Several weeks ago I was driving down I-75 when the PM message alert on my phone started going crazy. Thinking that there must be something horribly wrong, I pulled over to the shoulder to check it. There was no emergency, thank God, but I had multiple one-word messages from GATR Teri that said “Oh. My. God. Tara. You’re. Interviewing. Biffy. Clyro.” Once I was able to breathe again and talk to Teri, I learned that this was NOT a joke and not only did I have the opportunity to interview Simon Neil, James Johnston, and Ben Johnston, it was set for that same afternoon. But schedules and timetables can change and the date was pushed back and changed to an interview with James Johnston alone. I caught up with him this past Wednesday and we had a great time discussing all things Biffy Clyro – ranging from past shows and new albums to life in general.
Thankfully I’ve seen Biffy Clyro live many times and had enough foresight to get pictures of individual band members These shots of James range from February 2011 at the North Star Bar in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in February 2011 to CD 102.5’s Big Room and A&R Music Bar in Columbus, Ohio, in October 2013. It was interesting to have a chance to talk with James about how Biffy has evolved over the years to what they’ve become and how they continue to evolve with each new record.
The first time I saw Biffy Clyro play was at Wembley Stadium in September 2010 as an opener for MUSE. Looking back, was that the biggest crowd you’d played in front of at the time?
Yes, I think that’s probably fair. I don’t know if you can get a much bigger crowd. You know we slowly worked our way up as I’m sure you’re aware. When we first started we could never have imagined playing to a crowd like that. It’s just something, that makes you kind of have a cold sweat to think about it. But I think slowly over the years we got used to playing to bigger and bigger crowds and I guess it brings out a different element of performance. It’s a little bit of a cliché but you have to think about the person at the back of the room and of course you’re just thinking about the front row. It’s something you work up to and it’s something you become more comfortable with. We were absolutely shitting ourselves and it was a really scary situation, but there’s something about the adrenaline rush you get in that situation. It’s kind of hard to replicate.
And then a few months later you came over to the US and I saw you play at the North Star Bar and Grill in Philadelphia. What is it like playing in front of 90,000 people and then going back to 500 people?
It’s strange, you know? At the same time we often get asked questions about the life of the band and things that we’ve been doing. It’s strange from the outside but when you’re out amongst it, it’s not so strange. It’s just our life so you sort of become used to it over many years with episodes like that, I guess. You have so many crazy situations in the past and I suppose you kind of adapt to it. That aspect of it is strange. But I get your point, it’s quite a bizarre thing to do. I guess it’s like relearning again. Once you learn a performance from playing in back rooms, I suppose you just kind of revert back to some of the ideas and some of the ways of playing when you were a teenager.
Do you have a preference for playing in bigger venues vs. smaller venues or at this point does it not matter?
It all depends on the night and the crowd and the atmosphere, of course. I think now that we’ve become a little more comfortable with larger venues it’s something really special if you can create some sort of harmony and create a dialogue and have a relationship with the audience. You can get 15,000-20,000 people singing along to your songs then. I think that has become my new favorite part.
Do you want to stay small in the US or do you want to go down the arena route?
If someone gave us the option I’m not sure what we’d take. We’re proud of our music and proud to come play in the States and if that sort of continues to be in smaller clubs, then so be it. But I think we’d like to reach more people and I think every band wants their music to be heard and the States are a big part of our musical education and musical upbringing so I guess there is an extra special meaning to us if we could get more fans in the States and more people listening to our stuff.
That’s correct, absolutely. We’re a touring band and it’s never going to be too long before we come to the States.
How do you come up with set lists for shows? Do you look for fan input or make a conscious effort to include rarities? It seems that a lot of bands get a lot of beef for not catering to their older fans and playing older songs.
Well luckily we still enjoy playing our older songs so it’s not a case that we don’t like playing older songs. It’s often a case of how long we’ve got and it’s hard to fit it all in. Usually when we have a new album we’re mostly excited about that as you can imagine. We try to mix things up and take some songs from the first three records when we have a chance to play longer sets. Then maybe you get to the venue and someone catches us when we enter the venue and says “oh can you play that song tonight” and sometimes that works. You’ve got to listen to your fans. It’s the songs that make the show, I guess, and we’ve never really been bothered by that. We want people to have a good time and we are really proud of all of our songs. We had some friends when we were growing up who were in a band and they spent their whole career being kind of a little bit difficult and obtuse and playing their weirder songs. It wasn’t until the end of their career that they started playing the songs that the audience really wanted to hear. I remember one of them remarked that they wish they’d done that from the start. When we stared out we were awkward and I remember the first EP we released. We had a release party for it and we didn’t play any of the fucking songs from the EP and our manager was like “What are you doing?!” I think it’s selfish sometimes when some artist completely changes your favorite song and sings different melody lines. It’s completely different but you know sometimes it can work. I think you have to be careful – it needs to be more for the audience than for the band and you have to be careful about how you approach these things. It’s not an easy thing to pick a set list and it’s not because we’re trying to find songs. We’re trying to cut it down, that’s usually our problem.
