and living with this. The song is a sad song, but I like it. I like creating atmospheres with words, and I think it creates quite a nice atmosphere. How would you compare the regular version of "Call To Arms" to the orchestral version? The orchestral version is more majestic, and comes a bit more alive actually. I still think it's quite sad but it just brings another feel to it. I can't really describe it really. People really like it; I think of the two, most people prefer that one. The orchestra definitely adds a different dimension to the track. And I just think that it takes it to another place I suppose. I suppose with the orchestra it's a bit more bombastic, so it feels a bit more war-like whereas the studio version is just a sad acoustic song really with a big chorus. I think the orchestra makes it sound... it connects to the war. It seems to connect to the guns and everything else going off at the same time. I just think it makes it more vivid, basically. What is Saxon's current label situation? Previously Saxon were signed to SPV Records, which suffered financial problems. They're still signing bands, I think. I think we wanted a fresh start. We had some good times with SPV, but there aren't many people left there that we worked with really. We just thought we'd start our own label really, so we started our own label and went into partnership with the old managing director of SPV (Ulrike Rudolph) actually who started her own company called UDR. For the artwork for 'Call To Arms', Saxon has used the iconic World War One poster featuring Lord Kitchener. That's right, yeah. We've done a lot of albums with warriors and Celtic things and medieval coats of arms, and I just wanted a change and a return to just a simple image. A strong image like the first album or 'Wheels Of Steel', an image that people don't have to really stare at too much but still has quite an impact. It's funny though in that it was used around the world as well, so the poster is quite well known to Americans and Russians and even people in Japan recognise the poster. It's quite a good image, actually. That original poster says "Your country needs you", but then a lot of people died during the First World War. So having said that, what your thoughts on that poster? Obviously it's something that can be controversial. People love it or hate it. On tour we do have two T-shirt designs - that one and a tour design - because not everybody likes that one. We are aware that you either love it or hate it, but I think the title 'Call To Arms' - whether it be a "Call To Arms" or a call to arms to rock fans - works on both levels really. The original poster doesn't have "Call to arms" written on it; it says something like "Your country needs you", but we didn't actually use that. We have changed the poster slightly. If you look at the cap it says "Militia Guard" on it, so there's little changes. The original one is more black and white than that one is. The music video for the title track is quite interesting, with performance footage being interspersed with studio footage. Yeah. We have to thank the students from South Wales' University Of Glamorgan for that, who put all that together. The whole crew we used for the video were students from that college. They came up to Yorkshire and shot it in the old mines there. It was a great day really, and we all had a great time. It was great for them because it was part of their degree work, so it worked for everybody really. It was good.

"I think if you can play six or seven new songs off of an album, then obviously the album's working for the band."

Did they work on the music video for "Hammer Of The Gods" as well? They did, yeah. Your son Sebastian appears in the music video for that track. He does, yeah. Actually where we shot it is quite close to his school, so it was quite easy for him to do it. In the storyboard that they wrote for the video, it included a young lad who played drums. Obviously my son plays drums, so it was an obvious choice really. Do you give him tips or anything? No, not really. He's studying drama and music, so he's bit of a natural really. A normal twelve to thirteen-year-old boy really. And as regards "Surviving The Odds", you said that its lyrics more resemble lyrics that Saxon used to write in its earlier days. Yeah. They're in the "Never Surrender" / "Backs To The Wall" / "Stand Up And Be Counted" style, working class underdog lyrics. Toby wanted me to write more in that style, like "Ballad Of The Working Man". I tried to get my head back into it again, and think of how it was or how it is when you've got no friggin' money and you're trying to make it really. That's really what the songs are about. Would you say that self-empowerment is a recurring theme within Saxon's lyrics throughout the years? Definitely, yeah. I think the "Never Surrender" theme is strong in all our early albums, and still goes through the band. It never changes though, does it? There's always some young people somewhere who are downtrodden or are underdogs or something. I went back to those lyrics that I wrote in those early days for those two songs, and I think they're quite good actually. I really liked it. Does Saxon sometimes feel like underdogs in some respects then? In America I think we're more of a cult band than anywhere else. We do have our big cities, but generally we're a "best kept secret" band in parts of America (laughs). Motrhead for example have come up quite a bit in America in the last two years; they weren't very strong in America for a long time, but they seem to be doing quite well at the moment. The American digipack version of 'Call To Arms' includes a bonus disc which collects seven tracks from Saxon's 1980 Donington performance. We found the original multi-track in somebody's attic, which we bought off the guy. There were about seven or eight multi-track tapes that we were given, and we listened to them all. We were really surprised that one of them was the Castle Donington multi-track tapes. There'd been bootleg versions out of it before, but everybody thought the tapes were lost. Obviously they weren't though, so we mixed it. Yeah, it sounds great actually; the audience were loud, and the cymbals and drums are crystal clear, and you can hear the guitars. It sounds really great. If you listen to the bootleg, it's all vocals and drums because it's just the cassette off of the monitor desk. I think it's a special moment in British rock history anyway. Saxon has been around for over thirty years, so where do you feel the band can go from here? The band can go from here with the new album - that's it. That's our new offering after thirty-one years basically. I think the band has come around full circle; if you go down all these roads of huge productions and experiment in different ways, obviously when you come back to the simple and raw power of the band it seems to be the thing that people like. Thanks for the interview Biff, and the best of luck with Saxon and 'Call To Arms'. Thank you. Take care. Bye. Bye. Interview by Robert Gray Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2011
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