Q&A: Biffy Clyro calls for action to avoid ultimate ‘endings’

Biffy Clyro, James Johnston, Ben Johnston, Simon Neil, A Celebration of Endings

Biffy Clyro, Courtesy: Ash Roberts.

A Celebration of Endings, the new album from Scottish rockers Biffy Clyro ends with a screamo-prog-metal-funk journey “Cop Syrup,” on which singer-guitarist Simon Neil feverishly and repeatedly declares, “Fuck everyone! Whoo!”

It may sound like the retort of someone who’s given up all hope, but it’s anything but. Both the song and the album as a whole is a defiant middle finger to not just those that hold back social justice movements but a reminder that those who accept the status quo are not without blame. A Celebration of Endings is all about new beginnings and embracing change, even when it’s difficult.

Recorded last fall way before the COVID-19 pandemic, the album references the migrant Syrian boy whose body washed ashore in Europe, climate change, Brexit, Trump, nationalism, and the other ills that Neil and brothers James (bass) and Ben Johnston (drums) could no longer ignore in their songwriting. The songs are delivered in Biffy Clyro’s signature style—meaning bruising, heavy guitar, bass and drums but with enough eclectic math-rock elements and stadium-sized melodic crescendos—to always keep listeners on their toes. There’s a 30-member orchestra on “The Champ,” (led by acclaimed Springsteen and Sia arranger Rob Mathes and recorded at Abbey Road’s Studio2, no less.

Then, of course, coronavirus arrived, postponing the release of A Celebration of Endings from the spring to August. Someone listening to the songs for the first time couldn’t be blamed for thinking these songs were written about the pandemic. Even the band members have started looking at some of the songs differently. The Johnstons and Neil spent the springtime in full lockdown. The Johnstons’ father, as well as Ben Johnston’ wife, are in the high-risk group, but in video call, James Johnston said both the band members and their families are holding out well.

The members of Biffy Clyro have only recently been able to get together, but that hasn’t s topped the trio from debuting the new album at a special live-streamed performance in Glasgow last weekend at an audience-less music hall. Not ones to phone it in, the band used just about every bit of the venue as a performance space, even brining in a string section that was situated on the dance floor, multiple drumkits situated throughout the room and even building some new staging platforms for the occasions.

James Johnston chatted with us about not being willing to hold back about society’s ills when writing the new album, keeping safety at the forefront and what an uncertain future holds for Biffy Clyro.

RIFF: When I spoke to Simon Neil in 2016, he’d told me how he was scared of working in studios and how Biffy Clyro typically previously just recorded how the band sounded live. You stepped beyond that on Ellipses. Fast forward to this album and you have a 30-member symphony. So clearly, you liked the direction your last album went in but decided it didn’t go far enough?

James Johnston: Well, we’ve been going through that process of exploring the studio. Like Simon said, we were always a little bit scared. We’re a rock band. We wanted to keep that tight to our chest. I think this time around we realized it’s almost a metaphor for the way we’re looking at society.

We want to move forward as a band. It doesn’t mean we have to get rid of the fact that we’re a guitar rock band. That’s always going to be the essence of this band. I think you maybe hear that element a little more on this record versus Ellipses. But in terms of the extracurricular embellishments, the orchestras, the flutes, all those extra sounds—really helped to make the sound of the band much bigger. It’s not something we’re scared of. There’s nothing like hearing a string section strike up in Abbey Road, playing your song. It’s the most emotional experience you can ever have. We haven’t lost the beating heart of who we are as a band; the three-piece balls-to-the-wall rock band. But we’re also not afraid of stepping out of our lane a little bit.

This is a political album. In 2016 Simon talked to me and pretty much anybody else who’d listen about how revolting Brexit was. He’d encouraged Americans to not vote for Trump. Tell me about why you guys finally went outward instead of Simon writing about himself, as he typically has before.

Firstly, I’m really proud of Simon to add that other strength to his bow; to be looking out the window a little bit more and writing so well about society. Some of the lines on this record are really crushing and really vivant and so powerful.