Yeah, originally we thought the idea of three dots being three little specks of dust in the air and then we realized that those dots represent ellipsis – it suggests a pause in a thought or continuation of thought. We like to think that the audience is in waiting while we had these thoughts while making the record and it’s like you’re joining us halfway through or at the completion of the thought process. So that might be a kind of wordy explanation. I think it is the suggestion that it’s not the end of a sentence but more the end of an idea.
You switched up producers this time and went with Rich Costey. In the past you’ve worked with Garth Richardson – what was the thought process behind making that change?
It was just time. We’d made three records with Garth that we were so proud of but we pushed the sound and the direction with the orchestration and it was getting bigger and bigger and bigger and we always knew that we like to do things in almost like a trilogy anyway, so. It wasn’t like we’d fallen out of love with Garth, he’s still very much a part of the family but it was time to find somebody new and start another trilogy and restart the journey with the band. I think Rich is the perfect guy to go to. With some of the artists he’s worked with in the past, they wanted to find a new way to go and peel back on things. And we knew he would bring something different and new in the studio and we really wanted to just start again and unlearn everything we had in the past and just feel like we’re almost in the studio for the first time and learning everything again.
I believe Simon said that there’s a lot of distortion on this album – someone else said a sort of weirdness. Is this change up of sound a recognition that this is the start of a new trilogy?
Yeah, that was part of it. And it’s hard to compare back to Garth and things that we did with him. He has a very classic musical approach to doing things and Rich does it a little bit more like “How can we fuck with this and how can we mess up the sound,” and often you find things you didn’t expect. We’ve done distorted guitars in the past – we’re a rock band for goodness sakes, of course – so we’re going to have distorted guitars. But we’d never really distorted the drums before and had clean guitars and things like that and using some programming and modern techniques. We’ve always liked hip-hop and we’re starting to take a lot more influence from the sounds of modern hip-hop and that’s always been like a closed door to us. I think it’s a scary thing for rock bands to talk about because everyone wants to hear you talk about guitars, guitars, and guitars. We’re always going to have that, it’s always going to be part of our sound but we just wanted to balance sound and we’re always going to try to mess with things
It’s always a challenge. The first couple of times we were like “Whoa, what have we done? How are we going to do this?” And Friends and Enemies basically has no bass guitar so the end of the song I’m fucking standing there like “well, what do I do now,” you know? But like I said that’s selfish. It’s not about me. It’s about the audience and they’ve heard the bass guitar already. We’ve had to challenge ourselves. Ben in particular has been adding some electronic parts to his drum kit to try to replicate some of those things and we have two extra players to help us when we’re live – Mike [Vennart] and Gambler [Richard Ingram] – and they’re both masters at what they do. They’ve been with us for a few years now – Gambler on the keys can play anything that you ask him and Mike on guitar has a way of making his guitar sound like anything we want. So I think we’re doing a pretty good job. You know, it’s not like we’re trying to replicate the album so it’s perfect and play a carbon copy of it live, but I think we’ve come pretty close to sounding like the record and having the extra energy for live show.
I don’t know. The first song on the radio was Wolves of Winter and we were still in Los Angeles finishing the record and we all sat around and put the radio on BBC One in the UK. Wolves came on and we were like “that sounds absolutely fucking crazy,” especially when compared with the songs that had been on previously. And afterwards it stuck out like a sore thumb with really crazy time signatures and didn’t really fit in with daytime radio. At that point I actually was fearful that it wasn’t fit for radio because it was too crazy.
I suppose you’re not talking about Wolves of Winter alone. Some of the criticism, I don’t know who it’s from, they may be talking about other songs, but we’ve always enjoyed pop music. If you listen to our first album, which I remember correctly at the time that nobody else did, it has a pop feel. There’s always people around that are like “Oh it’s nice, it’s like the first album” and I’m like “I don’t remember you supporting us at that point so it’s funny that you should come out now.” It sounds very self-assured. It’s not what we are as a band, we do have insecurities. But when you think about something so much and put so much of your heart and soul in it and you’re very proud of it, eventually sometimes opinions of others don’t have so much impact. If we just made a metal record people would criticize it and if we’d stayed exactly the same like we were on previous records people would criticize it. We wanted to do something new to try and challenge ourselves and move forward as a band. We’ve been together for twenty years and we’re on our seventh record which we never thought we would get here. That’s more than most of the bands we loved growing up. None of them made seven albums. So we’re just trying to find a way of constantly being alive and moving forward as a band. It’s……I didn’t really have much of a response to it. We’re really proud of the record and it sounds good on the radio, you know?
Will there be a B-sides release?
