Biffy Clyro’s forthcoming seventh album, ‘Ellipsis’, sees them ditch the brain-bending prog-rock of their last three records in favour of something a bit more, well, bonkers. Greg Cochrane hears how depression, writer’s block and good old-fashioned gang mentality fed into their fierce new sound
It’s the lunchtime after the night before and Biffy Clyro are bleary-eyed. They stroll into Sound Factory – a recording studio a few blocks from Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, opposite a bar called Big Wangs – one by one, each dressed all in black and clutching takeaway coffee cups and roll-up cigarettes.
Yesterday, back at the house in the Hollywood Hills they’ve shared for the past six months, the trio had a private listening party for their seventh album, ‘Ellipsis’, which is out in July. Fuelled by tea, pastrami sandwiches and spliffs, the three-piece – frontman Simon Neil plus twin brothers James (bass) and Ben Johnston (drums) –stayed up listening to their creation, getting high, laughing, celebrating and reflecting. They felt a mixture of relief and elation, and as it approached dawn they were laughingly boasting, “We’re the best band in the f*cking world!”
Tomorrow, they fly home to Scotland to their farmhouse practice room to rehearse for their massive summer shows, which include headline slots at the Reading and Leeds Festivals. But today is all about dotting i’s and crossing t’s on the album. They chose to make it in LA – where they did 2009’s ‘Only Revolutions’ and 2013’s ‘Opposites’ – because they love the quality of the studios, the work ethic and the “anything-is-possible mentality”. Says Simon: “You want to make records that stand up to the best record ever made – because of what we’re like, we wouldn’t be able to inhabit that mentality too much if we were in Scotland.”
The Sound Factory studios are a production geek’s emporium: rivers of cables, strange instruments and living musical history. In one corner sits a tatty computer the size of a microwave, which houses Peter Gabriel’s original samples; next to that, a synthesiser that Kate Bush played and some “R2D2-sounding sequencers”. In recent times, this place has been home to Beck, Morrissey, Paramore, The Black Keys and the Frozen soundtrack. To Biffy Clyro, it’s been a playground sandpit. In other words, they’ve relished using loads of this cool stuff.
Since the Ayrshire band always think of their albums as trilogies, this, being number seven, marks the beginning of the next chapter. And on ‘Ellipsis’, Biffy Clyro have gone wild. You’ll have heard the Napoleonic charge of lead single ‘Wolves Of Winter’. It’s Biffy at their thundering best, a fire-bellied rock anthem inspired by a David Attenborough documentary about a pack of territorial beasts protecting their patch against intruders. Simon explains: “It’s about grabbing someone by the collar and going, ‘This is our f*cking band, you can hate us all you want, you can love us all you want, but it’s our f*cking band’.”
But ‘Wolves Of Winter’ is conventional Biffy when compared to the rest of ‘Ellipsis’. Before we chat, six of its 11 tracks are blasted out of a wood-panelled speaker stack so loudly the air moves. There are trap beats and vocoders (‘Rearrange’), Americana and boogie-woogie piano (‘Small Wishes’) and stripped-back acoustic stuff (‘Medicine’). There are ’90s G-funk synths, drum machines and even a children’s choir. These are the best and most far-out songs they’ve written. When producer Rich Costey, pottering around the studio, describes it as “their most exploratory album yet”, he’s not kidding.“What’s the point of being in a band if you’re just going to churn it out and fit the format?” notes James. “I think our fans, the real hardcore, enjoy the worry. They want to worry that we’ve lost it. That’s part of the appeal.”
“We’ve always had people who think we’re great and people who think we’re terrible. I want it to be that way,” says Simon. “I don’t want us to be a reliable band. No one wants ‘good old f*cking Biffy Clyro’. It’s not romantic or mysterious. I want it to be, ‘Those f*cking nut jobs? What are they doing?’ Hopefully this album will remind people we’re plugged into different mains.”
Biffy Clyro’s experimental turn shouldn’t come as a shock. This is the trio whose last album, 2013’s ‘Opposites’, was a 20-track opus, and a deliberate counterpoint to the bite-size consumption of streaming. It was a dicey move, but one which still saw the band gain more fans, and songs like ‘Black Chandelier’ and ‘Stingin’ Belle’ were anthems that helped elevate them to Reading and Leeds headliner status that same year.
“It feels like a gamble looking back on it now,” says Simon, sitting in the Sound Factory studios’ sun-shaded courtyard with James and Ben. “At the time, we were so headstrong it made perfect sense. We did something really special. I don’t think we’d feel that we’d proven our worth until we’d made a double album.”
