Hear Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil guest on new version of Goldfinger’s Superman
Surprise! Goldfinger have unveiled a deluxe edition of 2020 LP Never Look Back – featuring appearances by Simon Neil, Avril Lavigne and Travis Barker.
To reach Biffy Clyro today, one must travel to a small village in West Yorkshire that necessitates a 50-minute train from Sheffield best described as ‘trundling’.
On board, two older gentlemen with accents as thick as the foliage outside argue about an unpaid ticket to see power metallers Sabaton – a gig that a quick Google reveals isn’t actually happening for nine months. Moments later, they’re onto their predicted highlights for the weekend’s Download Festival. It’s a matter of seconds before Sunday night’s headliners, Biffy Clyro, come up in conversation, with the Scots providing one area the bickering duo agree upon.
“They’re fookin’ ace,” one declares.
“Aye,” the other concurs.
Little do the men know the station they alight from is mere minutes from where their heroes, a band that unites arty young music fans and aged metalheads alike, are currently located – up a winding road, down an alleyway, and through an industrial park full of haulage lorries. The building they’re in has the properties of a Tardis, with its lowkey frontage giving no clue to how immense it is inside. Through a couple of sets of double doors you’re suddenly confronted by a warehouse-sized space, where their stage set-up, a three-tiered configuration embellished with hi-tech screens, steals the breath from the body even when viewed outside of its intended context.
“When the stage is like that we don’t have to do anything,” a familiar voice jokes. It’s Simon Neil, resplendent in a leather jacket, flanked by brothers James and Ben Johnston, all warm smiles and firm hugs. Despite the hustle and bustle of conferring crew members and touring guitarist Mike Vennart blasting the riff to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, the trio admit this setting is preferable to the hotel they’re staying in, where they’re contending with boisterous wedding parties, stifling heat and, worst of all, the acrid tang of piss.
Despite these setbacks, the Biffy boys are in remarkably high spirits. This is only the second face-to-face interview they’ve done in quite a while – the first being a natter in the build up to Finland’s Rockfest the previous weekend, during which they wondered aloud how to compose their body language now they’re no longer having to converse via a screen. “Where are you supposed to put your hands?” asks bassist James now, jutting his forward to rest upon a desk that’s not there.
The air is certainly an easygoing one, though there’s a reason we’re speaking to them ahead of their second Download headline appearance, rather than at the festival itself; a deep dive into the hows and whys of what they do tends to get them a little in their head. “I can’t talk about music or playing live on the day I’m doing a gig,” explains Simon. “It fucks with my head and imbalances my mind.”
Playing the festival in Finland was “fabulous” according to James, and the perfect way to reacquaint themselves with the biggest summer stages, not least because on a metal-centric bill featuring Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Scorpions and Nightwish, they once again felt that they didn’t quite belong. “The story of our life,” chuckles Simon, before conceding that as a band who have never taken the easy route, they wouldn’t want to do anything that feels “comfortable” anyway.
James agrees. “Coming from playing to a thousand people in America every night who are diehard fans, to playing to people you’ve perhaps got to maybe work a bit harder in front of felt fucking great.” It isn’t just this chance to return to flitting between the intimate and the immense that’s proved most rewarding, however, or the opportunity to raise their game to match the stakes or perceived challenges, as much as it is to re-embrace the opportunities to smell the roses being one of the biggest rock bands in the world affords. “We’ve been guilty of it, but you can get so immersed in your own shit, focusing on the minutiae, that you forget the context of what you’re doing,” explains Simon.
So while scheduling prevented the boys from watching all of Maiden’s headline set, they took the time to catch the gang-busting opening minutes, losing their shit alongside a field full of Finns. “Just to be there and hear Bruce Dickinson say ‘Hello Finland’ reminded me why I first picked up the guitar,” grins Simon. It may also have been a case of reciprocating the fandom, given that members of Iron Maiden had stood at the side of the stage watching Biffy’s set earlier that day, with their drummer Nicko McBrain loudly cheering Ben’s efforts behind the kit. “We’d second-guessed ourselves a bit before we played,” admits Ben now. “But when something like that happens, you think, ‘What the fuck were we worried about?’”
Worrying, as we’ll discover later, is what the members of Biffy do, because they care so much about their craft. During their quieter moments during lockdown, they’d frequently tell themselves they’re not that successful – a coping mechanism that’s stood them in good stead since they graduated to the world’s biggest stages. Stepping back out in front of tens of thousands of people, then, all as happy to be there as the band, was just the reminder they needed to re-engage their self-belief. “It was exhilarating in a way it hasn’t been in a long time,” admits Simon. “We feel lucky that we get to live in that magic.”
