Biffy Clyro Interview with James Johnston – September 12th, 2007

So, there I was. Standing behind the Sony Centre at about 5pm on October 15th, chatting with the security guy, waiting for a Warner Music rep to escort me into the green room to chat with Scottish three-piece band Biffy Clyro. I was trying to decide who I was more pumped to see – Queens or Biffy. Queens had really wowed me a few months ago in London – so much so that I’d bought a pair of stubs to this evening’s show on a whim more than anything else. I’d almost let the stubs go. After buying them, I went to put the date in my calendar, only to see that I’d already bought tickets to see Spoon the very same evening. I’d landed 4th row tickets for Queens this evening. I knew they would be easy tickets to get rid of if I wanted. Then Biffy Clyro were added to the Queens bill. All of a sudden, seeing Britt Daniels play again wasn’t as important to me as seeing a bill with both Biffy and Queens on the same stage. Josh Homme, followed by the rest of the band and his management, walked past me and poured into a limousine. On their way to Much Music. I watched in amazement (you really don’t realize how tall Homme is until he walks right in front of you) when a Scottish voice behind me said ‘ Ee’s a really nice fellow’. I turned around to see James Johnston, bassist from Biffy Clyro lighting a cigarette and smiling at me. “I mean, we’ve only just met, but he seems great”. James stuck his hand out and introduced himself, and I returned the greeting, saying that I was here
to chat with his band. ‘Great’ he says. ‘Let me finish me smoke, and I’ll take ye back’.
And thus, my interview with Biffy Clyro was underway.

Mike: So you’ve been in Canada now for a month, right? Or, North America for a month?

James: Give or take. We just actually arrived at the start of this tour from Europe, we did about 10 or 14 days headlining the UK and then Europe. But before that we did a good 3 or 4 weeks.

Was that part of Virgin Festival? ‘Cause both Editors and you were in the Toronto Virgin Festival.

That happened to coincide with tour. So we both had the festival on the same day. That was a great tour. We’re very much just starting off in North America as you know. So it’s great to go to new towns and new places and maybe surprise a few people along the way.

Is it different you coming from an established audience? I mean you guys had three albums out proper, and you’ve just put Puzzle (your fourth disc) out 6 months ago that was big in Europe and the UK. So you’re kind of coming here and starting over again.

It’s exciting. A lot of people were like “Are you sure you’re going to be ok? It’s going to be tough. People aren’t going to know who you are.” And to be honest, that’s a real pleasure for us ‘cause not many bands get the chance to do that sort of thing: done four albums and be reasonably successful at home and go to some new country where nobody knows jack about us.

I used to trade CDs with a guy on the internet and I used to tell him what was big in North America, and he would tell me what was big in the UK. I can remember him recommending you when Blackened Sky came out and Hell is for Heroes and a few other bands and lumped them all together sent them to me.

Cool. We’re such a long way from home. And I’m sure it’s the same. It’s not always the best bands that get the recognition. Sometimes it’s just your luck really. I think we like being the underdog. Back home it’s been changing over the last few years. The critics are getting bigger and people might expect certain thing from us. Here it’s nice because we’re just catching people off guard, nobody’s heard of us, we’ve got a stupid name, we come from a far away country. It’s really nice to feel like we’re starting over again. Keeps things really fresh for us, certainly.

Does Biffy Clyro mean anything? Is it coded slang?

It’s not, no. It really is just kids at school wanting to make up a stupid name that might confuse people. People all talk like “the Beatles is such a daft name” but once get to know the band it really doesn’t matter. Actually back home now, nobody talks about the fact we have a stupid name. We’ll just have to get used to that over here for the next year or two.

My mom and dad are both from Scotland and when I told them I was going to hook up with the band and chat, I asked my mom “what
does it mean? What does Biffy Clyro mean?” And she was phoning some of my relatives in Scotland and asking “Does this Biffy mean anything?” We didn’t come up with anything.

I think it’s just a really stupid name, and if people didn’t listen to a band because of their name, we’d rather them not listen to the band. So music for us and having a stupid name tests people to see if they’re really into the music or they just think we’re a cool band or something.

You and Ben are twin brothers?

That’s right, yep.

How is that on the road? I know that there’s a lot of pre-existing “when you’re in a band you’re family” camaraderie in music. – you guys ARE family. And you’re friends with Simon. Does that dynamic ever test itself when’re you’re on the road? Do you feel like you can natter more?

I feel like I can probably fight with Ben or argue and two minutes later it’s gone, as all brothers do. But if it was the case of Ben and I are the twins and Simon was over here, or some sort of faction I the group, there’s no way we could have done it for ten years. I think it very much has to be a band of brothers, like you said. I think it keeps us all close. We met Simon at school when we were eight, so we have already been together a long time. I think it’s kept us going this long. I’ve seen a lot of bands kind of come and go because inter-band relationships are stressed. We’re very much fighting for each other and that keeps us together.

