When most artists decide to take a bit of downtime between records, it’s usually marked by a long stint away from social media, maybe a holiday, or just a bit of good old-fashioned quiet. What isn’t normally involved is the making of not one but two new records on the side.
However, for Biffy Clyro, that turned out to be exactly what would happen. Having released seventh album ‘Ellipsis’ back in 2016, they soon hit the top of the charts, securing themselves as one of the UK’s Biggest Rock Bands™ once more, and subsequently set off on a world tour of giant venues and festivals for the best part of eighteen months. But rather than deciding to put their feet up until LP8 came calling, they soon confirmed plans for two new projects. First up, the trio swapped their noisier offerings for the more stripped-bare MTV Unplugged tour, which would later birth its own new release; then, they turned their hand to film scoring. That soundtrack, ‘Balance, Not Symmetry’, landed last May.
Back to the present day, just a few weeks into a new decade, and Biffy are ready to pick up where ‘Ellipsis’ left off. “Like most records, there’s always a real fear that potentially what you’re doing is going to be the worst thing you’ve ever done, which I think probably gives me a certain level of comfort,” laughs frontman Simon Neil, as he sits alongside his bandmates in a record label office. Yet, as it turns out, the process of making both their MTV Unplugged and ‘Balance…’ records worked as more of a palate cleanser than they’d potentially anticipated. “Putting out ‘Balance…’ last year, it liberated us, and made me remember the pure joy of writing music,” he admits. “[Albums are] all so contextualised normally. You know, this [new album] is a big record release, so by the time it comes out, we’ll have talked it sideways, whereas with ‘Balance…’, we didn’t have to talk about it at all. That really influenced and infiltrated this record a lot more than I think we’d have anticipated.
“[It was the same with] ‘Unplugged’ as well… We loved that tour, it’s a lot of fun to do a tour sitting down - and clothed!” he chuckles. “But it made me realise that we’re not at that stage as a band yet. I knew when we did it, some people would think, ‘OK, Biffy will become that band now.’ But with ‘Balance…’ and this record, they’re a reaction to that. No, we’re not maturing in any way! We’re still unlearning in every way possible.”
“We’re not maturing in any way! We’re still unlearning in every way possible.”
— Simon Neil
In many ways, Biffy Clyro have never been an easy band to pin down. Having spent the best part of two decades perfecting the art of musical shape-shifting - proving that, yes, the same band can write both barbed, scream-laced math-rock and swooning chart hits to boot - their eighth album proper looks set to go even further down that path. “I really wanted this record to feel like a 2020 record,” declares Simon. “There are certain things on this record that we couldn’t have done a few years ago, never mind would have done! For a band like us, it’s always about moving forward and trying to progress and never settling for what we’ve done [before].”
“When you become a successful band,” adds bassist James Johnston, “you’re always at risk of becoming unsuccessful, so you just can play to the shareholders. Every band’s different and I don’t want to criticise... No, I DO want to criticise because it’s just a bit lazy. We should always be trying to do something new, otherwise, what’s the point?”
One variable they didn’t change on their latest experiment, however, was their producer. Once again, the band decamped to Los Angeles (“Being in that part of the world brings a spirit to our music that we otherwise wouldn’t achieve,” notes Simon) to work with Rich Costey, who worked on ‘Ellipsis’. “The more records you make with somebody, the more the relationship evolves and it definitely did,” continues James. “But there’s also still a challenge with Rich, and I think that’s why it’s great working with him. We maybe have slightly different trains of thought and he pulls something out of us, and hopefully we pull something out of him.”
“When you make a second record with someone,” adds Simon, “the relationship is so different. The first one is almost like an extended first date - no one wants to upset anyone - but with the second, you’re like, ‘Right, I’m into you’ and you relax a bit more. That’s why we make three records with each producer [Chris Sheldon was at the helm for their first three, with GGGarth Richardson on board for the following trio] - or at least, that’s the plan. With your second [record], you’re realising your full potential, and on the third one, it’s maximised because you don’t even need to communicate, it just happens. Then at that point, it’s all downhill from there…”
Far from going downhill, however, and now easing into their familiar second date, Biffy’s forthcoming new album is one that’s packed with a renewed sense of confidence and an uninhibited boldness. Still harnessing their innate talent for creating huge, atmospheric rock songs, even the tasters that DIY hear today hint at a record littered with unexpected swerves. ‘Instant History’’s chorus boasts a mammoth drop while, from the buoyantly addictive guitar lines of ‘Tiny Indoor Fireworks’ to the unhinged, wurlitzer-style instrumental that takes over ‘Cop Syrup’, the band are pushing their boundaries with every turn.
“I feel like only Biffy could make this record,” says Simon, confidently. “On all of our records, there are moments on it when I don’t feel like anyone else would ever consider doing what we do. With our fans and any listener, we try and show them respect. Some people talk down to their fans, but people are a lot more capable and sussed out than they’re given credit for.
“I think what’s given us the life as a band that we’ve had - and what keeps us feeling like a new band on each album - is that people have joined us on our journey,” he nods. “And hopefully when people go back and revisit things, they discover something new every time. I think this album has those layers to it; as you get to know it, it’s just going to slowly reveal itself.”
As featured in the March 2020 issue of DIY, out now.
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