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.
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. “I don’t want to be rude – it was nothing to do with the venue or anything – but 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 audience were in the best way as much a part of the show as the band and I think that’s when those sort of nights can be a lot of fun.”
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, and you get to hear the song a little differently when you’re actually performing it to an audience. It’s all very different when you’re just sat in the studio you listen to it one way but when you’re presenting it it’s a totally different feeling.”
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 just felt like we wanted to tackle things differently in the studio as well, so it does feel like a re-birth. 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.”
Neil has also mentioned feeling pressure for the first time while they were making Ellipsis. Johnston admits “masterfully and luckily” they’d largely been immune to such worries before. “It certainly reared its ugly head a little bit [in the past] and I know Simon has to deal with that a little bit more being the songwriter, getting it in the ear more from the record company, but he’s always managed to keep that to himself. Ben and I have such faith in Simon’s songwriting, it’s trite perhaps or easy to say that I didn’t feel the pressure because I always believed he was going to write some great songs, which he did, and I knew we’d be able to get it together as a band.
“The pressure was there but if you care enough about something enough and love what you’re doing then eventually you can blast through that. Maybe sometimes the pressure helps to get the best out of you.”
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.
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.
“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. If we got bored the listener is going to get bored so we want to keep trying out new things. I definitely feel this is the start of the next trilogy.
“If Rich Costey we would love to have him at the helm,” he adds, tipping a nod to a producer whose credits include Muse, Franz Ferdinand and Jane’s Addiction. “We learned a lot from him in the studio and I think he got a lot out of us.”
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 and not be afraid of that,” 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. Rick 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’. That’s the kind of thing we learned from him in the studio.”
Ellipsis is out now. Biffy Clyro play at Leeds Festival on Friday August 26. For tickets visit www.leedsfestival.com
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.
“This will be our 10 appearance and 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.
“It just feels like a celebration. 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 sort of thing can still happen, it’s not pie in the sky, if you work hard you can still do it. We feel proud to be there, we feel maybe we want to try and better ourselves all the time, we want it to be a better show than last time [in 2013]. I’m still not entirely sure how we do that but we’re going to give it every bit of effort we have because it’s a place that means the world to us.”