How Biffy Clyro Rediscovered Their Love Of Rock Music
“I like to think that we try things and do them in ways that no other band would even try,” laughs Simon Neil. “And more often than not because it’s a stupid idea!”
Let’s set the record straight from the off: Biffy Clyro’s forthcoming eighth album – A Celebration Of Endings – is anything but a stupid idea. Bold, out-there, and a little bit bonkers, yes – but then we wouldn’t have Biffy Clyro any other way.
Simon, bassist James Johnston and his twin brother drummer Ben are in incredibly high spirits as they sit with Kerrang! in a shiny corner of their record label Warner’s London HQ, beneath a giant framed picture commemorating their achievements on smash-hit 2009 album Only Revolutions. The self-deprecating laughter comes heartily and incredibly often, and is anything but misplaced, born of a confidence in the album they have just afforded Kerrang! an exclusive early preview of, which is set for release this May.
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Following two years of deviations – 2018’s MTV Unplugged album, followed by their first-ever film score album, Balance, Not Symmetry, released last May – the trio have returned to doing what they do best: taking a sledgehammer of off-kilter riffs to enormous pop-rock hooks. Sonically sitting somewhere between breakthrough classic Puzzle and epic double-album Opposites, this new offering follows 2016’s Ellipsis and marks the second release in the band’s third ‘trilogy’ of albums – the identity of which, Simon admits, is only just beginning to take shape. Latest single Instant History serves as a taste of what is to come, yet also barely scratches the surface of what lies in wait. “We’ve only played the singles to some people and they’ve asked us, ‘Oh, is this what the album is like?’” smiles Simon. “And we’re like, ‘Oh, noooo…’”
To give you a more accurate picture of the album and a small glimpse inside the journey of its creation, it’s over to the four-time K! Award winners themselves…
We’ll leave you to introduce the world to your new record, guys…
Simon Neil (vocals/guitar): “Well, it’s Biffy 2020, motherfuckers! This is a record that only our band could make, I think. After doing the Unplugged album, we realised we weren’t at that stage yet as a band. We loved doing the Unplugged tour, but I think if anything it made us fall in love with noise again. After releasing Balance, Not Symmetry last year, we felt responsibility leave us. We went back to work with [Ellipsis producer] Rich Costey for a second time, and things became easier there – your communication becomes a lot more unsaid the more you work with someone. I compare Ellipsis to Blackened Sky and Puzzle, which were the first records we made with those producers [Chris Sheldon and Garth ‘GGGarth’ Richardson] – they’re quite clean records, and you can hear that we’re still feeling each other out. This record feels in line with [2003’s] The Vertigo Of Bliss and Only Revolutions [the second albums from each of the preceding trilogies] – what we’re trying to achieve with this series is beginning to take shape and blossom. We felt fearless, and it’s nice to feel like we’re finding our own way. And also, fucking rock music is brilliant. Standing in a room making a shit-ton of noise with your buddies? Nothing beats it, and I think that’s what we’ve rediscovered.”
Having made each previous trilogy with the same producers, presumably your plan was always to go back to Rich?
Simon: “Yeah, it was – for better or worse! It’s funny, I almost like putting such a limitation on it. Deciding that you’re going to work with the same person for three records is kind of liberating, even though it restricts you. The dynamic was a lot better this time around, and we were more savvy with using the studio.”
James Johnston (bass/vocals): “Rich is also all about the new – he’s always thinking about new pieces of kit and new ways to get sounds, and I think that brings us out of our shells. A lot of times rock can be a bit safe and look back to the past, attempting to recreate the great records from 25 years ago. That has its place, but it’s not for us and not for now – we need to try to move forward.”
Simon: “Puzzle, Only Revolutions and Opposites were us trying to make fucking Led Zeppelin records, and then [with Ellipsis] it became about making it as natural and as beautiful as possible. It feels like we’re on a different mission now – and it feels like 2020. I don’t want to be one of those bands that’s always looking back; I want us to feel like we’re getting better – and actually be getting better, too (laughs).”
Did you have that blueprint in mind, or did things develop over the course of the album’s creation?
Simon: “A few things changed. When we made Ellipsis, we were waiting for the songs to speak to us. But this time, we knew the key songs before going in to record it, so we were still exploring them in the studio, but we knew what would and wouldn’t be working for us. Last time out, Rich might say, ‘I don’t know about this one…’ and we’d be like, ‘Okay!’ But this time, we knew what songs the album needed. I think that’s the sort of thing that makes us us. If you’re not doing anything that feels potentially ridiculous, I don’t understand the purpose in doing it at all. We’ve always tried to retain that from being younger: always try to do the craziest shit, because as soon as you just do what you think is going to feel right, you lose a certain spark.”
How did the process of creating this record work with making Balance, Not Symmetry, both creatively and logistically?
