The Johnson brothers on their latest LP, headlining Download and keeping the buzz after 20 years of Biffy
Biffy Clyro were born out of Scotland’s bustling 00s alt-rock scene, but over the past two decades and grown into one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Last October they released their ninth studio album The Myth Of The Happily Ever After, and in June they joined KISS and Iron Maiden as headliners of Download 2022.
As the band head out on a UK tour this week, we talked with the sibling rhythm section Ben and James Johnston about their evolution over the years and what it’s taken to cultivate it.
The Myth Of The Happily Ever After is your ninth album, which comes 20 years after your debut Blackened Sky. How easy is it for you to chart the development of your sound and how conscious has that development been?
James: I think it’s been a natural development, but at times we’ve tried to push ourselves a little bit, pushing things forward. I guess we’re quite worried about making the same music over and over. We always want to feel like we’re moving forward. I think perhaps if there were seven or eight guys or girls in the band, it’s easier to naturally take a bit of a turn. I think sometimes with three people you perhaps have to force yourselves a little bit.
But I think we’ve managed to do that and still maintain an identity as a band. The worst thing is when you just rip up everything you’ve ever done before and keep starting again. I think it’s important to have some sort of continuity and I guess that’s where the natural side of it comes in; there’s just some combination between the three of us that creates this wonderful sound.
The album was described as a response to the year leading to its release. I’m sure you don’t fancy lingering on 2020 any more, but did writing the album help you through that time?
Ben: It was the best thing that could have happened for us, right then. We were all pretty much at sea, not getting to gig and tour Celebration Of Endings was horrible. For us, a record doesn’t really live until we’ve played it on the stage, so that was difficult. But we were allowed to go into our studio and record an album, so that felt like a massive blessing. It was very cathartic and we laughed a lot, we had a lot of good times in that room. We transformed what was essentially a practice room on a farm into a working studio and made a great album, so it was happy times.
You recorded that back home in Ayrshire, right?
Ben: Yeah, it was all we could do at that time, our hands were very much tied, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise, because it meant we put a lot of work into the rehearsal room and made it a proper studio. It’s the first album we’ve done top to bottom in Scotland, which is a fun thing as well.
The album is full of surprises. I’m interested, for example, in how a song such as ‘Haru Urara’ came about?
James: We had that one for a little moment, and it just kept coming back to us. It was one of those songs that we couldn’t quite figure out what it was. We tried lots of different things for that song, but it just kept coming back to that gentle, smooth vibe. There was just something about it. I think that’s the side of the band we’re trying to explore with different sounds, really. There’s just something about playing that song together that felt great all the time.
Ben: It’s just nice and loungy, it’s got a kind of smoky vibe to it. I love that feeling in music and I’m glad we get to enter that realm at points.
Well going from smoky and loungy to the other end of the scale, you headlined Download recently. Was there a process of adjusting for the audience and the setting, or just getting on with what you do normally?
James: It’s a good question, because we are aware of the fact that KISS are playing, Iron Maiden are playing, it’s a metal festival. But they booked us to play Biffy Clyro songs and to be Biffy Clyro, so it’s trying to be confident enough in what it is that you do as a band. At the same time, you also want to slightly cater to the audience you’re playing for, so yeah it’s a bit of a balancing act. But it would be really annoying if you went up there and tried catering your set to an audience and they didn’t like it. It can be a real mess, so I think you just have to be confident in what you do, and put your best foot forward.
It went really well. We’ve played at that festival five or six times, so it’s somewhere we feel quite at home. From where I was stood, it seemed like everyone was having a good time at least.
Is there a feeling of ‘what next’ after playing these momentous festivals?
James: I think we’re eternally grateful to get these opportunities. I don’t think immediately after the show you’re thinking what’s next. There’s definitely a sense of relief, like thank God we didn’t mess that up. But no, it’s not like: “We’ve done that now, what else is there to achieve?” I don’t think that’s ever been the way of the band, we set our ambitions as we go, and that takes a little bit of time, not something that happens at a switch.
