Biffy Clyro may come from a quite rainy land, but when we get to the Warner Music Parisian headquarters to catch up with them, they’re beaming like the sun. With a constant smile, honesty and mischief, the three chatty Scottish musicians told us about their “MTV Unplugged” performance and what’s next for Biffy. Between in-depths talks about new music, success and even some political ambition, we may know what their next single is going to sound like.
To start, congratulations on the “MTV Unplugged“! You’re part of the generation that grew up with the iconic Nirvana one, and now, for another generation, there’s yours. Even if MTV is not as important for music as it used to be, how proud are you to have your name added to the list of mythical bands and artists to have achieved that?
Simon Neil (vocals/guitar): Thank you! It’s incredible. As you say, we are kids of the 90’s. In the 90’s, “Unplugged” was at its peak and every performance, everyone would talk about it. To join that list of bands means a lot to us. You’re right, it can never be what it was, there was only one music channel then, you would have Nirvana on next to Madonna on next to…
Ben Johnston (drums): Paula Abdul! (general laughter)
Simon: Yeah Paula Abdul! It can never be quite the cultural moment that it was, but it was a big part of our education growing up, so for us, to have our very own “Unplugged” record is fucking magic!
Biffy Clyro is known for its huge and abrasive sound, but with a vulnerable side. Wasn’t it a bit scary to take the volume away and not have anything to hide behind with these stripped-back versions of the songs?
James Johnston (bass): Yeah, scary and exhilarating and exciting. After 15, 20 years of being a band and hopefully getting really good at doing big rock shows, it’s nice to try to figure out how to reimagine your songs and create a connexion with the audience in a different way. You’re almost like repainting your memories with a different brush. And you don’t want to mess up those songs that have become part of people’s lives in a way that’s going to ruin their memories. It’s such an amazing opportunity. Just to be out of our comfort zone a little bit is something really exciting. You don’t want to just continue to do something you hope you’re good at.
Simon: You feel exposed as you said. Feeling vulnerable was very much a part of it. I think the crowd feel vulnerable at a show like that as well, because there’s nothing for anyone to hide behind. It’s quiet, there’s not a lot of lights, we can see you, for the first time in a while we can fucking see you! (general laughter) It’s a different kind of conversation that goes on in the room and that was one we really enjoyed. We can’t wait to get back and play loud, sweaty shows again, but it was a really unique experience so we can’t wait to take this show on the road. We would never have done a small acoustic tour like this if we haven’t done “Unplugged” so it’s been nice to kind of do that.
Did you do any kind of special warm-up right before the show? Yoga, meditation, maybe?
Simon: I wish we had! That’s what we should have done! I wish you had been there to make us to that! (laughs)
James: Usually it’s stretching and star jumps to warm up. But this time there was nowhere for the energy to go, it was a totally different experience.
Simon: It was strange because we hadn’t considered that aspect. When we went on stage, we were ready for a normal show. I did my tequila warm-up and stuff! (general laughter) And then we just had to kind of sit and try and flush that kind of adrenaline out, so no we didn’t, but we should have! (general laughter)
For regular shows, you have this pattern of two or three noisy songs, then one or two quieter ones so everybody can take a deep breath and then go back to the angry ones. But this time, the difference of energy between the songs was not as important. So how did you build the setlist?
Ben: I guess you have to go even quieter because we can’t rely on the volume at any point to get a dynamic, there’s no big lights show and stuff. You have to think about another way to make the set fluent and to keep everyone engaged, so what you do is cut it down to a whisper. That part becomes the most intense part of the show, whereas maybe in a rock show, it’s the loudest, angriest bit that’s really intense. That was a real challenge when you’re playing for an hour long and it’s all acoustic. Usually in a show, you get all the acoustic songs and that bit sucks, so that was a challenge but hopefully we pulled it off! (laughs)
James: I think we’re lucky to have got Simon Neil.
Simon: (in a deep voice) MISTER SIMON NEIL! You should have heard my stand up routine. (general laughter) I did a fifteen minutes act about Donald Trump! (general laughter)
James: A lot of songs are sad, about sad moments, but that also has a joy to it. The emotional dynamics are really important as well. We couldn’t help but see that in people’ faces, it made us so emotional as well. It was really such a special kind of meeting of minds between the band and the audience.
