They’re one of the biggest British bands of their generation – capable of filling stadiums and headlining festivals – but as they prepare to drop a new album in the middle of a global pandemic, Biffy Clyro are ready to stand up and be counted.
Words: Alex Bradley.
In a year of unexpected events, Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil lining up alongside Formula 1 drivers and professional gamers for the Canadian F1 Virtual Grand Prix was one of most surprising.
The singer beams, knowing how absurd the whole concept sounds, as he explains how he loves a challenge and how the temptation to not be “sitting twiddling [his] thumbs” was too great to turn down.
In just under a month Simon went from absolutely no experience on the game to a “career highlight” of finishing 18th in the race thanks to intensive, six hours a day, crash courses on his console.
“I thought playing a show for 90 minutes was pretty intense but the amount of concentration it takes to race, even on a computer console, was just mind-blowing. I was sweating, I was knackered, wired like I’d taken every drug available known to man,” he laughs.
Akin to some sort of Alan Partridge-style idea for a TV show, his foray into Esports has piqued his curiosity for what bizarre hobbies he can get up to next. He speculates that “next time I’ll be out in the garden or learning how to grow tomatoes in a greenhouse. Next one after that, I’ll be learning how to sing ‘Nessun Dorma’.”
It’s safe to say that lockdown hasn’t been too unkind to Biffy Clyro. Sure, their new album, ‘A Celebration of Endings’ was pushed back from spring to mid-August but, if anything, it’s allowed the band to get creative with how they want to promote their eighth studio offering.
The result has been that Biffy Clyro have been more present than ever, in your face like never before.
“I’m not massive on extreme sharing on social media but, during this lockdown, it’s something we’ve really appreciated and embraced how incredible it is,” Simon admits.
It started with the soon obligatory Friday night livestream of Simon performing deep cuts, forgotten tracks and fan requests from the comfort of his living room but grew into drumming tutorials with Ben and bass rundowns with James. Sometimes it would be dress-up with tuxedos or boiler suits and other times it would be dress down. It was interactive too as Biffy enlisted fans to record their own video clips for their ‘Tiny Indoor Fireworks’ video.
It was a level of connection with social media and their fans unlike anything they’ve attempted in 25 years of being a band. But, as entertaining as it was to watch, it was just as essential for the band.
“To be able to just connect with so many people around the world did wonderful things for my psyche and mentality. Everyone felt so isolated initially, especially in that first two months, where had I not done those first few shows then I really would have felt, like so many people have, so alone. The feeling of isolation is so real and can affect you in so many different ways so to have that Friday show just gave me something to hang the weeks around,” Simon reveals.
“I’ve really quite enjoyed this to a certain extent. I’m really missing the physical interaction with people that I’m sure we all are on a personal level (and on a musical level). But I do feel like in certain instances we have a closer connection to people in this lockdown that we wouldn’t have otherwise just on the road and playing shows.”
It’s new territory for Biffy Clyro, but that’s always what they’re searching for so it’s not completely surprising that that trio would take a global pandemic in their stride. The struggle has been the delay in what comes “next” after the album is released, as Simon despairs at his need to “create and fucking evolve constantly”.
It’s hard not to be frustrated as the four-month album promotion from first single ‘Instant History’ in February to scheduled release in May has turned into a seven-month wait. The title now feels a tad ironic for Biffy, who perpetually have one eye on the horizon.
But, in the delay, ‘A Celebration of Endings’ has taken on a new life entirely. The album was originally Simon’s flag in the ground saying “things cannot get worse than they are right now!” but that wasn’t necessarily the case.
“We’ve got fucking Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, and the world is just led by buffoons,” he quips. “I was like, things can only get better, then three weeks later the fucking coronavirus hit us.”
And, with the global pandemic and, more recently, the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, ‘A Celebration of Endings’ recognised more of a global change for the better rather than the shift in just Simon’s own world.
“The things I was talking about coming to an end were kind of what is happening just now, but I was thinking in a much more subtle and more personal perspective,” he explains.
“The album, originally, was about wanting to not feel guilty for what I believe in and not feel wrong for having opinions on things. For not feeling wrong for ending a relationship because it’s really unfulfilling, and seeing an older generation that is so resistant to change. I think now it applies more than ever.”
No song comes more evident of the rapid revolution of the album’s significance in the recent months than ‘Instant History’. The synth-driven, sunshine soaked, pop slammer rallies with its chorus line “This is the sound that we make” as a ready-made slogan for those standing up and being counted for what they believe in this year.
