It’s more like a mutual interest in a nosebleed. Cult shackles are being shaken hard by Biffy Clyro, who now find themselves headlining a sold-out Kerrang! (why the need to exclaim?) tour, receiving regular airplay from admiring FM DJs, and adding the finishing touches to a feature-length recorded in Calafornia with a man who’s worked with Rage.
I snatch a few moments with Simon Neil on the Southampton leg of their stretch, before sitting down with the brothers Johnston to discuss why Biffy Clyro are still the same band we’ve always adored.
James McDonald Last time you played here was, like, two years ago at the Uni, a venue markedly smaller than tonight’s (Southampton Guildhall has a capacity of around 1750). Do you find it hard creating the kind of intimacy that is often so prominent at Biffy gigs in larger venues?
Ben Johnston ‘There’s no point trying to create intimacy in a place that has none. A place like this, it’s just not possible because the kids are just too far away… it’s more of a show than a joint experience. But it’s better for different reasons than a smaller gig…’
James Johnston ‘Aye, it’s a good challenge trying to reach the people at the back of the room as well as getting the energy from those at the front. We still really enjoy playing small venues, but we enjoy the challenge places like this bring.’
James McDonald Given the success that ‘Puzzle’ is expected to bring, are venues such as the Guildhall going to be more suitable for future tours?
Ben Johnston ‘I’d hope so yes! Obviously depending on how well the album does… We’ve sold out similar sized venues in the past so anything smaller would seem like a step back, although we’ve been out of the limelight for a while…’
James Johnston ‘Where we ever in the limelight?!’
“You’re always aware of the danger that kids are gonna go online and start saying ‘ah, they’ve sold out’ even though the music hasn’t changed at all, you know it’s gonna happen but you just have to roll with it.”
Ben Johnston [chuckles] ‘It’s been two years now so there’s a chance the numbers could drop, but we’ll wait and see.’
James McDonald With these aspirations, it must be helpful Kerrang have taken you under their wing for this tour. However, the front cover of this week’s issue read something like; ‘MEGAROCK; Evanescence, Good Charlotte, My Chemical Romance and Biffy Clyro!!!!’. Does this kind of juxtaposition ring any alarm bells for you?
Ben Johnston ‘I don’t think so, no. None of those bands are particularly our favourites… I don’t think becoming an ‘in’ band would be particularly detrimental to us because of the work we’ve put in in the past, I think it only kills a band if they have nothing to start with and it gives them a short shelf life. I think because we have such a loyal fan base and have done a lot of work, being a kind of ‘hit’ band at this point would actually be good, I don’t think it’d hurt us at all.’
James Johnston ‘We’ve always been ambitious as a band and we’ve always wanted to take our music to as many people as possible, so like Ben said it’s important to have the progression we’ve had up until now. I think now we’ve built up such a loyal fan base we’re ready to take a step and to reach the people that haven’t yet heard about the band. It is an exciting time for us and we want to play to lots of people – if that means being mentioned in the same paragraph as Good Charlotte and Evanescence then so be it. There are always bands who come and go, and many have done in our career so far, but we’ve just got to try and stick to our guns and do what we do. We haven’t changed anything, it’s not like we’ve changed something and now we’re getting coverage, we’re still doing what we do.’
James McDonald ‘Puzzle’ is your fourth album, but it may have been the fifth. There’s been talk of a lot of demos kicking around which is unsurprising given the gap between releases. What’s become of those?
Ben Johnston ‘Most of the songs that didn’t make this album will end up being B-sides for the up-coming singles.’
James Johnston ‘What we’ve always liked to do is keep our singles more like EPs, and the demos may not be as suited to the album we’ve made which is why they didn’t make the cut. I don’t think there are many guys who kind of rush out and buy singles anymore, so if we can make ours like mini-albums or EPs, it will kind of give more exposure to the B-sides and give a broader picture of the music we’re making.’
James McDonald ‘Puzzle’ is the first album you’ve recorded without Chris Sheldon, who’s been a driving force in the making of the last three LPs. How did you adapt to new surroundings/people and how did this affect the recording process as a whole?
Ben Johnston ‘Chris was always in the same mindset as us; ‘let’s work hard and get it done’. Not to cheapen what we’ve done or anything but there was always a lack of funding and time constraints, but with this album there were none at all. We could basically have taken as long as we wanted, so it was strange to adapt to that at first.’
James Johnston ‘We were working half-days here and there and then relaxing, but we were always itching to get it done because it had been a year and a half in the making, so it was really strange to have to slow down for two months.’
Ben Johnston ‘We do kind of prefer just getting stuck into it, but in retrospect at the time doing it, it was tough doing it slowly, but the results are there and they speak for themselves. We’ll look back at it with fond memories though.’
James McDonald The first real taste we’ve had of ‘Puzzle’ is ‘Semi-Mental’, which you released on Jesus’ 2006th birthday. How did that date come about?
James Johnston [laughs] ‘We’d been away for such a long time so we really wanted to get something out as quickly as possible, and we just thought it’d be nice to try and compete with Santa! It was really more of a re-introduction to our existing fans just to remind them that we’re still there, but it got picked up in a way we didn’t realise; a lot of radio stations are playing it and it’s sparked a lot of interest in new fans so it has taken a different way entirely, but it’s fun.’
Ben Johnston ‘When it was suggested that we’d put it out on Christmas day we were like….’Really?!’, but then we started really getting into the idea and thought it was quite cool. Unfortunately the song was listed under the band ‘Semi Mental’ instead of the song, so the download counts were illegible because of that.’
James McDonald That’s a shame because previously ‘Jaggy’ did so well as a download single [number one in the download chart of that week]…
Ben Johnston ‘Aye, not to cheapen that at all but I don’t know how! We’ve never been a band for chart positions though, success for us is just if people like it.’