Simon: It was like one big musical group hug, that’s what it felt like! (laughs)
Actually, we think we can really feel that when we watch the show. Your regular live shows are always a big mess of people coming together in a chaotic and sweaty way. But this time the audience was way more tamed, there are people crying and smiling at the same time, singing their heart out, you can really feel the emotion.
Simon: Thank you. I think that’s the beautiful thing about music in general. Really, songs that you love, at whatever stage of your life, they can make you smile and cry at the same time. It’s funny because we’ve been doing this for so long, we kind of forget that people care so much about our songs, or care as much as we do and doing a gig like that is very… We’re so close to them, we can see everyone’s eyes and it just felt like it was very very intimate. It felt like we were all sharing secrets with each other. It was just a really wonderful feeling to see that our music matters so much to people. That’s something you never get used to.
One of those really quiet and touching moment is your really nice cover of “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. Simon, you stated several times how important this song was for you, so how was it to finally do a proper cover of that iconic song?
Simon: Scary, for that reason! It’s a song no one should cover because it’s perfect. It was my first dance at my wedding with my wife and I have the lyrics tattooed on my chest. I really wanted to do a song that is a deep part of who we are and who I am as a person. It almost went beyond music at that point. It’s really just a tribute to, not specifically to Brian Wilson but to those songs that we all have, songs that we’ve heard from when we were so young. It can be by anyone but it’s normally things your parents have been playing and they just soundtracked your life at so many different moments. I really wanted to do a song that mattered and that’s why we did “God Only Knows”. Hopefully I didn’t butcher it too much! We didn’t want to do a version like the Beach Boys with harmonies and things because that would be a bad idea! (laughs) So we just did a really scaled-down version and hopefully, I’ve been showing the song respect.
We think you did! One of the songs from the “MTV Unplugged”, “Different Kind Of Love”, is a new one. Was this song only for the “MTV Unplugged”, or are we going to maybe hear a non acoustic version on an upcoming album?
Ben: Oh, it seems like you know stuff already! (general laughter)
Simon: We’re currently working on a movie soundtrack album, we’ve got 15 songs for that and “Different Kind Of Love” will be on that record. It felt like the perfect song for us to put into the “Unplugged”. It’s kind of an acoustic song anyway, that’s the way it will be recorded, similar. When we played it with all the others, it just felt like part of the family. We tried a couple of other new songs, and maybe they needed the dynamic of being a rock band and how we would normally play, but “Different Kind Of Love” just fits along in this “Unplugged”. But yeah, it definitely will be on our movie soundtrack album.
Since you’re bringing the movie up, let’s talk about it. You’re working on the soundtrack for a movie called “Balance, Not Symmetry”. How did writing with a different purpose than a Biffy album affect your writing process and the way you think about your songwriting?
Simon: The unique thing about it is that they’re going to make the movie after we make the album, so we can kind of make anything we want to make. It’s going to be songs, it’s not like 10 minutes long scores or instruments, it’s a collection of songs. The director, Jamie (Adams) just wants us to do what we do and whatever we see fit will be on the soundtrack, and then, they film the movie afterwards. So we don’t have to worry about that, which is great, he has to worry about that! (general laughter) We can go: “THAT SCENE’S RUBBISH!” (general laughter)
James: “AND SCENE!” (general laughter)
Simon: It’s the way around we’re doing it that appeals to us because I’ve kind of worked on some music for preexisting TV and things before. Someone’s always saying: “it’s great, it’s great, can it be faster?”, or “it’s great, can you change the key?” and that’s not very very exciting. That way around, we can almost be the director! (general laughter)
In a few months, you’re going to take the “Unplugged” show on tour, stopping at the Bataclan in September. Can we expect the same setlist and setting?
Simon: Different setlist.
Ben: We’ll play most of the songs from the night.
Simon: HELL NO!
Ben: We’re trying to bring the tree as well! (general laughter) James will take it in his bunk. We practised about 25 to 30 songs before and we only played 15 in the album so yes, we’ll throw in all the other ones that we didn’t get to play. I won’t reveal any song names in case we don’t play them! (laughs) But we’re going to rotate the set every night. It will be a nod to the “MTV Unplugged”, but a different experience.
Simon: Because we knew it was going to be an album and a TV show, we were quite limited with the amount of time we could spend playing. The beautiful thing about touring, we can play for longer and we don’t need to be a slave to cameras, and that’s what will make it so special. Everyone’s looking forward to it.