Proud of the added weight of the single, Simon adds: “We really are at a moment to stand up for what we fucking believe in and not just go with the status quo,” before pointing out that the tracks opening lines of “Is this how the surface will break? / Releasing the pressure / The horrors that await” are now even more apt.
“We have to face these horrors, we have to fucking acknowledge the things in our past that give us oxygen and things that take away oxygen. I’m really encouraged with the moment we are in.”
“We are not just going to let it pass us by this time,” he states, referring to the upcoming U.S. Presidential Elections and eventual, inevitable, investigation into Boris Johnson’s competency as a Prime Minister.
‘Instant History’ isn’t the only track to become more symbolic in recent months, though, with the album opener ‘North of No South’ having taken on a much larger scale too as a message for holding the courage of your convictions and holding onto your personal beliefs.
Simon keenly acknowledges how normal it is for songs to change meaning, but this is the first time they’ve changed without playing them live or, in some cases, they’ve even been released. Nevertheless, he shares: “I know that when I sing those songs, I’m going to have a level of pride in the added perspective in where I’m going to be singing it from.”
That growth of ‘A Celebration of Endings’, the way it’s evolving even before it’s released, is all the product of a band striving to lead the way in a new decade.
But, in order for them to make a statement in 2020, it took some time for the trio to truly find what they wanted to say. Biffy somehow managed to take time away without ever really being away thanks to the MTV Unplugged release and subsequent tour and then flexing their creative muscles with the film soundtrack ‘Balance, Not Symmetry’. It was the making of the soundtrack and its surprise release which ultimately reinvigorated the band to make their eighth full length record.
“I think there was an element of taking a break a bit,” Simon admits, looking back at ‘Ellipsis’.
“The reason I was so keen to do the ‘Balance, Not Symmetry’ record, and the Unplugged record to a lesser extent, I wanted to make a record that was literally just about making a bunch of music. We were never going to do interviews for it, we weren’t going to promote, we didn’t have to think about a single or anything like that.’
‘Ellipsis’, in Simon’s words was “deliberately a more sophisticated pop record with no real chaos to it; it was meant to be quite a contained album,” and, like with every record, had elements which he would change about it if given the chance.
This made the film soundtrack the opportunity for Biffy Clyro to let loose and, for Simon, the chance to explore every possible idea that he could.
“That informed this [new] album so much because that gave this album that sense of mischievousness and anarchy that a lot of our earlier records had.
“I think part of that was just knowing I didn’t want to see us mature how I’ve seen a lot of other rock bands mature where, ‘it’s a nice song, so let’s put it out’. I want to hold us to the same fucking standards I do other bands. I want to be taken off guard. I want to be excited and shake off the whole cycle of album promo, singles and ‘what’s this song about?’ that kind of shit and make a record purely about creation.”
It was the back to basics approach to that project that, in turn, made ‘A Celebration of Endings’ the unshackled and diverse offering it is now. “I think if we had not done that, then this album would be a lot more uptight,” he believes.
The confidence boost that experience gave Simon found Biffy Clyro back in their sweet spot of pushing themselves further in every direction but with a purpose also. It makes ‘A Celebration of Endings’ their most extreme offering yet as it explodes in every direction yet managing to remain quintessentially Biffy too.
“What I’ve never wanted to be is a band that gets comfortable or hits their stride and then just goes through the motions. That’s when you start singing about stuff that is not important or irrelevant or just a circle-jerk on yourself; eight hands and you’re just wanking yourself off. That’s never interested me,” he smirks.
The idea of retreading old ground, if anything, is a deterrent to make new music for the whole band; even more so if it’s a quickfire recipe for success. Even if its another love song, prog-rock song or song about death, Simon is adamant he won’t just churn out the same material; electing in favour of inspecting the outer reaches of his comfort zone.
He continues: “I want to feel so uncomfortable and unsure in myself when we are making music. I want to feel like we are talking about something genuinely life or death to me.”
That cutthroat approach to their music keeps Biffy Clyro on their toes, and that’s never been more clear than in this album. For a band started at the halfway point of the 90s, the notion of being relevant in 2020 seems preposterous but Biffy’s adaptability (and resistance to being defined) is what keeps them vital within rock music.
“Especially with a rock band, if you’ve been around for a while, it can feel like sometimes you’re just becoming part of the scenery. That’s not what I want,” he admits.
“I want to be a part of this world we are in right now. I don’t want to [look back] to our history and think, ‘we’re great, we were great therefore we are great’. I want to show people we have a reason to exist. I feel like we have purpose with this album on many different levels.”
