Interview with Ben Johnston of Biffy Clyro

Ben Johnston of Biffy Clyro chatted with Loud Hailer about their upcoming album, their songwriting process and more. 

This is a strange time for Biffy Clyro, as it is for all of us at the moment. They were set to release their eighth album, A Celebration of Endings, yesterday but felt, given the current climate, it was best to push that date back to August 14. This doesn’t mean that you have to wait until then to hear some of their latest material though, as they just released “Tiny Indoor Fireworks.” This accompanies the previously released “Instant History” and “End Of” from the new album. As is often the case with Biffy, each of these new releases brings something different to the table. And from what Ben told us, this is just the tip of the iceberg in respect of the upcoming album.

LH: First things first – are you and the family all safe and well in these strange times?
Ben: Yes, luckily we are. My wife has both diabetes and asthma so she is high-risk, and I am not going to lie or mince my words, I have been shitting myself the entire time. Obviously, I have to go to the shops and get things and like if anybody comes near me I run away from them and wash my hands furiously and just take all precautions that I can because it’s no laughing matter for us in the south at all. Yeah, everyone’s safe. My parents are both safe. My dad’s very high-risk. It’s just strange times. It’s not going so well here at the moment in Britain. I think we might have the worst numbers in Europe so far, or second worst, and the lockdown seems to be… there’s chatter about easing up soon which is going to bring a second wave in my mind. I don’t think we’re anywhere near through this yet, to be honest.

LH: Yeah, and I get that things can’t just be on pause forever but there is no good answer. Until they get some kind of test that tells you whether you’ve had it, and if you have had it that you’re safe, then that’s where you need to get to. But I don’t think those tests are anywhere near being available to people. 
Ben: No, we’re nowhere near that and also for houses like mine which is a high-risk house, there really has to be a vaccine before we can really go anywhere because if you catch it, it’s game over type thing so got to wait for that vaccine.

LH: Absolutely. Hopefully, it’s sooner rather than later. I think there’s some positive noises about when that might happen so that would be good. If they could get one early next year then that’s the best we can hope for I think.
Ben: I know, that’s still a wee while away. I’ve still got to leave this house and go and do work and then come back and possibly be infected but not know. So you’re right, we’ve got to get to a situation where we can get tested quite easily and know whether to isolate or not. I might not even notice if I had it, I’d feel really guilty, you know? 

LH: Anyway, let’s talk about music a bit. I have to admit, I was a bit late to the game coming across you guys. I used to work with someone who toured with you on the NME Tour back in the day. He was the drummer in a band called Yourcodenameis:milo. He said I had to check you guys out. And because he was a drummer as well, he said Biffy has a really great drummer and they do this some great stuff with different time signatures. That’s what got me into you guys.
Ben: Aye, I know that guy. That’s so nice to hear because he was a great drummer as well. I didn’t realize he was such a fan, that’s lovely. 

LH: I used to go to this NME tours a lot and it talks to how fickle the music industry is when you think about how many bands were on those tours, and how many really came out of it and are able to play music and make a sustainable living. It’s probably less than 10% I would say.
Ben: I would say less than 10%. It’s a really fickle industry and it’s not always about how good your band is. There’s so many factors at play there. Yourcodenameis:milo is a great example of a band who were fantastic who just never got that break. Played in all the right places but just never sunk in with some people, and it’s weird because I’m a huge fan and I’m like why does everyone not love this? Yeah, it’s such a weird, weird thing music, man, it really is. You cannot predict it at all. 

LH: Yeah, it is. We’ve spoken to various different musicians here in the US and many of them are driving themselves across the country and scraping by playing live music. It really is a strange industry. I’m excited about the upcoming new album. One of the things that stands out to me with you guys is how much you seem to challenge yourself on every album to do something different. On this album, the three songs I’ve heard so far, it sounds like you’ve challenged yourselves more than ever to take a different approach and come up with something truly different than what you’ve done before. 
Ben: I’m so glad you said that. That’s most definitely what we intended to do. Maybe more so on this album than any other one, or possibly on Ellipsis I think we did attempt a big reach for the sound of the band and the way we worked and recorded and the way even the songs came together, that was quite a change on Ellipsis, but I just feel this album’s so much better than Ellipsis. Not to rubbish that album because it’s still great, but it’s kind of like got that approach that we had on Ellipsis, it’s got the lovely pop elements but it’s a way more abrasive record. It’s still got those left turns that we always used to take but it’s taken weirder turns than ever. I think that Simon’s songwriting just at a level now, it’s just so much better than it used to be. Lyrically, it’s so strong. I’m super proud of it, man. I’m glad you like it too. 