Do you really think that you’re going to be able to remain seated and stay calm and laid-back for the whole tour?
All: No ! (laughs)
Simon: I’ll probably be standing up! That’s going be the toughest part, isn’t it?
James: Absolutely! For 15, 20 years, we’ve learned our craft as a band and now we have to learn something completely different. Deal with that energy is going to be a weird thing.
Simon: We’re not a band that keeps things back normally. These shows are all about keeping a little something back and normally we’re just like (pulling a face): BLAAAAAAAAARG! (laughs)
James: We’re going to get treadmills backstage! (general laughter)
Simon: The opposite of an adrenaline shot (laughs) Whatever that is, just something that’s going to make us (pretends to fall asleep) (general laughter)
James: It’s going to be really special, it’s such a great opportunity and hopefully it feels like a celebration a little bit, I’d like that. Not just celebrating us, but celebrating the relationship we’ve built up with our fans, which is so dear to us.
You’ve got the MTV Unplugged, you had a double album a few years ago, headlined Reading & Leeds, went number one in the UK, so you guys have been crossing a lot of items on the “band bucket list”. What’s the next big thing that you dream to achieve, to experience as a band?
Ben: All these things that happened, we never never expected any of them to happen so.
Simon: We don’t even dare to dream of them! (laughs)
Ben: All we ever wanted to do was possibly record an album and play the local 500 capacity venue. We want to do all the things we possibly can and touch people’s lives if we can but we don’t really have boxes until they appear! When the MTV box appear, I’m going to…
Simon: TAKE IT! (general laughter)
Ben: Fucking take it, that’s what’s going to happen! If we can affect anybody’s life in a positive manner, that’s all we really want.
Simon: We’ve spoken to some bands recently who have that kind of 5-year plan and they’re saying like: “you know we’ll be playing this venue in five years…” and that’s a dangerous, horrible game to play, especially when it’s something as pure as music. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. A victory for us is just to be able to constantly keep making records, that’s the beautiful thing, keep being a part of people’s life as well as our own. Certainly with music, having a goal can sometimes be a dangerous thing because really it’s about… You can play a show to 200 people and it can feel like the greatest night. If you’re in the crowd, it can feel like the best show ever, as a band it can be the best. And sometimes you play to 20 000 people, and it’s not that. I guess your ambition would be to play to 20 000 people, but you’ve got to enjoy what’s happening right now. That’s how we’ve always been and how we’re always trying to stay, not too far ahead, always looking forward, but more in a creative way.
You guys have been pretty busy, besides working on the “MTV Unplugged”, the movie, you’re also working on the next Biffy Clyro album. We read that you already have like 15 songs is that right?
Simon: Yeah, the movie album will be 15 songs. I think we’ve got 12 to 15 songs for album number 8. They’re completely different things so at the moment we’re really focused on the movie and we will revisit those songs for the album in the next couple months once we’re finished. But yeah, it’s been too long since we’ve put out new music. Once it becomes almost 2 years since an album, I was like: “fuuuuuck” (laughs)! It almost feels like you’re not a band unless you’re releasing music, so it’s something we’re very keen to do as soon as possible. We appreciate our fans’ patience because we were hoping to put out our b-sides album last year, and I was hoping to put out a ZZC album, but then the “MTV Unplugged” came along and it was obviously so important, it kind of made us not release “Dot Dot Dot”. We want to make it up to people this year and get a bunch of new music out.
Could we try to get some details about the themes and the sound of the album? Was there a specific event, book, album, artist, movie, piece of art that inspired you?
Simon: Lyrics, I haven’t gotten into details yet. Musically, because we’ve done “Unplugged” and we’re going on tour to “Unplugged”, I think whatever we work on next will be our reaction to that, so I think it will be very noisy. We can’t wait to get in front of our amplifiers again and play. That’s certainly what’s exciting us at the moment. Who knows what will happen in 6 months, but I think it will be a reaction to this “Unplugged” album, because we’re not becoming too mature! (general laughter) We’re not that rock band that’s now going acoustic rock, we want to fucking be dirty teenagers again on the next album. So that’s the aim, that we’ll be stinky teenagers! (general laughter)
Right now, a lot of American bands are releasing albums about Trump, and bands from the UK are releasing songs about Brexit. Can we expect you to take the same road?