I’ve bought all of your albums as imports up until the new one. And I never really read the liner notes, it usually goes straight onto my computer or my iPod. You know, I like track three, I like track eight, I don’t even know the song names and I never really knew what you looked like. The mystery was preserved… And you’re all standing on the stage at Virgin Festival and Simon took a big swill out of his magnum of shiraz, whipped his shirt off, and you came out and started rocking it up. I was totally confounded. And amazed. It was awesome. It was not at all what I expected from you for some reason.

That reminds me a little bit of how we would feel about bands when we were a little wee younger, because nowadays somebody generally hears about a band and you can stream ‘em off the internet, and get photos of ‘em. And they know where they come from and all their tour dates the next year. And they know so much about the band that their music becomes less of a focus. But they way you’re talking, it seems all you were concerned about is the music. I think that’s the beauty of what we do – you can connect with people from a far away place…

I’m forty now, I don’t watch any type of music television. It’s YouTube when I’m interested and it’s the stuff that gets kicked on the the CDs as bonus content, or if there’s a video, I’ll watch it.

You don’t go looking for…it’s not about hair cuts or anything. Yeah, I think that’s cool. I think that’s certainly what we aim toward as a band, you know. It’s very important to connect with people at a gig. Maybe that’s why Toronto, after having the albums for a few years you go “Cool thing, I get to see them.” I think you have to do that to be a proper band, is to go tour and that’s why it was tough for us with the first few albums, not getting a chance to come over here.

I think a lot of bands from the UK, and I don’t want to lump you in with everyone, but Muse didn’t cut it here until Absolution and Feeder never got a break here. And they certainly tried, but it just didn’t happen. Even the Stereophonics don’t play to the capacity they can play to in the UK. They always try, but it’s maybe 2000 people maxiumum in North America. And all of these bands are brilliant artists.

We would love to play at Madison Square Garden of course, sell out rooms at best. But if we can come and make a connection with one person each night, then that’s always the way we’ve tried to organize things.

I think this is a good fit for you. Anyone that comes early and they’re standing waiting for Josh to come on, they be like “these guys are good.” I don’t know much about the Black Angels, but I looked at their page online and they seem like they’re gonna rock,

Yeah, they’re good. They’re a good band. Again, we’re only two shows in, we haven’t had a huge chance to check out all their set. But they seem really good. I think they’re right for a pairing with this bill. We’ve played with a lot of bands but not many that musically have been in the same category.

You are a pretty heavy match for the Editors.

Yeah, it worked well. And we played with Bloc Party in Europe, which again is a strange mix. But I think we can fit in with a lot of different bands, but the Queens [QOTSA] is definitely a great one for us.

When you go back to the UK, you’re doing a full month of dates?

It’s not even a month, it’s more like 2 or 3 weeks or something like that. I guess as the shows get bigger you do less of them I suppose.

What type of size are you looking at for some of those shows?

In Glasgow, we’re doing two nights and at 2000 capacity. Same for throughout the whole of the country and London we’re doing 5000 I think. So no less than 2000 for most shows I think. It’s taken us a long time to get there – it’s taken us four albums to get that.  We’re very much up for the fight. We’re trying to do the same thing over here, just take it as it comes. It’s not like we lack ambition, otherwise we certainly wouldn’t still be doing it. But we don’t expect to suddenly do 2000 capacity rooms here. That’s part of the fun, part of the battle, to work hard for it.

So are you plan on coming back?

Of course. Absolutely. This will be the last tour this year, but I’m sure we’ll be back. And most of the major markets I’d have thought about three times by the summer next year, we’ll just keep coming back. We’re going to go to Australia and Japan in the new year for the first time. A lot of exciting things we’ve done, really the best year I’ve ever had as a band, the best year I’ve ever had. We played with the Rolling Stones, played with Muse, played with the Who. Doing some things we never thought we’d get a chance to do. It’s nice that things are still going on after such a long time.

I think Puzzle is your best album. Do you guys feel the same way?


What was different about that, compared to your other three albums? I can hear Biffy on all of them, and you’ve surely got a signature sound, but when I go back to the previous three albums I cherry-pick about three or four tunes that I love. And when I play Puzzle I have to play it from beginning to end. I really like the way the while thing flows.

