Stillness does not come easily to Biffy Clyro. The Ayrshire trio have a famously intense work ethic, and a catalogue of eight wildly inventive albums nurtured in between a tour schedule that would strike fear into the less motivated. But when lockdown hit, just as they were preparing to take their magnificent new album A Celebration Of Endings on the road, they were forced into the longest period of domesticity of their career.
“Some days I feel quite fortunate that we still get to put the record out, and some days I feel heartbroken that we can’t do what we’re meant to do,” says frontman Simon Neil. “I’ve got adrenaline to spare. If you were to put us on a stage right now we’d probably spontaneously combust!”
Now one of the biggest bands in the UK, at heart Biffy Clyro are still the punk brotherhood they were to begin with, when their first three albums on indie label Beggars Banquet stunned with their combination of alt.rock anthems, abrasive post-hardcore freakouts and prog stargazing.
A Celebration Of Endings might have been realised in Abbey Road and Los Angeles, but it was conceived in the rehearsal room they’ve used for years, set on an Ayrshire dairy farm. Bassist James Johnston and his twin brother, drummer Ben, have been doing it up, but it still doesn’t have running water or an indoor toilet.
“We’ve got a toastie machine now though, and a microwave, so we really are living in the lap of luxury,” Ben says with a laugh.
Between its inception and its release, the entire concept of the new record has taken on new significance. The title refers to the breakdown of a couple of close, long-standing working relationships that, given the familial loyalty inherent in the band’s extended crew, hit them hard. ‘Take the fucking money and run,’ Simon sings on the delicate Opaque, and the heartbreak and sense of betrayal are palpable. Still, with the whole world hitting reset in 2020, the album’s stoic note of positivity in the face of change could not be more timely.
“It was about trying to make the most of a bad situation, and then also trying to come to terms with shit like Brexit and being led by a buffoon, someone who I wouldn’t let look after my house for the weekend,” says Simon. “Now it feels like every word of the record has just grown in stature. There’s no way that we can engage with the world in the same way that we have before we had this pandemic.
"I’ve always been about focusing on the celebration part of the title. We’re raised to think if something hits the end, then something bad’s happened. But actually it’s a moment to start again. That’s what the whole world is going to have to do. We’re all ending something and beginning again.”
The band’s response to such personal and professional upheaval was to close ranks, lock the doors and get back to the core chemistry that has driven them since they met at school. The Biffy machine has grown hugely over the past decade, but by shutting out external voices and unasked-for opinions they were able to concentrate on trusting themselves, as lifelong friends, to find the right path for A Celebration Of Endings.
“We needed to be reminded that all we need is the keys to the van and a drum set and a couple of guitar amps,” says James. “It’s trying to reignite that feeling. We need to have that close to the surface."
A Celebration Of Endings is monumental, a masterpiece that seems to shift and reveal more with every listen. It’s a maze, with lush balladry giving way to rumbling grunge, sweet harmonies and singalong choruses leading to crazed feral screams over vicious punk noise. It’s like nothing they’ve done before, but it’s imprinted with a sound so unique to them that it’s practically their DNA made into sound waves.
“The constant evolving and moving forward, that’s what excites me more than anything,” says Simon. “It’s not just about making an album, it’s about having something to say. I just feel I’ve got this new inner confidence now. I don’t want to be apologetic for being a bit all over the place. That’s who I am as a human being – some minutes I’m quite happy-go-lucky, the next minute I think everything’s a fucking disaster – and that is reflected in my music.”
The final word, on the gonzoid, breathless Cop Syrup, is a triumphant ‘fuck everybody!’ Not only does it create an entirely new genre we’re tempted to call ‘punk Floyd’, it’s also the sound of a band taking back control of their own destiny.
“While Simon’s tongue is slightly in his cheek when he says ‘fuck everyone’, it’s that confidence of ‘fuck everyone else, we’re doing this ourselves,’” says James. “That’s an important mind-set for the song and the album. I don’t think you can have a piece of music that’s that ambitious unless your mind-set is: ‘We can fucking do this.’”
That invention, ambition and wilful weirdness has always been there. As Simon explains: “When we first started, I wanted it to be Will Haven-meets-the Beach Boys.”
It’s the side to them that those who’ve only heard their big radio hits, such as Many Of Horror (an inadvertent Christmas No.1 when it was commandeered by X-Factor winner Matt Cardle in 2010), may not know. Certainly it would explain the Iron Maiden fans flinging their limited-edition Eddie figurines out of the pram over Biffy’s headline slot at next year’s Download – although you can bet they’ll all end up singing along to it on the night.
“We’re very aware we’re never going to be the heaviest band on that bill, but we’re as good a live band as any fucker in the world, so I know it’s going to be brilliant,” says Simon. “We’re not heavy in a metal way, but we are intense and we are heavy and we are quite extreme at points.
"The first time we played Download, I was really nervous because I know the history of it, I know what it means to the metal community, and I wanted them to know that we are part of that community. But when we stepped on to that stage and people were singing along to our songs, I felt safe. I feel like we do belong there now. But make no mistake, we’re going to give the fucking show of the weekend.”
Biffy Clyro have certainly paid their dues. In the early days they toured all year, without a break, with any band that would have them. Bones were broken and noses were bloodied. The van was a fog of weed smoke. It was madness.
“We used to go on a thirty-date tour and we used to ask for no days off,” Simon recalls. “We didn’t care if it was the right gig, we just wanted to play. When I look back I can see the anarchy and the fearlessness. I broke my foot jumping off a PA, I broke my rib jumping off a stage, bust my mouth open, I bust my head open, I’ve broken teeth, and I would do it all again. I would do it right now.”
The big breakthrough came with 2007’s Puzzle, their first album on a major label, although the fact that it was about Simon’s mother passing away meant that for him the band’s rise in stature was almost irrelevant.
“What helped me deal with the success was not being in a good head space,” he says. “I know that sounds ridiculous, but I had a level of guilt that Puzzle did well when it was an album about grief. I didn’t take any ego joy in the album doing well. If anything it helped piece me back together. By [2009 album] Only Revolutions we were a bit bulletproof. So none of our egos got out of control, nothing felt too extreme, because the previous two years had been so extreme personally.”
“For months we were in the practice room listening to Simon craft his songs, trying not to howl listening to his lyrics,” Johnston adds. “There was so much to take in. We were in a bubble. It’s no surprise that we’re still together having gone through shit like that. Emotionally we went through the wringer to even get to start making Puzzle.”
There were bumps in the road as the venues got bigger, the audiences more diverse. There was a lot of drinking, drugs and partying, but, as a now teetotal Ben says: “We nipped that in the bud just in time.”
Now, after 20 years, Biffy are one of the only bands still standing from the scene that spawned them. They’re certainly the most successful. A Celebration Of Endings is a good excuse to look back at what’s gone before, say goodbye, then focus on the creativity and bonds that will carry them into a future of their own unpredictable design.
“There have been moments of drama and stress, but mostly we have really enjoyed what we’ve been doing,” says Simon. “I’ve loved the challenge of making our new record. It’s sometimes nearly killed me, and when I’ve finished a record I feel like I might never be able to do it again, but it brings so much life force to me. It’s insane what it does to our bodies and our minds. I don’t think we could exist without it any more."
Biffy Clyro headline Saturday June 5 at Download 2021.