Biffy Clyro: Holding Out For A Change

Cover feature Biffy Clyro: Holding Out For A Change

Born in reaction to conflicts both political and personal, ‘A Celebration of Endings’ may sound like it’s defined by the present day’s gloom; in fact, it’s more a guiding light towards the future.

“We are at the end of something in society, and humanity, at the moment,” offers up Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil, in the midst of explaining the title of the band’s new album. Considering the current global crisis, his statement and the record’s chosen moniker itself - ‘A Celebration of Endings’ - obviously come loaded with a real sense of weight; it’d be easy to mistake his sentiment as a description of the fraught times the world is facing right now. But his words aren’t as cut and dried as they might seem.

“It’s not even in a political way, I just feel like we’re at the end of some kind of consciousness level,” he goes on. “This sounds hippy dippy as fuck, but I think the Mayans were right when they said that in 2012 the world would end; not in a physical realm, but I think our consciousness has shifted.”

As the band approach the release of their eighth album - originally scheduled for release in May, but since pushed back to later in the summer - it’s safe to say we’ve entered trepidatious times. Over the past few years, the rise of the far-right has been all too strongly felt, while the climate crisis has dominated headlines across the world. Political and social shifts have become the norm, and it’s been an overwhelming time for many - without even taking the current pandemic into account. However hope, the Scottish trio want you to know, is not yet gone.

Biffy Clyro: Holding Out For A Change

“I want to be the source of the problem for these old fuckers as much as teenagers are.”

— Simon Neil

Biffy Clyro have always pushed to subvert the norm, consistently going against the expected grain. From their earliest days, when they first began building a reputation for post-hardcore weirdness thanks to jarring instrumentation and titles like ‘Kill the Old, Torture Their Young’, through to the present day, they’ve rallied against boundaries and tried to be - as bassist James Johnston puts it - “awkward and obstinate and stubborn”. Almost 20 years on from their debut’s release, the trio are steadfast in reconfiguring with every turn, hoping to turn heads with each new project. Even when approaching this album, they didn’t follow the regular path. After the release and subsequent touring schedule of 2016’s ‘Ellipsis’, instead of having a well-earned rest, recharging the batteries and then heading back into the studio, the band instead decided to make two additional records - a live album and a soundtrack - just to see what they’d come up with.

The ultimate palate cleanser, the trio - completed by James’ drumming brother Ben Johnston - then set about picking up where their previous studio album left off. Having returned to Los Angeles to once again work with producer Rich Costey, they wanted to experiment even more than they had with ‘Ellipsis’. “With Rich, the modus operandi was gorgeousness with real trash,” Simon told DIY around that last record, and on ‘A Celebration of Endings’, it’s clear they’re still chasing that feeling. “For us on this record, we did feel like there is a bit of chaos,” Simon confirms, “but there’s a couple of songs where we wanted to put the sophistication of strings onto that chaotic side. I think that’s partly defined what we do for a long time; we really are a band of contrasting sounds, ugly and beautiful.”

As an album, their eighth is packed to the brim with Biffy-ness; spiraling guitars let loose over luscious string sections, chorus refrains bold and big enough to dominate any festival headline set, and squalling, screaming, unhinged vocals. It’s a record that seems to represent their intensely contrasting worlds - a myriad of the playful pyromania of their first three records and the chart-friendly, soaring pop of 2009’s ‘Only Revolutions’ - hung together with a sense of rebellion.

“For me, it’s always about combining things together, and the layers of how we listen to records as well,” Simon confirms, sat with his band mates in a North London flat-turned-photo studio. “That’s also what makes it interesting for a listener. I don’t want people to ever know what to expect. See, if I’ve pressed play on a record, and it’s what I’ve wanted it to be, I never come back to that album; it’s always things where I thought, ‘That’s not what I thought they’d do next’ that bring me back.”

Biffy Clyro: Holding Out For A Change
Biffy Clyro: Holding Out For A Change
Biffy Clyro: Holding Out For A Change

“The next generation always knows best, because it’s their fucking reality.”

— Simon Neil

If the band’s latest is typical Biffy by merit of its atypical approach, then ‘A Celebration of Endings’ is also a record that feels particularly rooted in the current moment, one that looks around and emerges determined to face towards the future. From the synth-drenched choruses of lead single ‘Instant History’ to the frankly bonkers conclusion of album closer ‘Cop Syrup’, the concept of tradition gets a bit of a kicking.

Yet though the trio have always been unafraid to flex their varying musical muscles across their past two decades as a unit, this current bout of shape-shifting seems altogether more pointed. Much like on the album’s irreverent, history-skewing artwork, the band understand that, these days, simply rehashing the past no longer makes sense. “We’ve been lucky enough that we wanted to [and were able to] make a couple of records that sounded timeless and harked back to the classic records of all time,” Simon explains. “But with ‘Ellipsis’ and this record, it feels like the world is changing so fast that you’ve got to be part of it or else you’re going to be left behind in all forms.

“For us, it just feels like music has a slightly different lifespan than it perhaps used to. People aren’t going to their record collection to pick out that one album that they love from 17 years ago, you know?” he shrugs. “I think that’s made me consider the music that we’re making in a different way as well, not wanting to be harking back to a time that’s becoming less and less relevant to where we are now: I really want us to be a part of the 2020 world.”

