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12/03/2007 – Interview with SAXON

NWOBHM legends SAXON (official website) were in Belgium on March 10 and although there was an interview planned with them that day, due to miscommunication this didn't go through. E-mailing back and forth made it possible to do it by phone the Monday after. Since I didn't plan to do it that day - I only called the manager, Thomas Jensen, to ask when or how the interview could be done -, the 30-minute talk with a lightly tired Biff sure was interesting and down to earth. Other than with planned interviews, I was less nervous. ;-)

But anyhow, the guys proved that they are still masters of the art live and in the studio, since on the 5th of March the band released their 17th (!!) album: "The Inner Sanctum". This is not just a Hardrock/Metal album, no way. It stands for pure and honest music, and definitely is one of the best albums this year. I haven't reviewed it yet and I'll see if I can find a space in my agenda, but for now, here's the interview I did with Biff.

Saxon logo

Hi Biff, Tim speaking here.

Hi there.

Saturday in Antwerp you were great, you guys really slayed.

So you liked it, didn't you?

I did. In fact, it was only my second time that I saw you live. First time was in 2005, at the Schwung festival (Roeselare, Belgium).

That's great about festivals, lots of people see us there. :-)

This gig was one of the few you've done in Belgium, right?

Well, we've done Antwerp and Brussels before. The Ancienne Belgique for instance. We'll try to do that one in May or June. You're the first to hear it, but nothing's confirmed yet.

The Inner Sanctum coverOoh, sounds good. :-) Now, onto the album, "The Inner Sanctum", which is again a masterpiece. Did it fulfill your wishes and expectations? Did it turn out like you wanted it to?

An album can't ever fulfill all expectations, as it's compromised between time and touring. But "The Inner Sanctum" gives a satisfying feeling, from a songwriting point of view.

Over the years you've worked with different producers. Who was the best to work with?

We've had some good, some bad producers. Right now, Charlie's handling it with us co-producing. When the producer is the sixth member of the band, then it's alright. Otherwise you've got someone who doesn't care about the music.

Who had the most influence, who gave you the best pointers?

Charlie's very good, very laid back. For the earlier albums, I'd say Kelly Trapp was good. The American guys were quite aggressive.

In what way?

They wanted to make us millionnaires, hahaha. Or at least they got the millions. ;-)

Apart from the religiously inspired "State Of Grace" and the song about the fall of the communism ("Red Star Falling"), what other themes did you tackle for the songs?

"If I Was You", of which there's a single, revovles around the gun crimes in England. Well, in other parts of the world too, but mostly those in England. You know, with young kids. "I've Got To Rock" will be released as a single next month. There's Lemmy, Hansi, .... singing the song with me.

It's sort of like a homage to rock, like you've done several times in the past.

Yeah, exactly.

About the artwork: what is the connection between that and the songs?

The connection is for the biggest part with "State Of Grace", which is about mystical things, very religiously inspired. The album title was originally going to something else, but in the end we thought this one was fine. Like welcoming everybody into the inner sanctum. We're really pleased with the result. The cover art was done by a Russian guy, the same one who's worked with BLIND GUARDIAN. It was Hansi who introduced me to his work.

Saxon - bandI see. I thought you were going to work again with the one who did the art for "Crusader"...

Well, Paul did some pieces, like the design for the t-shirt, but for the biggest part it was all done in Russia.

How did you go to work for the songwriting of "The Inner Sanctum"? And has this way of working changed over the years?

We did it in different countries: Germany, Spain, Eengland, most in England of course. and all between festivals. So we worked more on the road.

Some weeks ago, the single of "If I Was You" came out. The heavy metal version is on the album, the single is a remix in a poppish jacket..

We're doing this kind of tv-show in England and they wanted a remix of the song. they wanted it to be more radical. But it's not pop, it's heavy and quite distorted. More in-your-face. You could compare it to MASTODON, a distorted METALLICA, perhaps even more Hardcore.

Don't you dare going Hardcore, Biff. ;-)

Hahaha, no, we won't. :-) We'll stick to the usual style. But try downloading the song and listen to it.

Something more personal now: your voice still is as powerful as ever. Do you use a certain technique to keep it in shape?

No. I'm just lucky, I guess. I try to get some rest whenever I can, not doing anything hurtful and things like that.

Going back in time: compare the recording equipment you've used throughout the years? How do you feel about the possibilities of today?

I prefer analog, as it has a warmer sound. "Lionheart" was a mix of the two, analog and digital. "The Inner Sanctum" is all digital. This gives you much more freedom, since you can work longer on the record and I can do my vocals later in the process, whereas with analog tapes you're stuck to one take. The sound on "The Inner Sanctum" is pretty live. You can take bits out, but we don't go for the big software thing. We go through an analog desk first, to give the songs a more analog sound.

You know you can also cheat with stuff like ProTools..

