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Two Saxons And A Solo Album - Exclusive Interview With Steve Dawson

By Daniel Höhr, European Correspondent
Monday, April 8, 2002 @ 10:00 AM

An Exclusive Interview With Or

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Buying a Saxon CD these days can be a bit confusing, because there are two bands who play Saxon music under the Saxon banner. Both bands have musicians among their ranks that once recorded timeless albums like Denim And Leather, Strong Arm Of The Law or Wheels Of Steel.

On the one hand, there is Saxon, with founder members Biff Byford, vocals, and Paul Quinn, guitar, together with bass player Nibbs Carter, guitarist Doug Scarratt and drummer Fritz Randow. After the release of Dogs Of War in 1995, one of the original guitar players, Graham Oliver, left the band and was replaced by Doug Scarratt. Oliver teamed up with the original Saxon bassist Steve Dawson (sacked in 1986) and drummer Pete Gill, along with guitarist Haydn Conway and singer Ted Bullet (Thunderhead).

After an album project under the name Son Of A Bitch (which was Saxon's original band name until 1978), the band was named Oliver/Dawson Saxon. With Dawson, Oliver and Gill, there were now three founder members of the original Saxon in the band, more than in the Saxon with Biff Byford as frontman. That, of course, didn't go down too well with Biff, who had only one foundeing member besides him in his band, and that was Paul Quinn, and so in true rock 'n' roll style the whole thing ended up in court, accompanied by a real battle of words between the two bands with the same name.

Biff Byford about Oliver/Dawson Saxon: "The thing is, it's not two sides of the story, it's one side of the story. I've been making albums [with Saxon] since 1979 [...]. The lineage goes back to 1979. We don't really go around looking for journalists to explain our side of the story to. We don't really have to explain anything to anybody, really. If you look at it logically, we've had over 12 albums out since Steve Dawson left, and we've had four albums out since Graham Oliver was set. There are some members in the band now that have actually been in the band longer than Steve Dawson was. And I understand that Dawson was in at probably a more successful period, but I don't particularly put that down to Steve Dawson or me or anybody really, I just put that down to being there at the right time with the right songs. [...] But we don't really dwell on the past and we're not trying to make a living from our past glories."

Graham Oliver: "There's one thing I wish to clear up, that neither me nor Biff could claim to be the real Saxon. The real Saxon will be one that featured the five original members. Maybe one day that'll happen [...]. The Oliver/Dawson version of Saxon has three Saxon members playing. It's a classic lineup playing a classic set, we're not living in the past. Me and Steve so much enjoyed playing these songs because, like I said, they're all fresh to us because we haven't played together for such a long time, so it's been a blast really."

Things have been happening in both bands. Last year Saxon (with Biff) released Killing Ground and re-animated their old eagle stageset as if to make clear who the real Saxon are. Oliver/Dawson Saxon underwent two changes in the lineup (due to illness, drummer Pete Gill resigned the drummer's chair to Nigel Durham, another ex-Saxon member, who played on the Destiny album and tour, and singer John Ward, who has also worked with Slash on his solo projects, replaced Ted Bullet) before a live album, entitled Re://Landed, was released. The album, by the way, has the famous Saxon logo on it as well and is to be found under Saxon in your CD store (at least in mine, I checked). A studio album with completely new material is on its way and in the meantime both Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson have released solo albums on the English underground label Angel Air Records.

Steve's album is a compilation of songs he recorded after he was discarded from Saxon in 1986 and he presents himself as a skilled songwriter with the right feeling for melodies, grooves and harmonies on Pandemonium Circus. KNAC.COM rang him up on a Sunday afternoon to have a chat about his solo album, the two Saxons, a film character that is based on Steve and the rock 'n' roll circus...

KNAC.COM: Tell us something about your solo album.
STEVE: Right, after Saxon I just started working with a few different musicians and we started writing new songs over a period of about three years. It didn't take that long to record it, it's just the period of time when we were doing a few song here and then doing something else and then doing some more songs. We recorded in different studios around Sheffield, England. It was something out of the time I was still signed to EMI Records and they had to option to either say "Yeah, we'll keep you and put a record out" or pass on it. They decided they didn't want to make a record with me. Basically, these tapes have been subject to litigation. We haven't been able to release them until now. That's basically the story of it. Of course, I've got a studio at home and even if I might not be playing in a band, I'm still working on songs. That's about it, really.