LH: I really do. “Instant History” has got such a contemporary feel to it, and different to what you’ve done. I believe I read that Simon said you wanted to put that one out first and scare the shit out of everyone because it’s so different. 
Ben: [Laughs] It’s exactly that! I mean, there’s two reasons to put it out. One is because of that reason because you want to scare everyone, you want them to think you’ve maybe lost your guitar. But the second reason is just because it’s an undeniable f*cking smasher, that song. First time I heard it, the song was well and truly blowing off. Si wasn’t sure, “is this too…. can we do a keyboard lead?” I’m like, “F*cking right we can! That sounds amazing. Let’s do it!” And I was so happy because we put it out first because if it came out later folk are like “oh yeah, ok then, they’re maybe not so proud of this or they’re not quite sure…” I just thought it was great to come out and go listen, this is the sound that we make and just put it in people’s faces. I absolutely love that song. 

LH: Me too. I really like that it. What I liked even more was then you put “End Of” out and it’s the complete other end of the spectrum. I was banging my head at the end of that one when you really get into it. I really enjoyed that one. 
Ben: I think when we did that, it was almost like a parachute for some of the Biffy fans that thought they’d just jumped out a plane with “Instant History” and they had no parachute and going “Nooooo!!! They don’t have guitars anymore.” And we thought we’d better quickly give these rock fans a rock parachute, that’s what that was [laughs].

LH: We’ve been lucky to have a sneak listen to “Tiny Indoor Fireworks.” Talking about the current situation and we’re all locked in the house and we can all get a bit down sometimes. When I listened to that song, it was exactly what I needed at that time. It’s such an up and positive sounding song.
Ben: It might actually be the poppiest song we’ve ever done. It was a three-way co-write that one. It’s one of the first songs that got born from a drum beat and James wrote some of the music and Simon the lyrics and it just came out as the poppiest thing that we’ve ever had. I don’t know if it’s because we didn’t spend as much time on it or what, there’s something about it that came to being, that we just didn’t want f*cked with, you know. We just didn’t want it touched. It was like this has got to be how it is. I don’t know if we were, as a band, totally that sure of that song but the minute we let anybody else hear it they were like “Whooooaaaa!! That song’s a smasher!”

LH: It really is – and it is of and for the time. It’s a great song for what we are going through at the minute. 
Ben: I think “Instant History” is also. I think that the album as a whole is a good… It’s weird that it came out when it did because the album is actually a reaction to the lack of humanity in the world right now or before this COVID thing, it was about that, how morals have just gone out the window and things you take for granted like empathy and understanding and not being racist bastards. It started to feel you know like racism was getting worse, you know, in Italy and especially in America under Trump. The album is more about that but you’re totally right, it does also completely sit with what has happened right now and it’s a soundtrack for this bizarre time we’re in.

LH: Simon has said in the past he’s written songs that are quite introspective. Was it a conscious decision with you guys to comment on what’s going on around us a little bit more this time? 
Ben: It wasn’t so much conscious as unavoidable, I think. We’ve never wanted to be a political band, we don’t want to… unless we had enough knowledge to back up anything that we said in a song about it but we’re not going to talk about it because we hate people that do that and don’t really know what they’re saying. So we’ve always steered clear of that, and Simon’s always written about personal experience, simple as but now personal experience is bleeding into politics and vice versa. You can’t be alive right now and not be switched on politically. It’s just impossible. There’s just too much sleaziness going on before even this virus, the craziness is just off the chart. The buffoons we’ve got ruling the world right now is just unthinkable. If you went back ten years and someone told you this was going to be the case, you would actually laugh them out the room. 

LH: You would, wouldn’t you. If you wrote a satire about what the world would be like, and you had the main character be someone like Trump, people would say yes that’s funny but it would never happen in real life. That’s what we would have said eight or nine years ago, and yet here we are. It’s crazy to me. 
Ben: It got really hard for satirical comedy for a while just because, especially with things like Veep or The Thick Of It, basically anything Armando Iannucci’s involved in, it got really difficult for him to write because satire was happening in real life. It’s like “Oh my god!” every time this guy speaks, pure comedy gold. He didn’t have to write anything. 

