About to headline Leeds Festival, Biffy Clyro tell Duncan Seaman why they are always determined to be different.
Last month million-selling rock band Biffy Clyro did something they hadn’t done in years – they played a gig to little more than 100 punters in a small bar in Leeds.
The show, staged at short notice in the intimate setting of Headrow House, was both a curtain raiser for the Scottish trio’s co-headline appearance at Leeds and Reading Festivals in August and an opportunity for band members Simon Neil and brothers James and Ben Johnston to air material from their new album Ellipsis, which is due out today.
A couple of weeks later James Johnston, Biffy Clyro’s bass player and backing vocalist, reflects on the experience of swapping the band’s normal arena environs for more homely surroundings with fondness.
“Actually maybe I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did,” he chuckles. “Sometimes these small shows can be really nerve wracking for the audience as well and sometimes if it doesn’t get going reasonably quickly the whole thing feels nervous but it was a really great vibe.”
The chance to play new songs such as Re-Arrange and Medicine purely acoustically also interested the band. “Of course we’re looking forward to getting the guitars out and doing it full rock but it’s really nice to present them in their bare bones,” he says. “And yes, it would have been the first time for a lot of those songs, so thankfully nobody left, which is always a good sign.”
Much of the advance word on Ellipsis, the band’s seventh album and successor to their Number One record Opposites, has centred on new beginnings. Simon Neil said recently that he believed the trio were doing something on this record that they hadn’t tried before.
James Johnston admits there was a shared feeling among the three of them of needing to push their creative boundaries. “I think that any band who cares about what they’re doing owes it to themselves and owes it to the fans to try to keep moving forward at all times. You don’t just want to keep creating the same album,” he says.
“We made a decision even before we finished the last album that we wanted to work with a different producer [Rich Costey] and just move everything forward, no longer working with Storm Thorgerson on the artwork – sadly he passed away – so we knew so many things were going to be different. We’re still a guitar rock band, you’ll still hopefully put it on and go ‘That’s Biffy’ but it’s just maybe Biffy Mark IV or something.”
Over the past 15 years the band have had a habit of grouping their albums into trilogies. It seems Ellipsis could well be the start of another one.
Some rock fans will be scared of us talking about using beats or electronics. I can say we’re a guitar rock band and always will be but we just want to try to broaden our horizons.
“The first three were kind of prog rock-ish, all over the place, crazy journeys within every single song then the next three albums were more big and lush and orchestral,” says Johnston. “Now I see these more as embracing more modern technology in the studio. Some rock fans will be scared of us talking about using beats or electronics. I can say we’re a guitar rock band and always will be but we just want to try to broaden our horizons.”
Where Opposites and its predecessors Only Revolutions and Puzzles had become more and more epic, on Ellipsis the focus was on “taking regular sounds and just distorting them and dirtying them up” to create something raw.
“There would be loads of times when I would be sitting there playing my bass and I would be going ‘What are we using here?’ and it would literally go in a chain all the way round the studio through all the synthesisers, Moogs and old things like that, just to try and mess with the sound,” says Johnston.
“I think the past we’d always been trying to get things to sound as good as possible in an old school, traditional sense – whether that’s using the best mics, the best mic-ing technique. Rich Costey this time, he’s still very much a gear-head, he still cares about the technology, he just uses it the way he wants to use it instead of the way it ‘should be used’. All the lights are red, everything is flashing at you and he says things like ‘Well, does it sound good? It doesn’t matter what it looks like’.”
Having played on almost all of the stages at Leeds and Reading Festivals over the past decade and half, James Johnston and his bandmates look at their place on the bill as a yardstick of Biffy Clyro’s progress.
“We’ve worked our way up on every stage so it’s been a good judge of how we’re being received by the rock fraternity,” he says.
“Now that we’ve been deemed to be headliners, which is a wonderful place to be, it feels like we have a responsibility to the other bands on the smaller stages and the younger bands on the bill to show them that if you work hard you can still do it.”
Ellipsis is out today. Biffy Clyro play Leeds Festival on August 26. leedsfestival.com