Back in early February, when coronavirus hadn’t yet ripped through Europe and the UK, Biffy Clyro invited NME to Warner Records’ West London HQ to hear their upcoming album ‘A Celebration Of Endings’. They played us a handful of newbies, each showcasing the record’s many left-turns, from gothic punk to – no shit – even a little rave.
Lyrically, the record is a rallying cry. Having battled with depression and fought his way back to self-confidence for the band’s previous album, 2016’s freewheeling ‘Ellipsis’, frontman Simon Neil looked outside himself for the first time to find inspiration in society’s ills. A whirlwind on stage, Neil has never been a shrinking violet in person – but he’s also never allowed his politics to spill into the music before.
“I feel like I’ve investigated myself more than I probably should – more than is probably healthy!” Neil told NME as he talked us through the new tunes. “When you’re younger, you think that you can keep the personal and the political separate, but I really don’t think that we can now in this world that we’re living in. The world needs to change in the right way. It’s just been bad news for years.”
Little did we know, way back in the far-from-halcyon days of February 2020, that further bad news lay ahead. ‘A Celebration Of Endings’ should have been released today (Friday, May 15), but the band’s ninth album will now arrive in August. Breaking the news to fans, the trio cited the widespread “turmoil and anxiety” of coronavirus.
A couple of months after that London encounter, Neil FaceTimes NME from lockdown at home in Ayrshire, Scotland. “We’re the same as everyone else – reality has just been ripped out of our hands for the time being,” he says. Instead of releasing this eclectic but direct album, the singer has found himself indulging in “Lego, computer games and a fuck-ton of telly”. Weekly acoustic gigs, which he’s livestreamed to fans via Facebook, have kept him “relatively sane and created an important sense of routine”.
So at least Biffy fans have had something to chew on while they wait, and the band have certainly left them guessing in the interim. They launched the album with the trance-driven apocalypse bop of ‘Instant History’, then followed up with the fire-and-brimstone rock of ‘End Of’. And, last night, they unleashed the bubblegum pop song ‘Tiny Indoor Fireworks’ as a new single. The message? Biffy fans should expect the unexpected.
But then raising eyebrows has always been the Kilmarnock behemoths’ M.O. If you were to sum Biffy Clyro up in one image, you’d draw a comic book thought bubble containing an exclamation mark and a question mark, portraying shock and confusion with utmost urgency.
“That’s definitely what we’re going for,” Simon agrees with a laugh. “Like, ‘Uh? Really? Are you sure?’ I never want us to lose that.”
Having formed as teenagers in the mid-1990s, the band – comprised of Neil and brothers James and Ben Johnston on bass and drums – tore apart the UK’s dingiest toilet venues, coming up through the turn-of-the-century’s post-grunge Brit-rock scene (think Hundred Reasons, Million Dead, My Vitriol and The Cooper Temple Clause).
Their twitchy, math-rock-inspired early singles ‘57’, ‘Toys Toys Toys Choke, Toys Toys Toys’ and ‘Glitter And Trauma’ showcased a band with a knack for a sweet chorus, but also an almost perverse pleasure in awkward, jagged hooks and lyrical riddles (from 2002’s ‘Joy.Discovery.Invention’: “Look at slow motion asleep at the door – makes to destruction, reach for the saws.”)
“That twisted take on everything has always been so us – even down to our band name,” laughs Neil. “If you’d have told anyone from that era that we’d be the ones to stick around for 20 years, then they probably would have laughed in your face.”
“If you’d told anyone that we’d stick around for 20 years, they would have laughed”
He’s right – few of those aforementioned bands are still around today. And for their first three records (2002’s grungy ‘Blackened Sky’, 2003’s angular ‘The Vertigo Of Bliss’ and 2004’s macabre ‘Infinity Land’) these three totally wired shirtless Scots also seemed unlikely to break beyond cult obscurity, forever playing early afternoon slots – which they dubbed ‘the Biffy slot’ – on festival stages. So it was surprising when the band left indie label Beggar’s Banquet and stepped up to the big leagues, joining major Warner for 2007’s arena-ready ‘Puzzle’.