LH: Funnier and crazier than you could ever write and still make it believable, right? 
Ben: Nobody would write “Inject yourself with f*cking Dettol!” You just wouldn’t write that in a joke. 

LH: You know, the sad thing is that it speaks to what’s happened that the companies that make those companies have to put out something formally telling people “Don’t drink or inject our product.” Why would you need to tell people that?!
Ben: I know!! You shouldn’t have to do that. And then the President denied it, “I didn’t know about that. I was misquoted.” How do you get away with just being a child and going “I didn’t say that,” but you f*cking did! And I’m certain that on their bottles it says “Not fit for human consumption” anyway.

LH: In terms of the album, you went with Rich Costey as the producer again. I remember when you did Ellipsis, at that time you wanted to take a different route, you wanted to get in the studio and use some techniques you hadn’t before. It sounds like working with Rich again that you’ve taken that a step further for this album. I honestly can’t get this point across enough, the amount of ground you’ve covered in those first three singles you’ve released already is vast. 
Ben: Yeah, I think this album for me has almost taken on a similar form as our movie soundtrack album, I don’t know if you’ve heard that or not.

LH: I have, yeah.
Ben: For me, on that album, every song sounds like it’s a different band, with the same singer but the music’s almost from a different band. I feel like this album as well, A Celebration of Endings, kind of sounds like there’s certain songs you would say that’s not on the same record as that song. How could it possibly be? But I think we’ve always been a band that does that. We’re really hard to pigeon-hole and I think that’s just down to our really broad musical tastes and all the genres that we’ve loved over the years and also maybe the fact that we’re quite happy not being pigeon-holed, you know. We’re a bit of a hot potato and it’s just too tough to describe for most people, I’d say. It’s tough for me to describe even. 

LH: I think that approach is fantastic because it keeps you interested as well. I was speaking Frank Turner recently and his most recent album about historical figures and they all turned out to be women. He hadn’t planned that but he did it. When I asked him if he set out to do that to challenge himself, he said, “Yes, absolutely because my stuff is all autobiographical and then I put some rules this time around what I was going to do, so yeah I wanted to talk about people from history.” And he said limiting himself in a way like that changed how he had to write the songs. I feel like you guys do that every time. It doesn’t feel like you write for “we want this to be number one” or “we want everyone to love this.” You write what you guys are into at the time.
Ben: It’s as simple as that and it keeps things really simple. I can’t imagine being in other bands where things are really contrived and way too far thought out. For us, we’re all like “Do we like this?” and it’s really f*cking simple and I love that. You’d only get confused. You’re not going to put yourself into a corner and sit and go, “Are the hairs standing up on my arms? Yes. Ok, I like this, we’re going to do it.” And it’s just always been as simple as that. You wouldn’t have…. even going back to the second album, you have reggae bit halfway through a song, even though we’re not particularly reggae fans but we just do it for the hell of it. And people go “why the f*ck would you do that, it ruined that song” but for it us it doesn’t. For us, we just love turning things round, like you said. Working with Rich is great because he’s a real music dude. He’s got a mad record collection, he’s a mad scientist. He really does push you to think the songs in different lights and could this song be f*cking tense and fast and be a completely different beast, could it be a ballad, you know. He pushes you to imagine things differently and look at things differently. And the first thing he does is make sure you don’t settle on the way the song is as it is. Which can sometimes get annoying because we’re like we’ve already f*cking batted the songs around for a couple of years and we know this version is the best but he still wants to bat it around the room for another couple of weeks and sometimes that can get annoying. But ultimately you end up with something you’re proud of and that’s what the good thing with Rich Costey is.

