It was three short years ago that Biffy Clyro took on the biggest challenge of their careers so far, and strode defiantly on stage to meet the expansive crowds lying in wait as they headlined Reading & Leeds. It both feels like a lifetime ago and just a blink of an eye. Now, in 2016, they’re back on home turf - where it all began - getting ready to face their next challenge.
Hardened Scotsmen they may be, but after six months spent in Los Angeles, it’d be fair to say that the Ayrshire weather is taking some getting used to. The band have only just recently put seventh album ‘Ellipsis’ to bed over on the other side of the world, and the Scottish version of spring is, unsurprisingly, a little more nippy than California’s. They’re back at their base – a rehearsal space simply known as their “farm” in the middle of who knows where – and have already had one practice. The results were, let’s say, interesting…
“I mean, we were in here yesterday and we played through the entire new album…” offers frontman Simon Neil, who pauses to glance at his bandmates. “It sounded awful.” The trio erupt with laughter. “We’d been in the studio for six months and it all sounded amazing, there were so many beautiful textures, and then we came in here!” The comforts of home weren’t giving Biffy any illusions. “So, we got a wee fright yesterday!”
The band’s last record helped them reach a new peak: ‘Opposites’, a hefty double-album that wrapped up their second musical trilogy, was about as huge as they come. With a phenomenal touring schedule topped off with headliner slots at festivals worldwide, they found themselves playing to tens of thousands of people every night. By the time things slowed to a halt and they got back to the farm, it was a bit of a shock to the system.
“It was brand new waters for us and it was terrifying.”
“I don’t write songs on the road, so we came home,” explains Simon, “we came in, we were jamming some ideas and I think I just had this hurdle in my mind, and I was just expecting everything to be amazing from the get-go.” When a little panic started to set in, it was time to get away. “I went off to LA with my Mrs, and just wrote a bunch of music. For some reason, going over there kinda lifted the lid off what I was containing. I think we probably all just needed time off actually. We’ve been inhabiting our roles in this band for fifteen years and last year was probably the first time we could turn away from the band for a wee while, and not feel really guilty about it. We are naturally guilt-laden people!” he laughs as an aside. “But we realised that, if we went straight back in and we were playing really shit, maybe we just weren’t ready. Maybe it wasn’t wrong to go away.”
“You need to live a bit of a normal life,” adds bassist James Johnston. “You have to have perspective - and this definitely helps, coming here,” he gestures around the room, with festival flags from all over the world pinned to its walls, amps and guitars stacked against the walls, all mementos from across the past decade. “Just being in the same place for any period of time, you get the chance to think a little bit. Think about yourself, the people around, who you are as a person when you come off the road. Sometimes you feel like a robot after two years of doing the same thing every day.”
It was after some distance – moments of actually living life – that the wheels began to turn again. After the grandiose sonics of their last albums, they wanted to shake things up. Rip it up and start again. “You’re in such a bubble,” says Simon, of their lives in the band, “and especially for a band going on to their seventh record, you’re normally just in the routine. I don’t think we’ve ever just wanted to be a routine band - you know, reliable old Biffy Clyro! We’d rather be completely unreliable and have people think we’ve lost the plot. Either love it or hate it, that’s what we want, that’s what we’ve always kind of wanted.”
“We’d rather be completely unreliable and have people think we’ve lost the plot.”
Whether or not they’ve lost the plot is yet to be determined, but they’ve certainly gone all out. Recruiting “mad professor” Rich Costey for production, ‘Ellipsis’ was about pairing beauty and grit, taking left turns and surrendering themselves to giving anything a go. “With Rich, the modus operandi was gorgeousness with real trash,” Simon confirms with a grin of glee. “If the drums sounded amazing, we wanted a really dirty, smelly sounding guitar. If the vocals were really angelic, we wanted to distort the drums.” It’s an approach clear from lead track ‘Wolves of Winter’, which packs distorted vocal effects, raw guitars and manic drum parts alongside a rousing chorus. “If we hadn’t made six records previously with the matter-of-fact sound of our instruments, then we would never have wanted to make this record, so it’s definitely a reaction.