Having formed in the mid-'90s in an entirely different musical landscape and spent their entire adult lives becoming increasingly globally successful as a band, it’s this sense of acute external awareness that separates the trio from many of their arena rock peers. If there’s been a surfeit of musical casualties over the decades shielded by a bubble of their own making, then Biffy Clyro seem as determined as ever to harness the same antagonistic energy that they began with as a bunch of teenage upstarts. “I think it’s down to your motivation when you first start a band. If you’re just an aspirational band that want to play here or sell a certain amount of records, then once you get close to that, you probably don’t have the motivation to go forward,” Simon suggests. “But I want to be the source of the problem for these old fuckers as much as teenagers are. Especially as a white, straight male in this era, it’s more important than ever to acknowledge when you’ve had things perhaps easier than others, and it’s about time we took a responsibility to make changes and try to help others. If it wasn’t for the thrill that we get - that same feeling we got when we were 17, 18 - I think we would’ve had more time off. And there might be a time where we do need to take a break, but while the juices are flowing I’m gonna keep squeezing...”

“It’s the political and the personal, because it’s all one these days.”

— Simon Neil

It’s an impassioned argument with a sense of connectedness that writes itself all over the band’s latest. Throughout his tenure as Biffy’s chief lyricist, the singer has always leant heavily on personal experience - most famously with ‘Puzzle’ track ‘Folding Stars’, which was influenced by the passing of his mother. But while personal circumstances did provide some inspiration this time around, Simon stresses that it felt impossible not to begin addressing the world around him more directly.

“It’s the political and the personal, because it’s all one these days,” he sums up astutely, as his bandmates nod by his side. “When you see something happening in your close circle, which kinda reflects what’s happening in the wider world, [being political] is unavoidable. I couldn’t sit down and write 10 songs about how I feel in my heart at this stage in my life, in this stage of the century, because that’s not what’s waking me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to not write love songs, but my head was just full of all this shit - as everyone’s is. And we don’t escape. No one switches off anymore; we don’t have that luxury.

“For me, the title is a big ‘Fuck you’ to the people who are making decisions, especially in this country, that are really going to fuck over a generation,” he aims at the 1%, the elite, those intent on ignoring the cries of the masses. “Boris Johnson was nowhere to be seen [at the start] of this coronavirus stuff, and it’s just these cowards who stand behind these lies and then slink away into the shadows when something serious is happening. But then I think, ‘Fuck it, bring it on’,” he grins, wryly. “‘You guys got what you wanted and you’re going to have to suck it up like the rest of us, but we’re gonna dance while it’s happening’.” Simon might be the tattooed, semi-naked frontman of a rock band most of the time, but he’s also not one to mince his words.

Biffy Clyro: Holding Out For A Change

“We really are a band of contrasting sounds, ugly and beautiful.”

— Simon Neil

Yet, while their eighth record does, inevitably, deal with the darker side of modern life, ‘A Celebration of Endings’ is also very much a beacon of light. From ‘The Champ’’s defiant narrator (“Don’t give me that bullshit catchphrase / ‘It was better in my day”’) to the rallying call of ‘The Pink Limit’ (“If you want your peacetime / Then please prepare for war”) via the softer request of ‘Space’ (“Will you wait, will you wait for me? There’s always a space in my heart”), what defines the album is a real sense of hope through connection and community. It’s also something the band are looking to in the next generation.

“There’s an incredible weight of responsibility on the shoulders of this next generation coming up,” Simon confirms. “They might never have had that feeling of being blissfully unaware of the wider world, and I think maybe we feel a bit fortunate that when our generation came up, we were allowed that mental freedom without the oppression of the next twenty years.

“The first icon of this century is Greta Thunberg, and the fact that we’re looking at a 17-year-old girl… I’m a 40-year-old man and I aspire to be what this 17-year-old is!” he laughs, self-deprecatingly. “I just feel like they have an inner conscience and an inner responsibility that we were fortunate enough not to have [needed]. It’s so tough for that generation, no wonder they take things seriously. No wonder they’re looking at the older generation and saying, ‘You fuckers have left us in this shit position’. And that older generation, they can’t for a second understand it.

“It’s as close to the ‘60s as we’ve been in recent times,” he nods, referencing the divide that’s become all too clear between the newest generation and that of our parents and grandparents. “The youth couldn’t understand why the Vietnam War was happening, and the [older generation] couldn’t understand why these young kids just wanted to make love and not give a fuck. That’s where we’re at just now, but you know what? The next generation always knows best, because it’s their fucking reality.”

Biffy Clyro: Holding Out For A Change
Biffy Clyro: Holding Out For A Change
Biffy Clyro: Holding Out For A Change

“I really want us to be a part of the 2020 world.”

— Simon Neil

Closing an album that grapples with contradiction and turmoil, it’s on final track ‘Cop Syrup’ that all these lucid observations and animated points reach a head. A mission statement of sorts, the track is a disorientating ride through scorched screams and pummeling percussion, before a mesmerising - and somewhat creepy - instrumental takes over for much of its six-minute length, pushing things to an almost maniacal brink.

Lyrically, it succinctly sums up those feelings of personal and political concern - “I’m not dumb, and I’m not blind / You don’t have to be cruel to be kind” - while still providing a sense of closure: “I’ve been saved from the darkest place / I’ve embraced the need to live”. It’s the final line - a swift kick of “Fuck everybody, woo!” - that hits hardest.

“It’s a song, for me, that only our band could or would do,” claims Simon aptly. “It’s got one of my favourite lines from the whole album, and that song is just exactly where my head is at: if you want to make change, do it yourself. You need to get stuck in because there’s no point in being in the shadows anymore, especially if we want to retain what I think makes people great - which is probably the most wanky sentence I’ve ever said!”

As for why it’s the record’s final track? James tell it like it is: “I just don’t know what you can put after, ‘Fuck everybody, woo!’” “You just can’t go anywhere after that,” Simon laughs. “It’s just the greatest closing line of all time.”

‘A Celebration of Endings’ is out 14th August via Warner.

As featured in the April 2020 issue of DIY, out now.

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