LH: I’m often interested in the writing process for bands but especially with you guys. The reason I say that is, the meter of a lot of your songs, the drums in particular and the rhythm section, are so important to your sound. Does Simon typically come in with something and then the three of you just knock it around and work it out that way?
Ben: I mean sometimes, sometimes things come from riffs that we’ve jammed at soundcheck and then Simon will flesh them into a song. But in terms of the weird time signatures, that’s mainly Simon that has that already. It’s not like he comes in with something like 4/4 stock and then I say let’s change it up and make it weird. Simon’s weird as well, you know. It’s definitely not on me that! He’s also very rhythmical, his parts are really rhythmical and that’s been super easy for me because as a drummer I can often just copy his guitar parts, like just beat for beat like he does in “That Golden Rule,” that’s just copying the actual riff just on my kick and snare and it ends up sounding great. I mean, I think the weird moves that we make, they just happen. That’s in our blood and it’s in our DNA and we’ve kind of always done that. We’re always going to take that left turn where possible. That’s not like it’s the drummer that’s making that happen. It’s definitely Simon [laughs].

LH: It must keep it interesting for you though, I’d have to say you probably challenge yourself on some of these albums.
Ben: Definitely, without a doubt. A few I’m quite scared to play live! [Laughs]

LH: I know Simon is currently doing live-streams every Friday. It’s interesting to me how quickly the music industry and musicians have pivoted in these times to move to this model where you can still get your music to people, and give them some kind of live experience. Although, it’s obviously never going to replace the live experience, but it’s great that you guys are doing that. And then you’re also involving the fans by getting them to dress up in different ways.
Ben: Exactly. That’ll be happening again soon so I’ll have to go and get dressed up as myself. It’s great to be able to adapt. It’s great that we can still entertain people in their homes and give them reason to stay indoors as well, which I think is a wonderful thing. I know it’s tough for everyone right now doing this but it’s just so important that we beat it first time and we don’t have to do this all over again. The only worry is there’s no money for anybody. It will end at some point when everyone’s completely skint and has to go and get a new job. 

LH: It’s scary. On Loud Hailer, we have a list of the scheduled live-streams and we say if people are still lucky enough to have jobs, maybe send some money to your favorite musicians because you’re going to need them when we come out of this. We’re going to need live music more than ever. 
Ben: I know, it’s going to seem so out of place and soppy but you’ve got these f*cking musicians who have maybe paid their mortgage and are like “Can you give us some money?” That seems weird. And there’s definitely going to be a bit of a balancing act in some regards because the musicians weren’t making a lot of money as it goes anyway and this is just going to force a lot of bands out of business entirely which is a real shame.

LH: It is. And venues too.
Ben: Oh, without a doubt. Studios as well. The one, kind, of good recording studio in Glasgow just closed down as well the other day so that’s really sad and it’s going to make it hard for us to do any kind of stuff. 

LH: I guess the one thing that keeps me going, and probably for you guys as well, stepping back out onto a stage that first time once this is all over is going to be quite a feeling I would imagine.
Ben: It’s going to be epic, man. Absolutely epic. Probably going to be about a year from now, maybe more than that. I think probably more than that if I’m being honest. I think it’ll probably be like autumn, or the fall as you guys say. 2021 I reckon. But when that day comes, or that night comes, it’s going to be really special. It’s going to remind me of what I live for because I’m forgetting right now. I can’t even smell a gig, or touch it, or remember it. I can’t remember that feeling. Its been too god damned long, I just want to get back to it. Urgh! Please, please, please!

LH: Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later. My worry is that it is probably going to be next fall realistically. But you never know, this thing keeps changing. Maybe something happens and we can get there sooner. Fingers crossed.
Ben: Exactly, exactly! 

LH: A Celebration of Endings was going to be out May 15 but you’ve pushed it back to August 14 now.
Ben: Yeah, that’s right. I can’t wait for people to hear that. We’ll still be in lockdown I imagine or something, some version of lockdown at that point. I just can’t wait ’til everybody hears this. We’ve put so much work into it, you know I like it. I’m just so super proud of it. I can’t wait for everybody to get their teeth into it. Hopefully, it will help them out a little bit. 

LH: Based on the first three songs, I’m really excited to hear it. 
Ben: Good, man. I swear you’re going to like it. There’s like so much in there, so many more shades than you’ve already heard from those three songs. You think we’ve covered a lot of ground there, just wait til’ you hear the album. 

LH: I can’t wait. Thank you so much for taking the time. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you.
Ben: Absolutely, it’s been my pleasure. Be well, man. Take care.

“Tiny Little Fireworks,” the third single to be released from A Celebration of Endings, is out now for you to hear for yourself. Head over to their webstore now to pre-order the album, which is set for release on August 14.

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About Phil Walton 84 Articles
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.