There is perhaps no more vivid illustration of just how far Biffy Clyro have come in their 27-year career than a return to Download, a festival that’s seen their burgeoning success reflected in steadily more prestigious slots, culminating in their first headline slot in 2017. Some memories from the festival, admittedly, are more welcome than others. The trio squirm as they recall their first time at Donington, for example, when they enthusiastically took advantage of the free haircuts backstage and swanned around the hallowed home of metal with freshly straightened locks. “We didn’t go onstage like that!” James is keen to clarify.
Nevertheless, the esteem that the band holds Download in, particularly when it comes to its blockbusting headliners, means they still treat their fellow bill-toppers as heroes rather than peers. “You’re aware that you’re in the presence of these legends that shaped your entire education,” says Simon. “That is something that Download has always brought us. We’re in awe of the festival and KISS and Maiden, so it never quite computes with us. We take our responsibility seriously.”
They haven’t always taken it quite so seriously, though. “Back in the day when we’d play for 25 minutes and be finished by 2pm, we’d take drugs and be giving ourselves mullets,” Simon admits. “We’d crash by 6pm and wake up during One by Metallica.”
“We’d always be the last ones out of the festival,” adds James of their antics back in the day. Ben recalls a time when Biffy outpartied the infamously debauched members of Primal Scream at Reading or Leeds… they can’t remember which. “We were in a cabin that had been flooded and [Primal Scream singer] Bobby Gillespie stuck his head around the door,” reveals Ben. “He took one look at us, said ‘Nah’ and disappeared.”
“Thankfully we were able to get that partying out of our system before the gigs really mattered,” smiles Simon, drawing a line between then and now. “You have to discover it for yourself, if someone else tells you to stop then you’re going to have an issue with it, but I feel like we all grew up at the same time.”
“And the music’s too difficult to play fucked-up,” laughs Ben.
Simon shakes his head. “It makes me anxious just thinking about it.”
During Biffy’s aforementioned set in Finland, Simon’s guitar pedals suddenly gave up the ghost. Ordinarily, a technical snafu like that would have resulted in meltdown (“I’m highly strung onstage, as you can probably tell…”) but this time he shrugged it off. Thanks to the diligence of his tech, who did the pedal changes manually in a manoeuvre they’d never practiced before, the frontman made it through.
No-one was more surprised by his cool-headed reaction than the man himself, who puts it down to a change in attitude. “Our consciousness about it is different than it would have been before,” Simon suggests. By ‘before’, you might assume he’s referring to pre-pandemic, but as he opens up about his experiences of touring North America in April and May, this recalibration seems the result of something more recent.
Those smaller, production-light shows in the U.S. and Canada offered the chance to “go over there and just be a band” and “let the music do the talking”, as well as providing other forms of perspective; the two-and-a-half day’s drive from Dallas to Las Vegas, for instance, was a reminder of the relative ease of touring in Europe (pre-Brexit, anyway). And while the first week of shows went brilliantly, Simon experienced an identity crisis that it’s no exaggeration to suggest threatened his way of life. A couple of years spent as the guy who’d wake at midday and enjoy time with his wife and dog had left him unable to engage the side that does this for a living.
“I couldn’t get my head into being Simon from Biffy,” he recalls. “We anticipated it was going to be hard but the last two years have changed everyone in ways you can’t immediately see. I was close to just leaving [the tour] but realised if I didn’t get over that hurdle then, I might never be able to get back on a stage. That might sound melodramatic but it’s how I felt and it’s a conversation I had with the boys. When I did, they said, ‘Okay, we can go home,’ but I immediately thought: ‘I’ll never leave the fucking house again.’”
Thankfully, Simon has “a guy” he speaks to about his anxiety, a go-to contact he can reach out to from anywhere in the world, whose counsel helps him regain focus. “He reminded me that this is who I am and this is what I do, and not to create a hurdle that wasn’t there before. He also reminded me that if I wasn’t able to do [the North American tour], it would be a lot harder to go back out again. It was about accepting that challenge and remembering I’m happiest onstage and making music with my friends. What else would I want to do? There’s nothing I’d rather do!”
After that “hellish” first week, slowly but surely, by practicing breathing techniques and meditation, Simon emerged from his chrysalis of confusion and began to enjoy what he was doing. “Suddenly I was happy in my skin,” he says with audible relief. “But it was the first time I’d had a proper fright where I worried I’d maybe changed too much. I was even worrying about whether the world had changed with regards the value of music, given that someone streaming themselves playing computer games seems to invite more excitement from people sometimes. I had all sorts of fears but I just had to remember that I don’t need to always worry about my place in the world, or our place in the world; this is my life and I’m happy with it.”