But what I think it’s about, really, is the last couple of years us growing up as men through the shit show that is Brexit and the independence referendum in the U.K.—not so much party politics; more like what’s happening to society. Not really about left and right. It’s more about fucking right and wrong, to be honest. … I don’t think it’s an overtly political record as such. It’s more looking at society. I think that Simon’s come to that point where, as an adult, you can’t really fucking avoid it. You can’t really avoid the way the world is. You can’t really avoid the way society has been going for the last 20 or 30 years. You can’t really avoid the scenario where you have the younger generation, who are educated, trying to move the world forward and are having one hand tied behind the back by the older generation who’ve got all the money and they’re quite comfortable the way things are. … Ultimately, we do have to change things. We do have to move forward as a society. Change isn’t easy but we have we have to embrace it.

It seems like the band is trying to find the causes worth fighting for, yet the record still ends with Simon yelling “fuck everybody!” So, is this a hopeful record or is the message “we’re damned?”

I think its overall it’s a positive record. There are moments that have negative ideas. “Tiny Indoor Fireworks” is about trying to make a key to shut off your mind, but your mind is just going a million miles an hour. You’re having all these thoughts and it just feels futile. But there’s a line in that song: “But I’ll pray for the better days.” The better days are always right around the corner. The album examines change. Change can be difficult, but ultimately, it’s positive.

The line, “Fuck everybody, yeah!” is a little bit tongue-in-cheek and it’s Simon talking about his personal ambition and feeling confident. That song, “Cop Syrup,” with the huge musical interlude in the middle, that beautiful cinematic orchestral feel; it’s really quite an accomplishment, I feel, musically. The line is about him saying, “We can fucking do this! I’m going to fucking do this!” … When it comes toward the band, we’ve got an amazing team of people working around us. We love them and they’re part of the family. But realistically, if the shit hit the fan, it’s all about the three of us doing it and that’s all we need. That’s kind of what the line is about: fuck everybody, we’ll do it ourselves.

“Cop Syrup” is your most prog-rock song ever.

It’s a real journey, that song. It’s not so romantic to talk about the work that goes into a song. People just like to think that it just appears. But I’m sure you can imagine a lot of work went into that song, to get the bells of it right and the feel of it right—to get you to a point in your mind where you kind of forgot where you started, and then BAM! It slams back into punk rock again and laps you on the face. And that is a song that we’re so proud of and cannot wait to play it live. It’ll be interesting to see if it works. There’s a good chance that it just might not work live.

I love how on-the-nose your next tour is named: Fingers Crossed Tour. What are your thoughts about whether you’ll actually get to go on the road next spring?

I haven’t even, in my mind, tried to figure on it. We had a tour booked for this autumn, which clearly wasn’t going to happen, and that was in bigger shows. I feel like the bigger indoor shows will probably be the last ones to come back. So that’s why we’ve chosen to play smaller more intimate venues. I’m hoping that 80/20 it’s going to happen. That was the sort of thinking behind moving the dates into next year and playing these smaller venues. We’ve obviously got fingers crossed, a little bit tongue in cheek with a title, but we need something to look forward to, you know? Collectively as a band and with the audience. The world needs something. I’m not saying that the world is looking forward to this Biffy Clyro tour, but I’m obviously very hopeful.

Ben has talked about worrying about your guys’ dad, because he’s high-risk for COVID-19, as well as his wife, who is a well. How are you guys all doing right now, and your families?

Everyone’s doing OK. We’re shielded as best as we could. And we followed the precautions and then we went a little bit beyond because, to be honest, the guidelines coming from the government here are sketchy at best. I personally feel it’s best to be cautious for something like that.