Yeah, I see what you mean. But we don't give ourselves the time to do that. We capture it on the moments, which is better, instead of going back to fiddle with certain parts.

For the recordings of the new album, did you all - except maybe you - enter the studio and start the recordings or was every instrument recorded seperately?

First we recorded the drums, bass and one guitar, yes? The drums are the most important instrument, so wanted a good sound for that. Next was Nibbs's parts, which didn't take that long. Together with the drums: one week. The guitars were done seperately, as there are many guitar layers on the album. Also note that we worked 14 hours a day. Then, with Nigel back in the band, the keyboards were added.

What I noticed Saturday was the difference between the two guitarists. Paul seems to be more appropriate for the rougher work, while Doug takes on the more refined parts.

You could be right. Paul is more a radical Blues guitarist, he'll take the standard work and turn it inside out from a radical angle. Doug is more appropriate for the straight-forward Metal.

Isn't Doug also a bit timid on stage? It was only during "Wheels Of Steel", I think, that he started headbanging for a short moment.

Not really. you must keep in mind that this is the start of the tour and Doug and Paul had some small sound problems, so they paid careful attention to that.

Last year the third installment of the "The Eagle Has Landed" live albums was released. Is there video footage of those gigs?

Yes, there is and it will be added to the DVD that's coming out soon. We're also adding "The Inner Sanctum" footage to that DVD.

In 2006 you also had a problem with the festival organizers in Saudi Arabia because of the lyrics of "Crusader". Did you try to convince the people to let you play after all?

Yes, we told them it was ok, that we weren't going to play that song. But they still said no. And yes, some journalist took the lyrics out of the context. But we wanted to play at that festival. I think IRON MAIDEN is playing there this year.

"The Inner Sanctum" comes in a limited edition digipack as well. How do you feel about limited editions as opposed to normal releases?

As long as the edition contains interesting extras, then I like it, else it's not good. If different songs are added or if there's an interview DVD, that's always cool. Especially interview DVDs. But if you don't like it, you don't have to buy it. We always try to have other artwork, so people know it's not the regular release, like we did with the re-release of "Lionheart", where the digipack was red.

Yep, I've noticed that. Back in 2005 you collaborated with German Thrashers DESTRUCTION for the song "The Alliance Of Hellhoundz". how was this all set up?

We were playing at the same festival and Schmier came to me, asking for a contribution. So they made their backstage their studio and I stood behind the mic and recorded my voice in three minutes, hahaha. :-)

Three? Lol and everyone thinking Biff had to go to Germany or Denmark and do it in the studio. In another interview you said that Heavy Metal is a dirty work in England..

It's getting better nowadays and that's also the reason for the TV-show: to bring the profile of rock music back to the people. For the media (radio, tv) it's indeed too heavy. On the internet you have YouTube that has taken over the role of Headbanger's Ball and similar programmes.

Uhuh, here in Belgium too there's a rock/metalprogramme, but once a week and only for one, maybe two hours.

Yeah, they think people will stay up that late. At least I do, hahaha. :-)

Do you check out new bands? I'm not talking about metalcore or emo, but young bands that play Thrash, Death, Heavy, ...?

We're pretty busy, but when have time we check out new bands, yes. If we like it, we listen to them.

Anything you can recommend?

No, not really. (Biff was a bit tired to think about other bands ;-))

With your long career, you've read many reviews. how important are they?

If they're great, it's fantastic. If not, they're shit, hahaha. :-) When you get involved it can be quite dodgy. the profile of saxon has gone up the last few years. The reviews of "The Inner Sanctum" are all very positive. "Metalhead" changed our style a bit, but we like to make our music like it would be live and can mix rock and metal. We're a classic band and we're one of the few who can do that.

It seems to me that SAXON is not as famous as IRON MAIDEN and JUDAS PRIEST, which is a shame to be honest.

Yes, but do we want to be like them? IRON MAIDEN are bigger now than they were with Blaze and PRIEST is more known with Rob back in the band. We're one of the surivors of the '80s. We just make albums and try to write good music. Say, I've got another call to make, so do you have one more question, one interesting question?

Well... there's a book coming out soon.

Yep, it's a biography of me. It's coming out in... *whissles to the manager, I think - "when's the book comin' out?"* ... end of March. The title is "Never Surrender".

Oh, the focus lies entirely on you?

Yes, but there will be a band discography in it and around the end of the year there will be a book about the band itself. But that's a little more difficult, as you have to contact all the bandmembers, including the former ones.

So how did this all start?

A friend of mine, the author, came up with the idea and I agreed instantly. Between gigs, me and him started writing some stuff.

Well, Biff, I would like to thank you very much and wish you all the best with the rest of the tour, the future recordings and whatever more.

Thank you, thank you. :-) (Biff taking it all very generously/to heart)

And I'll see you in Brussels then, I suppose.

Yep, we'll see. Bye.

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