After a bout of depression which inhibited his songwriting, Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro is just pleased to be back making music. And the frontman’s renewed sense of excitement has taken the band in some unexpected directions, writes Fiona Shepherd
With his artistic tattoos, top knot and baggy, robe-like cardy, Simon Neil, the genial frontman of Biffy Clyro, looks for all the world like a groovy rock’n’roll monk as he limbers up for a series of interviews on the private patio of a posh hotel. Appropriately, he is in a more zen-like state these days following a period of depression and writer’s block which could have hobbled the band’s enviable momentum across their 20-year career. As he graciously holds court in the blazing sun, that period is gone but not forgotten.
“It’s just life, isn’t it?” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you do, things can get on top of you, but I think it’s important to be open about that, and honest with yourself.”
Biffy are back in Glasgow for an instore acoustic performance in the week they release their seventh album, Ellipsis. Later this month, the trio will headline a Summer Sessions concert at the city’s Bellahouston Park in front of 30,000 fans; the instore is a nod to the countless smaller gigs which the Ayrshire band played in their first decade of dues-paying, when they built the foundations of their rabid fan community. Neil reckons this may be the last time that they do an instore gig and is relishing the rare-ish opportunity to eyeball the crowd.
“As the band has got bigger, you inevitably lose a bit of that intimate connection you have at the smaller shows, and there’s less opportunity to meet and have contact with the fans,” he says. “I’m fully expecting to see some familiar faces in the front row today.”
At the time of our conservation, Neil and his fraternal foils, James and Ben Johnston, were on their way to scoring their second Number One album. Do they ever worry about what the world will make of a new Biffy Clyro album?
I just fell in love with the innocence of writing music againSimon Neil
“We never think about that when we are recording,” says Neil, “but then there is that apprehension once the album is out there about how it’s going to be received. There are people who really like our first three albums and don’t like what came after and there are people who only know our later albums. We can’t please all of them and we wouldn’t even try, we can only please ourselves.”
The pithy Ellipsis – a mere 40 minutes of top tuneage in contrast with the ambitious sprawl of their previous double album Opposites – is a pot pourri of classic Biffy, from the pummelling Wolves of Winter to the commercial balladry of Re-Arrange to the pugnacious punk of On A Bang, which the band first aired at their Edinburgh’s Hogmanay headline slot.
“We wrote about 30 songs for this album and this time we just picked our favourites,” says Neil. “It wasn’t about trying to make the album flow or make sense or create a statement so that’s why it’s ended up so varied and you’ve got one of the punkest things we’ve ever done [On A Bang] followed by a country song [Small Wishes]. We weren’t worried about having that clash of styles.”
Small Wishes is the sonic surprise of the album. For all their eclecticism, a Biffy Clyro country song is a curveball, and one for which Neil makes no apologies. “We really wanted to go quite far down that country road. At this stage in our career, a lot of bands are doing this [mimes a narrowing pathway] but why wouldn’t you want to be going this way [extends his hands outwards]? Why wouldn’t you expand the possibilities of what you can do? I wanted to reflect all my influences, whether it’s Slayer over here or Tears for Fears over there.”
Small Wishes is among the most overtly political songs Neil was ever written (the opening line “I saw a man, he stole our national thunder” is one to conjure with), and he’s quite happy to share its derivation. “I was angry in the wake of the independence referendum about the lies that were told to us by the leaders of our country, and just disbelieving that the people in charge could be so dishonest and in it for their careers.”
In fact, there is anger spilling out all over Ellipsis, much of it of a more personal nature, with Neil taking aim at a number of unidentified individuals who betrayed his trust. “You were not right, you were just righteous,” he rails on Friends and Enemies.
“It’s pure catharsis for me,” says Neil. “I’m not a songwriter like Nick Cave, who crafts his words and hones his stories, it’s got to feel honest and spontaneous for me.”
Neil seems relieved to have that release once again, after a low period during which he wasn’t satisfied with anything he was writing. Looking back now, he can see he was depressed. “I was just digging myself down into a hole so me and my wife Francesca went to Los Angeles for a few months,” he says, “I left my guitars at home and just went out and worked in a few different studios, wrote some songs with some friends and just messed around on the laptop and fell in love with the innocence of writing music again.”
Those friends included Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody, his fellow alumnus from Electric Honey Records, the label run by the music business students at Glasgow Kelvin College (formerly Stow College), which released early singles by both bands. Their catchy collaboration, Howl, is one of the poppier tracks on the album, and the band have acknowledged that the production they were hearing on pop and hip-hop records was more of an influence this time round than a traditional rock approach.
However, fans of Biffy’s blistering blitzkrieg can still be reassured that this is a band who are comfortable in their skin. “We are still a rock band fundamentally,” says Neil. “There is nothing that excites me more than just letting rip and creating something really heavy and powerful.”
• Biffy Clyro headline Summer Sessions at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, 27 August. Ellipsis is out now on 14th Floor Records