Saxon är tillbaka med ett nytt album, “Hell, fire and damnation” och låter piggare än på länge. Vi tog oss ett snack med bandledaren Biff och den “nya” medlemen Brian Tatler och dryftade ämnen som Brexit, eventuella Diamond Head-låtar med Saxon, Brians första Saxongig och Biffs tänkta roll som frontman i Black Sabbath:
– They were going to offer me a job when Ronnie James Dio left Black Sabbath. They were talking about me, but I only know that because people told me but they never asked me.
With your history, do you remember the first time you came across the term NWOBHM? I guess Sounds editor Alan Lewis was the man behind it as he put it in an article by Geoff Barton.
Biff: Geoff Barton came to a Saxon show and we were all the same age. All the journalsits were young guys. We played in Colwyn Bay on the pier and he gave us a two page review saying “this is the new metal, these guys are going to be the new wave” I think the reason he coined it is because we weren´t like Deep Purple or the bands that were before punk. We used to go see those bands in the mid 70´s when punk was big. It wasn´t really big in Sheffield, it was London thing, so we would go see Nazareth and allthose bands. It was great. Uriah Heep and Deep Purpe… for us there wasn´t any difference. I suppose our music was a bit more fast and furious, probably a bit more edgy. It wasn´t quite so university student music. It was more working class, in your face music, I think. It was probably the same for Diamond Head and all the other bands that were in that mosh of a period.
Brian, do you remember when you came across NWOBHM?
Brian: Yeah, it was the front page of Sounds and it was the head of the drummer from Samson (Thunderstick) and of course he was wearing a mask. It was a bit of a shocking cover and that´s probably why they did it. They thought it was good fun. Alan Lewis came up with NWOBHM, but Geoff Barton was the guy who went out and interviewed the bands and reviewed the bands. He went to the Soundhouse and I think he reviewed Angel Witch, Samson and Iron Maiden and then he drove al the way up to Sheffield, didn´t he, and he interviewed Def Leppard at a little working men´s club and Joe Elliott picked hm up from the train station in his works van and they tok him for a fish and chips. He wrote about all that. I realised there were other young bands all over the country doing the similar thing to what we were doing. We had been going for thre years or so and that was fascinating to think there were other bands doing the similar thing. They were all different and I soon realised it as I started to listening to more and more bands that would get on the Friday Rock Show or you´d bu their singles and things. They were very diferent and I liked that about it. We´re all sort of playing rock heavy metal, but we´re all very different.
Biff: The Sounds newspaper was our paper. We were in the Melody Maker a little bit and NME was still punk and they thought that was the future, so they didn´t really bother with us. They were wrong obviously and they missed the boat. It was a great time. We didn´t know what the fuck was happenng. We were just doing gigs and singles. We already had an album out, the first album, so we were promoting that. The record company said “You´ve got one more album and we´re going to drop you if the next album is not great.” Around that time, the Geoff Bartons, they used to come stay at our fucking flat! Dante Bonutto was there all the time. We used to go to London, find some girls and stay with them. We´d go to the Astoria and the Lyceum was a big gig in those days and all the journalists and Lemmy was there. It was absolutely crazy. If you were in that select few of bands that were actually doing well, it was a crazy time. You had Iron Maiden doing the Marquee. The day Maiden did the Marquee, we did Hammersmith Odeon. I remember Rod Smallwood came over because it was sold out. I don´t think they had sold out the Marquee? They might have done. The bands were in friendly competition. It was a great time and it was exciting.
Then Kerrang came along, which became my bible.
Biff: Kerrang went worldwide and you could buy it in LA or New York. You couldn´t bu it in Japan, but Japanese magazines just copied it, so if you got a great review in Kerang, you got it in Japan as well. They copied it verbatum.
Do you remember when you two came across each other?
Biff: It was quite late, wasn´t it?
Brian: I don´t think we bumped into each other in the early days, unfortunately.
Biff: I mean, I´d heard of them in the 80´s, definitely. When did the Metallica thing come out?
Brian: The first one was 1984, “Creeping death”
Biff: I think I probably realised that it was your song, but they didn´t say it, did they?
Brian: It would say underneath…
Biff: Yeah, but they wouldnt say it?
Brian: Not on stage.
Biff: I think we bands knew, but we didn´t say anything either.
Brian: Metallica opened for Saxon at the Whisky A Go Go (March 27 1982) and in that set they did three Diamond Head songs. It´s mad! Hahaha!
