interview by Michael McCarthy
I’ve been a fan of the hugely popular Scottish band Biffy Clyro since the release of the trio’s sophomore album, The Vertigo of Bliss, back in 2003. I was flipping through an issue of the British magazine NME at a Borders bookstore – R.I.P. – and read a positive review then I went to Newbury Comics where they were having a buy two get one free sale on CDs so I bought the import. In the years since, you could argue that the band has morphed into a new beast at least a few times, never being a group that’s been afraid to try new things. The greatest leap, however, is between their 2013 album Opposites and their new album Ellipsis. Whereas Opposites was an often raw, alternative rock record, Ellipsis is more of a polished, modern rock effort. That said, what they have most in common is the band’s refusal to fit into any mold. (I simply mention these genres to give you a ballpark idea.) They’re so creative, in fact, that most of their albums are followed by an album of out-takes, the band tending to record 30+ songs every time they head into the studio. These out-takes hardly sound like B-sides though, as even Biffy’s songs that don’t make the records they’re made for are much better than what most bands put on their records. (It’s no wonder people sometimes call them the Foo Fighters of Scotland.) In the following interview, I chat with drummer/backing vocalist Ben Johnston about making the new record, playing clubs and more.
MM: What country are you calling me from today?
BJ: I’m calling from Scotland. We live in Scotland.
MM: So, you’re at home?
BJ: Yes, I’m at home. I’ve got interviews scheduled.
MM: Have you been on tour for the new album already or is that forthcoming?
BJ: That’s gonna be forthcoming in terms of being back on tours. We’ll have that later on. We have been doing mostly festivals, really. We played in Germany and Scandinavia. In Japan and South Korea. We’ve been pretty busy so far.
MM: Do you have any plans to tour in the U.S.?
BJ: We’ve got our plans. They’ve been moved to next year. Kind of early 2017, we’re gonna be in the U.S. for sure.
MM: What size venues do you anticipate playing here?
BJ: Any venue that’ll have us, man. We love playing sweaty clubs. I’ve got a feeling that’s gonna be where we’re still at most parts in America. Maybe in New York and L.A. and stuff we can maybe do [bigger venues] but in a lot of places in between we’re still a club show band. We totally love that. To get a chance to play those sort of gigs again that we don’t get to do in other places. To see the lights in people’s eyes and to sweat on people and get back to that.
MM: Would you rather play the small clubs or would you rather open for a band that’s hugely popular and play to 15,000 seaters?
BJ: I like the clubs, personally. That’s what we’re thinking about. There isn’t much point in that in the States, in supporting a band. We’ve done a lot of that in America and it hasn’t actually paid off. It feels like we started to get a little bit of traction and things started picking up after we did a couple headline shows. So, for me, I’d rather be doing that. That’s where people fall in love with a band and that’s how you become a stadium band. So, certainly, in the States I want to be playing clubs again. Those shows are just so much fun. They’re so dynamic. You can make a real connection with the kids there. So, we’re happy we still have the chance to play those shows.
MM: Do you prefer making albums or performing live?
BJ: That’s a tough one. I think I prefer performing live to be honest. I do love the creation of the albums. Trying to make a masterpiece that’s beautiful. Especially recording with Rich Costey. It’s been an experience, you know? Trying to make something really different from anything we’ve done before. And it was such a challenge and you get stressed out. It’s tough. You’re climbing this mountain. Where at a gig that kind of comes and goes in the blink of an eye. When somebody gets something wrong you make a mistake and it’s gone. With an album, it’s forever. I think I’m happy recording an album because of the rush you get from creating and the feeling that gives you. So, it’s a hard choice on that one maybe.
MM: How did Rich’s approach as a producer differ from some of the producers you’d worked with in the past?
BJ: [Laughs] It was like night and day, man. For example, there’s certain songs where we’d record the vocals first. That was the very first thing to be done. We’d start tracking vocals and then we would decide where the song was gonna go from there in terms of what the drum part would be or if there’s gonna be bass on it or bass synth. In the past, first we’d record the drums and we’d record the bass then the guitar and then the vocals. There was a chart on the wall and we’d just be checking off boxes. It was a very scheduled way to work. It was textbook. It was more like documenting the sound of a band in a room. Whereas Rich Costey is taking us on a journey and deconstructing every song. It’s so rare that you’d put drums on last, which is completely out of bounds. We had to put a lot of trust in Rich and the sound that we wanted it to have is exactly the sound we got. So, things were going a bit crazy. It was a lesson for us. This was the Rich Costey experience. [Laughs]
MM: What had he done in the past that made you want to work with him. Anything in particular?
BJ: A lot of things. We were listening to Rich Costey records when we were teenagers. He’d done a Fiona Apple record that we liked. He’d done a Sigur Rós record that we liked. Those are two different ends of the spectrum. He’s done everything. He’s done everything from heavy bands to electronic to hip-hop. He’d really covered all bases. And that was the reason that we wanted to work with him. We didn’t want a stock rock producer or anybody that had a certain style of music attached to their name. So, Rich was the obvious choice.
MM: You recorded in California again, right?