James McDonald A lot of fans find it difficult to pick a favourite Biffy album given the diversity you’ve documented. Despite this, you rated ‘Puzzle’ as 10/10 in a recent interview, so what makes this album stand out for you?
James Johnston ‘Without comparing it to the other albums, I think it’s just a really strong album with great songs. With the year and a half we’ve had in between albums we’ve had a long time just to work hard on the songs and make sure that they were as strong as they could be.
We’ve always tried to make sure the stuff works on acoustic guitar because we feel a good song should always be able to do that and I think that’s apparent on the album. I think it’s definitely our best work to date, it’s got the strongest songs, it sounds the best, it flows really well, and I think it has all the characteristics of a good Biffy album.’
James McDonald It’s already been tipped as being one of the albums of the year, and in a local magazine Gordon from Bloc Party said yours was the album he was most looking forward to… Are there any releases you’re anticipating in 2007?
“I understand that a lot of kids, like the way I have with certain bands when they get to a certain level, you get a bit upset because it’s not ‘your band’ anymore because everyone can hear it. It was really good fun going ‘have you heard this band?’ and meeting someone else who knew, you’d get a wee shiver, but if it’s all over the radio you can’t have that chat anymore because everyone knows who you are.”
James Johnston ‘Well we’ll return the compliment and say the Bloc Party album, the track we’ve heard [‘The Prayer’], the single’s brilliant…’
Ben Johnston ‘…it’s pretty awesome, aye.’
James Johnston ‘…and we’re big fans of that band so the new album should be exciting. There’s a new Aerogramme album coming out in the next couple of weeks, which again we’ve heard and it’s fantastic. There’s a lot of cool bands releasing stuff at the moment, Reuben, The Cooper Temple Clause have got something coming out as well…’
Ben Johnston ‘I think ours will be the best though!’ [both laugh, heartily]
James McDonald You’ve always had an eye for a good cover, the ones you’ve taken on (‘Take Me Out‘, ‘Buddy Holly’, ‘You’re The One That I Want’, ‘Go Your Own Way’) have been real gems. If you could choose a band to cover a Biffy song, which band and which song?
Ben Johnston ‘It’d be quite funny if Pharrell Williams had a go at ‘Jaggy Snake’, or maybe the Sugarbabes?!’
James Johnston ‘I’d quite like it if Bonnie Prince Billy did one of our songs actually, there’s a song on the album called ‘Living Is A Problem…’, which is the first track. It’s a great song with lots of bits that’d be interesting to see how he took them on with an acoustic guitar. Although I’m contradicting myself here, there are parts in that song which would be quite interesting on an acoustic guitar…’
James McDonald Can we expect any surprises in your set tonight?
Ben Johnston ‘We’ve got four new tunes tonight, ‘Get Fucked Stud’ which you can hear on our website, obviously ‘Semi-Mental’ and ‘Saturday Superhouse’, and the other one is ‘Now I’m Everyone’, which debuted at Tut’s I think.’
James Johnston ‘It’s kinda hard, we wanna play them all, but obviously with the album not being out we have to hold some back for the album tour, but it will definitely be a fun show. We’ve got a good mix from across the albums.’
Ben Johnston ‘Writing the set list is one of the hardest parts of our job! Even if we do a set of just the singles we’ve released then that’s the set filled up really…’
James Johnston ‘Fuck!’
Ben Johnston ‘If there’s no favourite album track, we’ll always get someone coming up at the end saying ‘you didn’t play this’, but we can’t please everyone you know? But it’s a good set and we really enjoy playing it.’
James McDonald Obviously it’s early days but any plans for festival appearances over the summer? I’d imagine T would be quite high on the list again?
Ben Johnston ‘This year especially we’re looking at trying to nail them all… it’s a bit early in the year to be getting confirmation at this stage but we’re looking at the Carling Festival, T in the Park, maybe do our first Glastonbury as well and also head over to do some European stuff, maybe even Japan and Australia, so just really everything!’
James McDonald Well you’ll want to push it [Puzzle] as it’s out around then, isn’t it? May?
James Johnston ‘Aye, it might be pushed back until June though…’
Ben Johnston ‘It’s getting later and later every day! But it’s been put back for the right reasons. The singles that we thought were just going to be little introductions have ended up being quite a big deal and a lot of DJs have picked up on it so it’s more about giving these singles time to breathe before the album.’
James McDonald Just to close then, I’m going to try and get something off my chest here… I’ve grown up with Biffy as a cult-band, and I know many others shed you in the same light. This seems to be a real transitional period for you three, so how can you help us hermits relate to the position you find yourselves in?
Ben Johnston ‘As James said before we’ve always been really ambitious and even from the first album we wanted to be at a high level and up there with the best, so it’s not scary at all, it’s just always what we’ve been working to do. I understand that a lot of kids, like the way I have with certain bands when they get to a certain level, you get a bit upset because it’s not ‘your band’ anymore because everyone can hear it. It was really good fun going ‘have you heard this band?’ and meeting someone else who knew, you’d get a wee shiver, but if it’s all over the radio you can’t have that chat anymore because everyone knows who you are. Inevitably that’s going to happen with any band if you want to try and break into a bigger market.’
James Johnston ‘You’re always aware of the danger that kids are gonna go online and start saying ‘ah, they’ve sold out’ even though the music hasn’t changed at all, you know it’s gonna happen but you just have to roll with it.’
Ben Johnston ‘We’ve always just done what we’ve believed in so if people want to question that then they’re welcome to, but we know we’ve always been true to ourselves and done what we want to do… so if there are some people who have a problem with it then I guess it’s their problem really, without trying to sound to harsh about it.’