Biff: So you were there before we were. I would´ve said something if I had known, “What the fuck are you doing their songs for?” Hahaha!
The new album then, “Hell, fire and damnation”? I think there´s some great riffs on it and one song that stands out for me is “Madame Guillotine”, which is a really hard word to spell…
Biff: Yeah, it is for you lot. I´m going to use that a lot. “Can you spell guillotine?” (laughs)
What can you tell me about that song?
Biff: Well, it´s his riff (points to Brian). One of the ones he sent to me. Why I picked that riff it´s just destiny, I don´t know! He gave me a hard drive withabout 30 ideas on it and I listened to them all and fel asleep a few times. Hahaha! That one I thought “I like that one!” It´s a great groove and a great riff. I wanted it to be and I suggested to him that we should stop it dead and do it like “Dallas 1 PM” Stop it dead and bring in a half time solo with arpeggio guitar. Doug wrote that part. It´s a good song and I like it. It´s very 80-ish I think. I´m glad he sent it because it wouldn´t have been “Madame Guillotine” It would have been soe other Diamond Heady thing, or maybe not. Maybe the guys would´ve heard it and said “Are you fucking kidding me?”
A riff like that, is that something you´ve had laying around or did you come up with it, with the idea of…?
Brian: No, no, no! I´ve had it for a while. I´ve got a home studio and I´ve probably done a couple of demos of it, so I would´ve sent it to Biff as a demo. It had guitars and bass on it, but no vocals
Biff: It´s like I´ve said before, a song needs to speak to me. I have to hear something in that music that sparks my imagination and sends me down a road of finishing a song, a vision. As soon as I heard that riff… it´s hypnotic, the way it plays. H suggested I should do the lyrics from the guillotine point of view and I liked that. The chorus i a bit Alice Cooperish. It´s a bit theatrical, which I love. It´s got a double entendre in “dont lose your head” It flows really well and I think the solo in the middle is a great fucking solo. He wouldn´t have done that, becaue guitarists wouldn´t think of that.
Brian: You added a dynamic here.
Biff: That´s what it´s all about. Songs are about the dynamics. It worked out great. I´m lucky I asked him actually because I just asked him out of the blue “Do you have any ideas?” and he was like “Your fucking right I have!” (laughs)
Brian: I didn´t really expect to be writing at that point. I was learning the set and preparing for the gigs in July and then Biff asked me.
Biff: Yeah, that´s how it happened, really. I picked three songs and took them to the song level.
What was the first Saxon gig like, Brian?
Brian: A little bit scary. It was Athens in Greece. No soundcheck and we were on before Deep Purple. I´ve been a huge fan of Deep Purple since I was probably 12, so that was a little bit weird going on before them. I would just turn up at the festival and everything´s been set up and soundchecked and they just put a guitar over my head and gave me a pick and then the intro tape´s going. Biff said “When we start, everybody at the front!”, so I´m like “Ok… off we go!” I take a deep breath and walk onto the stage and immediately thousands of people go “Yeah!” Fucking hell! Here I am with Saxon playing these songs. I think I made a couple of mistakes, but it was a fantastic experience and once you got one under your belt, you can relax a little. I think I got more and more comfortable and started to enjoy it more and more, but the first one was nervewrecking and probably one of the most scary gigs I´ve done. It´s not stagefright, it´s just not wanting to make a fool of myself. Not wanting to play the songs badly and let people down.
Biff: I also think you don´t have a lot of experience at touring at that level, do you?
Brian: No, I´ve done some big gigs, but not lots.
Biff: When you´re at a certain level you get picked and we´ve played in front of Slipknot and we´ve played before Within Temtation. We´ve done a lot of shows in front of bands considered to be bigger than we are. It doesn´t really phase me, I just got used to it. I just go ”Fuck it! Let´s bring the house down!” That´s the mentality and that will come though. The more bigger places you play with bands above you, that mentality will come.
Brian: I´ve done it once or twice maybe, but nothing like with Saxon.
Biff: Now you´ve got some songs on a Saxon album, you can be Saxon proud now. It´s different if you just stand in live, but when you have a song on an album, it´s a different mentality all together.
Will “Madame Guillotine” be played live?
Biff: I think so, yeah. I´m already thinking of where we can play it.
A guy like the actor Brian Blessed, who´s on the opening track “The prophecy”, did you know him already or how did that work out?
