Interview: Biffy Clyro

Ahead of their Dublin arena show, drummer for Biffy Clyro, Ben Johnson, chats to Conor Kevin O’Nolan about the risks of a double album, and not being able to slum it anymoreBen Johnson along with his twin brother James, and Simon Neil have been playing music together since the mid ‘90s. In 1999, the first Biffy Clyro single was recorded and the band proceeded to spend the next eight or so years slowly climbing the ladder and garnering as much attention as a band who play strange progressive alt-rock can.Biffy Clyro’s rise to mainstream popularity was very slow. Prior to the release of their album Puzzle, Biffy were a band whose highest point of recognition was being on the cover of Kerrang! during a slow week for the magazine. Puzzle went on to garner universally positive reviews and the band were nominated for countless awards in 2007, including most bafflingly a couple of separate ‘Best Newcomer’ nominations despite it being their forth album.Biffy’s first proper foray into the mainstream was 2008’s single ‘Mountains’. The song instantly took over every music television channel that played remotely alternative music and it was not long before most pop orientated channels had it featured in their rotations. The single went on to sell 200,000 copies and was eventually featured on their fifth album Only Revolutions. The band received even more attention the following year when X-Factor winner, Matt Cardle covered the song ‘Many of Horror’ which reached number one in the charts in England and Ireland. Not bad for a band who could barely fill Dublin’s Ambassador theatre only two years previously.Biffy’s latest album was released two weeks ago to their usual positive critical acclaim. Opposites is a double album, each CD having a different mood to the other. The first one, entitled The Sand at the Core of Our Bones is the darker and moodier of the two while the second disk, The Land at the End of Our Toes is slightly more cheerful lyrically. Ben Johnson, Biffy Clyro’s drummer, explained the band’s motivation to release a double album: “The double album concept is great if it’s done right, but it very rarely is. I feel that it’s often a very self indulgent meandering thing and quite often people will let the concept overtake the music and you end up with something that’s not that fun to listen to. We wanted to break that mould, make one that’s enjoyable to listen to, that isn’t too weighty and is just a collection of 20 really cool and strong songs. We’ve always felt restricted with a single album, because we always have a lot of songs left over. We always put a lot of effort into B-sides, a lot of them we feel deserve to be on an album, but for whatever reason we cant make them fit, maybe they stick out a bit to much for being too weird, but with the double we got to explore every corner of Biffy Clyro.”After completing their previous touring cycle, the band sat down to try and plan their next record: “We came off the road from Only Revolutions which had been a hefty two and a half years of touring, I think we had three or four songs, and that was kind of terrifying and then in the space of three months, Simon had written like 40-something songs.” These songs were then narrowed down to the 20 that appear on the album, as well as a number of other songs. Johnson explained: “We have 18 B-sides already mixed and recorded for the many singles that will come off the album.”The band, however, won’t be releasing these along with 18 singles, with Johnson laughing: “No, but that would be hilarious, only having two songs on the album that weren’t released as a single! We prefer for a single to be a bit more akin to an EP than just a single with a remix and a throw away live track. We’d rather make it a bit more like an EP.”The band recorded the album with their long time collaborator Garth Richardson who also produced Puzzle and Only Revolutions. Johnson explained how the band came to choose Richardson as their producer: “He had done two of our favourite records: Rage Against the Machine’s first record and Kerbdog’s On The Turn. We wanted our album to sound sonically somewhere in the middle of those two albums; the raw power of the Rage album and the Kerbdog record is so slick, it’s incredible and also really powerful.”This wasn’t a choice made in a rush, with Johnson having been obsessed with the Rage Against the Machine album for a number of years now. “When I was in college studying audio engineering, I had to write a thesis on the best recorded album of all time, and I did it on Rage and I did it on Garth so I wrote this big thesis on Garth and then ended up being his pal, it’s really strange.”Sticking with Richardson for what was ultimately four albums worth of material is unusual, but Johnson explained: “Historically, no one does a second album with Garth, they do one and they cant handle it any more. He has a certain way of working, he’s very meticulous, especially when it comes to guitars, he’s a real stickler for tuning, so recording guitar takes longer than you could ever imagine. Some bands can't take it, the worth ethic that he has, but we’re also hard working guys, our parents were hard working and that’s how we were brought up, we like to work hard and I guess