SIMON Neill’s jaunty Scottish burr lowers an octave. “As much as this band means the world to me, I don’t want anyone dying because of it,” says Biffy Clyro’s lead singer. “On our previous album things got out of control — we neglected ourselves.”
Biffy Clyro had spent nearly two years on the road, determined to take their music to as many as possible. But, as the months flashed by, they relied increasingly on alcohol as a coping mechanism. Eventually, it all crashed inwards. Their very survival as a group was in doubt. You come back from tour a shell of a man,” says Neill. “You forget what it is to be a person. You operate in this bubble of being a musician. As much fun as it is, that’s not real life. We had to sit down and have a serious chat. We didn’t want the band to fall apart for some stupid reason like drink or drugs — the usual pitfalls. They are a cliché for a reason.”
Three tattooed rockers from small town Scotland, Biffy are an unlikely stadium affair. However, that is what they have grown into. They’ve played Dublin’s O2, headlined the Reading Festival (to the loudly voiced displeasure of the act below them on the bill, Nine Inch Nails). Now they are preparing for a summer of festivals, including a date at Cork’s Live at the Marquee.
“For years we were overwhelmed by the big shows,” says Neil. “We felt out of our depth. Not any more. Our egos have taken over and now we’re fully at home. I’m joking as I say that and yet there’s some truth to it; you have to have swagger. It’s an aspect of the job I’ve had to work at. Believe it or not, I’m not a show off.”
Though they have a fierce work ethic, Biffy don’t think of themselves as ambitious in a crassly commercial sense. They didn’t get into music to sell as many records as possible. Starting out, the notion they might one day headline arenas would have struck them as ludicrous. Where they came from, that simply didn’t happen.
“The bands we grew up listening to were never popular in that way,” says Neil. “So we had nothing to aim for — no real agenda. We did not have a five year plan, let’s put it that way. If we had wanted to be big, we’d have probably been too obsessed with trying to achieve that. I sounds like a cliché: our aim was to make the whole process of being in a group satisfying for ourselves.”
While regarded as a largely conventional rock act, Biffy Clyro have an experimental side. On last year’s Opposites LP they filled two discs with often complex music. When executives at their record label became aware Biffy had recorded a 20-track double album they blanched. Still, Neil and company weren’t for turning (they did agree to a slimmed-down single disc for sale in supermarkets). “We were nervous in the weeks before Opposites actually came out,” says Neill. “In the studio it is completely different. You are absolutely detached from all that. The whole point of the endeavour is to make music you are turned on by. If it doesn’t turn you on, what impact will it have on the audience? So you follow your muse in that regard. It’s only afterwards that you start to have doubts.”
As is often the case with angst-filled rockers, Neill has a sensitive side. He has famously battled with depression, 2007’s Puzzle album chronicling his struggle to come to terms with the death of his mother. The cover art, by the late Pink Floyd sleeve designer Storm Thorgerson, depicts a man in an empty room, head in hands. His body is covered with jigsaw patterns, a piece conspicuously missing.
“Lyrics were becoming important to me,” says Neill. “We wanted an artist who would reflect that in their design, who would really get ‘inside’ the song. Storm did that. At that period, I was literally missing a piece of myself. He captured the feelings I experienced. It was very powerful. We were talking to him right up until he passed last year. He will be missed. He was one of the last great record cover artists.”
Neill enjoys success but seems wary of it too. He is afraid of morphing into a slick rock idol — and of taking his audience for granted. “It’s not acceptable for a band to go through the motions,” he says. “I don’t care if you are in the middle of a tour and are exhausted — the public has come out to support you, paid good money to watch. You’ve got to give it everything. There are thousands of musicians out there — you better make sure you give people a reason for coming to your gigs.”
Maybe that’s why, off stage, he works at having as normal a life as possible. Neil is married to his teenage sweet-heart, a school teacher, and does not carry himself with any airs. “Where I come from in Scotland, and I suspect it may be the same in Ireland, people who walk around thinking they’re the best ever, are brought down to earth pretty fast. Putting on that sort of act isn’t tolerated. It’s helped keep me grounded. If you are acting like an idiot, you’ll find out about it straight away.”
* Biffy Clyro play Live at the Marquee Cork June 27, Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin June 28.