Simon: It’s strange because I don’t think I would ever write directly about politics, but the sad thing is in the UK, Brexit is going to happen. Our day to day lives are going be affected. It’s changed from politics being this thing that’s at distance to being directly in our personal lives. For people with morals and with goodness inside of them, people who want to bring people together, it’s impossible to not react to this awful awful Brexit, this, awful awful Trump. I’m not quite sure how it will manifest itself in the album, it may be the music being angrier, maybe we’ll have a song or two about it. I’m not quite sure yet, but it’s impossible to not be frustrated with the way the world is going at the moment. We were able to come to Europe whenever we wanted and travel around, even as a band. We were in Milan yesterday, Berlin the day before, we’re in Paris today. That’s all going to be almost impossible for kids growing up, that’s so heartbreaking. We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to embrace being a part of Europe, but honestly, it’s really sad, when I think of all the opportunities people in my family won’t have. It’s really sad, so it’s tough to see that anger not making its way into the music.
You’ve been working on different kinds of projects lately, soundtrack, “Unplugged”, did you feel like you needed to break the routine of making an album, touring and start again, to clear your mind, stay inspired and excited for the Biffy stuff?
James: I think so. I mean we’ve loved our last ten or fifteen years, it’s been great. It was a great cycle of making an album and going on tour, but there’s something really exciting about breaking that cycle and maybe entering a different chapter of the band’s life. It opens up our horizons a little bit. When we talked about MTV, we talked about making the movie soundtrack, we knew that that would put the 8th album a little bit further back, and that’s okay! It doesn’t have to be album tour album tour, you can sort of have a different cycle. I think it’s exciting to us.
Simon: To be working on an album that we know we won’t tour or anything, it’s really strange, it’s liberating. As James says, this movie thing and the “Unplugged” came just at the perfect time because after making 7 records, you can feel like you’re getting into the routine and that’s when the music suffers. That’s when you start thinking: “oh I better start writing music because we need to go on tour” and music should never feel like that. That’s our constant aim, to never feel like it’s time to make music. It should be natural, it should come easily, naturally.
At a time when there finally seems to be a start of conversation about mental health in the music industry, do you think that one of the key to stay healthy as a band and to have a successful long career without having it messing with your head is to stay open to new experiences?
Simon: It’s tough in this day and age because people’s idea of success maybe is not a healthy idea of success. Success should be happiness, not necessarily money or followers or chart positions. The great thing is people are talking about things like this, people are not ashamed to say: “I don’t know why, but I don’t feel right, I feel miserable, I feel depressed” and that’s fine, you don’t need to know why, you don’t need to have a reason. Some people, it’s just the chemistry of their brain. But the one thing for sure is if you don’t talk about it, you’ll never come out of that hole. We’re very lucky we get to make music and I get to write songs about those moments. But a lot of people don’t have that opportunity and you just want to make sure that those people do talk about it, to family, friends or whoever, even strangers you know. Sometimes talking to a stranger can help. I wouldn’t approach someone in the street but…! (laughs) But you know I mean just hearing yourself say things out loud is a part of a process, so really it’s essential in its day and age, especially with the pressure that people are under, that really young people are under. I’m always thinking, if a kid gets bullied at school these days, back in the day you used to go home and you could forget about it. Now bullying can continue 24 hours a day, the pressure to look good is non stop. That’s why we need to make sure that we talk to each other because we all feel the same way, on different scales but you know what? No one is as happy as they look on their fucking Instagram, no one has it figured out and we need to realize that and realize that it’s not negative to be vulnerable, it’s not negative to worry about why you feel a certain way. I’m really glad the conversation is open, especially amongst young men, because it’s mostly young men that bite their tongues and feel like if I talk about this maybe I’m not manly enough, and that’s all horseshit. We’re in a new century, we’re in a new era of enlightenment about gender, race, sexuality, everything and what not and we need to care about ourselves. Peace, love! (laughs)
Wow, you should run for president ! We mean, it couldn’t get much worse, can it?
Simon: That’s true, that is very true yeah, I would not do a worse job. In fact, you’re right, that’s what we’ll do for the next album project! (general laughter)
Ben: I think we would all prefer Kanye West to Donald Trump. And I fucking hate Kanye West! (laughs)
Simon: I don’t really know anymore. I’d rather fucking Oprah!