Definitely. It’s always been something we care deeply about. I think that shows a different side of the band. It shows a different kinds of recording process, it’s not the same sound. The sad thing though is that there’s not many B-side releases these days. I think it’s going to come out almost like an album-type thing. When that will be, I couldn’t say. Sometime next year, I hope. But again, the recording the B-sides – it’s crazy. It was towards the end of making Ellipsis and toward the end of mixing, and we took a couple of days and just went across the road. And we’ve been in that studio before. We didn’t record them with Rich – we went with one of the guys who works with Rich and one of the younger guys in the studio. We had a fun couple of days and I hope you can hear that in the recording. It’s definitely not throw-away, but it definitely has something different and really spontaneous about it. We didn’t spend much time laboring over it and it was a pretty quick process. But like I say, it’s always important to do if you have the time. So sometime next year.
Do you have a favorite song from Ellipsis?
Eeeee…..that’s……usually I just pick one and go with it. It changes from day to day, it changes when you’re on the road and it changes when you listen to the record. I think Re-Arrange is a song that’s safe, and maybe in reference to your earlier question that’s why some people criticize it. Some of those people think…it’s definitely…got an R&B thing. That’s why I like and that’s why I’m choosing it as my favorite at this moment. I think the lyrics are beautiful and really heart-breaking and really show some unbelievable love. It’s just a beautiful thing. But it’s just not something we’ve attempted before and I think we pulled it off.
We do. Would you like to know?
I don’t think we’ve arranged them yet and I don’t think we’re sure where we are, so for me to tell you I’d probably get in some trouble so I can’t do that. Ah, I know! You want to book flights.
Are we talking late fall?
I’d almost say winter.
What is it like being in a band with your brother, Ben?
I don’t know any different and that’s the answer we always give. It’s the most honest. It’s probably kind of a cop-out as well. We’ve never been in any other bands, so we don’t have a frame of reference for comparison. Of close we’re close. Very close. And it wouldn’t work if we didn’t share a deep bond. I think we feel like the three of us have a very strong bond and I think it’s good. I think it re-enforces our bond and strength that we have together – sticking up for each other, you know? I don’t go against him, just really the world. We spend a lot of time together so you’ve got to have each other’s backs and if someone’s feeling down you have to know when to give them space and when to pick them up. We can give each other a right talking to like only people who are very close can.
You have Reading and Leeds coming up. Do you have any plans to set your bass on fire to follow up on what Simon did to his guitar the last time you were there?
That’s a good one! I should do that. I can’t, though. Bass guitars are more expensive than wrecking a guitar and it’s too heavy for me to lift up over top of my head. You know, we’re going to have fun. But we do take our songs seriously. It’s got to be like I mentioned – a harmony between us and the audience, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some pyrotechnics and a little bit of fire and craziness and a little bit of danger, you know? You’ve got to feel that the show can fall apart at any moment. We’re going to try our best to make it exciting and challenging. We’re excited to be asked back and it’s definitely one of the highlights of our summer.
It’s good to do that at outside festivals. I think Health and Safety might have something to say about pulling that off in an arena.
I know, exactly. You have to be careful with that sort of thing. I know Mike Vennart fucking hates it. He’s terrified of it, so we have to be careful not to put it too far on his side of the stage.
The three of you have a big hug fest before you take the stage. Are there any other pre-show rituals that you have?
As we get older, we have to look after our bodies a little more and our voices. So there’s stretches and warm-ups and vocal warm-ups, which is a little boring. If something happens an hour and a half or two hours before the show, if something just gets switched suddenly your body just starts to adrenalize. But so much is ingrained in us by now and so much of it is second nature, you know? So I don’t know what those rituals are, but going through the set list and yeah, group hug and then we’re ready for action.
When you had your year off, what was that like? Were you stir-crazy after the first month?
Still just sitting on the couch after the first month and still just staring blankly at the TV, not taking anything in. And that was more than a month. It was just so strange to not have that adrenaline rush for the show and somewhere to be. The responsibility, I guess, as well. It took a lot longer than I thought it would to come off to it. I don’t think we’re going to do that again. It was over a month….longer than a month. And in the grand scheme of things really it wasn’t that long before we were back in the practice room and working on songs for three or four months something like that. It was a weird one, Tara, I’m not going to lie. You’ve run the race. And it wasn’t just for the Opposite tour. You know, we’ve been on the road for ten or fifteen years and it’s been really quite constant so it was a record long few months of like what the fuck, what’s your purpose, and not having a purpose – that was a difficult thing. So we’ve been through that now and the next time we’ll know what to expect and we’ll be prepared for it. It really was a bit of a strange one but perhaps necessary to keep going for as long as we want to and we need to rebuild and sort of re-birth after what the band has gone through.
Does your wife ever have to remind you when you’re home that you’re not James Johnston from Biffy Clyro and that you’re just plain James Johnston?
I don’t think it’s like that. I don’t know that she ever has and I’m not trying to suggest that I’m an angel and she never gets pissed off at me, but I don’t think it’s for being a guy in a band about the house. I don’t think that’s too big of an issue. Maybe it’s just me being a complete asshole. Who knows?
Biffy Clyro is current making the festival rounds in Europe and will be headlining this year’s Reading and Leeds Festival. Here’s hoping that James can find some way to top Simon’s flaming guitar. For more information and tour dates: http://ellipsis.biffyclyro.com/