Dealing largely with the death of Neil’s mother, Eleanor, the songs cut straight to Biffy’s core and packed much more of a pop impact than before, but still retained their innate proggy flair. Suddenly the band were all over Radio One and had landed the Number Two slot on the UK albums chart, having previously barely scraped the top 50. Buoyant follow-up ‘Only Revolutions’, released in 2009, was so loaded with bangers that that year’s X Factor champion, Matt Cardle, covered ‘Many Of Horror’ as his winner’s single (except, in true anodyne fashion, he renamed it ‘When We Collide’).
Biffy Clyro have now headlined Reading & Leeds Festival twice, having more than earned their place at the top table, even if does seem, thrillingly, that they gatecrashed their way in. And ‘A Celebration Of Endings’ cements the image of Neal and co. as impish interlopers into the mainstream.
“I want our fans to be worried by our new album”
“I can write a song so quickly these days, but I don’t want to do that,” he says. “The challenge now isn’t to make a record – the challenge now is having a reason to make a record. If I take a song to Ben and James I want them to say, ‘Are you sure this is worth doing?’ That’s what keeps me excited and motivated – the shock of the new. What can we do now to fuck around with what we’ve already done? I want our fans to either be worried that it’s going to be terrible or excited that it’s going to fuck their socks off.”
There’s plenty to shock and delight you on the eclectic but concise ‘A Celebration Of Endings’. There is – to put it lightly – a lot going on. Opener ‘North Of No South’ neatly combines their bruising power-pop with Muse-style riffs, ‘Space’ swoons like a sweet Disney lullaby and ‘The Pink Limit’ rollicks away to a wonky Biffy groove. The metal-meets-Mozart (no, really) grand finale ‘Cop Syrup’, clocking in at over six minutes, might just be their true masterpiece.
The desert rock banger ‘Weird Leisure’, meanwhile, sees Neil beg a broken and coke-addled pal to come back from the edge and “see what you could have had”. “That’s a song about one of my oldest friends,” he explains. “He just chose the wrong path and got himself into a really tricky situation where his world closed in. He’d want help and you’d try to help, but then a week later you’re back to square one. Fortunately he’s in a good place now and on his way out of the darkness. I love this guy so much, but – fucking hell – he’s put me through some shit.”
What has Neil learned from the experience? “That we shouldn’t be scared of change,” he says. “People can adapt to anything. That’s what I’m saying to my friend in that song: ‘Let’s deal with this – look outside your window. You can have it all; let’s fucking go and do it. Life can be yours – just don’t let it pass you by.”
Given this carpe diem attitude, there’s an accidental profundity to the fact that we’re discussing ‘A Celebration Of Endings’ amid a forced societal reappraisal.
“The Mayans [a civilisation that lived across what is now Mexico and the US, 4,000 years ago] talked about the world ending in 2012,” says Neil. “My theory is that it did, but not in the way we thought it would. Instead we shifted consciousness and became unenlightened. The album is about hitting your lowest point, where you have to battle and reset your values. And now [coronavirus] has happened – it’s an exaggerated version of what I was talking about because it’s an end to all our realities.
“So, because nobody has heard the album yet, it’ll probably seem like the record was written during COVID. I know that I’ll sing these songs in a different way once I come out of the other side.”
“The Mayans were right – the world ended in 2012, but not like we thought it would”
Neil, it seems, has plenty to get riled up about – especially when it comes to “those Tory fuckers” and the “heinous lump of beef” Boris Johnson, whose response to the coronavirus crisis and neglect of the National Health Service he damns in no uncertain terms.
“The NHS should be untouchable now for generations and generations,” Neil says. “Make no mistake – Boris was a few months away from selling it off. After he was ill [with coronavirus], he was like, ‘I owe them my life – I can never repay them’. Yes you can, you bastard: you owe them millions. Hopefully he’s a man of his word and does something. We need the NHS more than we need the fucking government.”
He says that the crisis that brought “what makes society work and what keeps us going” into focus and insists: “We need food, we need our health, we need a roof over our heads – those are the essentials. Key workers are not ‘low-skilled workers’; we need them. I don’t know if it’s to do with me turning 40, but when we come out the other side of this I don’t think I’ll have an awful lot of patience for people who are selfish and fucking self-obsessed. If you don’t know your place in society at the moment as one of many, then you’re probably a psychopath.”