It’s literally a matter of death—for everybody—it’s not just for those that are vulnerable. That is a terrible disease that can affect people who are otherwise very fit and healthy. We’ve just been it’s been keeping it tight. They opened the pubs here, so you’re allowed to go back to the pubs. … Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should, to be honest. I know there are some people who may be living in a fifth-floor flat with four kids at their feet, and they’re used to going to the pub every night to get that escape. So there are mitigating circumstances, but I just think we should all be a little cautious, and that’s certainly what’s kept us safe so far. …

I don’t have kids, I’m lucky enough to have a reasonable-size house with a big garden, so I can have an escape. Mercifully it’s a sunny day today in Glasgow, which never ever happens. We’ve got to make the most of life. I’m finding it easier to not keep reminding myself of what life was like before and worrying about the things that I’m missing out on.

Were the three of you near each other during the lockdown?

We live pretty close by. Simon’s about an hour from me, Ben’s about half an hour. It was, it was really strange, though. We’ve gone a couple of months without actually seeing each other face to face. Couple of Zoom calls; not quite the same thing, but better than nothing in that instance.

We spend so much time in each other’s pockets and especially with an album coming out, or rehearsing … I really miss it. I really miss that bond. We’re talking about the album. I’m delighted to talk to you, Roman, but usually we’d all be together. I just said I’m trying not to dwell, and here I am dwelling on the fact we’re not together.

We have since had a couple of rehearsals together and we’ve hung a few times. What a joy that has been, just to play music, just to have coffee together and have a chat, talk about our worries.  We are really brothers, you know, we are really friends. We really grew up together and know so much about each other. So, it’s really strange when we’re not together.

Biffy Clyro had a pretty busy 2019. You actually released an acoustic album, MTV Unplugged: Live at Roundhouse, London. What prompted that?

That was a bit of a dream, to be honest. There were so many amazing “MTV Unplugged” performances in the ‘90s, but for me, nothing tops Nirvana. We used to get the cassette tapes of those songs and play in the garage, but learning all the chat in between the songs [as well] and pretending we were the Scottish Nirvana. You heard those songs in a different light, without wall of guitars, and that was so inspiring. And when MTV … talked about us doing it, we jumped at the chance. We thought this is really going to be special.

Usually we have the lights, the volume, we have our shirts off, we’re sweatin.’ … It was really nerve-wracking doing that show. We’ve never been so nervous and there was nowhere for the adrenaline to go. Usually you runnin’ about the stage, or you’re smashing the drums

So you do lots of foot tapping instead.

We did a lot of foot-tapping, and forever after the show we were just on this high. Like, literally our bodies were shakin’ because we were still full of energy. But I think that process, that more sedate type of show, kind of informed how we wanted to move forward. Again, it remains that we’re a heavy rock band—we want to up the tempo and we want to get in your face a little bit. … It’s all part of what I hope is a rich tapestry of the band. We probably never quite fit exactly into one or two molds. We can inhabit lots of different worlds.

And you also helmed the soundtrack for a film, Balance, Not Symmetry, of which Simon co-wrote the screenplay. Do you count that as an official Biffy Clyro album? Is the new one your eighth or ninth?

I’m becoming more and more split every day that goes past, because when people say, “this is your ninth album” I don’t want to correct them. But since you asked, we count A Celebration of Endings as our eighth album. Balance is a project we’re so proud of. We don’t release music that we’re not proud of. We always put all of our effort into it. But just by the nature of it, being for a movie soundtrack and the way it came about, we don’t consider it part of the kind of album discography. … We also did the MTV Unplugged album, but we don’t we don’t consider that to be a kind of regular album.

Is there another album already in the works? Simon has said he’s already got a dozen songs done and ready to record. If you can’t tour until next year, will there be another Biffy Clyro album before then?

We’ll definitely continue to make music, we’ll definitely record some music. Whether that results in an album that comes out before we tour—I think I may be a bit hasty if I said “yes” to that question. … I spent a lot of time in lockdown actually getting my hands dirty at the band’s practice room, doing a lot of work so that we can do some recording or the road. Maybe we don’t have to go to Los Angeles this time. Watch this space.

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *