It’s probably easy to take things for granted when you’re headlining some of the biggest festivals in the country and playing arenas. Not so for Biffy Clyro. Simon Neil, and Ben and James Johnston, remain thankful - just as long as they can make another album and not become a nostalgia trip act.
No danger of that - latest album Ellipsis topped the chart in dramatic fashion, at one point outselling the rest of the top five combined. Their position as one of the foremost bands in the country is in no danger whatsoever. No wonder they’re so relaxed and playful here (some of these quotes look a little sore unless you saw the huge grin and typical Simon Neil humour they came with).
We sat down with Reading & Leeds headline act Biffy Clyro to speak to them about that successful new album, climbing the ladder in Europe, Brexit (man, they’re fucking angry about Brexit) and the balancing act they play with two sets of fans.
DiS: How has the initial reaction Ellipsis been and how do you feel about it?
Simon: Great, what we expected. Some people love it and some people hate it and we’ve always felt we’re doing something right if that’s the case. Every time we’ve released a record some people are just like: “No, why are you doing this?” and some people are like “this is the greatest”. It’s a relief to have it out, we’ve been sitting on it for the last couple of months and we’re over the moon with it so it’s nice now it’s doing its’ thing.
It’s selling really well. How important is that to you as a band?
Simon: It does register. It sounds like a cliché, but it doesn’t occur to us when we’re making music but afterwards when you’re doing interviews it’s really nice to hear that it’s sitting at the top of the charts. I don’t think you’d be human if it didn’t give you a wee boost inside.
James: It’s quite obvious that’s not where we started as a band. We’d never trouble the charts or get close. Things change as they go along and you get slightly more used to that side of things. You’d have to have no heart, in a way, to not be pleased that people are buying your record. That’s exciting.
Ben: We didn’t make it for us to listen to in our bedrooms.
Simon: (laughs) That’s a good point. We are on Warner Bros.
James: And it’s also an indication that you might get to make another record.
Simon: Believe it or not, our first thought when we release another album is survival instinct. We should get another record.
So that’s something you’re still concerned about?
Ben:You’re always thinking you could get dropped at any point, it could happen.
Simon: We never take it for granted. People have made some of the best records ever and they only get to make one or two albums. With us twisting things up on this album, it’s nice that people have taken to it and we want to explore this new vibe on the next couple of records and use the studio more.
With your fanbase, if that ever happened, you’d be fine anyway?
Simon: We’d still make music, don’t get us wrong. We would be doing this no matter what. We’re three pals, last year was a tonne of fun for us. It was weird not playing live shows but it was really cool being in a room as friends just making music. That’s what connects us most and that’s what excites us most - to come up with a new idea and look at each other going: “Yeah, this is fucking brilliant.” We always try to think on the naive side when it comes to music and almost expect everything to end tomorrow. Now that this album’s out, we’re already looking forward to where we go next.
With all the ideas, was there never a temptation to make Ellipsis another double album?
Simon: We joked about doing a triple album, which was just a joke. I think Opposites is as dense a piece of work as we can make, This time I think it was important to streamline it. We always make a record in response to the previous one so there was no point in us making another huge piece of music. Sometimes you give yourself restrictions and it helps your ideas flourish. Ironically, when it’s a blank canvas, it can be tougher to know what to do. Our options are opening up. We could make a prog-metal record, we could make an acoustic record, we could make an electronic record. I don’t think there’s a lot of bands that could do that.
Do you ever read the reviews?
Simon: Yes (stares at me, smiling). Yes we do Luke! It’s hard not to when you care about something as much as we do. When people hate it, it hurts. When people love it, it feels good. But you have to take it all with a pinch of salt. Some people think it’s the greatest thing ever, and it’s maybe not that. Some people think it’s a piece of shit and we know it’s not that. We’re lucky we’re in a position where we have the fans we have, and reviews aren’t as important as they once were.
Ben: It doesn’t change your opinion of the music but it does...
Simon: Change your opinion of the writer! It’s funny when people say there’s nothing like Jaggy Snake in there and you’re like...
Ben: It’s because it’s fucking not 12 years ago.
Simon: The thing is, when you get into a band, the first record that you hear tends to be the one you cherish most. That’ll never change.
What’s it like playing these early shows where people maybe don’t know all the words like they might in a few months?
Simon: Playing in Milan, the first one since the record came out and people knew all the words, which was nice. It takes a while for us to settle with the new songs as well. Most we’ve been playing for five or ten years and with the new songs we’re still feeling our way. This record brings out the light in a lot of songs we didn’t play on the Opposites tour. We’re looking forward to people really getting to know it. Our fans give us so much back and, with the songs being so personal, when I see people taking joy from that it’s a big thing for me.
What’s it like playing the smaller crowds in Europe compared to headlining over here?
James: It’s building steam.
Ben: There’s always going to be less pressure because it’s a different country and then you’ve got the likes of Reading & Leeds. We tend to really enjoy these festivals as we’re getting higher up the bill. We did a magic run of European festivals in 2013 that was the perfect build because there wasn’t that pressure and we could settle into playing.
Simon: We thought we’d never feel at home on the big stages and love the small gigs.
What’s going to make Reading and Leeds better for you this time?
