The More Things Change: How Biffy Clyro found hope in chaos
The village of Kilmaurs isn’t the sort of place you’d normally come to find a Number One-selling, festival-headlining band. Truthfully, it isn’t the sort of place you’d normally come to find much of anything at all. And yet here Kerrang! finds ourselves, kicking rocks around a dairy farm in the Western Scotland countryside, awaiting the arrival of Britain’s biggest modern rock act. It’s raining, obviously. Our only company is cattle.
“Welcome to Scotland!” chirps Biffy Clyro bassist James Johnston upon his arrival 20 minutes later, clutching a bag of cakes bought from a local coffee shop, “the sort of place that you walk in and say, ‘I’ll have one of those, one of those, and one of those,’ and walk away £50 lighter,” he smiles. It turns out that if we hadn’t known quite what to expect of Kilmaurs, then the locals hadn’t a clue what to expect of Kerrang! either. One perplexed lady had already politely invited us to sod off her land by the time we’d located the correct whereabouts of today’s meeting, a few miles further down the road and deeper into nothingness. When drummer Ben Johnston climbs out of his car a few minutes later, the pair joke that the resident farmer had already text them about the men in the airport rental car that were busy sniffing around their property.
This, then, is Biffy Clyro HQ. Despite it being their base for some 12 years, by the band’s memory, there is nothing here to give the game away. To stand even outside its doors is to know not of the fact that this particular farm stores amps and guitars where you might expect feeding troughs and hay bales.
Inside, a sizeable practice room stands ever-ready for an impromptu jam session or more rigorous work-out. Flip-chart paper taped to the back of the door details the tracklist of the band’s forthcoming new album – A Celebration Of Endings, the impending release of which has brought K! to Scotland today – which they are busy rehearsing for a release-week livestream event. Through an adjoining door is a wood-panelled hangout space, which the band have transformed across the past months of enforced down-time to resemble, as James puts it, a “Shoreditch coffee shop”. Prized guitars hang on the wall (“That one I ordered from the Czech Republic,” says James, pointing at a bass. “It arrived in pieces and I put it together myself. It sounds great but looks like shit…”) and a hoard of pedals fill an entire shelving unit. Water, at least the kind you’d want to pass near your lips, comes from a plastic Jerry can filled from supermarket bottles. In one corner stands a makeshift vocal booth, complete with a printed lyric sheet that gives away a secret guest spot on another band’s upcoming music. Finally, through one further door, a small warehouse of gear. A weathered shutter separates it from the sprawling fields outside. It takes James hanging his entire bodyweight off its rusty pulley system to slowly ease it open.
Click above to Simon discuss the importance of cleaning house between each album
“This is very much a working farm.” James tells us. “There’s boys outside who’ve been working since you were well asleep.”
The eventual arrival of a racing red Porsche brings joshing from everyone that “the frontman must be here”. Simon Neil parks outside the farm’s outhouse toilet, which we’re not certain is even fit for cattle, let alone humans. “We’re turning up at two in the afternoon and the farmers are going for their dinner – ‘Morning, boys!’” Simon laughs, pretending to screw his face up to something resembling half-asleep and hungover.
A coarse blend of cigarette smoke and manure might fill the air today, but so too does change. Even before the unprecedented events of 2020, it was a theme which lingered around Biffy Clyro. One look at the title of their latest work, A Celebration Of Endings, tells you exactly that. Written and recorded over 12 months ago – and the world being flipped on its head, of course – it stands as a document of upheaval that is both personal and political.
The deterioration of two longstanding relationships within the band’s wider circle looms large as our conversation as to the album’s inspiration begins. Simon is careful in his choice of words and does not name names. He describes the fallings-out as “heartbreaking”, and it shows. “Whenever you lose a relationship, when it’s someone who’s been in your life for a long time you question everything,” Simon sighs. “You question your motivations, and their motivations – especially when it comes from the business side. Maybe this is our naivety, but we have always considered this band to be a spiritual, familial thing. So when something happens to break that, there’s a period of grieving. Add to that what was happening in the world around us at the time, with Brexit, increasing unrest and division, and it just felt like the rug had been completely pulled from under our feet.”
As Simon began to put pen to paper – as ever, at home, just a few miles down the road, where to this day he still does nearly all of his songwriting – the results where clouded in negativity. “I think most of my lyrics start in quite a dark place,” he reveals. “There is something about my motivation when I’m creating, that I tend to need to be really sad or mad or angry. It’s not necessarily healthy, but…” The thought trails off, and another begins. Everywhere he looked, he says, he felt nothing but discord – whether it was when turning on the TV news to headlines that left him in a spin, or by opening up his emails to find a trail of messages from lawyers. “Our foundations had shifted, and society felt so twisted,” he says.