While those internal concerns have been quelled, there are still painful external reminders that the life of a touring musician is beset by challenges, many of them tragic. Back in March, Ben summed up what made Taylor Hawkins special as part of K!’s commemorative Cover Story, declaring “the world is truly a darker place without him”. Three months on, and with tribute concerts to the late Foo Fighters drummer announced in Los Angeles and London, Biffy suggest these seismic losses never fail to stop them in their tracks.
“It’s impossible not to reflect in a massive way,” says Simon, whose friend, Frightened Rabbit singer-songwriter Scott Hutchinson, took his own life in 2018. “There are different circumstances and scenarios around the deaths of Scott and Taylor, but these people are everything you could ever aspire to be, so to suddenly find out they’re unhappy or have bad luck is so difficult. Foo Fighters have always been an inspiration to us, so to lose Taylor – one of the best drummers and such an easy-going guy – makes you think, ‘Wait a fucking minute’ and reflect on everything. What we do [as musicians] is so omnipotent of everything else in our life, with every moment catered towards this thing, with everything else coming second. It’s not a normal rhythm; it’s not a normal life. Giving everyone your best is fucking tiring. You can’t be your best self all the time.”
While Simon’s last point is clearly referring to him as an individual, presumably the title of being Britain’s biggest and best, a mantle regularly thrust upon Biffy, is one he feels an acute pressure to keep up. Turns out much of that expectation is self-administered.
“I used to ignore it but now there’s a bit of me that thinks, ‘We are fucking brilliant,’” grins Simon, declaring it ‘with his chest’ as the kids say. “I think that’s where maturing has come in. We’re still tongue in cheek and don’t like to have big egos, but at the same time I don’t think anyone can step on a stage with us and play as well as us. That’s going to sound arrogant but I’ve always believed that. We didn’t tour the UK non-stop for five years, with no-one giving a fuck, for our own benefit. We are the dog’s bollocks. When we were at school everyone was in a band, just as everyone now has a podcast, and I’d listen to everyone going on about their music, making trip-hop and ska, and I’d think, ‘Yeah, but we fucking mean it. I care deeply about this and will still be doing this in 20 years.’”
“Our default was always to think of ourselves as a wee band,” adds James. “But ever since we were a wee band we’ve wanted to become a big one. It’s actually cost me a lot of money in therapy to get to the point where I’m ready to say we are big.”
Biffy namecheck Korn, who play before them on Sunday at Download, as an inspiration for maintaining a lofty altitude for multiple decades. Back in 1996, Simon, James and Ben skipped school to get their copy of 1996 second album Life Is Peachy signed by the nu-metal legends. “We were such big fans,” smiles Ben. Admittedly their excitement was somewhat tarnished by the appearance in the alley they were queuing in of a business man who rolled up his sleeve and injected himself with heroin. Despite that troubling association, the prospect of sharing a bill with their formative heroes remains something special.
Almost 30 years into their career, it’s great to know Biffy haven’t got too big and successful to do new things; their most recent album, last year’s The Myth Of The Happily Ever After, being the first they’ve made entirely on Scottish soil. So, as the trio ready themselves for a full production run-through of their Download set, there’s just time to ask what other firsts we can expect.
“One thing I’d love to do is different songs with different producers,” reveals Simon. “When we made [2019 soundtrack album] Balance, Not Symmetry that was kind of the concept – even though we did them all with the one producer [Adam Noble], each song was meant to sound like a slightly different band, like a university mixtape. That’s something I’d really like us to do, because I’d like to feel stripped bare at the start of every song and have absolutely no idea where it’s going.”
That’s fitting, because Biffy currently find themselves on the verge of a new era: with no trilogies to be completed or sister albums to be released, just a blank canvas in front of them. “I don’t think there’s actually been one piece of art that’s been a post-pandemic piece of art,” suggests Simon. “I’m not trying to force any music, I just want it to fall out. I quite like the fear aspect of not having written anything for a while, but that fear aspect also means I’ll wonder if I’ll ever write a song again.”
Given that they’ve released four albums in the past six years, there’s little to worry about when it comes to their productivity. Back where they should be, on stages changing lives, and having learned some valuable lessons about themselves, there’s nothing they can’t do. Mon The Fucking Biff!
Surprise! Goldfinger have unveiled a deluxe edition of 2020 LP Never Look Back – featuring appearances by Simon Neil, Avril Lavigne and Travis Barker.
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