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Simon Neil has only just met one of his neighbours. He’s an “old boy in his 70s” who’s lived a stone’s throw away probably since the Biffy Clyro frontman moved into his house over a decade ago. When Simon takes his dog for a daily walk, he passes his new friend sitting in his front garden, “And he just fucking gasses at me.”
One thing he gasses at Simon about is that he wants a ride in his car – a beautiful, red, sporty thing not normally driven by men with the youth or style such a machine deserves to have in the driving seat. So now Simon reckons he’s probably got to take him out in it.
Said old boy doesn’t actually know what his bearded, tattooed neighbour does. He’s just a lad with a nice set of wheels who’s been putting in a lot more time around his locale than usual over the past 18 months.
“I've gotten to know every fucking neighbour I’ve got during lockdown,” Simon laughs today. “I've met people that have lived next door to me for 15 years and they're like, ‘Oh, is that where you live?’”
Biffy Clyro have spent the past year and a half, as bassist James Johnston puts it, “Reintegrating into society.” It’s been pretty good, spending time with their wives, meeting neighbours, having a bit of a rest, even if James and his twin-brother drummer had to spend their birthday apart for the first time ever. But it’s been alright. Still, the new pace just isn’t one any of them have been able to quite get in tune with. “Lately, life can be peculiar,” says Simon of this new domestication. “I think I'd much rather be in a tour bus – it’s more normal.”
Simon Neil isn’t the first musician to say something like this. And up to here, the story of Biffy Clyro’s COVID-coping isn’t so far away from that of any other band. Even the story of releasing an album in lockdown and have it top the charts – last year’s excellent A Celebration Of Endings – and then not being able to tour it is only really a band name and title change away from being that of Architects, Neck Deep, You Me At Six, Royal Blood or anyone else trying to function as normal in an abnormal reality.
Where Biffy’s story takes a turn, however, is that, as with the tone of that record, the end of the chapter came not with a full-stop but a question mark. Endings? No. But what else was there?
“I'm sure every everyone you've spoken to in the last 18 months is probably gonna say just exactly the same thing,” sighs Simon, “but we felt like we had zero purpose.”
Almost immediately after the dust settled on A Celebration…, Biffy started work, in secret, on a follow-up. In their rehearsal space on a farm out in Ayrshire, where so much of their writing and jamming has been done, they installed a studio for themselves, and began to write and record. A Celebration… came out last September. By November, they had almost the whole new album written, and recorded not long after. And after all the other lessons and meditations and pause for thought COVID has given us all, they realised something: Biffy Clyro can’t help being Biffy Clyro. And being Biffy Clyro helps make the world alright.
“Everything we were seeing in the news was such a downer, and every piece of news just seemed worse than the last,” says Simon. “This was our little grab of happiness – to get together and work on music.
“The only way to make ourselves feel better is to make music, you know?”
We join Biffy Clyro in a photo studio housed in an old factory building in Glasgow. The band have just been told off by the owner of a car park across the street – in which they’ve been letting off smoke bombs for K!’s camera – and are heading back inside wearing a shared ‘sorry we kicked our ball over the fence’ look. Now they’re painting one another’s faces as Simon treats everyone to abrasive U.S. grinders Full Of Hell’s new Garden Of Burning Apparitions album at an uncharitable volume (“This is lovely…” is Ben’s short review).
Though Simon notes from a wedding the trio attended at the weekend that he’s “forgotten how to drink”, things finally look like they’re returning to business as usual. There’s a buoyancy about the band – more than usual – an excitement to be doing things and planning things and talking about things that are actually going to happen.
The Myth Of The Happily Ever After was not made under such conditions. The band didn’t even tell their label what they were planning at first. With the huge question marks of a pandemic in which a vaccine was still yet to enter the chat hanging in the air, when Simon first told his bandmates his idea to make another record while the paint was still drying on their last one, he admits they “freaked a little bit” at first. But then they realised, according to Ben, “The other option was to just sit on our hands.”
“You're questioning everything else in the world, but we weren't questioning what we were doing,” says James. “But it really gave us that focus, more than we've ever had, on something positive. It had such an impact in my mind, and I'm sure in all of our minds, that this is what we do.”
Daily, Simon, James and Ben would get in their cars and drive the hour or so to their rural hideout. Because what they were doing counted as work, it was one of the few opportunities available for proper contact with people outside their own households. Having brought in gear and converted their space into somewhere fit for recording, they would jam, write and hang out. Though they admit to having to rein in some of their furthest-out ideas – reducing the droning fuzz intro of Slurpy Slurpy Sleep Sleep down from 10 minutes to a more manageable four, for instance – the informality of just playing in their clubhouse with no expectation brought back an old feeling right at the centre of the band. “It was just pure liberation,” says Simon.
“It felt like we were working like we did in the early 2000s, because it was just three of us and the producer. There’s something really great about making a record where you’re writing songs, and then recording them the next fucking month. Normally for us now, making a record, we meet people in offices that take seven months, it costs a fortune, and sometimes you make these hurdles for yourself. So it was just about falling in love with the simplicity of music again, because it can be so easy to complicate matters.”
At first, there wasn’t much of a plan for what vessel would eventually house what they were doing – it was more about just doing it. The realisation they actually had an album on their hands came with the song Existed, a surprising electronic number built around keys and beats. Packed with idiosyncrasy, perhaps, but the creative splurge also seemed to pull everything else together.
“I'm always very proud of our band, that we put these kind of mad juxtapositions in there,” smiles Simon. “That was actually the key song that made us decide that this was a record. I'd been messing around with that on piano for a couple of weeks, and it was very fresh. I played it to the boys one day, like, 'What do you think?' And they went, ‘Yeah, it’s good… Should we do an album, then?’”
