Formed in 1995 in Kilmarnock, Scotland, the members of Biffy Clyro have been playing music together since they were teenagers. But unlike most bands from high school, Biffy Clyro has sold over 1.2 million albums in the U.K. alone. Biffy Clyro is the winner of multiple honors from Kerrang!, NME, and Q, the recipient of Mercury Music Prize recognition, and a bonafide international festival headlining act.
Ellipsis, the most recent studio effort from Biffy Clyro, has proven to be the trio’s most successful release yet. Released on July 8 of last year, it is the band’s second No. 1 album, helping Biffy Clyro to earn a Best British Group nomination at the most recent BRIT Awards; John Waters and hip-hop artist A$AP Rocky both reportedly inspired Ellipsis. However, Ellipsis has not yet been properly supported in the United States. To fix that, guitarist/vocalist Simon Neil, bassist James Johnston, and drummer Ben Johnston will be hitting the road for a series of fall shows in the U.S., kicking off with a September 7 outing in Huntington, New York.
To learn more about Biffy Clyro’s relationship with the States, I had the pleasure of conducting Q&A with James Johnston. The bassist can be followed on Twitter via @Amphibiben, while the band is online at www.biffyclyro.com.
Ellipsis was recorded in Los Angeles like your last few albums. What inspires you to record in L.A., as opposed to another major city?
James Johnston: We’ve always gone away from home to record as it’s important for us to be completely immersed in the process. That’s a lot easier when you’re not taking care of electricity bills or going to the dentist. The thing with Los Angeles is that it’s a city that is ambitious and eccentric and slightly crazy! We love the freedom that the city affords, it’s a place that people go to become something and reach their goals and it’s nice when a bit of that rubs off on you.
Around how many songs did you write for Ellipsis? Was all of the album written before you got into the studio?
James Johnston: I think we had around 35 songs in the run up to recording. We don’t really do much writing in the studio so it’s important for us to have a pool of songs to choose from. The exciting time is when you think about how songs sit together or how they react to each other. I think it’s really important to have a flow to a record and that can often mean having songs at the opposite ends of our musical spectrum, so it’s important for us to have an arsenal of great ideas to work from.
Do you have a favorite song on Ellipsis?
James Johnston: That’s a tough one and it changes from week to week, but the song that I keep going back to as my favorite would have to be “Re-Arrange.” I think the song is a bit of departure for the band in terms of style. When Simon sent me and Ben a little phone recording of the melody, we knew he had written something really special and it was a case of how we could take it to pastures new. The song has almost an R&B feel to it and the sentiment of the lyric just breaks my heart every time.
— Biffy Clyro (@BiffyClyro) August 23, 2017
In some parts of the world, Biffy Clyro headlines festivals and packs arenas, while in other parts of the world Biffy Clyro sells out clubs and small theaters. How does that impact your touring? Do you have different setups to tour with?
James Johnston: We do have slightly amended set-ups for different parts of the world and different size venues, but the guitars are all the same size! To be honest, playing in different sizes of venues keeps things more interesting for us. No two nights are the same and the sound in all these venues is completely different, so it keeps you on your toes.
At what point in your career did it become obvious that the band was not just a hobby? Or at least that you were going to be able to do proper touring cycles and not have to look for work when you are off the road?
James Johnston: The band was more than a hobby long before we did proper touring cycles or were able to pay our bills with it. We started young and were lucky to have amazing support from our parents for the first few years. I think being naive was a real blessing as we didn’t think too hard about a career or a “five-year plan” or any of that. We just felt blessed to be making music together and playing as many shows as we could.
For you, is touring still fun? Obviously, it is a lot of work, and the on-stage part seems to be the reward, but touring seems to have longer days now than ever…
James Johnston: Touring is still fun. We enjoy each other’s company and still have a real laugh on tour. I think the key for us is our history together. We’ve been together since we were 14 years old and know pretty much all there is to know about each other and I think that really is key for supporting each other when we’re so far from home and we feel like we’re a little gang trying to take on the world!
— Biffy Clyro (@BiffyClyro) August 7, 2017
At what point in time did the average music fan stop thinking that one of you was named “Biffy?”
James Johnston: I’m not too sure we’ve reached that point yet! We always wanted to confuse people, both with our music and with the name of the band. The problem is, I think we’ve been more successful at that than we could have hoped for.
When not busy with music, how do you like to spend your free time?
James Johnston: There’s not a great deal of free time in our lives, so it’s important to try and make the most of it. The problem is, when you come home from a tour, you often just want to spend a week going between the couch and the bed and that just leads to incredible guilt at not having used your time well. When I’m home I like to go cycling in the countryside. It’s quite the antidote to schlepping your way through another airport and I love having a little time to think about nothing.
Do you have a favorite album of 2017?
James Johnston: So far my favorite is Every Country’s Sun by Mogwai. I love this band and they’ve been a part of most of my adult life. So many great records later and they’re still getting better and better.
Finally, James, any last words for the kids?
James Johnston: I would like to say thanks to anyone who bought, downloaded or stole our latest record! We made music for people to listen to and however you do it, we hope you enjoy it!
[Featured Image by Austin Hargrave]