I think it is important for a band, everytime you make an album, you do believe it’s your best album. You’ve always got to be moving forward. With Blackened Sky, our first album was a collection of songs you have up to that point. Then Vertigo of Bliss and Infinity Land. We made, certainly with Infinity Land, that type of music very complex but still melodic pop songs, I think when you strip away a lot of the odd things. They’re still pop songs, but just a thousand ideas in every song. We just felt that it would be really boring to try and do that again. We’ve done it well, there’s no point in trying to repeat ourselves. This time we tried to simplify things, but not across the board, there’s still complex moments. I think in that sense it maybe makes it just a little more direct for the listener, maybe they don’t have to dig through weird idosyncracies, little crunky bits to get to the root of the song.  I think having more time to write and record definitely helped. Streamline things, get to the point a lot quicker. Previously we’d write a song, go and record it. This time we continue to write songs then three or four months later we’d go back to that song and go “yeah that’s really great” or “that’s not quite good enough.” I think having that space allowed us to make sure everything’s perfect. Make sure we’re happy with everything.

When you did your previously three albums, were they all produced and mixed in the UK?

Yeah. Chris Sheldon, he did all the first three records, always very quickly 2 or 3 weeks tops mixed and recorded and do the whole thing. It was interesting to going to Vancouver to spend two and a half months. We’re like “what the fuck are we going to do? We’re going to be sitting around.”

You had the album written…

We had it ready, just a few small tweaks in the studio. We worked very hard to make sure we were happy with everything. It was a case of we’d got three drum sets set up in the corner of the studio and work-space and which one works best for us…we worked with twelve snare drums.  Little things like that, tuning every drum after every take. Just trying to get the sonics absolutely perfect, which is not something we’ve tried to do before. And I think the album sounds better for that. Gggarth’s got a huge pedigree, Andy Wallace is an amazing mixer, so we were off to a good start. I think the sum of all the things we did, led it to be the good album that it is.

I like listening to “The Umbrella” cover. How did that come about?

Well, the radio show, Joe Wiley on BBC1, she had a live lounge, its really famous back home. She has artists come in and do cover versions. It was Rhianna’s album that kept us off the number one spot in the UK, we ended up number two, which was a total head fuck for us just to chart so high. So we thought we’d just poke fun at it and play her song on the radio. It was good fun. It was really nerve-racking as it was very much live. And we were like “wow, can we do this? Should we do this?” It turned out we were very happy with it. It was good fun. Hopefully she has a chance to hear it.

That reminds me of Travis’s cover of  “Hit Me Baby One More Time” – kind of off-the-cuff.

I don’t think we’ll play it live anytime soon.

Do you ever play your “Buddy Holly” cover live?

We haven’t, no.

How did that all come about?

Same sort of thing. Kerrang! magazine were doing album cover versions for this band called Fightstar from the UK, they did Deftones’ track, and they were sat in the studio with the Deftones’ track and they were tracking the audio to make sure they got it as close as possible, which is a completely different thing than we did. We thought “How can we fuck this song up as much as possible. It’s a song that we love, we’re big Weezer fans, but we just thought we’d try something a little bit different. Hopefully we pulled it off. People were probably like “these guys have lost their fucking minds.
”For me, that’s part of the pleasure for us, trying to confuse people, just trying to do things a little bit different. I don’t think we’ll play it live anytime soon, but it was certainly a lot of fun.

I know Fightstar wants to come over here to promote their new disk.

Yeah, they’re ambitious guys. They’ve  definitely got their eye on world conquest. They’re definitely working hard for it, they deserve it.

They’ve got a polished album – and a great band. How do you guys tend to write your material?

I think like most sort of guitar and rock bands, it comes from guitarists, in our case Simon. Simon has already been a really prolific writer. From our very first gig we’ve been playing our own songs. It’s always been very important, the creation of music and that’s continued to this day. If it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it. We’re a band and we’re together and it’s not a case of “you have to do this because I say so” but when you’ve got such a great writer in the band as Simon, it’s hard to suddenly try and change things just for the sake of it. That’s always been the way of it.

I wanted to talk about the Puzzle cover as well – Storm Thorgerson!!! He’s done so much stuff. I really liked his Catherine Wheel stuff, his Pink Floyd stuff. Is he the type of guy you go up to and say “this is our idea – please do it?” or does he come to you and go “this is what I want to do?”

Firstly, his name was mentioned as a possibility we thought people were having a laugh, there’s no way he’d be interested. We’d already worked with Gggarth which was amazing, then Andy (Wallace) and we were like “surely this can’t be possible” and he’s very much the opposite of that. He wants all the lyrics, he wants all the music and he’ll try to make it what the song is about, but if he’s not sure he’ll ask. Then he comes up with sketches of ideas and have a meeting and we go “we like this, we don’t like that. What’s the meaning behind this?” It’s not just a picture, it’s very much tied into the music. He’s certainly open to our opinion. He’s quite the determined man and definitely has a vision for what he wants to create. For such a legend, he was such a real pleasure to work with. To hear his thoughts, he really is an amazing man. And he’s come to the later stages of his life, but he’s still very sharp – it’s incredible. It was amazing to watch him work.

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