James: We’ve got a new album! A whole bunch of new songs and it’s all about trying to make that connection with the audience. That’s what our show is all about and what makes every night special and by then the songs will be second nature because at the moment it’s an out-of-body experience.
What does the band have left to achieve at this point?
Simon: It’s not really something we consider. Our ambitions are all musical really rather than scale. We’ve become a bigger band than we ever thought possible. Records are the most important thing and as long as we get to make more of those and push ourselves artistically and musically then we’re happy. Anyone who knows our career knows there’s no way we could’ve planned this and we’re not going to start now.
I saw an article where you listed your albums in order of preference and you basically did it in order of release with most recent at the top.
Simon: Every single record we’ve made, we’ve given absolutely everything to it.
Ben: We can’t understand bands who wouldn’t say that. You see lots of bands talk badly of their albums and say they shouldn’t do it.
Simon: So why did they fucking record it? Was it just “time to make a record”?
Ben: It’s so bizarre to us so we thought that was the only way we could possible do that.
James: Rivers Cuomo said he doesn’t understand why everyone likes Pinkerton because it’s rubbish and I was like “fuck off”. It really upset me, I love that album.
Would you agree there’s two sets of Biffy fans?
Simon: Yes, and it’s funny how big the numbers have grown from when we toured the first three albums. There wasn’t the amount of people then who loved the albums. Where were you when we were fucking touring? It’s understandable, if you like five minute prog-screamo stuff then you’re not going to like Ellipsis but that’s not something we concern ourselves with. We were making records back then as who were were. We were angry and pissed off. All we can do is be sincere and honest about where we are at this moment. We would rather not make a record than make a representation of something we were ten years ago.
James: If I went back 15 years in my life and heard a record that I loved now instead of then, I probably wouldn’t feel the same way because my tastes have changed and I’ve grown in my life. I think people don’t appreciate that. It’s not like you ignore the records.
James: No, we still play the songs.
Simon: We do and when we go out on a proper headline tour we always try to tip our hat but we can’t play for four hours and we don’t want to be the band that only plays their first few albums. Sometimes nostalgia can be attached to music more than it should. But that doesn’t mean we should only play new shit.
What gets the better reaction?
Simon: The newer stuff does. It’s more widely known and much more popular I guess. You’ll notice it at festivals but it’s different at our own shows. It depends though; whenever we play an old song in Italy or Spain, because we haven’t toured there a lot, it’s like the fucking second coming of Jesus.
Questions from fans - what’s with the album cover?
Simon: Well, we couldn’t make it transparent.
Ben: We were getting our laundry done that day.
Simon: We didn’t want to do anything even close to what we did on the last three albums. Also I was dying to see the boys’ asses on the cover.
Ben: It’s also a challenge for people who religiously get the front cover of our album tattooed on them.
Will there be any more special shows like the Barrowlands?
Simon: Definitely, but not right now. We’ve got the b-sides for Ellipsis record and that’s another 14 songs. We’ll get that out. But yeah we will. After every three records it’s really nice to look back and show everyone that they all matter to us.
Was there ever a temptation to ditch ‘Many Of Horror’ when X Factor picked it up?
Simon: No, it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written. It gave me a lot of confidence. We only listened to weird rock music, then a few years later we had the biggest, most corporate TV show say they love our tune. I still find it as hilarious as I did back then. I’m more proud of it now than ever.
Which lyric makes you most proud?
Simon: ‘Folding Stars’ and ‘Machines’ from Puzzle. At the time when my Mum passed away, I didn’t realise how explicit and specific I was about where my mind was at. I think those are the most honest songs I’ve ever written. I still find ‘Folding Stars’ really hard to sing or play, but it helped me deal with that.
Can we expect a tour announcement?
Simon: We’re not allowed to talk about it because of Reading & Leeds, but we should be out in December. Britain, we’re coming for you.
Ben: We don’t want people to think we’re not going to tour. It’s not like we’re now gonna have some time off.
What’s your view of Brexit?
Biffy Clyro (in unison): It’s a fucking shambles!
Ben: Once again, we’ve been led astray, lied to, and then people have walked away from their fucking mess.
Simon: The sad thing is, Scotland voted to stay, and I think it’s the first time a lot of the Remain people understood why Scotland wanted the independence referendum in the first place. We’re a minority in the UK. We didn’t fucking vote for the Tory government. And now, it’s so sad; Cameron is such an arsehole, such a coward.
James: Another unelected Prime Minister, that nobody has voted for.
Simon: The political system is a fucking mess. Across Europe now there’s this rise of right-wing parties and this whole thing has validated the every-man-for-themselves mentality. I think it’s horrible and it’s a dangerous time. We feel horrible for kids out of school, in for a decade of darkness. Then you’ve got fuckers like Farage and Johnson, and they’ll have croaked it by the time it’s really hurting people. Really sad, and I hope people that voted Leave are regretting it. So basically, we’ve been doing an apology tour in Europe. But Johnson and Gove lied and said to the people, that Cameron ignored, that the reason your life is shit is because of the EU. And it worked.
Biffy Clyro headline Reading & Leeds from the 26th to the 28th August. Ellipsis is out now on Warner Bros., and you can read the DiS review of it here.