Biffy Clyro’s seventh album, Ellipsis, is on course to top the charts in its first week of release this weekend, making it their second No.1 after 2013’s Opposites. Bassist James Johnston discusses the new record, the decision to disappear for a year and the reasons behind that pants-off artwork…
How do you feel about the new album now it’s all finished and out there?
“We’re really pleased, really proud. As always we put a lot of work into it, a lot of thought, a lot of effort. We’re really pleased as to the results now. We’re at the stage where it feels like you’ve handed your homework in and you’re just waiting to be judged on it, but so far we’ve had pretty good marks.”
What’s the fan reaction been like?
“It’s been great, thankfully. We’ve managed to confuse a few people, which has always been our modus operandi, but we’ve been out doing the first few summer festivals and a few of the people are really starting to take the songs into their hearts. I think the best shows are when it’s communal and the band and the audience are doing it together. Certainly it feels now that people are starting to know the songs and sing them back to us, and we’re going on that journey together.”
Is that setting you up for the road to Reading and Leeds?
“Yeah, that’s it. It feels again like that’ll be the pinnacle of a really exciting summer. It’s like we’re constantly on a warm-up to that moment. But we’re proud to be asked back, I guess that means we didn’t fuck it up last time. And it’s an opportunity to top what we did last time as well. I think we’re pushing ourselves, and I think we deserve to be there but it doesn’t mean we can just show up and hope it’s going to happen, we’ve got to put a lot of effort into it. The main thing is that we’ve got new songs to play, that means it’s fresh right from the off. It reinvigorates some of the old songs, it changes the balance of the set, and it just kind of makes it a new experience every night. So I think as we learn to play the songs live and as the audience learns the words and how to sing along, that whole experience just grows and grows.”
Which elements of the record have taken people by surprise this time?
“We’ve just come off the back of a double record and I think how short and concise the record is has been surprising. And also the diversity, to have such a short album that takes in so many different styles of music is something that’s quite unique. Our approach to the production this time is completely different, having moved on from working Garth [Richardson, producer] to working with Rich Costey, we knew we wanted to rip up the rulebook and unlearn everything we’d learnt in the past. So I think people were surprised by having tracked beats on the record and an R&B feel to Re-Arrange. That is the band’s history and also one of our strengths is we like to keep people guessing and surprise people, and I think as long as we do that we’ll stay true to who we are as a band.”
A couple of tracks on there really come out swinging – what were you so angry about?
“I guess there’s lots to be angry about in the world at the moment. The world’s a bit of a difficult place. And that extends into everybody’s life, everyone has moments of anger and frustration and when Simon writes from such a personal point of view it’s only natural that those feelings of anger are going to come out. I suppose as a band the more you grow the more you become successful and the more people have an opinion and something to say. Or they maybe have opinions that they try to sell to you as something that will help you but really they’re trying to help themselves. We’ve just got back to that feeling of feeling like the wolf pack, like this is our patch, this is our band, nobody understands the band better than the three of us and fuck anybody that tries. I think it’s important to keep that level of vitriol and excitement about what we do, and that possessive nature over the band.”
Is it a back-to-the-beginning attitude?
“A little bit. So much of what we were trying to do was going back to the beginning and having that hunger that we had as young teenagers. That kind of fuck-you attitude. It’s important to have that and it shows that we still care. We still love doing what we’re doing and we’re still as hungry as we ever were.”
Before you made the record you had your first proper break in about 15 years – what was it like to come off the road and take a year off?
“It was like coming off a long voyage and you’re seasick for a while. You don’t know what to do with yourself, you miss the adrenaline rush, you’re trying to put everything together in your head to figure out what is normal. But really what’s normal to us for the last 15 years has been travelling round in a van and going to different venues every day. Suddenly you don’t have a normal any more. So I guess we realised we need the band more than we thought. It’s always been the biggest part of our life, but I think that’s been evidenced more. We really didn’t know what to do with ourselves. I think it was important to have that time though, to rebuild, to reset and to build the hunger back up. And also so that people don’t get sick of you. There’s nothing worse than a band that just hangs about too long. It’s like somebody who comes to a party and won’t leave.”
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Was it a stressful time as the band got bigger? Was that another reason to take a bit of a step back for a year?
“Yeah, it’s all relative though. You think it’s a stressful life and then you think about some people like nurses and doctors. I guess that’s why having a little time off every now and again can help you to reset and take stock. And also to realise we enjoy that pressure, we thrive off the pressure of sometimes being the underdog and having to deliver. It’s a big part of our life. Without that adrenaline rush, we don’t feel quite so alive.”
Do you really still feel like the underdogs?
“I think we still retain that in our hearts. That’s a big part of us, the history of our band, playing to nobody when nobody would care. We always did care, it was always the most important thing in our lives. I think we still have that attitude, I don’t think it will ever leave us. And in many ways I hope it doesn’t, it’s a big part of who we are.”
The records have come in blocks of three, style-wise. Is this the start of a new trilogy?
“It does feel like the start of a new trilogy, and it’s a nice way for us to set certain parameters, to give us some groundwork to work within. We can turn our hand to many different kinds of music and different styles, but if you have a completely blank canvas it can maybe leave you too many options. It felt like the last three albums working with Garth, we took that big lush sound and rock records as far as we could, and it’s time to move on, and working with Rich Costey, it feels like the start of a trilogy of a more modern approach to making records. And using the studio to its full potential instead of just using it as a tool to document the sound of a band in a room, it almost felt like the studio became the fourth member of the band.”
It’s the first time you’ve appeared on one of your album sleeves, and you’ve really gone for it! What was the thinking behind that?
“Well we’ve made some really beautiful artwork with [late, legendary artist] Storm Thorgerson over the years. We knew we didn’t want to go down a similar route and try to recreate something in a kind of Storm-like version. The title, the feeling of the band, it was all about rebirth and starting again, so we thought, what better way to signify that than to literally be naked and have nothing to hide behind? It’s important for the first time for us to appear on the cover to not try and have a real pretty picture but to try and have something that was symbolic of the record and symbolic of what we’re trying to achieve. So we’re really proud of the album sleeve. It was quite emotional when we took the pictures, it really was an arresting image to see. I know we’ve had quite a lot of laughs about it and I’m sure there’s some gifs going about, but it was actually quite an emotional thing to see, we’ve never seen each other in that pose before. The vulnerability was important to show.”
Biffy Clyro are on tour now. For more info, see their website.