Biffy Clyro: Scottish trio on why they love LA, writing festival anthems and dining with Duran Duran

As they put the finishing touches to their new album Biffly Clyro prepare for a summer of headline gigs

Craig McLean
Friday 18 March 2016 14:18 GMT
Tat’s entertainment: Biffy Clyro’s Ben Johnston, Simon Neil and James Johnston
Tat’s entertainment: Biffy Clyro’s Ben Johnston, Simon Neil and James Johnston (Caleb Coppola)

It's margarita time – also Peroni, iced-tea and roll-up-fags time – at the West Hollywood hotel pool.

But this is a working Saturday afternoon, because rock band Biffy Clyro are staring down the barrel of the final deadline for their new album.

And they’re pondering a great hard-rock imponderable: to choir or not to choir.

“We recorded a bit of a children’s choir, just to see what it sounded like,” says energetically friendly frontman Simon Neil, tattooed fingers digging into his pouch of rolling tobacco.

With a summer of big shows ahead of the Scottish trio – including headline appearances at the Reading and Leeds festivals – some new, expansive anthems are in order.

“But I think we might edit it out,” he concedes with a grin as twins James (bass) and Ben Johnston (drums) nod in quiet agreement. “We’ve not lost our eccentricities, but it just wasn’t right.”

He knows of what he speaks. The Scottish trio also recorded their two most recent albums in Los Angeles, and on the last occasion they plunged off the deep end.

Bunkered at The Village recording studio, a converted Masonic temple, during the Olympic summer of 2012, Biffy Clyro spent weeks finessing a three-part kazoo symphony, manhandling a harp, wrangling a mariachi band and tracking down some bagpipes. The result was the unapologetically epic – and not a little wiggy – Opposites: a double album with two sub-titles (“The Sand at the Core of Our Bones” and “The Land at the End of Our Toes”) and 20 tracks.

Still, Opposites was a triumph, as melodically tough as it was sonically adventurous. For all its old-school/far-out rock experimentalism, their sixth album cemented the band’s crossover to daytime radio and festival-headline status.

It was a process begun with the one-time punk-metal noiseniks signing, a decade ago, to a major label, Warner Bros. It was then fast-tracked by the childhood friends from Ayrshire bagging the Christmas Number One in 2010 – albeit by the expedient of having an X Factor winner (Matt Cardle) covering one of their songs.

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The House of Cowell may have insisted on changing the song’s title from “Many of Horror” to “When We Collide”, but the chart-topping interlude pointed up something the band’s famously impassioned fanbase had long known. Don’t be fooled by the hardcore uproar that is his extravagantly inked body: Neil can write a tune.

Still, this time round, 20 years on from forming in their mid-teens, the threesome determined to do something different. It started with a year-long lay-off from the stage, a career-first. As Neil says, “Not playing felt really weird. You start to doubt your own existence.” But a break was integral to the reboot they felt was the only option.

“The one thing we always have in our mind is, by the time of a band’s seventh record, either you know exactly what they’re gonna do,” offers the 36-year-old guitarist/singer, “or you’re slightly bored of them. We didn’t want to come out and do another record just for the sake of it. We really wanted to have a purpose behind it. So we’re trying to make this new one almost as streamlined as [AC/DC’s] Back in Black. Coming off the back of a double album it’s more important than ever that we do the exact opposite.”

Biffy Clyro perform on stage at the Troxy (Getty)

Normally all still based on the west coast of Scotland, they’ve been in LA since last October, living together in a house in the Hollywood Hills with the occasional visit from their partners. But the lengthy exile has been caused by only a desire to drill down into a compact core of 10 or 12 songs from a pool of 25 to 30.

“We’re not going down the beach. We’re not easily distracted,” shrugs Neil. “The LA lifestyle appeals to us, but not that whole ‘ta-dah!’ nature of the self-obsession. But the reason I love LA is that the ambition people have here flows through the music. There’s a cynicism we have being from Scotland that’s healthy, but if we were to make a record in Scotland we could potentially talk ourselves out of trying the more ostentatious stuff.”

“We’ve made records here before,” adds James, “so our head wasn’t going to get turned by being here. Mostly we just live our regular lives.”

“Apart from having dinner with John Taylor from Duran Duran the other night, James!” shouts Neil. The bass player with the revenant Eighties warhorses – labelmates of Biffy Clyro – was, to his credit, gainfully trying to empathise with the Scotsmen’s long, dogged career progress. “He was talking about the difficulty of their third record,” relates Neil to much in-band laughter, “and I’m thinking: ‘I don’t think touring Seven and the Ragged Tiger was the same as us playing Peterborough on the Infinity Land tour…’”

Never a band to favour the furrowed brow, Biffy Clyro have been slaloming cheerfully off-piste on the as-yet-untitled album. “This is a terrifying thing for any rock band to say, but we’ve been working a lot with synthesisers and drum machines,” says Neil. “To start a song with keyboards is different from starting a song with distorted guitar. It just immediately shifted our focus.”

New song “Friends and Enemies” is one such detour. It has an electronic pulse suggestive of Scissor Sisters’ cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, but explodes into guitar riffs – or programmed keyboard riffs – that sound like artillery rounds. As Neil suggests, “It sounds like The Sweet playing with Tears for Fears.”

Already out there in the YouTube ether is “On a Bang”, unveiled earlier this year at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, the homecoming show Biffy Clyro fitted in during a quick Christmas visit.

“It’s probably the most punk-rock moment in the new album,” says Ben. “It’s like an updated version of our teenage selves.” He pauses, aware of the fanbase-scaring peril lurking in the words he’s just spoken. “Don’t write ‘mature punk’, please!”

Biggest and boldest of the handful of (unmixed) songs they play me is “Wolves of Winter”. Its upcoming release was teased earlier this month with a social media posting of a 30-second audio snippet featuring the band laughing and Neil yelling, “Record this!” The rest of the song lives up to James billing it as “a behemoth of a rock song”.

“It’s a big, singalong moment,” agrees Ben. “It feels like we’re an army in that song. We’ll knock down festivals with ‘Wolves of Winter’.”

So that, then, is how Biffy Clyro “do” restrained? “Well, we’re pulling things back, but only insofar as we’re not doing what we did last time,” clarifies Neil, “and recording five drum kits, a church organ in Pasadena, tap-dancers and a mariachi band. We’re a wee bit schizo and we’ll always be a bit schizo. But it’s just us three schizos this time.”

Postscript: four weeks later, a message comes from the Biffy camp in LA. They are recording that children’s choir – but they might not use it. These “schizo” rock bands. So unpredictable.

“Wolves of Winter” (Warner Bros) is released on 22 March. Biffy Clyro headline Reading/Leeds Festival this summer (

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