BJ: Oh yeah.
MM: What made you decide to come back to California?
BJ: If you could look out my window right now in Scotland it would give you a good idea. The weather here sucks and the weather in California is amazing. That was on reason why and actually quite a big one. Just getting up every morning and seeing the sun. It’s really inspirational. It gets you out of bed and you can do stuff, you know? When you look out into the gloom you feel beat down that day before you’ve started. Also, the studios over there are just well-crafted. So many of the best records in the world were made there before. You’ve got plenty of gear and you’ve got access to vintage gear. And Rich lives there as well, so it gives him the creative upper hand [compared to] over here where we have nothing in terms a studio. And we’ve gotten used to everything out there. We’ve got friends out there and we know our way around.
MM: I remember reading that Robbie Williams gave up on trying to be a star here in the U.S. because he likes the way he can go around Los Angeles without people bothering him. Do you want to get super famous here or do you like having a low profile?
BJ: Even though we’re popular in the UK I still wouldn’t say we’re famous. Our record could be number one and I could probably walk down my street and a lot of people wouldn’t know who I am. So, fame is definitely something we seek. We would love to be famous in America. All our musical education came from there instead of here. So we’ve always [wanted to be successful] there in the U.S. of A. Success, actually, would burn out. We’re not guys for fame. We don’t like that sort of shit.
MM: On Wikipedia it says that the new album was influenced by John Waters films and A$AP Rocky. Is that true?
BJ: You always say things when you’re doing interviews and that’s what was said before the music had been recorded. That is what’s on Wikipedia and they extort a little bit. The movie references were just an off-kilter thing. We wanted to really surprise some people. And I think maybe by our sixth album people knew what to expect in terms of it’s gonna be a lush record like the last few records before that and A$AP Rocky I guess we were talking more about textures and the way that you use sonics on an album because we were impressed. A lot of rock bands are starting to sound the same. It seems like the rock stars now are the rappers. The rap stars are more edgy than guitar bands. And also recording a rock album and not using the technologies that are available to you in the studio is kind of like going into a fight with an arm tied behind your back. Let’s not fight it. Let the past be in the past and let’s try to use some of these textures and sonics. I guess that A$AP Rocky is also a record that can change pop. We took heed of that and we weren’t scared to try things on this album. To use more up to date sounds. We weren’t trying to make the new Back in Black record. We’ve done that a bunch of times. Trying to re-create a Rolling Stones record or that AC/DC record and it wasn’t about that. It was about trying to be different but also take influence from modern records, which is why I think that A$AP thing got mentioned.
MM: When it comes time to make a song like “Re-Arrange” and there’s programming do you help in the programming or do you contribute some live drums and they mix the live and the programmed together?
BJ: Yes, it’s a mix of that. On a song like “Re-Arrange” especially. That’s actually a song that drums were done last on. And I was almost against it. I thought it sounded great as it was without drums. I was scared about live drums pulling it into a realm where I didn’t know what it was gonna be. When you listen to “Re-Arrange” you can hear the live drums when you want to and you can almost freeze them out if you want to also. But Rich would be working away on a drum machine on his own actually and then we’d have a look. The next day he’d come down and we’d look a little bit and see what we liked about it [and say] let’s change that hand clap or lets change that high hat and we’d track it when we were all happy. It was a collaborative thing, but Rich knows his way around drum machines a lot better than we do. We put a lot of trust in the guy.
MM: What did you do with your time off between Opposites and Ellipsis?
BJ: Well, we basically got Ellipsis ready. We didn’t want to rush it, that was for sure. I cut the grass and fucking spent time with my cat and spent time with my wife and friends. And practicing a lot after a few months. We were waiting for the inspiration to come because we had a bunch of songs but they sounded like an extension of where we’d been previously. We shelved them and then finally wrote “Re-Arrange” and a couple of songs with piano [then] we kind of realized we had an album and that’s when we started. All the songs we had up til that point will be B-sides album. We cut those in L.A. as well when we finished recording Ellipsis and that album will be out later in the year.
MM: What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
BJ: With my own money? That would be I Should Be So Lucky by Kylie Minogue.
MM: Cool. Cool. I like her.
BJ: Yeah, she’s great.
MM: What was the last song you listened to?
BJ: Oh, Christ, um, I think it was on the radio. It was Jack Garratt. I was in the car and it came on the radio. I can’t think of the name of the song, but Jack Garratt’s a great artist from Britain. He’s really cool. He’s like a one man band.
MM: What’s the strangest gift you’ve ever received from a fan?
BJ: Strangest gift? We were just in Korea there for the first time and I got a lovely baseball cap and on the front of it it has a B for Ben. It might not be that strange but we are certainly not a baseball cap wearing band. So, that was fairly strange.
MM: If someone was giving you a million dollars to give to a charity or cause and you could only give it to one, which would you give it to?
BJ: It would be type 1 diabetes and that would be with trying to change the name of that disease because of type 2 diabetes. We do feel lumped into the same thing and they’re so massively different. My wife has type 1 diabetes, so that’s where the money would go.
Buy Ellipsis on Amazon. You won’t regret it.
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