Interview: Biffy Clyro’s Ben Johnston on the making of a monster new release

BEN Johnston, drummer with Scotland’s favourite lean, mean power trio Biffy Clyro, is trying to think of an example of a double album which can justify its running time.

Like many music fans, he rates The Clash’s London Calling and The Beatles’ White Album but would concede that they both have their weaker moments.

He has a nostalgic soft spot for Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness but would make no claims now for its greatness. He doesn’t even mention Screamadelica. In fact, he can only think of one double album he could happily listen to end-to-end without encountering any filler, and that’s the album his band have just released.

Hide Ad

Opposites, Biffy Clyro’s sixth album, is a 78-minute beast of a record, the kind they don’t really make anymore, especially not since everyone started apologising for the existence of albums. But Biffy are an old-fashioned kind of band, who came up the dues-paying way, touring like demons, establishing a hardcore cult following with their first three ­albums, then building on that solid foundation with the more commercial rock sound of their subsequent major label releases. Having advanced to a level where they could comfortably ­challenge Muse for the title of the UK’s biggest rock band, Biffy don’t intend to start playing it safe now.

“Double albums are historically quite challenging and we’re trying to break the mould with this,” says Johnston. “There’s not much fat on this album at all. It’s 20 songs which are quite concise and to the point. Hopefully it’s one of the first double albums that’s both ­instant but also has longevity.”

Opposites is an enjoyable listen, quite different from the over-indulgent hubris of previous rock doubles such as Guns N’ Roses’ flabby Use Your Illusion I and II. Still, the very act of releasing a double album and owning it as such – there are plenty of rappers out there who will ­release 78 minutes’ worth of booty, bitches and boasting in the safer guise of a single album – is quite a statement in itself. Biffy have underlined this by ­titling the two halves of the album The Sand At The Core Of Our Bones and The Land At The End Of Our Toes.

“We think very highly of our music,” says Johnston, “so everything we release is intended to be a statement. Not ­politically or anything like that, we’re not that way inclined.” Which is somewhat ironic in the light of Biffy frontman ­Simon Neil’s pro-independence statements in last week’s NME, where he even joked about “making a play for the Scottish national anthem”. Alex Salmond will doubtless be delighted that one album track, Stingin’ Belle, features bagpipes.

Nevertheless, it’s true to say that Neil’s lyrics are almost always of a personal rather than political nature. Former ­single Folding Stars was written about the death of his mother, and there was no shortage of emotional turmoil to draw on this time round. Neil’s wife ­suffered a series of miscarriages which understandably took a toll on their relationship. Meanwhile, band relationships were strained due to Johnston’s heavy drinking. You can hear all about it, if somewhat obliquely, on The Sand…

“Most of those lyrics were written when Simon was feeling quite solitary and I wasn’t pulling my weight in the band,” says Johnston. “As friends we were all drifting apart a bit through ­relentless touring of America in wee vans. We were really overworking ourselves and fractures started to appear.”

Hide Ad

Neil has a tendency to self-flagellate in his lyrics but just when you think he can’t make any more references to breaking and bleeding, he turns a corner and hits The Land… which Johnston says is “more about solidarity, how to take control of situations and not let things spiral out of control. It’s much more positive and hopefully when you’ve finished listening you’ll be in a slightly better mood”.

I wonder how Johnston feels when he listens to the songs, knowing that his negative behaviour inspired some of the lyrics. “That’s kind of difficult,” he admits. “I guess it’s cathartic for Simon. I can’t use the word cathartic for myself; it’s more a realisation. Every time I listen to it I realise more and more how much I’d stretched my two brothers in the band.”

Hide Ad

Johnston is hardly the first band member to take full advantage of free beer on tap, but when a group tours as hard as Biffy, that’s a lot of free beers over a lot of consecutive nights. While Neil and Johnston’s bass-playing twin brother James were able to imbibe in moderation, he succumbed fully and would often be hungover for gigs or ­sessions. He began to turn up late for practices and missed a flight once. Hardly a rock’n’roll crime, more of an insidious influence.

“It’s very easy to fall into that pattern and to think that there isn’t really a problem,” he says. “It’s not like I ever reached for the bottle during the day or drank in the morning. In that respect, I can see how easy it was for me to deny there was a big problem. A couple of times the guys did have words with me and I said I would cut down. But I’ve realised since that that’s not really an option. Cutting down is impossible ­because the problem was that when I started I just didn’t have a stop button. But if I don’t start drinking I don’t even miss it at all.”

So Johnston stopped and didn’t start again. Fortunately, this was just before the band were due to begin recording Opposites in sunny, super-healthy Santa Monica, California. “It was the best place for me to accomplish what I did. Over there, there are teenagers that go to the AA meetings at the age of 17 – they can’t legally drink for another four years and they’ve already realised they’ve got a problem. That’s remarkable to me. That wouldn’t happen in Scotland. At the meetings in Scotland, it’s much older people who attend, middle-aged people who’ve finally realised they’ve got a problem after hitting 40.

“I’m so glad that it happened when it did. I stopped drinking and went in and recorded my drums in half the time that was expected of me and I played better than I ever have. Hopefully I earned some faith. I’ll always have very fond memories of this album even though it started with a bit of a car crash. I’m endlessly thankful that the guys had a word with me rather than just giving up on me. It was a real bonding process and it goes to show that music is a great healer. We really are a band of brothers and that’s the reason we’re still together.” A (non-alcoholic) toast to that. «

Opposites is out now on 14th Floor Records. Biffy Clyro play the AECC, Aberdeen on 31 March, and SECC, Glasgow on 1 April.