If ‘Opposites’ was the risk that paid off, it wasn’t without its drawbacks: principally the toll that making and subsequently touring the album took on Simon’s health. Following a UK headline tour in April 2013, the band called off a series of shows, citing the 36-year-old’s “serious respiratory problem”. The period had taken it out
of his body, but also his mental health.
“Last year, I had a bit of a ‘do’,” he says, puffing air through his cheeks. “This is going to turn into a right downer interview, but before that our very first tour manager died of leukaemia; Storm [Thorgerson, designer of their artwork] died; my gran died; my best friend’s brother died on Christmas Day… It felt like when things couldn’t get any worse, they just kept getting worse.”
Simon fell into a five-week period that he describes as a “funk”, during which his confidence in his own songwriting deserted him. “I was just in a terrible headspace,” he explains. “It’s just the way I am. I’m always going have a bit of trouble convincing in here [taps his head] that everything’s going alright, when it is going alright. I needed to shed a skin in a serious way last year. We’d done more things than I could ever have dreamed of and I still felt slightly unfulfilled and unhappy.
“I was getting real panicky. I was cancelling on my friends at the last minute because I couldn’t face people. I lost my identity entirely. We were all so committed to the last record, I’d given every last ounce of myself and I was a husk. I had a bit of a breakdown. It was just a case that I needed to sort my f*cking sh*t out.” The key person who helped him through was his wife Francesca. In fact, that’s exactly what one of the album’s most heartfelt songs ‘Rearrange’ (“I would never break your heart, I would only rearrange all the broken parts”) is all about.
“The big turnaround for me was when I realised how unhappy my missus was,” he says. “She was struggling so much trying to get me out of this funk. I could see how much it was draining her. That was when I realised: if the woman I love more than anyone in the world couldn’t make me feel better, I need to fix this.” The couple left Scotland and went to LA for two months. The thinking was that a change in scenery might re-ignite Simon’s belief in himself. “It happened when I least expected it,” says the singer. “I was sat at the piano and wrote three songs, sending them to the boys, going, ‘I’m really excited by these,’ and they got back, saying, ‘They’re f*cking unbelievable’. I’ll always remember that, because that day was the turning point in getting my confidence back.”
That was the start of the demos for ‘Ellipsis’, but he also completed work on his debut solo album under the title ZZC. It’ll get released, he says, in 2017 (“Making that record helped clear my mind entirely. It almost informed the Biffy record. I’ve got the artwork, all the concept – it’s going to be good fun”). Saying that, Simon’s open about the fact that his depression is probably going to visit him “in waves through my life”. For the first time last year, he reflected on how it’s probably always been part of his character, even as a child.
“I was figuring out where I’d f*cked up and I was like, ‘You know what, I think I’ve always just been a bit depressive. I’ve always taken things a bit seriously’. That helped [me to] put things into perspective, and not beat myself up too much that I’ve ended up in this horrible headspace because I’m a f*cking musician and my ego’s out of control or something. It was a lot more like, ‘No, no, I think it’s just always going to be with me.’ It doesn’t define me; it’s part of who I am. It doesn’t mean that I’m a f*cking loser and that I’m worthless. That’s why we feel so positive now, because last year was really dark off of some the best years we’ve ever had.”
The making of ‘Ellipsis’ has been a hard-fought win. This is the band who made friends aged seven, started Biffy Clyro at 15, toured the country in a van playing every toilet venue possible, eventually headlined festivals and now enter their third decade stronger than ever. They’ve watched each other get married, seen friends and family pass away and helped each other battle addiction, but they still retain the spirit of being in that group who sat around listening to Rage Against The Machine and Nirvana. “This is still our teenage band,” nods James.
Talk turns to how “album 10 will take another shift”, as a call comes from the studio to head inside. The final preparations for ‘Ellipsis’ need to be made, but Simon’s keen to make his point. “Because we started so young, this really is a part of who we are,” he says. “It’s not just a hobby – it’s inside of us. We’ve defined ourselves by being in this band since we were 15. We’re going to be making music for a long time. We haven’t painted ourselves into a corner, and that’s what’s so exciting about the next 10 years.”
Biffy might be one of the country’s biggest bands, but they’re also one of the most resilient. The result of a challenging 18 months is the most adventurous and honest album of the group’s 21-year life. A triumph for the “same wee gang” they’ve always been.