Following a warm afternoon sunning myself on the beach, I catch up with Scottish masterminds Biffy Clyro at what must surely be the best club in Barcelona. I talk with the trio for nearly an hour at Club Razzmatazz, but this is no time to trivialise matters with wacky articles documenting Raz on The Raz @ Club Razz, oh no. With a move to a major label for their fourth album, this can be nothing but deadly serious.
The first thing that I see when I enter the dressing room is the twins, James and Ben Johnston, huddled together on a couch receiving finished copies of their new album, Puzzle (review), for the first time. As Simon Neil gets his hands on his copy, he just gasps.
It’s expected that they would be excited as they receive their copies. It’s expected that they would paw the records gently, like children opening their Christmas presents to find exactly what they’d asked Santa for. But what’s unexpected are the first words out of both their mouths.
“It’s so shiny. I love this inlay. It’s so shiny.”
When quizzed upon the reasons for checking the shininess of the album’s inlay cover, Ben explains that it was the third album by Icelandic hardcore-turned-rock ‘n’ roll band Minus that provided the inspiration for such a shiny cover – and, by gum, it really is shiny. They’ve not tried to gloss over anything, though, for the artwork has as much thought in it as the album does.
“The artwork to us isn’t an incidental part, as it’s the first impression you get,” explains Simon Neil. “Every one of our albums, we’ve taken it very seriously and have tried to tie it all in together and have themes running through it.
“Previously we’ve just chosen pieces of art rather than have someone actually do it. This time we had Storme Thorgerson [who also designed Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and The Mars Volta’s Deloused… albums] doing it and he just threw himself into the music. He got the very first set of demos and it was quite nerve-wracking because we didn’t know what he’d come up with. But in the end he really nailed it.”
“Storm was quite adamant that we were going to get something we were happy with,” says James. “He said, a few times, that if we didn’t like it then we could part ways with no hard feelings.”
Biffy Clyro are a band that have been active for around the same time as DrownedinSound.com has. You’ll find many archived articles for Biffy and their peers – bands like Llama Farmers, My Vitriol, Hundred Reasons, Lostprophets and Muse also began their careers at around the same time.
Clearly, all of those bands have followed very different career trajectories, but everyone seems to be getting the feeling that, after years of toiling away, Biffy Clyro are about to hit The Big Time. A band that has been very close to both DiS’s and Biffy’s hearts over the past seven years is Aereogramme. They sadly announced that they are to split after this summer, and this has hit many people hard.
“We’re devastated about that,” says Simon. “It’s the perfect example of a band that can make great records – their new one’s the best they’ve ever made – but for whatever reason people haven’t picked up on it. We should petition for a Mercury Music Prize nomination for The ‘Gramme.
“It’s a bit of an eye opener because, when you’re younger, you believe that if you make great music it’ll be picked up. But you can make the shittest music around and, if you look the part, you can get around everywhere. If The Horrors played Aereogramme’s music it would be the perfect combination.
“We played a lot of our first gigs with Aereogramme. They’re all in their mid-‘30s, apart from Martin, and you can see the difference being that little bit older makes when you don’t have the time to spend months on the road not making any money. I’m sure they want to further their personal lives, and I understand that completely.”
The fact of the matter is that Biffy Clyro are still going and they’re about to release a record which is hugely personal to all three of them. Additionally, it is possibly the record that they’re all the most proud of.
“It seems a lot more real now. We would have preferred it to have been recorded sooner, but obviously record companies have a certain way of attacking things. Usually we just get the album out and then introduce people to it, but this time people have been talking about for a while now.”
Indeed, the current album’s promotional campaign has been rather long-winded. The first single (‘semi-mental’ - review) was a digital-only release in December, and it was followed up by another in the spring (‘Saturday Superhouse’ - review). The album is being released shortly after the third single ‘Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies’ (review), over two and a half years after their third album, Infinity Land.
“If we hadn’t taken so long between records we probably wouldn’t have released ‘semi-mental’ over Christmas. We just wanted the people who had been waiting and had been asking about the record to know that we weren’t fannying around and wasting people’s time. It was more of a taster for people who had been following us.”