Ben: Roseanne Barr? I’m joking, I’m joking! (laughs)
Simon: You know that you’re in a bad situation when the thought of Oprah is actually a really good idea! And Britain’s just fucked, no chance. (general laughter)
You don’t even have your Oprah?
Simon: No, we do not have an Oprah.
Ben: Jeremy Kyle? (general laughter)
Simon: No yeah, fuck it, I think I’m going to announce my candidacy, at the Scottish parliament.
Ben: Do it!
James: It’s not madness.
Simon: Actually, we’ve got a wonderful leader in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. She cares about the right things, and it makes us proud. When there’s so many people who care about the wrong things, it’s nice when you see a leader that actually does care about the right things. Hopefully Good will overcome Evil, that’s what we have to hope. There’s plenty others that cares about the right things, we just don’t necessarily all shout it from the rooftops the same way that bastards do. (general laughter)
You’ve been a band for 23 years now.
All: Yeah… (pulling a face)
What would you say is your proudest achievement?
Ben: Still being together! (general laughter)
Simon: Any bands that last more than 20 years is a victory! I don’t know, we try to not think that way. That sounds a bit boring, but Ben’s not wrong. Even coming, we’re here in Paris, talking about another record, we love shit like this. It’s exhilarating to make something at home either by yourself or with your friends, that suddenly allows you to tour the world. I still am in awe of the whole experience of making music and being able to communicate with people that talk different languages, to be able to share your story, not that your story is any more important than anyone else, but just to be able to talk about things and that’s still I think our greatest achievement. We’re lucky that we’re still growing as a band. I don’t think we’ve plateaued yet, creatively or in any other way. So yeah, that, and the fact that we haven’t killed each other! (general laughter)
Alright, let’s finish with our traditional question: what rocks your life right now?
Simon: I’m going to go basic and choose actually an album that’s rocking my life right now. It’s an album by a band called The Armed and it’s called “Only Love”. It’s a really extreme kind of hardcore record and it’s the first rock record that I’ve listened to in a long time that I feel has actual anger in it, actual emotions. It’s not trying to be pretty, it’s just trying to convey this feeling of rage and I think it’s a perfect representation of the world at the moment, which is just so complex, there’s different points of view and it’s explosive.
James: I would say the shitstorm that’s facing Mark Zuckerberg. I could foresee problems with the way social media work. These methods of communication can be for the good, but like Simon said, people searching for likes, searching for followers, I don’t think they were real relationships and I feel the world does need a reboot, a reset. Mark Zuckerberg being kind of the face of that world, I think it’s good he’s getting his ass kicked.
Simon: The thought that one man and one company is deciding how we communicate.
James: Yeah, and also he’s taking all this money and he’s going to solve cancer. That’s not the way the world works!
Simon: It was not just cancer! They were going to fix all illness. They bring 6 billion in to just cure illness! Rock our world Mark! (laughs)
Ben: Oh god, how to follow that up.
Simon: Maybe TV shows? You love all these dystopian fucking TV shows. (laughs)
Ben: I’m loving Netflix, but that’s really boring! (general laughter) “3%”, “Altered Carbon”, all these Netflix kind of futuristic TV shows. (laughs) They’re all interesting, they all are a commentary about where we’re heading and how shit things are getting. Some of these things are really not far away from our world and that’s quite bleak, but it’s good to watch. People will be watching that and realizing they’re taking on these messages and that’s important that we all understand that we’re not far away from absolute shitstorm. So yeah, that’s rocking my world! (laughs)
Simon: When you watch the news and you see kids out, walking in the streets, protesting shit, that is just rocking the world right now. Because that is our future, and that’s people that care about the right thing. And The Armed! (general laughter)
James: Lower the vote, lower the vote!
Simon: Yeah, lower the vote! In fact there should be a top age!
Ben: You’re going to die soon, you shouldn’t vote, fucking hell!
Simon: Exactly! Older people can decide what will happen in the next 50 years… (start chanting) LOWER THE VOTE, LOWER THE VOTE! (general laughter)
We kind of have a feeling the next album is going to take a political direction, isn’t it?
Simon: Yeah! That’s our first chorus right there! (laughs) (starts singing, rapping and pretending to play the drums): “LOWER THE VOOOOTE, you gotta lower it, you gotta lower it” (general laughter)
Ben: Is that Chili Peppers meets The Armed? (laughs)
Wow, we can’t wait to hear that, thank you guys!
Simon: Thank you, it was our pleasure!