KNAC.COM: There are sixteen tracks on Pandemonium Circus including several live versions. Now, there's also a cover version of "Step Inside Love," originally written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Why did you pick this one?
STEVE: Well, have you ever heard of a singer from the sixties called Cilla Black? It was a hit record for her and it went into the charts, though I don't know where. This singer and guitarist called Steve Johnson just came up with the idea, and so we worked on it and it turned out really well. It's a really catchy song. It was just something that we tried one day while we were rehearsing and then we decided to record it. Nearly everybody who's heard that tune likes it.

KNAC.COM: You recorded all the tracks some time between 1987 and 1989. If you were to re-record them now, what would be different?
STEVE: Well, that's a really hard question, because I would have been influenced between then and now on my approach, how it would sound and the arrangements. But the only thing I would do really would be using today's modern equipment to make things a bit harder. The drums would sound a lot different. As far as the structure of the songs is concerned, there are only two or three that would sound different. When you write with someone else, people put different ideas in and have different reactions as to how it's gonna turn out. A lot of this stuff was demoed at home on a cassette with a drum machine and then played to other people and they would put their bit in or they would do the same with me. But because I'm not a very good singer, it's hard to approach it from a singer's point of view. I write songs from a musician's point of view, although I do write lyrics, but the music always comes first.

"... because I'm not a very good singer, it's hard to approach [songwriting] from a singer's point of view. I write songs from a musician's point of view, although I do write lyrics, but the music always comes first."
KNAC.COM: And what about Oliver/Dawson Saxon?
STEVE: It's Graham Oliver, myself, Nigel Durham, who was also in Saxon, he did the Destiny album with them, and a guy called John Ward, who's been working with Slash's Snakepit, on vocals. And then we've got another guitarist called Haydn Conway. We're basically just going out, doing the odd show, but most of the time we're just recording a new album. The ownership of the name Saxon isn't owned by any person, because the original band was a partnership of five people. Unfortunately, until someone says different, there are two versions of Saxon. It sounds a bit bizarre, but if you're a Saxon fan, you've got two bands now, haven't you? [laughs] Two for the price of one! We're not like them anyway, we're a different, a different kettle of fish altogether. We do play a lot of the classic Saxon songs, mainly because people who pay the money want to hear them, but we're writing a lot of new tunes. They're still in the style of the old Saxon songs, but they've grown up to the year 2002. When you're a musician, you never stop learning. Whatever you're listening to in the daytime affects what you might write in a song about a year later, you know what I mean? It is influenced by lots of different things. We have different influences and different approaches to songs, like from John Ward and Haydn Conway. In fact, it's a very good mixture. It's turning out really good. We've been playing four of the new songs in the shows we're doing in between the recording and they're going down really well.

KNAC.COM: You were discarded from Saxon back in 1986. Is it true that you've never been explained why?
STEVE: Yes, that's true. I don't know why. What happened was, the members of the band didn't have the guts to tell me themselves. I got a phone call from Nigel Thomas, who was the Saxon manager at the time. We'd just finished a world tour. The last gig was in Greece in a football stadium. I came home and had about three or four days rest. Our manager rang me up and just said "I want you to come to the Royal Garden in London. I'll meet you there tomorrow afternoon at 2 o'clock." I said "Okay, I'll be there", expecting all the band to be there. When I got there, there was only this guy Nigel Thomas. On the tour we'd been discussing a producer for the next record with Saxon and after all I thought we'd have a meeting to decide which producer we were gonna use, but when I got there, it was only him and me. I said, "What about the producer?" and he just said, "Well, there's something that's more important than that." I just asked, "What's that?" and he said, "That's your future in the band." I looked at him and said, "What do you mean?" He says, "Well, you haven't got one." And that was it. I never saw any of them ever again, never got a phone call or an explanation. When lawyers get involved you're always talking to a third party, so you're just basically making money for lawyers. If you could get into a room and sort of be a man about it...
You know, with hindsight, you can always wish you do something differently, but at that time I was quite relieved not to have to ever see Byford again. The band on that last world tour, which was the Innocence Is No Excuse Tour, didn't get on. It was not just me, but we didn't really get on. So I don't really know. I'm working with Graham now and I still haven't got an explanation. There are various stories, but you know what it's like. I don't care anyway now.