Creating that purpose, Simon attributes to his own mental wellbeing, his inability to rest on his laurels, which in turn fuels his hunger to create albums which push the limits of what people conceive is Biffy Clyro’s sound.
‘A Celebration of Endings’ knows no bounds as it bounces from the extremes from the vibrant ‘Weird Leisure’, the 90s balladry of ‘Space’, the power of ‘End Of’, the frenetic, scratchy guitars on ‘Pink Limit’, the delicate, soul-baring acoustics on ‘Opaque’ and the swelling strings on ‘The Champ’. It’s a rock album but its a dedication by Simon to be “every colour of rock band, every shade of rock band we can possibly be”.
Aside from the lyrical content, which points to life in 2020, the musical spectrum is also representative of modern life. Not by design but embraced by the world’s relationship with music and “the album”, ‘A Celebration of Endings’ has a song for every playlist.
“I feel in the streaming age, that has given me permission to be slightly more eclectic with an album,” he suggests before pointing to his own playlist which throws up Blood Incantation, Thom Yorke and Fiona Apple in succession.
“It’s the extremities which turn me on, and I have that in my character,” he manages to say without sounding boastful but instead reducing it down to just human nature that we are all emotionally complex and mercurial.
“This time, I wasn’t concerned about the genre of any of the songs. I was like, this album is our personality as a band, my personality as a person. I think it is quite out there and an eclectic record, but I’m not scared about that. I think people can handle it. I think people are complex.”
To get to the point of making a three dimensional and complex album isn’t always as natural as Biffy Clyro make it seem though. Simon notes, “I’m constantly trying to unlearn and to break habits and routines,” and credits producer Rich Costey for helping the band out of their comfort zone and embrace a new challenge.
The producer, who first worked with the band on ‘Ellipsis’, was that extra push that stretched ‘A Celebration of Endings’ to its limits and kept Biffy Clyro driving forward. Between Rich and Simon came the decisions like not making ‘End Of’ the album opener because of its similar attitude to openers on both ‘Infinity Land’ and ‘Puzzle’ and the decision to take ‘Opaque’ from a lush power pop song and turn it into a haunting cautionary tale about greed.
“Because I write the songs, I know how they come together, and they’re very familiar,” Simon details. “So it takes someone else to shake it out of me so I can start again and rebuild and remember, what are the important parts of this song? What’s the part we can’t do without and what parts that are pointless? You have to be brutal, and the more albums we make, the tougher we have to be with ourselves. Have we done this before? Is this good because it feels familiar?”
At the peak of the relationship between Biffy Clyro and Rich Costey on this record is the closer ‘Cop Syrup’. The track is a cacophony of anarchy and chaos topped with a string section recorded at Abbey Road Studios too… but of course. “It’s one of the best songs I’ve written,” Simon declares triumphantly.
“With a song like that there is a definitely a leap of faith. I had the riff for the punk rock section and this beautifully cinematic piece of music, and I just wanted to try it and combine two things you should never put together which is punk rock and prog rock.
“But it still blows me away when a song like that comes together because there are plenty of times we have mad ideas that don’t come together.”
The track is unapologetically Biffy Clyro; it’s bold, brash and beautiful in equal measure. It comes completely unexpected as a cataclysmic climax to the album but yet manages to be instantly recognisable as another madcap creation from the trio.
Add in the final screams of “fuck everybody, woo!” and you’ve got the seal that ‘Cop Syrup’ is unmistakably a Biffy Clyro masterpiece.
Defending the line, he explains: “It’s not as nihilistic or misanthropic as it might sound out of context. It has a spirit to it.” Regardless of its explanation its the type of parting shot that only Biffy Clyro could pull off and make you immediately want to press play on the entire album again.
“There are moments in our career where I feel we do things no other band could ever fucking attempt!” Simon claims as he reflects on the monolithic finale to the album.
And he is absolutely right.
Biffy manage to lend themselves to cliches like “expect the unexpected” and “fortune favours the brave” but it’s all you can bank on when it comes them making music. Shark-like, they have to keep moving to stay alive and, now, they arrive into a strange new decade with a sound bursting with opportunities; partly fresh and dynamic, typically mind-bending but somehow familiar too.
The album may be about celebrating the endings, but Biffy Clyro are absolutely here to stay at the very top of their game. ‘Mon the Biff.
Biffy Clyro’s album ‘A Celebration of Endings’ is out 14th August.