And so the words that tumbled from brain to page began to explore “these different angles of enforced change”. North Of No South took world leaders to task – “these liars, these fucking dictators, these buffoons.” The Champ became a prism through which to view the battle to save the environment. Opaque let Simon pick up the frustrations of music’s business side that was souring his desire to create. The Pink Limit simply sought to capture the feeling of “reaching your absolute limit of patience and feeling like you’re going to explode”. Weird Leisure, meanwhile, detailed “seeing one your friends live in the darkness [of] drug addiction, and you’re trying to bring them out into the light”.
So far, so glum. ‘Endings’ abound. Their ‘Celebration’, however? “The light in my songs tends to come after I’ve lived with them a little bit,” Simon begins. It might have come as little surprise to him, then, when an “alarm clock went off” in his mind. “The positivity of this record came from realising that, actually, you can’t expect anyone else to do anything on your behalf,” he continues. “[Biffy’s seventh album] Ellipsis was quite a vulnerable record, I think – it was saying, ‘This is us, this is who we are, don’t come on our land.’ And yet in the time after it, it felt like someone had come on our land, taken all our stuff and strewn all over the fucking countryside. We had to pick up these pieces, and actually, in the act of picking up everything that’s broken, you realise what you really want to cherish. Change is a scary thing for anyone, but actually, change can be good and a chance to make your situation better. All we can control is ourselves. Where do you sit? What do you feel? So that’s where we’ll start. And that’s the change we will make.
“The last lyric of the record, ‘Fuck everybody’? It’s like, ‘Yeah, fuck everybody. Whatever. The only things we can rely on is what we’re in control of.’”
It is in this tension and turbulence that A Celebration Of Endings soars. Make no mistake: this is one of 2020’s finest releases, and some of the best music to which the band have ever put their name. For the first time it successfully harmonises the different sides to Biffy Clyro: the chaotic alt.rock of their younger years blends intricately with the kind of arena-filling bombast that has become their stock in trade for the past decade, which in turn harnesses the pop sensibilities that have come to serve as a foundation to some of their biggest hits. “It’s a tumultuous record,” nods Simon. “It’s meant to be unsettling; I think we’ve realised that that is a defining characteristic of our band. I don’t want one thing from bands I listen to; I never have. I remember being 16 years old and fuming when I heard Rage Against The Machine’s Evil Empire – and I love Rage, by the way – because to me it sounded too much like the same riffs I had heard on their debut. I’d just got [1997 album] El Diablo by Will Haven, and I couldn’t understand why Rage didn’t sound like that!” He laughs at the absurdity of the memory, but it underlines his point. “Sometimes I want to write a song that sounds like [pop-rock duo] Roxette,” he shrugs. “The next minute I want to write a song that sounds like fucking Sunn O))).
“It became, ‘How can we make this difficult to listen to instead of making it an easy experience?’” notes James.
Hear Simon discuss wanting to leave the listener confused by clicking the button above
“Every record is a reaction to the previous one,” Simon continues, referring as much to their last studio work as the stripped-back nature of the Unplugged album and tour that followed. “On Ellipsis, I was really focused on the songs, and everything else was kind of colouring them. Whereas on this album, there’s moments where it’s just about a riff; there’s moments where it’s just about the vocal; there’s different parts to pay attention to. Some records wash over you; I wanted this to snap you into consciousness – it conceptualises some of [the themes].” He points to the track Worst Kind Of Best Possible. “That song is bookended by total fucking mayhem, but yet you’re still in the middle – ‘I’m always holding out for peacetime.’ It sounds like the end of the world, and there’s a human in the middle of it, trying to get something out of this.”
These are themes which James and Ben both agree have become even more prevalent one year – and one global pandemic – on. “It’s more impactful to me now, the messages behind the songs,” James nods. “These things really, really matter now. It’s become talking about less of a reaction to a personal situation, and you can now extrapolate that and apply it in a much wider sense. Simon talked about us questioning the shifting sand around our feet, and that’s happened to everyone now. Everything they held to be dear, that they could fall back on and rely on in their life, has totally changed. And that leaves you beginning to question everything.”