Simon: “We were already working on this record as we were recording Balance…, and it definitely fed back into it. We recorded Balance… in Belgium and Wales, and it was just us and our producer, Adam Noble. We were left to our own devices, and it reminded us just how mischievous you can be. Recording an album normally, you’ve got record companies asking you how things are going, so you’re aware it’s a much bigger project. We got a lot of self-belief from making Balance…, from going, ‘This is why we do this. We do this because we fucking wanna be in a room together making a record – and if no-one else likes it, that’s a bonus.’ (Laughs) This record would not have been as chaotic, liberating or joyous if we hadn’t made Balance…. Coming off the back of Unplugged, it could potentially have made us mature in a way that we’re not ready to do yet. I think we’ve got another 10 or 15 years of giving the youngsters a run for their money!”
James: “It reminded us to trust ourselves – we had no-one else telling us what to do, so we were just going on our own instincts. And then you come out with something that you feel really works for you. You need to trust your own instincts and not worry about what anyone else might think.”
Behind all the layers and the depth of sound, the heart of this album is three people playing together live. Is that the spirit you were wanting to get back to?
Simon: “It’s exactly that: the joy of just making noise, and not worrying about what a song is trying to do or achieve. It’s simply, ‘How good did that make us feel?’ And that is definitely what we felt with this. I love screaming at the top of my lungs more than anything. We still practice the same way that we always have, and I think that’s what helps us retain the idea that this is a great laugh and great fun. The longer you go on as a band, so much gets involved – there’s other people’s opinions, other people’s dynamics… We just don’t need to be afraid when you’re playing guitar. There was so many amazing rock records last year – Mannequin Pussy, Brutus, Black Midi, Venom Prison, who you guys have had on the Kerrang! cover… You know, there’s so much stunning guitar music being made, I’m quite glad that all the [stuff that’s] streaming is all pure piss. More people voted for Boris Johnson in this country and they’re the ones streaming the shite (laughs). To me, it makes rock music more exciting than ever. There’s so many amazing bands that don’t have one eye on the mainstream, and I think that’s bringing the best out of all of them.”
Do you feel you perhaps lost sight of that at any point on Ellipsis?
Simon: “I wanted Ellipsis to be the perfect pop-rock record. Looking back now, I wanted it to be the gentlest thing we’d done. It was the start of the next chapter, and I hadn’t quite discovered where these songs needed to sit. There are a couple of songs on that album I’d record differently, but I do accept it for the piece that it was and it was very much a deliberate choice to make such a sweet record. But, again, it reminded us that this band needs the filth and we need the anger to offset that sweetness. I wouldn’t want to make an album that was purely just me screaming, and for the same reason that Ellipsis was a smooth record, but we maybe missed a bit of the abrasion of our band. I’m glad we did it – I think I wrote some of my best songs on that record – but as a reaction to those songs, this album came about. I felt the same with Blackened Sky and I felt the same with Puzzle as well; I felt those albums could have been more abrasive, and when I listen back I’m a bit like, ‘Fuck! It could have been dirtier.’ But that’s what keeps us coming back – if you feel you’ve made a perfect record, then a year down the line we’d probably go, ‘Cooool, best call it a day, then?!’”
In contrast to Ellipsis, too, some of the jumps between songs on this album are crazy…
Simon: “We want the record to be one continuous journey, and leave people thinking, ‘What the fuck is coming next?!’ We like to have a laugh and do things that are a bit ridiculous. That’s what people on the outside of this world don’t understand – some of rock and metal is meant to be ridiculous! That’s the fucking point. We wanted moments on this record that were of pure sincerity but then ripping you out of those moments with something ridiculous, without either detracting from the other. It also really starts to reveal itself with each listen, which is something all my favourite records do. I still feel now like I’m discovering new things in the songs, and I wrote the fucking things!”
James: “I don’t mind saying there’s been times when I’ve thought I had a song figured out, and then a few weeks later thought, ‘Was I stupid?!’ I think that’s just great writing, and that shows longevity.”
Simon: “If I tell them too specifically what something’s about, then it removes the romance from those songs, and I want the boys to have that with these songs.”
Without ruining it for your bandmates, then, lyrically where are you coming from?
Simon: “For me it’s about change; I feel like the way the last few years have gone, a lot of good people have been keeping quiet, hoping the right things are going to happen, but at this stage… I feel a century only really begins in its second or third decade; that’s when you discover how things are going to pan out. This is the birth of our new era, now. I feel like the nadir of Brexit and Boris and Donald Trump, this is the lowest point and we’re going to now bounce back up. I truly believe in the next generation – that they have a sense of right and wrong in a good way. Instant History is an important part of this – the lyrics are about, ‘Fuck this, let’s make a change for ourselves, let’s not wait for other folk to do it.’ I feel like my generation has not helped the younger generation; we’ve taken a lot of things for granted. For me and most of my friends, our ambition was to sit and do nothing for our entire fucking lives (laughs). Ultimately this album is about learning from things in my past relationships, and it’s about progress, change, and looking forward. I have no interest in being retro or looking over our shoulder. As the great Robbie Williams once said: ‘Look back, don’t stare…’ (Laughs) There’s your fucking quote!”
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