“Rich would just plug in shit all the time,” he laughs. “You’d be sitting playing and hit a brilliant sound, but you’d not care how you got there, or if it’s too loud or going out through an exhaust in the carpark! It was just like, ‘It sounds good so let’s do it’. That was quite liberating.” It wasn’t just a habit that Costey would indulge in his own studio: when he first visited the band at their space, he gave experimentation a go too. “The first day he came in here,” James continues, gesturing to the huge drum kit set up in the middle of the room, “it was just for some pre-production and to get to know each other, and he was trying to put the kick drum through a guitar pedal to distort it. It was like, ‘what are you trying to do?!’”
After relocating to work at Costey’s Eldorado studios last autumn, the band also hit upon the realisation that the room itself could become an instrument: “We’ve never done anything like that before,” drummer Ben Johnston admits, “and we’ve always known exactly what was happening. That was exciting: to hear a sound and then get a new idea of how the song might end up entirely. It was brand new waters for us and it was terrifying. Usually we would just knuckle down and tick the boxes and get everything done, but when you’re not sure where the next box is…”
“You’ve got to have faith in the idea behind a record as well,” Simon adds, defiantly. “It doesn’t make it any easier but we all went in very much sure of what we wanted to do, or rather, what we didn’t want to do. It doesn’t make it easier to change but we knew that this was what we had decided to do, so we were fully committed. You can’t half-arse it. I think the spirit of what we do is entirely throughout the record. It couldn’t be anyone other than us that made this record but it just so happens that it doesn’t sound like any other Biffy record.”
“We needed a deadline because we’d probably still be tweaking it… We could potentially still be going - it could’ve been ‘The Life Of Biffo’!”
While their time in California saw them throw out the rulebook, there are, of course, pitfalls to completely deconstructing the recording process. Without any definite touchstones to reach, the temptation to stay locked up could’ve easily mounted. And while the frontman readily admits “deadlines are good”, there is a certain comfort there, too. “The final listen of a record, when you go to sign off, is always so terrifying,” he confirms. “The fear of missing something, it can be hard, but we needed a deadline because we’d probably still be tweaking it… Then, I was writing a few songs in the studio, and we could potentially still be going - it could’ve been ‘The Life Of Biffo’!”
While ‘Ellipsis’ might not quite be the next great ‘living’ album, it is a record the band are proud of. Three months ahead of its release, they’re already desperate to get it out in the open, but have conceded to learning a bit of patience. “This record feels like the most important record we’ve ever made,” the frontman confirms, “and it kinda feels like we’re starting again. I think that’s why we’re quite nervous but excited. Things that we’d do on previous records and stuff, we just broke all our rules. It’s a different sounding Biffy album and I do think we’re saying something new with it, so I’m just excited for people to hear it. It’s really weird, we’re sitting here almost three months away from it. It’s fucking excruciating!”
‘Ellipsis’ isn’t the only thing on the horizon, of course: already the band are looking ahead to taking their new beast on the road, which happens to be a massive run of festival appearances, including a return to top billing at Reading & Leeds. “I think we’re trying to put it out of our heads,” laughs Ben. Luckily, they’ve got a few other things to get out of the way first. “Yeah, I think we’d be crazy not to be nervous but those nerves will serve us well. They always do help a bit, but our heads aren’t quite there just yet.”
“James summed it up really well,” Simon joins in. “He said that last time was amazing because we had no idea about whether we could do it, or whether we were out of our depth. I guess the difference is this time that we know we can do it, so, as much as there’s an added pressure, we do have slightly more inner confidence.” “We’ve got a benchmark,” the bassist confirms. “We have to be better than last time. We have to keep improving and make sure that people don’t think it was a fluke. At least we know that we’ve got something to aim for.” They may be twisting perceptions, fucking with their own system and starting afresh with ‘Ellipsis’, but if Biffy Clyro can do anything, they can take on the festival circuit and win all over again.
Biffy Clyro’s new album ‘Ellipsis’ is out on 8th July via Warner Bros. Records / 14th Floor Recordings.
Taken from our Festival Guide 2016 in association with Ticketweb. Read more at diymag.com/festivals.