Surviving commercial success

THE irony is not lost on Biffy Clyro’s Ben Johnston.

“We’ve been in a band 16 years,” he says. “For most of that time we travelled around in a small van and played tiny venues. We always got on. Then we started to have some success. And we stopped getting along. We went through a pretty bad spell there.”

In the end, it was endless touring that nearly did them in. Six months criss-crossing America in 2011 drove a wedge between the three members of the Scottish hard rock group. By the time their US odyssey was winding down their future was in genuine doubt. They could barely stand to be in the same room.

“In terms of the live stuff, we spent too long out there,” says Johnston. “It gets to a stage where you all get sick of each other. Life in a band is like a marriage. The difference is that you don’t spend nearly as much time with your wife. You don’t go to work with her and drive around all the time in a van together. So we had a bit of a falling out.”

External events didn’t help. Singer Simon Neil’s wife suffered a series of miscarriages. Meanwhile, road-weary and bored, Johnson’s drinking spiralled out of control.

“I had to knock it on the head,” he says. “We got to Santa Monica to record our new album and, at the very start, I decided I would give the boozing up. I’m pleased to say it worked.”

Far from damaging Biffy creatively, the turmoil stirred the Glaswegians to fresh heights. Their new album, Opposites, sprawls, messily and gloriously, over two discs. It’s their most ambitious record, possibly their best.

“We always want our fans to be taken aback by what we are doing,” says Johnston. “We have never seen ourselves as the kind of group where people know what is coming next. With each record, our aim is to attempt something different. From our very first, nobody could say there is a ‘typical’ Biffy Clyro LP. Each is different. We like surprising people.”

Starting out on the Glasgow college scene, the trio were unreconstructed old-school rockers. They were almost as well known for Neil’s multiple tattoos, and his habit of performing shirtless, as for their music, which tended towards the grungy and aggressive.

They were an immediate success. However, it appeared a long shot that they would ever break out of Scotland. Their sound was unfashionable and the London media delighted in mocking their silly name (though the band refuse to this day to explain who or what ‘Biffy Clyro’ is, they confess that, given their time over, they’d have chosen a different moniker).

Lack of media love just deepened their resolve. Spending nine, ten months each year on the road, they built a grassroots following. Fan by fan they clawed their way towards the big time. Helping their cause were the famous admirers they’d started to attract. The most influential was Storm Thorgeson, the legendary record sleeve designer behind the covers of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon.

Smitten by their rollicking songs, Thorgeson became an unofficial champion of the group, overseeing the sleeves for their LPs Puzzle (2007) and Only Revolutions (2009). All the while they were selling bigger venues. Soon even the sceptics were forced to pay attention. One morning Biffy woke up and found they were one of the Britain’s biggest bands.

For Opposites they were determined to keep things fresh. Their songs tend towards the angst-ridden — perhaps a spell in the California sunshine would shake things up. They set up in a studio in LA and spent a month with producer Garth Richardson (Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers).

“We had come off the road from our last record, which, as I’ve said, was a real saga. The album had seven singles. There was a lot of work. So we were eager to do the new one somewhere nice. Garth is like family — we’ve always loved his company. Plus, Los Angeles is the easiest town in the world in which to put together an album. If you need a mariachi band at two in the morning, then you can get one. It’s that sort of place.”

They did, in fact, require a mariachi band at two in the morning. Clocking in at 20 tracks, Opposites gave Biffy Clyro an opportunity to indulge their experimental side. They tried things which, under normal circumstances, they would never have dared. Going out on a limb was very liberating, says Johnston. Too liberating, perhaps — by the end they had sufficient material for three full albums.

“We thought, well, there’s no way we can do a triple record. Why not a double one? It’s a brave statement to make at this moment, when people are going on about the death of the album. So we said, you know what, let’s just go for it. Let’s do something brave. What’s the point of being in a band if you aren’t prepared to try something like that from time to time?”

With the record set to top charts across Europe, a year of touring awaits. Since quitting drinking, Johnston says he is in a happier place and is looking forward to going back on the road.

“The thing about playing arenas is you really have to walk a fine line,” he says. “You want it to be a spectacular production. However, you have to ensure you don’t turn into a show-off stadium rock band. The best way to describe the sound we are aiming for is a cross between Spinal Tap and Fugazi. Pull that off and we’ll all be happy.”

* Biffy Clyro play O2, Dublin, Mar 28

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