Biff: We know him. We´ve met him a few times over the years. He´s actually from the same town as Graham Oliver, Mexborough in Yorkshire. In the 90´s after the Thatcher years, we did some charities for the cial miners and he´s quite involved in that, so we met him there. Then he introduced us at Bloodstock. His big saying is “Gordon´s alive!” from “Flash Gordon” He´s got a great voice, so I got in touch with him and said to him that I had this great idea of him doing the prolouge on the album and I just asked “Can you say them?” and he did.
The song “There´s something in Roswell”, was that one sparked by the recent UFO clips that have been declassified?
Biff: No, because I got the idea before that. I´m just interested in all those conspiracy theories. It´s really interesting and Roswell is ground zero for all that alien stuff. I´ve read about it over the years and it´s interesting and now there´s a lot of documentaries about it as well. For the first three days it was a silver disc with mysterious metal with symbols on it and then suddenly it´s a balloon. It is a good one. I think there´s something there and I say so in the song. I´d like there to be something in Roswell. It would be cool. There´s millions of UFO enthusiasts around the planet.
Are you into that stuff as well, Brian?
Biff: He is now! Hahaha!
Brian: Yeah, I´m interested in that. It´s fascinating and I love sci-fi. Did you se “Arrival”?
Yes I did.
Brian: It´s a good one.
Biff: All that started from Roswell and before that it was “The man in the moon”
Brian: There´s a bit about it in “Independence Day” It´s great and it´s fascinating stuff. It´s hard to disprove and it´s hard to prove.
Would you ever play a Diamond Head song live?
Biff: There´s always a chance that we´d do it later on, but then again you don´t want to take too much away from Diamond Head. We could probably do an absolutely brilliant version of “Am I evil” I could nail that one quite easily. You don´t want to take away from the legacy… you have to be careful. If we start doing Diamond Head, nobody´s ever going to go see fucking Diamond Head again, are they? But yeah, we could do one, maybe. We have talked about it, but nothing concrete yet.
Is the touring life still fun these days?
Biff: Yeah, it´s ok. Nothing has changed, really. It´s the same airplanes, the same airports, the same tourbuses. I´m sure it´s a bit different for Brian though. He´s not toured at that level before, which is a bit different.
Brian: Yeah, it´s a lot different for me. We (Diamond Head) haven´t even done a proper tour bus tour yet.
Biff: When was the last time you were on a tour bus?
Brian: We had one in 2005 when we supported Megadeth. It was 22 dates across Europe, so we had to have a tour bus. That was good. I´ve only been on tour buses two or three times in my whole career, so I´m not really used to it. It´s always been a van with the gear in the back and you rush to the gig and set up the gear quickly. It becomes a pain and dragging gear up a flight of stairs. Very often it´s no crew with Diamond Head. We can´t afford it, so you´re doing everything yourself. The Saxon way of life is a lot more pleasurable. There´s crew to take care of the gear and front of house and guitar tech and drum tech. I´m still getting used to that. I´m not really used to have someone do it all for you, but it´s nice. I like it.
How has Brexit changed things?
Biff: Brexit has ruined the touring thing for a lot of bands. It´s so expensive now and getting in and out of Europe. It´s ridiculous actually. I voted to stay. It is crazy. We have gear in Europe and we have gear in the UK. It´s terrible, really. It´s a nightmare for the managers. It´s a bit like going to America and getting visas for that is a nightmare and British bands got it twice now. You´ve got it in America and you´ve got it in Europe. A lot of paperwork and red tape. Brazil´s got it best. You just sign a piece of paper and that´s it really.
A few years ago I talked to a photographer about Velvet Revolver and he mentioned your name and I´m just wondering, was your name ever thrown around for Velvet Revolver, Biff?
Biff: No! It might have been, but I wouldn´t know about it. I think Toby Jepson had some dealings with that. He´s a great singer and he´s got that Robert Plant style. I do know that they were going to offer me a job when Ronnie James Dio left Black Sabbath. They were talking about me, but I only know that because people told me but they never asked me.
Would you have done Sabbath if they´d asked you?
Biff: I might have done it, yeah. It would´ve been hard following the two Dio albums. They´re brilliant! Whatever. These things are destiny lead on. It wasn´t to be.
Text: Niclas Müller-Hansen
Foto: Björn Olsson, Therés Stephansdotter Björk