Biffy Clyro: ‘The saddest music can be the most joyous’
The Scottish power rockers have always sought to chart a brutally honest course through life’s trials in their music
From left, Ben Johnston, Simon Neill and James Johnston. Photograph: Austin Hargrave
It is the day after Brexit and Northern Ireland have just exited the Euros by an own goal to Wales, so the circumstances of Biffy Clyro’s headline slot at Belsonic music festival could be better. Still, the Scottish power-rock trio shake the crowd out of despondency with a blistering greatest-hits set culled from their first six albums, plus a sprinkling of new material from their seventh, Ellipsis.
Intriguingly, the cover of Ellipsis features all three members naked and curled up in the foetal position.
“We’ve been so lucky in our career to work with Storm Thorgerson, who we sadly lost a couple of years ago,” says bassist James Johnston, referring to the late album-sleeve designer. Thorgerson created the artwork for four Led Zeppelin albums, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, and three Biffy albums and 12 singles. “We didn’t think it would be right to repeat or echo the work we’d done with him.”
The image, says singer Simon Neill, “signifies shedding our skins and starting over again. There is a definite sense of rebirth on this album. It feels like our most colourful and playful record, even though we’re still singing about dark things.”
Important to that was working with Rich Costey, producer of, among others, Muse and Foo Fighters. “We’d use the instruments to exaggerate that mood and create bubbly and positive sounds.”
On Biffy’s previous albums, Neill says, “We wanted it to be organic, so it didn’t even occur to us that we could make things colourful. I don’t think we could make records that sound better than Opposites or Only Revolutions, which are cinematically beautiful rock records.”
Neill and twin brothers James and Ben Johnston have always used their music to chart a brutally honest course through life’s trials and tribulations.
“Our album Puzzle is probably the most important record we’ve ever made because it is about my mum passing away,” Neill says. “I was going through a tough time, so seeing people with tattoos or the lyrics or telling me what the songs meant to them really helped me.”
Love and hope
“A few days ago, a young girl gave us a letter,” Neill says. “She’d fallen out with her parents and left home, and said she’d found another family by coming to our gigs and making new friends.
“That was really touching to discover that, apart from what we do as a band, there is enough friendship, love and hope amongst our fans to look after each other.
“It’s amazing when someone says a song has made them reconsider the darkest thoughts they’ve had, or helped them get through losing someone.”
Neill says things through music that he could never say in real life. “They’re too brutal or impossible to express. A melody can reduce someone to tears or make them angry. It is a lot easier to express through artistic means. Some people are good at expressing themselves in a very open and candid manner, but I ain’t that guy.
“Sharing sadness and realising you’re not alone can lead to joy. When kids come up to me and say they can’t talk to their friends, I always say the main thing is to say things out loud and not to worry about what the person listening thinks. Just the very act of saying things out loud can really help.
“I think that’s why sometimes the saddest music can be the most joyous. Music can be an intensely personal thing, but also very communal. People need music and community. There might not be as much money at the end of that fucking rainbow any more, but is that really what it’s about?
“I hope we’re all searching for something more than that. But, sadly, we’re all not.”
After the darkness comes the light, and as thousands gather by the Harland & Wolff shipyards to forget about the football, Ben Johnston recalls his most embarrassing moment onstage.
“Two years ago we were playing at a German festival,” he says. “I was wearing very tight trousers. I decided I couldn’t fit any underwear in there, so I went without. When I stepped up on the drum riser, the trousers split from front crotch to back crotch and everything fell out.”
This was your Lenny Kravitz moment?
“Well, I’m not Lenny Kravitz. I’m just a white dude,” Johnston says, as his bandmates howl with laughter and burst into Kravitz’s Always on the Run.
Stage time beckons, so Neill concludes by attempting to define what Biffy Clyro are about.
“We never were about anything more than three friends making music. The music I’ve always connected to is music that makes you catch a glimpse into someone’s psyche or mind. All the other stuff is cultural fast food.”
- Ellipsis is out now. Read our review here
DARK SIDE OF THE TOUR: MENTAL HEALTH
“When you’re on tour, you know exactly what you’re doing and what’s required of you. There’s a routine. It’s tangible what you stand for because it’s right in front of you. You come off tour and you’re like, ‘Fucking hell what is the point? What am I doing with my life?’ ” – Kate Nash
“Touring institutionalises you and it can make normal life feel mundane. You end up with a lot of expectations from life that aren’t always fulfilled in everyday tasks, like going down the shops for a pint of milk or even going for dinner with friends. It’s hard to replace all that adrenalin.” – Justin Young, The Vaccines
“I’d just come offstage and sunk a bottle of downers because I wanted to kill myself. Then I changed my mind. I was dressed as a dandy; it might have looked like a clown to everyone else. But even clowns can have bad days.” – Ray Davies, The Kinks
“It’s normal, the mental health thing. Everyone knows someone. When I was growing up, my dad was bipolar and I was really ashamed of talking about it. Now, since I first talked about it, it’s like I’ve come out as being gay or something.” – Dara Kiely, Girl Band