No matter what Biffy Clyro were dreaming of when they bunked off school at the age of fifteen to play their first ever gig, they surely couldn’t have forecast what they’d achieve almost two decades later with their 2013 double-album ‘Opposites’. The scope of their ambition was richly rewarded with their first chart-topping album in the UK; headline sets at festivals including Reading and Leeds; and tours which spanned the entire globe. It was everything they could’ve hoped for.
At the close of the album’s campaign, the big question that remained was simply: how can you follow that?
“The only way to follow a double-album is to entirely revolt against it,” laughs vocalist/guitarist Simon Neil.
Collectively, Biffy Clyro – completed by James (bass) and Ben Johnston (drums) – knew that their forthcoming set ‘Ellipsis’ would represent the start of a third trilogy of albums after the raw creativity of their early releases for Beggars Banquet and the hugely ambitious ‘Puzzle’, ‘Only Revolutions’ and ‘Opposites’. “The main manifesto was to descale ourselves and break every single habit that we had,” Neil asserts. “It was very important that we didn’t back into the default settings of being a three-piece rock band. We wanted to rewire Biffy and turn it on its head.”
For starters, the band’s creative partnership with producer GGGarth Richardson came to an amicable, pre-planned conclusion with Rich Costey – chosen on the strength of his work with Boots, Esperanza Spalding, Mew and Fiona Apple – stepping in. That idea of reinvention even extends to the album’s artwork with a stark and minimalist design taking the place of the late Storm Thorgerson’s eye-catching, high-concept imagery.
Fresh influences abide throughout. Sometimes they’re easy to spot – the driving rhythms of ‘Friends and Enemies’ evokes Tears For Fears circa ‘Songs From The Big Chair’, and the bleak/beautiful dynamics of Deafheaven are prevalent in the explosive coda of ‘In The Name of the Wee Man’. Mostly, however, they’re conveyed from a mentality rather than a specific sound.
Neil credits the “complete no compromise” stance of Arca and the fearless production techniques heard on records from Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky as things which have impacted on their new heavily textured, bass heavy wall of sound, which adds everything from a country twang to sampled handclaps and even a children’s choir. “You can be heavy without being metal,” he summarises. “We definitely took sonic influences from a lot of hip-hop for this record, but we tried to present it with the attitude of a rock band.”
In keeping with that attitude, ‘Ellipsis’ brims with a palpable Biffy Versus The World defiance. Much of Neil’s lyrical focus was aimed at turning his “anger and frustration outwards… this is the first time that I’ve forced my intensity at people who let us down” and also at those “people who come out of the woodwork with really strong opinions on what we’re doing. No-one knows this band as well as myself, Ben and James. We’re the ones who have lived and breathed it.”
“From the highest points to the lowest points, we’ve been there for each other. It’s like any group of close friends: just we happen to be in a band.”
Many of the tracks rage against any forces which have the potential to unsettle the band or its individual members: “Trying to shake the truth out of someone who feeds you a line and really they mean something else” (‘On A Bang’); “Those close friends you have that somehow end up making you feel worse” (‘Friends and Enemies’); “It’s pretty much just ‘fuck you’ – a lot of people didn’t think we’d get to our second record, let alone our seventh” (‘Wolves of Winter’).
An unexpected side effect of the success of ‘Opposites’ was a brutal aftermath. At the start of 2015, Neil hadn’t written a song in approximately 18 months. Perhaps that wouldn’t have ordinarily been a problem, but he soon found that the spark just wasn’t there. It became a vicious circle: writer’s block provoked a complete loss of confidence which in turn initiated an identity crisis, and then a self-defeating fear of failure in which he truly thought that he’d never be able to write again.
“It manifested itself in panic attacks. I didn’t take my dressing gown off for about eight weeks and I didn’t leave home,” he says over a year later, with all the drama of someone who’s talking about a mundane daily event. “I felt weak and vulnerable. It’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll thing to say.”
Such experiences, he acknowledges, are issues which all manner of people from differing backgrounds have to deal with at certain times in their lives. Like with previous challenges, Biffy Clyro rallied around each other with his bandmates part of a collective of friends and family who helped to slowly coax Neil out of his shell. “We’ve been in each other’s lives for thirty years. From the highest points to the lowest points, we’ve been there for each other. It’s like any group of close friends: just we happen to be in a band.”
Neil and his wife headed to California for a few months of west coast dreaming as he sought an escape. “Ironically as soon as I did that, all of the songs started to come,” he states, his relief still evident. Back home in Scotland, James and Ben helped to mould these sketches into Biffy Clyro songs during a productive and intense six-month spell of creativity.
Some of these cathartic songs address how these problems impacted upon his relationships, especially with his wife. Most notably, ‘Re-arrange’ is a love song but also an apology for those times where Neil would “be a terrible person to be around, because I’d suck the energy out of the room.” Such themes continue in ‘Howl’ (“those moments when you can see your temperament changing as you’re morphing into something you don’t recognise”) and ‘People’ (“you have to come to terms with the fact that your life can’t be exactly what you wanted”), while ‘Medicine’ explores his attempts to conquer self-medication as a cure for chronic insomnia.
Seven albums in and Biffy Clyro are still looking towards new horizons: to tour fresh countries and to further travel to places they’ve only previously touched upon. But the biggest thrill still comes from capturing that lightning-in-a-jar moment in which a great song suddenly emerges from seemingly out of nowhere. Despite the challenges and growth along the way, the fifteen-year-old members of Biffy Clyro would realise that their subsequent selves aren’t so different after all.