KNAC.COM: Going back to the albums you did with Saxon, which one's your favorite?
STEVE: My favorite Saxon album? [There is a very long pause.] Well, there are various reasons for having a favorite album. That can be based on whether you enjoyed making it. If that was the basis of the best Saxon album, I'd say Wheels Of Steel. Because we'd had one record out, that was just called Saxon, and at that time we were managed by Queen's management. All they did was they took all the money off the record company and when it ran out, they just dumped us. So we made a record that was in the shops, though it wasn't selling very well, and we had no money. Nothing. We had to go back to the beginnings again and we just bought a crappy old van and started gigging anywhere we could play. We decided to do a new album and went to this farm in Wales in the middle of nowhere in the winter. It was freezing cold, it was damp, it was horrible. What it did was, because we were pissed off by being dropped by the management, and we were in this horrible place to write the songs, it sort of made the five members come together. It was just the right mixture in our attitude, it was really good fun to do it, just like a laugh all the time. It was really enjoyable. From a songwriting point of view, I like Innocence Is No Excuse. I know it wasn't really a full heavy metal album, but I just enjoyed writing those songs, like "Broken Heroes," which is one of my favourite songs. I mean, I wrote that tune. Also "Back On The Streets." I would say Wheels Of Steel and Innocence Is No Excuse. You know, there's only one I didn't like making and was Crusader. It all turned out wrong. We had a producer that didn't know how to record heavy metal and those songs down on the record have no resemblance to how they originally sounded when we wrote them. They were a lot heavier.

KNAC.COM: One of the characters in the film This Is Spinal Tap is based on you. How did that happen?
STEVE: Yes, in about '84 we were doing a big world tour and our manager just said "There are two journalists coming on the road with you for a week. They're doing research for a TV program." And these guys came along and they went on the tour bus with us. They kept asking us questions, and they were observing what we were doing. After a show we would sit in a hotel bar, talking and getting drunk and they'd be asking us questions, you know, "What's it like?" and "Have you got any funny stories?" It was the behind-the-scenes sort of thing. We just told them all these things that had gone off over the years. They just used a lot of that for their film. They based the character of Derek Small on me, because they were asking me why I had my hand in the air all the time [laughs]. Well, I had developed a kind of technique, trying to play as many open strings on my bass as I can, so that I don't have to hold the frets down. I can use the other hand for pointing at people and just holding it up in the air. They thought that was hilarious, which I suppose it is. I like rock music to be like a pantomime, like circus. In fact, it's childish but then again it's now, if you see what I mean. That's my approach to rock 'n' roll, it's like theatre.

KNAC.COM: Is that why your album is called Pandemonium Circus?
STEVE: Yes, it's like an out-of-control circus.

KNAC.COM: So what are your future plans?
STEVE: Right, as of now we've got a couple of days at home, then we're gonna do a few more shows with Oliver/Dawson Saxon, then straight after that we're going to a rehearsal studio and we're gonna finish five more songs. We've already done them, but we're sort of doing some fine-tuning in the arrangements. As soon as that's done, we've got four more shows in Holland and then we'll be in the studio, finishing the album off. There are various festivals lines up for around Europe. We've got them pencilled in, but nothing's been confirmed yet. There's one in Sweden and one in Germany. Basically, the immediate future is just recording. In between all that we're also doing a DVD, which was already recorded. We've been filming parts of our shows and so that will be in production. If we can, the release will be in September/October. Releasing a record at around Christmas is a bad idea, unless you're Phil Collins [laughs].

KNAC.COM: Thank you for the interview.

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