Simon smiles in agreement – “I think this has caused everyone to reset what they value and what they cherish in their life, and I think that can only be a good thing. This is the moment where we realise, ‘Let’s make a difference…’” – yet he winces at the context in which some lyrics might now be viewed. “In North Of No South, for instance, I sing, ‘Have you ever been a place in which you couldn’t breathe?’ Some of those have almost made me fold a little. It freaks me out how some of these lyrics seem even more prescient now after COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement. Because of everything that has happened, my relationship with this record is very different [now] – and I haven’t even had the opportunity to stand onstage, sing these words, and process them in a different way. It’s not even about ‘politics’ or whatever. It’s about right and wrong, empathy, and community.
“It’s about fucking truth.”
There is something striking, though not immediately so, about Biffy Clyro’s HQ. All around us hang flags of different nations – each with fans’ handwritten messages of support adorning them, and collected from travels all over the world. A Polish one dangles from the ceiling above Ben’s drum kit in the rehearsal room. The Bandera de México sits alongside Canada’s Maple Leaf behind Simon’s guitar rig. A pair representing Brazil adorn a corner work station. Yet, save for the extent of the assembled gear, these are the only hints at the global stardom Biffy Clyro have come to know in their quarter of a century as a band. Nowhere are platinum records or the band’s multitude of awards – including four cherished Kerrang! Awards – to be seen. There are no huge prints or commemorative posters celebrating their most impressive of live successes. In fact, Kerrang! spots only a single photograph throughout the whole space. In it, three young men stand atop a beaten-up mini-van. It hangs above the seating area in the HQ’s lounge area. The picture has slipped in the frame.
There are some things, of course, that never change. Simon Neil met the Johnston twins in nearby Kilmarnock when he was seven years old. Each of the trio recently celebrated their 40th birthday; they’ve been inseparable in the intervening years. To simply be in their company is to witness the years they have spent living in each other’s back pockets. Sentences regularly go half-finished by one and picked up without missing a beat by another. They laugh constantly and heartily at each other’s jokes, which come all the time. “During lockdown we’ve seen such a growth in community spirit,” Ben attempts to say at one point with sincerity. “People looking out for each other, reaching out, putting a note through your door saying…” Simon quickly cuts across him: “‘Go fuck yourself!’”
It is a bond that recent years have only strengthened, whether that was in light of Simon’s exhaustion-related “wee breakdown” and Ben’s battle with alcohol around the creation of 2013’s Opposites double album, or the testing times surrounding A Celebration Of Endings. Simon has come to view the band as he has the wider world – “Change can be positive, if we can keep the things that we value.”
“Our principles as a band, our modus operandi, has never changed,” agrees James. “The core is the three of us together, with that slight DIY chip on our shoulder. The changes we’ve been through as people and collectively have all happened naturally and happened together, so we’ve been able to take our learnings from the band into our lives, and our learnings from life into the band.”
“We’re creatures of habit,” adds Simon. “We’re able to change in a more macro sense because the way that we operate actually doesn’t change a lot.”
Indeed, the creation of A Celebration Of Endings saw the band return to developing the songs live in their rehearsal space, having foregone the process for much of the Ellipsis album that precedes it. “That was a deliberate decision for that album, and that’s one thing I would maybe tweak about it [if we were to go back to that time],” Simon admits. “The essence of who we are is the three of us playing in a room. Every song needs to work in that setting. Even [A Celebration Of Endings’ lead single] Instant History, which lots of people described weirdly as an EDM-style song, we have a version of that song that works in this space. When we take a song to the studio, it can end up sounding like whatever, but we need to know it has the pulse and the heartbeat of our band: guitar, bass and drums, all of us singing together.” Its results are evident across each of the album’s 11 tracks.
Their Kilmaurs HQ, then, stands as a testament to and embodiment of that core bond: with each other, with themselves, with their history and their future. “The attitude of this place, of this village and part of the world, is so important to us,” begins James. Simon takes over: “There’s a need when we’re here; that same desire to get out, to see the world, that we had when we started. That was a little bit of our motivation when we started, you want to get out and see the world. We couldn’t love this part of the world more, but there is still this essence of, ‘We don’t just want to be here, do we?’ And so when you go back out on the road, it gives you that joy.”
He takes one last drag of his cigarette. “I’ve always thought that all I needed was to make the songs and record. And, actually, [touring] is such an essential part of our identity; it’s in our DNA. If anything, this period in time has made me even more sure of wanting to do this band forever.
“It seems even more special today that we are the same band and the same people, and I want to cherish that aspect of it. It’s special that we can go on a stage and share things with people all over the world. This is special.”
Biffy Clyro’s A Celebration Of Endings is out now via Warner Music.
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