we weren’t put off and we were also really pleased with the result of Puzzle and Only.” When asked whether the band would want to work with him again, Johnson replied “No! That’s the short answer. We’re a fairly progressive band and we always try and keep moving forward in our career and I think it would be nice to inject someone new that’s got some really different ideas.”The band’s appreciation for Richardson’s work ethic is reflected in how they record. The band enter the studio with songs fully formed, having spent a week in a practice studio with Richardson perfecting their arrangements. “We usually enter the studio with the songs 99.9% there, we always spend a week in a practice room with Garth before we go in, and his main thing that he loves to do is take cymbals away, he loves to do that and it pisses me off. He listens in and makes sure all the drums and the bass are all locked down, listens to each part, what were doing and put in his tuppence worth, whether he things there’s needs to be any changes and we’ll either go ‘Yeah, great idea’ or we’ll go ‘Ah fuck off! Leave it alone we know what we’re doing’. We like to work really hard at home before we go away, that’s the sort of band we’re in. That’s what we were like in the past, we never had any money to throw around and waste so in that respect we didn’t want to spend any more time in the studio than we had to, so we always practised really hard. On our second album we did all the guitar bass and drums in one day. That’s how practised we tend to get before we head out.” Recording did slightly longer than they initially expected, however. “I guess we didn’t take into account the fact that we were making a really ambitious double album, with almost every instrument in the world on it, all these things take time”In a time when albums are less and less emphasised and digital downloading lets people pick and choose songs as they go rather than buying the album in full, recording a double album seems like a risky choice, but Johnson has faith in the their fans: “All I can hope is that the kids these days have the patience for a double album. Most kids these days just listen to playlists so the idea of listening to one band for a full album is quite a commitment; for two albums of course even more so, it’s just a faith thing. We keep hearing back that it wasn’t a weighty listen, they got through it okay and it didn’t seem like a challenge to get through the two albums. We just have to hope that everyone feels that same way.”In reference to the band’s upcoming gig in the O2 in Dublin, Johnson said: ”It baffles me that we’ve even booked this venue. I don’t know who at any point ever said that we’d be able to fill an arena! It has been slow, we’ve been going for 17 years, nothing has ever really fallen in our laps, there hasn’t been any discernible leaps to us, I guess Puzzle was the biggest leap, but that goes hand in hand with a change of label and the gap there was between the third and forth record. I think during that time, we were spread by word of mouth and we just toured our asses off, we played every little gig we could. We played Limerick and stuff, went to all the wee nooks and crannies that we could, just like we did everywhere all over mainland UK. Back then we did over 200 little gigs in one year all of that out of the back of a little van.”Before Opposites was recorded, the band was on the verge of breaking up as a result of burn out from touring and Johnson having a drinking problem. The band are determined to keep themselves sane during their upcoming touring cycle, with Johnson explaining: “We always make sure we get showers and stuff, and it doesn’t sound like much but when you get to 30, you want to be clean after a gig. When you’re a bit younger, you’re happier with that, you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter as much, you sleep on the floor and your back’s okay. When you get older you need these luxuries just to make it possible, and you need things like a massage before or after the gig, you have to look after yourself, and all these things you thought you would never do and you thought were way too rockstar and ridiculous start becoming a reality.”The shift in touring mentality doesn’t end there however, with Johnson continuing: “Even on the next tour we might be fully ridiculous and get a personal trainer just to keep an eye on your health, when you’re out for that long you have to keep and eye on your health, and even saying that out loud makes me sound like a complete arsehole, the idea of a band doing that makes them sound like a bunch of dickheads that take themselves too seriously, but it’s just a necessity when there’s that much pressure on your shoulders.”Biffy Clyro releasing a double album is a nice metaphor for how their career has progressed so far. They have come from very humble beginnings to headlining sold out arena tours, from being relative nobodies when it comes to the charts to penning songs that that sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and realistically, the band can only go further.Biffy Clyro play the O2 arena in Dublin on March 28th, with special guests City and Colour. Tickets are priced from €36.50 including booking fee. Opposites is out now.