James also uses this song as a highlighter of how quickly ideas could grow legs, and how quickly they could turn into something several steps from the original root. Go away hearing one thing, by the time you come back, it’s already evolved.
“That happens and you're like, 'What about the old guy?!’” he laughs. “But that shows you how immediate the process was. We didn't have months upfront going, ‘Right, well that song's sorted.’”
Elsewhere, older ideas that had never quite had their shoes on the right feet before finally came into focus. For a couple of years, Simon had been playing with the riffs to A Hunger In Your Haunt, “But I’d never been quite able to get the verse and the chorus to work…
“And then in lockdown I just sat down one day, and I was like, ‘This is what it needs to be,’ and it just worked. I don't know if that happened because of lockdown or whether there was just so little pressure that it was like, ‘Actually, this feels good.’ It's hard to tell whether it was the restrictions that made me feel like I needed to really crack this song, or whether it was just, ‘(Adopts hippy voice) Hey man, music's music, we're lucky to be jaaammiing…’”
If musically the circumstances under which The Myth Of The Happily Ever After was made resulted in a creative surge, a celebration amongst the darkness that surrounded it, then lyrically it is much more in the shadow of its time. Often, Simon’s words are of worry, doubt, big questions, isolation and disconnection. On the acoustic Holy Water he declares, ‘All I know is that I don’t belong’, while the title of the whole thing, even, is the flipside of its partner album.
“Celebration… was quite a stoic but positive record,” says Simon. “There was a lot of hope in that album. It was kind of like: things come to an end, but that means a rebirth and it means a restart. This one's kind of doubting that to its very core and saying, ‘Do we ever get a proper restart? Do you ever get to start again and can wipe the slate clean?’”
This comes up immediately in the album’s opening throw, Dum Dum, a song addressing the divisions sown by COVID. ‘Everything’s great, it’s all been a pleasure / Nothing has changed, life couldn’t be better,’ sings Simon, before pivoting to a frustrated, ‘Ignore all the bodies piled up at my door.’ Further into the song, there’s a succinct, ‘This is how we fucked it from the start.’
“We're getting a restart here, where we can strip to the equivalent of our fucking balls out,” he says. “We’re all completely naked [because of this], and I just can't believe that it's not even the disease that people are falling over – it’s the cure. That's slightly weird that we have a cure, and that's what we're fighting over.”
More personally, on A Hunger In Your Haunt, he reflects that ‘Purpose has gone, reason has gone’. Without a schedule or places to be, all three of Biffy found that life could just drift along rather than rush forward as it had done for the past two decades. And as the role of musicians diminished next to those of people on the ground during the pandemic, putting themselves at risk in order to help the rest of us, this brought with it questions about what a person needs, but also how much people need you.
“There's certain things that we need as humans, and we were all being denied,” says Simon. “It was all absolutely worthwhile. I'm not an anti-lockdown, and I will do whatever we need to do to keep people safe, but just to not be able to have simple moments of contact with people and just the fact the intimacy evaporated was tough.”
“It’s been particularly tough on people that need schedules and need for routine in their life,” agrees Ben. “I've always been quite careful in that respect, but even I was like, ‘God, I need some fucking routine here.’ I was trying not to stay up all night, or turn night into day, and I just got so depressed. It was hard to put my finger on why, but I realised quite quickly that I needed to get some routine, and how much it was missing the big gigs.”
“You start to question the last 20 years, questioning everything you know,” says James. “Being in a band – what good am I? What good am I to the world?”
This is a concern that we’ve all felt. And it’s one you shouldn’t beat yourself up about. There’s a glory to being in a band like Biffy Clyro that most of us will never know. But the loneliness and weirdness and darkness of the past 18 months is something that everyone experienced. And almost universally, even if you may wonder what you’re giving the world, it’s the simplest things with those nearest us that have been just as vital, that reassurance that not everything has fallen apart.
“We were this kind of safety net for each other,” says Simon. “Reassurance is the right word because we did reassure ourselves. At different points we'd have wee freak-outs about everything, and I think we just really wanted to help each other through with the energy of it all. And that's what I want from fucking bands.
“I think we try to cultivate as close-knit a feeling as we can amongst all our team, because that's really what makes people happy and what they do with their lives,” he adds. “It's not about fucking money or bottom line. Everyone we tour with, we want them to be happy and never feel isolated. Everyone's family matters, we want to make sure everyone's well, and I think that's what gives us that safety and security and reassurance. I think it gives us strength when we need it in these moments of vulnerability, where you could feel that you were just cast adrift.”
This is where the heart of The Myth Of The Happily Ever After beats hardest. It is a superb record, not for the first time demonstrating that even in off-piste situations, Biffy Clyro produce music that is as creatively fecund, joyously likeable and intimately relatable as a band on the best shift of their lives. But there’s also a familial sense of not just being able to stick together in the darkest times, but that doing so is the natural thing to do, perhaps the only thing to do. After 20 years of being in a band – and, by any measure, having completed being in a band – the calm centre of the world during one of the darkest periods in modern history turns out to have been in a converted farm building, not so far removed from doing the same thing when they were teenaged schoolboys. It almost confirmed what Simon Neil already knew about himself and his friends.
“There's an element in [A Hunger In Your Haunt] that’s about us a band, where we belong,” he says. “Normally you’re away touring so you’re in your own bubble, but during lockdown you’re just sitting there. You’re kind of seeing the lay of the land, and certain songs are shitty to you, and you're going, ‘What the fuck is this?’ But we're aware - we've been doing this for 20 years, and we’re really aware of our place in the world.
“I don't feel that we belong anywhere, but we belong together. And that's the main thing.”
The Myth Of The Happily Ever After is released October 22 via Warner Records.
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