These boys honestly eat, sleep and breathe music. While they were waiting for the green light from 14th Floor Records to go over to America to record Puzzle with acclaimed knob-twiddlers GGGarth Richardson and Andy Wallace, they found it was important to have a bit of fun. That fun involved writing and recording the second Marmaduke Duke album.
“We would’ve chucked it out last year if we’d known we weren’t going to record ‘til September, but we were in limbo for most of 2006,” explains Simon. “We were just playing shows for the sake of it, and we just wanted to make music. From midnight ‘til 8am we would write stuff. If it made us laugh we’d put it on the record. If it sounded cool, we’d take it off.”
Now that they are about to release Puzzle, some of the reception from existing fans has been slightly lukewarm. With lead singles thus far being the more conventional tracks from the record, many have questioned the musical direction the band has taken. But Simon Neil is more than keen to set them all straight.
“I think a lot of people have jumped to conclusions. We’ve always said that we’re not huge fans of singles. We’d rather people listened to the singles on the album – where they’re intended to be heard – because sometimes they become out of context. Take ‘Saturday…’, which is next to ‘Living…’. We think that fits immaculately, but you’ll hear people talking only about ‘Saturday…’ and moaning. Just wait ‘til you hear the album!”
He continues: “We knew people were going to have this reaction. We could’ve put out a couple of weirder ones first but we wanted to take people by surprise. Expect the unexpected… which this time is the expected.”
Maybe the question marks raised come from the move from an independent to a major label. The pressure of having to conquer the mainstream might involve a watering down in sound because the general public just can not handle any quirks and kinks in their music. The truth of the matter is found in a change in song-writing technique.
The subject matter of Puzzle revolves mainly around the tragic death of Simon’s mother and, while it’s not a sore subject any more (time heals after all), many of the songs were written during the darkest days of mourning.
“It was tough but it was the only thing that I could write,” recalls Simon. “There was nothing else in my mind… there was nothing else in any of our minds. The songs were all written over about a year or two and it was a tough time but it was exciting. Everybody’s not happy all the time so this was always going to be a dramatic, sad record but that’s why making it was tough. It had to be a perfect record.”
He goes on to explain how the record came to sound the way it does: “Not that there have been in previous ones, but lyrically there are absolutely no throwaway moments in this record. The lyrics weren’t so much complementing the music as much as the music is complementing the lyrics on this one. It just came out the way it did and we’re so proud of it.”
It came out in fantastic fashion. With the juxtaposition of tracks getting more and more contrasted the further along the album you go.
“We toyed with the tracklisting and it felt that ‘Folding Stars’ was really pretty and ‘9/15ths’ was really dramatic and dark and nasty and then ‘Machines’ closes the record perfectly. It just felt like there was something different with every song. I know calling it a journey is such a cliché but sometimes it should be a journey.”
If anyone knows what it takes to make a journey it is this band. I dread to tally the number of times I’ve seen them over the past few years. Biffy Clyro have toured incessantly, making sure that their fans are satisfied with their performances and winning over new fans along the way. On the eve of their biggest release to date, the hard work has to have paid off.
“We haven’t changed what we do as a band and people have gradually come round to it and taking us seriously,” says Simon, smiling. “For the first two albums the people who got it, really got it but most people weren’t interested and it’s nice for us to know that we haven’t changed. We’ve played so many gigs and we’ve toured so often and we’re just going to keep doing that. We’re not afraid of a bit of hard work.”
A problem would arise, however, if that hard work doesn’t pay off. Major labels are notorious for dropping bands on a whim if their record sales aren’t up to scratch but despite the pressure to sell, sell, sell, Ben Johnston refuses to be fazed at all.
“We know it’s a definite possibility but it doesn’t worry us because we’ve always just been a band that has had a bash at stuff. If we fail then we’ll just find ourselves in the position that we were in a year ago, and we’ll always have our music to fall back on.
We’ve made an album that is already a success for us... and it’ll still be shiny in 30 years.”
Puzzle is out now. Check Biffy Clyro out on MySpace, here