Haru Urara is a legendary Japanese racehorse – but for mostly the wrong reasons. Between her 1998 debut and final race in 2004, the unlucky mare (whose name ironically translates to ‘glorious spring’) won a grand total of zero victories and a staggering 113 losses. This is what gained her notoriety.
For her final races, thousands flocked to see her, sinking millions in betting for a win that never came – as well as providing an almighty boost to the local Kochi economy and civic pride. The Prime Minister of the time, Junichiro Koizumi, hailed Haru Urara as “a good example of not giving up in the face of defeat” while the national press dubbed her “the shining star of losers everywhere” – a title that the once-underdogs-turned-rock-behemoths Biffy Clyro can relate to. Haru has a song named in her honour on the Scottish trio’s acclaimed 10th album, ‘The Myth Of The Happily Ever After’.
“I just love the fact that something so black and white as a horse that lost every fucking race still brought so much joy,” beams frontman Simon Neil. “In what we all went through last year, it made perfect sense to use that as a metaphor. Everything may seem to be getting worse, but you never know what’s around the corner. It’s important to always have a little peak of optimism.”
Neil’s trademark smirk soon spreads across his face he cackles: “Most Scottish people feel like Haru Urara all the time anyway! ‘Oh, we never fucking win but whatever!’”
The Biff’s steadfast Caledonian spirit is what got them through the pandemic. Their ninth album ‘A Celebration Of Endings’ – hailed by NME as “a bright and bombastic ode to starting again” – hit Number One upon release in the summer of 2020, receiving some of the best reviews of their career. Still, COVID meant that it would be another year until they could really enjoy it and do what they do best until they ripped their shirts off and tore apart Reading & Leeds back in August – marking 20 years since their first appearance at the festival and their third triumphant headline set.
“I felt like it was just pure joy,” Neil recalls today. “There was a sense of freedom floating around, and more camaraderie than ever. Everyone realised how much they missed being shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger who stinks and is off their face on drugs. It was like releasing caged animals. A generation just went, ‘Let’s fucking go!’ It really was inspiring.”
Another revelation came at their next huge gig in their native land at Glasgow Green, where they were supported by Doncaster’s dayglo punk tearaway Yungblud – a newfound kindred spirit of the band. “I love seeing anyone who’s inspired by rock and metal making their way in the mainstream,” says Neil. “There’s an era of your teenage years where you should be like, ‘I’m not doing what everyone else is fucking doing or what my parents tell me’.
“If I was 15 I would be all-in on Yungblud. I’d be dying my hair pink, wearing a miniskirt, the lot. When I look back to Kurt Cobain, he was wearing dresses and make-up and nail varnish. It’s important that every teenage generation does something that makes everyone older go, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ It’s like, ‘This isn’t for you!’ That’s the whole point! I admire him a lot.”
These ideas of togetherness and inclusivity have been playing heavily on Biffy’s minds. ‘A Celebration’ may have been written and recorded pre-COVID, but it was released into a world where it’s optimistic themes of cultural and political reset felt prescient and possible. Sadly, now, Neil sees the album now as more of a document of attitudes from the “‘before’ times”. Speaking to NME for the band’s Big Read cover story back in May 2020 – where Neil and a blue plastic sheep wore face masks to beckon the “new normal” – the frontman mused: “People can adapt to anything. You can have it all; let’s fucking go and do it. Life can be yours – just don’t let it pass you by.”
“What I’ve realised is that there are some people who just have no access to common sense” – Simon Neil
Today, he admits that might have been a tad optimistic: “Even though it’s not that long ago, I kind of feel like we were naive. Everyone was naive at the tail-end of 2019 and start of 2020. Some of the things I said about my hopes for the album and the sentiment behind it seem ludicrous and stupid now.”
“Basically that things couldn’t get worse and that a semblance of common sense would permeate. What I’ve realised is that there are some people who just have no access to common sense. It’s just not in their wheelhouse. Unfortunately, those people tend to be the ones in charge. My frustration at this moment is that we’re just slipping back into the same routines and the status quo.”
It was nice wasn’t it, that brief window of banging saucepans for the NHS where it felt like we’d emerge from this whole ordeal as a more empathetic society?
“It felt like maybe we would,” sighs drummer Ben Johnston. “It felt like everyone would come together, then it just got more divisive than ever right after that.”
As we sit in a conference room at the top of a plush Wembley hotel, Neil and the two brothers start cursing those who are anti-mask, anti-science, anti-refugees, and anti-environmentalism. They soon settle down to explain how music has proven to be the ultimate salve through all this darkness. To guide themselves through the “no man’s land” that was lockdown and the uncertainty of when, if ever, normality would resume, the three friends found that getting together as a band was “the only thing that made sense”.
“All I could do was go from one week thinking, ‘Music is pointless, I’m going to lay in bed for the fucking rest of my life’ to then the next yelling, ‘We’ve got a cool riff! That’s all that matters!’” remembers Neil. “To go from not wanting to be here to being excited by something so flippant, I think we were all living that from week to week.”