I remember seeing you at the Camden Roundhouse, I think around the release of Puzzle. I was a teenager, so it was an event for me, but even as an outsider it felt like the start of a new chapter for you guys. In that light. how do you manage to maintain the same sense of buzz and excitement throughout 20 years? I can imagine it can’t always be easy?
James: Sometimes the buzz dies a bit, sometimes it’s in full flame, but I don’t know if you’re really in control of that. It’s just something that comes, we love playing music together, and sometimes that can be a bit tough for the travelling or something else that’s difficult in your life, but I think I just feel more lucky that we do still feel the buzz after 20 years. I don’t try to examine that that much, just take it as it comes and be thankful.
You returned to the Roundhouse for your MTV Unplugged session. That must have been a special show, but are there any other particular landmarks like that that hold a firm place in your hearts?
Ben: That was a really fun time that. Playing stripped back is terrifying, that’s the main thing people should know about it, because you can’t hide behind any volume of flashy lights. It’s just you sat there and everyone can hear every single lick of music, so you’ve got to get it right. It feels like a band proving itself, you know? There’s been too many landmarks to even think of, we’re getting a bit old now. It goes as far back as playing our first show at King Tuts to headlining Barrowlands, headlining T In The Park, getting to play Maddison Square Garden in New York, headlining Reading and Leeds…
James: I think you probably nailed it when you talked about the Roundhouse for Puzzle. I think on that album we were thinking of expanding our sound; we were a bit of a cult band and then started to get a bit more attention out with that. So those moments, like playing Radio 1’s Big Weekend, which isn’t somewhere you’d normally find a rock band like us, and I think that was a sign of us moving out of our own indie rock world and starting to put our heads above the parapets.
You’ve won fans from all the different chapters of your Biffy life over the last two decades, so no doubt you still have fans who are desperate to hear tracks from Vertigo Of Bliss or Lonely Revolutions etc. Has it ever been a challenge to try and appease all the generations of Biffy fans?
James: Yeah, a hundred percent. I have to say, it’s a good problem to have. It would be a problem if no one wanted to hear any of the songs [Laughs]. But I do have to remind myself sometimes that when we were playing Vertigo Of Bliss we were playing to 300 people.
Ben: Ha! How many folk could possibly need to hear it now?
James: It’s our band, you know we love those records, I’m not dissing them. It’s a bit like the Sex Pistols and that famous show in Manchester with thousands of people in a 500 capacity room. Everyone said they were there.
You’re brothers, and Simon may as well be. How have you kept your personal relationships in tune with your working ones?
Ben: Getting there still! It’s not always easy. You miss home terribly when you’re away, and there’s no real way around that. And when it comes to inter-band relations, we’ve just worked hard over the years, learnt to give each other space and when to give each other support. Compared to other bands, we’ve been on a fairly even keel, so we’re very lucky that way that we’re still friends.
Yeah, it seems like you’re all in a very good place at the moment. What’s it taken to get to that place?
James: A lot of dedication. I think it’s hard to dedicate yourself to something you don’t love or don’t care about, and the three of us from a very young age did really care about this, we never took a meeting to ask is this what we’re going to do, we just always knew that we were gonna do it. We never thought about it or questioned it, so in some ways it’s easy. I hate saying that, because it has been hard work, but when it’s something you’ve chosen to do, it doesn’t always feel that hard. I feel lucky, and a lot of people say I shouldn’t feel like that because we’ve worked hard, but a lot of bands work hard.
In recent years you’ve dabbled with conceptual and double-albums, and even these last two records are like counterparts to each other. Are you thinking about the next project yet?
Ben: We have put out quite a lot of late, so we’re not in a massive rush, but we’ve always got stuff in the pipeline. We’ve got an idea that maybe the next thing we record, each song will be with a different producer. That’s something we’re interested in, and ergo that will take longer to do and cost more money and what have you, but it’s a real challenge and I think you’d get a real eclectic album that way and be a great experience. But we’re not in a rush to get to it straight away.