Their sixth record is – whisper it – a two-disc concept album that took five months to record. Have Biffy Clyro got a bad dose of Pompous Prog Rock Syndrome? No, actually, says singer Simon Neil. LAUREN MURPHY hears him out
When you’re a member of a high-flying, internationally successful band, you become accustomed to hanging around in airports. That’s where Simon Neil is at the moment, his flight to Zurich grounded because of the snow that is blanketing the continent.
You might expect the Biffy Clyro frontman to be slightly irritable. At best, a bit grumpy; at worst, barking at his PA to bring another bowl of blue MMs as yet another “delayed” announcement comes over the tannoy. But Simon Neil is not your average rock star. Married to an English teacher, he still lives in Ayrshire and says that the band still rehearse “in the middle of nowhere, a long way from the music industry”.
Yet while some things have stayed the same over the past few years, there have been many changes, too. The last time we spoke – one year after the release of 2007’s Puzzle – the Scottish trio were well on their way to stadium-rock greatness, but they couldn’t have envisaged quite how stratospheric their ensuing rise would be. Perhaps it was their song Many of Horror, reworked into a surging pop ballad, When We Collide, and released as X Factor winner Matt Cardle’s debut single, that gave them that extra push.
Their 2009 album, Only Revolutions, became their most successful to date, although it led many old-guard fans to accuse the Kilmarnock band of “selling out”. To others, it was simply a case of progression: there’s only so far they could have gone in the indie world with the singular guitar-rock sound of their first three records.
It’s progress that has led Biffy Clyro to their sixth and most ambitious album to date, Opposites. A double album (cough, splutter) encompassing two discs entitled The Land at the End of Our Toes and The Sand at the Core of Our Bones, recorded in five months in Los Angeles? You’d be forgiven for thinking that success had gone to the trio’s heads.
Neil laughs warmly at the suggestion. “I think it was because of the timing. Because of the success of Only Revolutions, we felt that we had a wee bit of power for the time – so we kind of didn’t give Warner the option when we were going with the double album,” he chuckles.
“Also, because we’d made really budget records and recorded things in one day in a room in the past, we really wanted to take advantage of having a budget from Warner and take every opportunity that we had. I would hate to try and make the same record over and over again, or try and regain some magic from a few years ago; I’d much prefer to inhabit the moment. I’m sure that not all Biffy fans would agree, but we’ve got to be true to our muse and be true to who we are now.
“And I feel like now, we’ve learned how to use the studio as a tool. Before, we used to try and capture what we were live as a band, and it was important to get that energy on the album, whereas now, I think we see them as two separate things. A record can be a lot more subtle, and each time you listen to it, you should be peeling back a layer and discovering something new. Live, it’s all about that moment. And I think we’ve finally come to terms with the fact that it is a different beast.”
There were several reasons behind the concept, he says. Making a double album has been on the band’s agenda since the teenaged Neil discovered (and became obsessed by) Guns n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums, but there were more practical reasons , too. Hitting a creative purple patch and writing more than 45 songs in the past year certainly helped, but there was a deeper reasoning at its heart, too.
“It’s a strange time for music – more than ever, music is a distraction for a few minutes, a form of throwaway entertainment. We want to make music that’s gonna be a life companion to people; we want to write songs that people are going to listen to in 20 years and it transports them back,” he says.
“It was about trying to do things in an old-school way. There are very few double albums out there that keep you focused for the full two albums, and a lot of times, I think when bands make double albums, it’s just to show off; like ‘Hey, this is everything we can do, and every song we write is amazing, and every idea we have is amazing’. We didn’t think that at all. We felt like it could be a concise record, and I think we wanted to hopefully show that on a double record you don’t have to be completely self-indulgent. It felt like we finally got to show every side of our band, I guess, without it being ridiculously Spinal Tap. Well, hopefully.”
He is certainly right about the band going to new places. Having started off with songs that nodded generously to post-hardcore and alternative rock such as 27 and The Ideal Height and Glitter and Trauma, the Biffy Clyro of a decade ago probably would have scoffed at some of the songs on Opposites. Orchestral strings flood The Thaw, a delicate flourish of harp can be heard on Sounds Like Balloons and the incorporation of brass into Spanish Radio, with its easygoing tempo, sounds completely natural.
It’s a brave undertaking, but there is also a sense that the band are caught between two worlds, a sense that chimes with the album’s theme of duality. For every upbeat song, there is a sad counterpart: “You are the loneliest person that I’ve ever known / We are joined at the surface, but nowhere else” or “When you leave, I doubt I’ll remember you”.
Neil is open about the inspiration for the more melancholic tracks, some of which were informed by drummer Ben Johnston’s recent battle with alcohol addiction.
“I think a lot of the songs I was writing were kind of almost like me pleading with Ben to kind of come back to us as a family, kind of thing,” he says. “I think now, fortunately, I can see what happened as being a positive thing. The songs that came out of it were positive, and I think where Ben is now is extremely positive. But it was the very first time that we thought ‘Wait a minute – we’re falling into the trap here that all bands fall into’.
“It’s such a cliche that someone gets taken over by drink or drugs, and I think we just couldn’t believe that it was happening to us. But it was a necessary evil for this record, and I don’t think we’d be in such a positive place if we hadn’t gone through it. When you’re in a band, you’re in a bubble so much of the time that it’s easy to sweep real life problems under the carpet and just ignore them. It’s only when we got home after touring Only Revolutions that we realised ‘Hang on, we’re not in a healthy state here’. We were still talking to each other and still getting on, but there was just something not right, and I felt that we could have lost Ben as part of the band if things had kept going on. But I feel like we’re in a stronger position than we’ve ever been in now. It feels like the start of our second chapter as a band.”
Having played some mammoth gigs over the past few years and unwittingly ascended to a bona fide “stadium rock” status, you have to wonder what Neil envisages for the next stage of his band’s existence. He was 15 years old when he formed Biffy Clyro. Eighteen years on, is he where he wanted to be?
“When we started out, any of the bands we loved never made it to being a ‘big’ band,” Neil says, pausing to consider the question as another delay announcement pings in the airport background.
“And I think that we never, ever did – not even for a second – thought that writing the kind of music we did and playing shows the way we do, that it would connect with lots of people. So, over the years, our ambition has definitely grown. We weren’t a band that started and thought ‘Right, in five years, we want to be playing here, here and here.’ It was very much a case of taking it as it came, and I think that naivety has helped us. Even now, we feel as though we don’t belong where we are, and I think that’s quite a healthy way to look at it. I don’t know how we’ve ended up here, but we’re just enjoying the ride while we can.”
* Biffy Clyro play Dublin’s O2 on March 28th and Belfast’s Odyssey Arena on March 29th