Biffy Clyro make history this weekend headlining Reading and Leeds for the first time. They played a stormer on Friday night (August 23) in Leeds, and play Reading this evening (Sunday 25 August). Few bands have a stronger connection to the legendary weekender. Veterans of the festival, they told NME writer Barry Nicolson about the highlights and lowlights of their previous experiences at the festival:
Ben Johnston (drums): That one, we drove down overnight from Scotland in a van with no bunks, so we had very little sleep. We woke up completely crapping ourselves, as you would. We were first on what was then the Radio 1 Stage, which was a large tent. I think Hundred Reasons were playing, too. I was spewing into a bucket right up until the point when I walked onstage, and then the adrenaline kicked in. I remember it being a great show, because people knew the words to a couple of our songs. I couldn’t believe that.
James Johnston (bass): We still hadn’t really played outside of Scotland very much, so it was a massive thing for us. Our first T in the Park was obviously a big one too, but that being a Scottish festival, it seemed a wee bit more achievable. Reading & Leeds was like, ‘Fuck. We’ve made it now, boys.’
James: That was with Jetplane Landing and Hell Is For Heroes, and it felt at that time that there was a new wave of British rock bands who were taking over. It was very exciting for us, because we were all mates and we were all doing it together. It felt, even more so than the previous year, that we’d arrived, albeit in a very small way! We were still an underground band, but it was really exciting to feel part of something at that point. This weekend, it almost feels like we’re responsible for the memory of those bands. We’re lucky enough to have this chance, so it feels like we’ve got to do it on their behalf as much as anything.
Ben: On our first Main Stage appearance we were subbed in for Lostprophets, who had to pull out at the last minute. So up until either the day before or the day of the gig, we had no idea we were going to be playing. That was a fucking baptism of fire, right there.
James: Yeah. We probably – no, definitely – weren’t ready for it at that point.
Ben: We had a very abrasive, angular small-tent set worked out, and not a big, expansive, breathable Main Stage singalong. So we went up there and played some really awkward music. I remember that was the first time I’d used in-ear monitors onstage. Playing the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds isn’t really the best place to try anything out for the first time, but our ever-thrifty manager Deepak had bought Panasonic batteries instead of Duracell, and they fucking ran out about three songs in, right when I was singing the chorus of ’57’. I couldn’t hear a fucking thing. It was terrifying. But I remember the show being really good, and one of the lasting memories, again, was that people seemed to know our songs. We got a moshpit going on the Main Stage, and that blew us away. That year was a real confirmation that our toilet-touring was making a difference.
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James: We were second or third on by that point, and we’d started to learn a bit from our mistakes. Instead of just going on and shouting at people, we’d maybe started to understand how to give a large performance, for the folks at the back who can’t really see you. It takes a long time to learn that.
Ben: Things change when you get to a big stage. Like, people in theatre wear makeup, and it seems to accentuate the expressions, to add projection and get things to carry to the back of the room. All those wee things that add up, and you have to think about that side of it when you’re playing these bigger shows; how to try and connect, to reach everybody, and not be so fucking awkward!
James: Kings of Leon were headlining that year, I think. I’m sorry, my memory’s a bit hazy, but from what I can remember, it was a bit of a quiet one. We’re allowed a quiet year now and again!
Ben: Was that the year Simon tried to set his guitar on fire, and it didn’t work?
James: Could’ve been, could’ve been…
James: We really went for it that year. If I remember correctly, the gig was great. We were starting to get a bit more of a following, and we’d done more festivals around this one. So much goes into a day like this – you’ve got your friends and family, the record company people, all these extraneous things that can divert your attention from what you’re trying to do. But we’d maybe got the hang of it a little more. After the show, we really partied our tits off. We partied with Mani that year, and I remember sitting in a dressing room that had about a foot of water on the floor when Bobby Gillespie came in, took one look at us, and went ‘What the fuck are you guys doing?’
Ben: We out-partied everybody that year. We were the last band to leave both sites. The organisers were actually trying to kick us out because we stayed so long.
James: We gave one of our friends a mullet, and he broke his collarbone rolling down a hill trying to impress Paris Hilton. Bear in mind, we finished at 2pm, so by the time it got to 7 or 8, Simon was having a little disco-nap in the dressing room. Then Metallica started playing ‘Enter Sandman’ and he just sprung up like, ‘WHOAH!’ He was like a phoenix from the ashes.
James: This was the year we played with Marmaduke Duke, and we closed the Festival Republic stage. With that one, because of the nature of the band, we just got wrecked and had fun. Then you go onstage and you realise, ‘Hang on, I want to do a good job here. I don’t want to be completely fucked up!’ But it was a riot. It’s nice to be able to do things like that, in amongst the more serious stuff that we do with Biffy. With Marmaduke, it was just a chance to have fun, and we took it.
Ben: Yeah, it was amazing. In Biffy, if anyone makes a mistake then they’ll get pulled up for it because we all want it to be perfect. With Marmaduke, there was never, ever any chance of that happening. Mistakes were just something we’d laugh about after the show. It was a great escape – we did one tour in dresses and another in tights. But it’s difficult to play in those outfits, man. Especially if you’re used to playing topless and you suddenly find yourself trying to play whilst wearing a big summer dress. But it was amazing fun.
James: By that point we had a few more songs that people knew, which is an important element of a festival set – to get people singing along and having a good time. That’s when we started to realise that people singing along was actually a good thing. I remember Aereogramme talking about how, when they got towards the end of their career, they would start playing the songs they thought people wanted to hear. Then they’d come offstage and think, ‘Fuck, we’ve just spent ten years being deliberately obtuse and awkward.’ If you play the songs that people want to hear, they have a good time and you have a good time. I think they wished they’d done that earlier. It’s just part of growing up, though; when you’re young, you try to get up people’s noses and piss them off a bit. As you get older, you realise it’s more of a collaborative thing – it’s about you and the audience doing it together. And I guess having a few more songs that people knew made it easier for us. We had a few more tricks up our sleeve by that point.