This leads to a short but bitter tirade against Donald Trump’s “economy over human life” politics and his anxiety-inducing media briefings. Neil has channelled the root of this rage – which is ignited by the combination of arrogance and incompetence of some people in power – into the new album. The record’s real life-affirming battle-cry comes in the form of Bond-theme contender ‘The Champ’.
“If you don’t know your place as one of society’s many, you’re probably a psychopath”
“On ‘The Champ’, I sing about ‘the grey man’s curse’,” he says. “The best spies in the world just fade into the background. You don’t even notice them in the room. That song was initially about climate change and the environment. Now that song, for me, is about the people who bite their tongues and keep their opinions to themselves when they should be heard.”
The lyric ‘Your reality washing up on the shore’, Neil says, is about Syrian child refugee Alan Kurdi who washed up on the shore near Bodrum, Turkey, in 2015. “People had previously been like, ‘Fuck you refugee bastards!’, and all of a sudden changed to, ‘Oh, it’s so sad. Look at this picture’. That song is about all these terrible things really coming home to roost. Boris and that mob have been digging at experts for years. There are people who are often wrong but never in doubt. These people are running the world at the moment.”
Neil, clearly no stranger to speaking his mind these days, hails “the mischief, heartbreak and chaos that only our band can achieve”, but is also working on exciting musical endeavours away from Biffy Clyro. There’s a “glitchy drone project” called Tippie Toes; “a grindcore record in the vein of Napalm Death”; and an upcoming new record from his conceptual fantasy noise-funk side-project Marmaduke Duke, which has become a cult favourite among fans – many of whom join them in their elaborate carnival-inspired fancy dress at gigs.
Of the latter he explains: “We’ve got eight songs, with two more to go, and it’s called ‘The Death Of The Duke’. Some of it sounds like [’90s industrial heroes] Ministry and some it sounds like Katy Perry. It’s fucked-up and all over the place. I can’t wait for people to hear it.”
“Boris Johnson is a heinous lump of beef”
Itching to put on his hot pants and feathered mask for his Marmaduke Duke alter-ego, Neil says he’ll always crave the bizarre and eccentric side of life: “As time goes on I can feel myself becoming more secure in the artist that I want to be. I don’t always want to be a ‘commercial artist’. We’re on a major label among pop shit, but we make weird music. Even when I’m 60, I still want to be bringing both the exclamation and the question marks. If we ever straighten up too much, that’s exactly when I would jack it in.”
Neil may have the march of time on his mind, but ‘A Celebration Of Endings’ is not quite the ‘mature’ record you might anticipate from a band of Biffy’s longevity. “That’s not us,” he spits at the term. “I don’t want to age gracefully as a fucking rock band. I don’t want to start wearing really well-fitted leather jackets, black trainers and shades in a cool fucking pose. Where do they buy those fucking clothes?”
He’s really on one now, insisting: “I don’t want to settle into that ‘sophisticated rock’ vibe. That’s killed rock music to a certain extent. I need the chaos, the anarchy, the big ‘fuck you’. Hip-hop is dripping in attitude, and rock can’t afford to lose that.”
Biffy Clyro still have that fighting spirit in spades. On ‘Tiny Indoor Fireworks’, Neil invokes the desire to “summit the ocean, scale the wave, and pray for better days”. The point being: always aim high in life, even if there’s every chance you might miss. “It’s impossible, but you can still be decent and try,” he says. “Even if you try to do the right thing but end up doing the wrong thing, that’s better than not giving a shit.”
While Biffy fans will have to wait a few more months to hear ‘A Celebration Of Endings’, Simon Neil remains resolute about the record’s mantra that new beginnings are not only possible but absolutely essential. He won’t keep the personal and the political separate any longer, as he did when he was younger. The album closes with the feral punk masterpiece ‘Cop Syrup’, which sees him roar, “Fuck everybody! Woo!” On paper that might sound nihilistic, but, Neil says, that’s not the case.
“It’s about us saying, ‘We’ll do what we want’,” he explains. “It’s only now that I can think, ‘This is my fucking life. I’m confident enough to have my opinions, and I’m done with biting my tongue. I’m done with not telling people if I’ve got something to say’.”
Biffy Clyro’s ‘A Celebration Of Endings’ is due for release August 14.