Three weeks ago, I flew to Budapest to meet up with Biffy Clyro, ahead of their headline set at Sziget, for my cover feature for this week’s NME. It was a surreal gig for the band: they’d never even been to Hungary before, yet they’d somehow found themselves topping the bill at the country’s biggest festival. As drummer Ben Johnston told me, “this sort of stuff just doesn’t happen to Biffy Clyro. We have to work our dicks off to get anywhere, and that’s always been the case.”
That’s certainly been the case with Reading & Leeds, where it now seems safe to say Biffy stole the show last weekend, Dido notwithstanding. If you count Marmaduke Duke’s appearance in 2009, Simon, Ben and James have now played the festival nine times in twelve years, a journey that’s taken them from opening the second stage in 2001 to closing the main one in 2013. ‘Putting the work in’ is no guarantee that you’ll reach the level Biffy are now at, of course, but it does ensure an extraordinary amount of goodwill amongst the fans, the organisers and, yes, even the critics.
Still, as much as everyone was pulling for them – and as much as they’d been kidding themselves that Reading & Leeds was “just another gig” – you can imagine the mixture of pride, terror and excitement they were feeling in the weeks and months leading up to it. In Budapest, James explained it thus: “If you’re on second-last, you can have a ‘surprisingly’ good gig. But if you’re on last, you’ve got to have a good gig. But hopefully it’s not too bold to say that the crowd will be proud of a British band having gone from the smaller stages and worked their way up. Hopefully people see something in that.”
Although the main-stage artists’ area at Leeds boasts its own massage tent and table-football capabilities, it’s impossible to relax at a gig like this, even after you come offstage (Biffy had the small matter of Reading on Sunday to worry about, remember). Accordingly, when I met the guys at Leeds, they were fizzing with nervous energy. As a journalist in that situation – talking to a band two hours before the gig of their lives – you can often feel like a bit of an unwanted distraction, but Biffy are an incredibly warm and welcoming bunch, even under extreme duress. The biggest stress on days like this, according to Simon, used to be the presence of friends and family: “You spend all day going, ‘Are you alright, sweetheart? D’you need anything?’ Then you have the mates you’ve put on the guestlist: ‘Where do I go? I don’t know where I am!’ The classic one is when they ask you to come out for a beer. ‘You’re no’ on for another hour, come out and meet us for a pint!’ ‘No, sorry. That’s not really doable…’”
We spoke about their preparations for the day, about their memories of R&L past, and about their future, both at the festival and in the wider sense. Once you cross over into the headliner bracket at a festival, you can’t just turn up and play two or three years in a row, like Biffy have done in the past. Yet when I asked Simon about whether this weekend was, in some way, the end of an era, I was surprised to find he was willing to sacrifice ego to keep coming back.
“We’ve been talking about this, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going back down the bill. If we made an odd record next time around, we wouldn’t expect to be headlining a festival with it, so that’s not something we’re terrified of. We know how fickle the world can be, but we’re lucky that we have people with their ears cocked to our music, and we don’t wanna let them down.”
Then, of course, there is album number seven. In Budapest, James told me that “we’ve started thinking and talking about it” and that he envisions it being “streamlined, stripped-back… it won’t be a sprawling double album with everything and the kitchen-sink thrown into it.” Simon, meanwhile, reckons that, “as we’ve had free reign for a few records, I think it’s important to say, ‘OK, we can’t use an orchestra, we can’t use this or that’, and just create something magical between the three of us. We’ll always be a rock band, but I want us to move in different directions. If I could rap, I’d be be rapping on the next record. The Kanye album blew me away! Hearing that made me think, ‘Fuck, we could be messing around with sounds like that!’ There won’t be rapping and it’s not going to be a hip-hop record, but some of the sonics on that album are phenomenal…”
But that’s still far off in the future, and to be honest, they didn’t seem overly concerned with anything but the gig. Just like at Sziget, I watched the Leeds show from the side of the stage, this time alongside a small army of the band’s friends and family members: wives and fiancés, mums and dads, siblings and cousins, nieces and nephews…
According to Simon, “it’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve really come to grips with what a big show is. You have to paint in broader strokes than when you play in a wee venue. You create intensity in a different way.” Biffy Clyro at Reading & Leeds was never a done deal – as with any first-time headliner, there’s always a degree of uncertainty as to whether they can pull it off. Are they ready to make the leap (and it really is a leap) to headliner status? Are the songs big enough? Can they win over the people who aren’t necessarily here to see them? Across a 90-minute set, Biffy managed to tick all of those boxes, as well as a few other ones. For all the talk of nerves – “Shitein’ it,” was the phrase Simon used on the day – it was a supremely confident, assured performance. They headlined Sonisphere in 2011 (something a lot of people seem to have forgotten) and they’ve been at-or-near the top the bill at thirty-two other European festivals this summer, so they knew exactly what was expected of them, and they duly delivered a little bit more.
Band of the weekend? No-one else even came close.