San Antonio may never see a heavy metal festival on as grand a scale as the famous Castle Donington shows in England back in the day. But at least the Alamo City keeps trying. And when some of those same bands venture here, it makes the South Texas Rock Fest more than merely a consolation prize.
Saxon is one such group accustomed to touring San Antonio for the better part of three decades, including the fest. The Englishmen headlined the previous STRF in 2009 and will do so again on the first night of the two-day fest Oct. 7 at Sunken Garden Theater (details at bottom). This time around, Saxon is touring behind its 19th studio album Call To Arms, a crunching, rocking and at times melodic record that hits stores and online sites today (preview songs here).
The record hits you in the face out of the gate with Hammer Of The Gods (see video here) and continues its heavy jaunt through 11 tunes such as Surviving Against The Odds and Afterburner. The title track, a ballad about war, comes with an orchestral version that rounds out the album.
Original vocalist Biff Byford, 60, phoned me from England recently to share tales of yesteryear and look ahead to next week:
Q: I know San Antonio seems like a long way from England right now, but how does it feel to be back headlining the South Texas Rock Fest?
A: It’s great, actually. It’s one of the biggest cities in America, and we like coming there. There are hundreds of stories, including one of our guitarists falling in the River Walk. That was funny. He didn’t catch anything. Too many stories to talk about here. Great parties.
Q: Call To Arms is your 19th record, which is an incredible number nowadays. What makes it different than some of the others?
A: We sort of changed our style a little bit on the recording of this one. I brought in a friend of mine (to co-produce with Byford), Toby Jepson from Little Angels who’s doing the Dio Disciples tour in America. He’s a huge fan of early Saxon. We wanted to bring back the early spirit of Saxon. It worked really well. I think the album captured the rawness of Saxon and is really in-your-face (Note: Dio Disciples will be at the STRF on Oct. 8. See my interview with singer Tim “Ripper” Owens at bottom).
Q: What are your favorite tracks off of it?
A: I like the first track Hammer of the Gods. It’s a really great opening track with a powerful sound and riff. I like Call To Arms. That’s a sad song about soldiers being away from home and living with death. A friend of ours did the orchestral version as an experiment. It sounds great.
Q: The digipack has a 1980 Castle Donington performance. For us Americans who have never been to one of those festivals in England, how would you describe those types of shows back then?
A: We found autographed tapes in somebody’s attic. I think it was Nigel Glockler’s attic. We listened to them all, and one of them was Castle Donington. There have been quite a few bootlegs of that one, but this is the actual recording from the mobile. It hadn’t been played for 30 years until we heard it. It’s really crisp; the cymbals are crashing. It was the first really big festival, and we were riding the Wheels of Steel album, which went platinum in the UK. It was absolutely fantastic because everybody in the audience had gotten the album. We were underdogs. Rainbow was headlining. It was a special time. It was the dawning of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal — Judas Priest, Scorpions, Riot, Rainbow, Saxon all played that day. It was a great day, actually. It was a one-day festival, not people camping in their tents like they do now. It’s called the Download Festival now, and we might be playing it next year.
Q: What’s been the secret to yours and (original guitarist) Paul Quinn’s relationship sustaining as long as it has, weathering lineup changes over the years and still going strong today?
A: We must be like soul brothers or something. I don’t know. We tolerate each other. All the other bands that have been together for so long, you have to be tolerant. We have some great moments and bad moments. Nigel Glockler joined the band in 1981. He’s been around for a long time as well. He’s left and joined again, left and joined again, but the nucleus has been intact. The last lineup change was 1994, so it’s been a long time.
Q: Are you content with the public perception of Saxon’s place within the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and your influence upon so many bands and fans?
A: The last two years, it has been getting quite a lot of attention. Bands like Metallica are citing us as influences. And I think it’s good with bands like Pantera and Down, Foo Fighters. Must be a lot of bands — Machine Head, Megadeth. They’ve all said Saxon is an influence.
Q: Is it true that you are launching a campaign to have Britons declare heavy metal as their religion in the United Kingdom Census 2011?
A: Yeah, they haven’t counted it yet. It’s just a little fun. I think “Metal Hammer” magazine is carrying that.
Q: How quickly did you realize the anthemic impact of Denim and Leather?
A: We didn’t really think — obviously when I wrote the lyrics, I didn’t think it would capture so many people’s imaginations. I think it was one of the first songs a band wrote about their audience. So it created the situation where it could connect. Rock stars and celebrities didn’t mention their fans much, and we broke the mold. Denim and Leather really summed up the feeling of the ages for a lot of people. We just connected to those people, and they just dug it.
I have to tell you, Biff, that I was the only person from San Antonio aboard the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise back in January.
Oh, you were?
Q: Yes, and if I remember correctly, I believe you did Wheels of Steel and Denim and Leather in their entirety. What were your impressions of the entire voyage and experience?
A: Yeah, we liked it. We actually did Wheels of Steel and Strong Arm of the Law. It was really laid-back, no problems. We just went on with our concerts. There’s too much food there. I think I put on a few pounds. Just a great week. I didn’t know what to expect. The fans soon worked out the logistics of which bands to see. We played two nights, and I think most people came to see us the second night. I would recommend it for those who can afford it. There were a lot of Germans and Europeans on there. Some Americans, but not fully represented. But yeah, we liked it. It was great.
Q: I have a social media question from one of my readers. Chuck from San Antonio says he saw Saxon with Iron Maiden and Girlschool at the old Hemisfair Arena. He wants to know your favorite show or touring act during the New Wave of British Heavy Metal heyday in San Antonio and if there are any plans for a new live album.
A: Well actually, it was Iron Maiden, Saxon and Fastway. But that tour with Maiden was fantastic. We were on the Power & The Glory album, and it was a great period for us. It was a special moment, and I don’t think it will ever happen again. As for the live album, we have one coming out next year, but it’s a DVD. It’s called Heavy Metal Thunder Live and was recorded at a festival in Germany. It sounds great. Really high quality with massive sound and pyro. You should watch out for that.
I will, and thanks for the time, Biff. We’re looking forward to your return here. Hopefully, we can meet, and I can thank you in person.
Yeah, no problem! We’re really looking forward to San Antonio. We’re playing a few Texas gigs before that one, so we should be rarin’ to go.
- WHAT: South Texas Rock Fest
- WHO: (Day 1): Saxon, Warrant, Quiet Riot, and more. (Day 2): UFO, Dio Disciples, Lita Ford, Stephen Pearcy and more
- WHEN: Oct. 7-8
- WHERE: Sunken Garden Theater (3875 N. St. Mary’s)
- TICKETS: $35-$250; purchase and details here.
- MORE INFO: www.southtexasrockfest.com
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