“So, what’s the good stuff?” ponders Biffy Clyro’s James Johnston of the last 18 months, chuckling down the phone from his Scottish home. “The good stuff is that we have had moments together as a threesome, as a band, [where] we’ve done some really incredible things. We did a livestream from the Barrowlands, which I think was one of the best live performances we’ve ever done, we’ve been involved in loads of other projects, and we’ve made another record,” he casually mentions. “What I’ve been reminded of is that when life is tough, this is a shelter, our band. It gives us purpose, it gives us drive.”
Having been plunged into lockdown last year just as they were beginning the promotional schedule for their eighth record - the almost ironically-titled ‘A Celebration of Endings’ - it feels like barely a moment has passed since Biffy were last delivering us new music. But while the interim 18 months have included more than their fair share of worry and frustration for James and his bandmates - singer Simon Neil and drumming brother Ben Johnston, the pandemic has evidently provided some considerable positives.
Originally planned to act as a companion record to their last album, building around offcuts of material from previous recording sessions, what’s now turned into LP9 began to take on a life of its own when the band convened at their Ayrshire farm studio.
“It’s slightly pixelated to me,” James admits, thinking back to when the album first really started to take shape. “There is still a relationship to ‘Celebration…’, there’s no doubt about it with some of the songs. But there’s this one song on the record where we got together in the practice room, and Simon came in… It starts, and is heavily based around the sound of a synthesiser - which is becoming a little more frequent for the band - but it still feels like new territory. It still feels really exciting when Simon’s like, ‘Right, we’re gonna plug in that fucking computer, and let’s see…’
“For me, that would be one of the points where it felt like the record had taken a shift,” he continues. “That was a couple of months before we actually started to record, and at that point, we were still talking about [it as] a sister record. But I think when you get a new song, it invariably starts to inform the older songs around it, and it sparks new ideas. It just gave us a feel for the colour of the record. So, there’s definitely still a relationship to ‘Celebration…’, [and] lyrically, I feel like there’s a connection. It was a real natural, organic process; things changed and evolved.”
“It does feel fucking personal now, the problems I have with politics.”
— James Johnston
Speaking to James today, it’s clear that the making of this new album was the tonic they so desperately needed. Among a sea of very current problems for musicians - how the mess of Brexit will tangibly affect European touring; how festivals will survive despite still having little-to-no insurance support - he’s unsurprisingly vocal about the stress and mental toll these issues exert. “As I become older, and over the last few years, I have become more politically engaged, and I’m just getting really sick to the back teeth of everything I see,” he states. “It’s starting to make me feel quite disillusioned. It feels like we’re a rudderless ship; you, me and everyone else are below deck trying to fucking bail us out, and then the Tories are upstairs quaffing champagne, eating canapes and laughing at us.”
On their last album, Biffy began to explore how the personal had become the political, and 18 months later it’s still a topic that’s keeping them up at night. “There’s definitely still anger [about] the way that some personal relationships have gone that refers directly to some of the songs on ‘A Celebration…’,” James continues of the new record. “And you know, personal hurt and heartache will always stick around a bit longer than, for me, something more political. But the political does start to become personal. It does feel fucking personal now, the problems I have with politics, and that does stick around. I do think about it when I go to bed, and it really sticks in my throat, and when it starts to affect you like that, it’s deeply personal.”
One thing he’s quick to emphasise, however, is how integral being able to make music has been for the trio over the last year. After more than 20 years together, it’ll take more than a global pandemic to bring Biffy Clyro down. “Being down there on our farm, there’s nothing to really compare against,” he says, almost wistfully. “We were just there making music and it felt very much for our sake. It was giving me purpose, and it was a totally different feel to every other record we’d made because of the pandemic and [the fact] we were doing it at home ourselves. It gave me so much strength.
“That usually emerges later down the line, you’re maybe halfway through a tour and the music hits you, but this really was immediately. I was going home every night night going, ‘This is fantastic, I’m so happy to be alive with the boys’. It just felt incredible.”
As featured in the July 2021 issue of DIY, out now.