“It was strange, but it was strange for everyone. We missed each other” – Ben Johnston
He continues: “The thing that kept us going was that we were able to get together and spin whatever we were feeling into a moment of joy. When we’re together, our main priority is to have fun and have a laugh, because life’s too fucking short. We were able to do that and that’s where our strength came from.”
For the brothers especially it was a release, with lockdown proving to be the longest they’d gone without seeing each other in their entire lives. ‘“We had the first birthday we hadn’t seen each other, on my 40th,” remembers Ben. “It was strange, but it was strange for everyone. We missed each other.”
“It’s almost like ‘A Celebration’ was the hinge of the pandemic,” remembers Neil. “No one is the same person they were last year. We couldn’t have made this record even a year ago. I just don’t think we could have. The things that sometimes matter to you a lot had just evaporated.”
While originally intending to record some off-cuts of ‘A Celebration’ as a “sister-record”, the new COVID reality forced them to rewrite much of what they had and start many anew, creating a whole new beast. Free from any record label pressure or outside interference, the band were more at play than at work. “The liberation of doing anything that you had any control over last year was a thrill in itself,” says Neil. “We couldn’t leave the house, we couldn’t go shopping, no one could see anyone they cared about so the only freedom we had was in these ideas and these songs.”
While ‘A Celebration’ was focussed and concise, ‘The Myth Of The Happily Ever After’ is full of space and ideas. ‘DumDum’ is spectral and subtle in a way you wouldn’t normally associate with the band, ‘Separate Missions’ has an industrial weirdness to it, and ‘Existed’ confidently blends light Kraftwerk textures with Justin Timberlake‘s silky soulfulness. The biggest surprise of the record though is ‘Witch’s Cup’ – parping with horns and strutting with jazz hands, plus all the sass of a High School Musical number.
“We were climbing out of a pit of despair before we started getting back together to make music” – James Johnston
“This is as close as we’ve ever got to a musical song,” Neil tells NME. “I was honestly trying to channel a West End musical in that song and it feels like it has that spirit. I’ve visualised a cast of thousands on stage singing the different parts! We’re doing our version of ‘American Idiot’, it’s called ‘Scottish knob!’” The band break into hysterics at the thought of them heading to Broadway like Green Day – and Neil’s admission that he “might have a musical in him”, but they then turn to the track’s mix of “joy, dread and pathos”.
Lyrically, it deals in people turning to cults in the hope of finding “something deeper” after death. It’s a theme that runs throughout the record. On the single ‘Unknown Male 01’, he sings of being there for friends as they move into the next life. When penning the lyrics, he had in the mind the fellow Scottish indie hero, the late, great Frightened Rabbit (close friends of the Biff and one of their “favourite bands of all time”) frontman Scott Hutchison who took his own life in 2018 and the former NME journalist/legend and early Biffy champion Dan Martin who left us last year.
“These are two people who really affected our lives in big ways,” says Simon solemnly. “It’s hard not to think of things from their perspective. They’re completely different stories, but it’s about almost positively saying, ‘Well I’ll go with you. We don’t know what’s at the end of it, but we’ll do it together’. I know that affected us a lot.”
“There are people who have been in your life, and who you’ve taken for granted. I don’t mean that in an insulting way, but the people who are always there and you always bump into. You don’t always reflect on that because you think you’ll see them again. When you are sitting in a year like the last one, you always reflect more when shit stops.
“When everything was so horrific you feel the impact more than life just going on as normal. I can only imagine what Dan and Scott’s families have gone through. It’s incomparable to what I’m talking about here, but it’s hard to reflect on losing the people you cherish.”
The album starts on ‘DumDum’ with Neil revising the rebirth notion of rebirth by almost sighing “this is how we fuck it from the start”. There’s a spot of nihilism on ‘Errors In The History Of God’ when he warns of how “we’re all just trolls in this universe – happy to just torch shit”, and some pure rage of ‘Existed’: “I just wanted to upset some assholes”. It all seems to be about finding the right place to exist in, and fortunately ends with some peace. While ‘A Celebration’ ended on ‘Cop Syrup’ with Simon squawking “FUCK EVERYBODY – WOO!”, here on the bonkers-but-controlled techno-mania of ‘Slurpy Slurpy Sleep Sleep’ he asks the listener to “love everybody” (“It needed saying,” admits Neil, “and I felt like I needed to say it to myself”). It feels like the journey we’ve all been on lately.
“There are some songs where I’m singing about forgiveness, some are about hope for the future, and on others I’m being a total nihilist and a misanthrope – thinking, ‘We’re the bacteria eating up the world’,” the frontman adds. “I wasn’t afraid of that. No one can process the impact that the last year has had on us mentally, physically and on our behaviours. It’ll be another five or 10 years before we realise that.”
Still, it feels like the band have found some purpose and solace. As he sings on ‘Haru Urara’ in their ode to losers: “If you fall, we’re the arms underneath – because the people we love are the people we need”. Who knows what hurdles are coming around the bend? The rhythm of life could stop. Just remember the existence of the people that matter, find some joy, and, no matter what, keep on running.
‘The Myth Of The Happily Ever After’ is out now via 14th Floor/Warner. Biffy Clyro then embark on the intimate ‘Fingers Crossed’ UK tour on October 29.