Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil: “I’m not Billy Corgan just yet”
A jibe from Trent Reznor has lit a fire under the belly of Biffy Clyro, frontman Simon Neil tells DAVID SWAN.
It’s 10pm and Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil is all smiles. He’s fresh off an electrifying Reading performance just a couple days earlier, where they headlined the main stage ahead of bands like System of a Down and, infamously, Nine Inch Nails. Frontman Trent Reznor lashed out at Biffy Clyro on Twitter after his band apparently had to compromise their earlier set. “Should be an unusual show tonight at Reading,” he wrote. “The lying promoter and the band following us (whoever the fuck they are) fucked us on our production.”
“I think he basically spat his dummy out,” says Neil about the incident. “I was dying to tweet back to him all day … but we just wanted to focus on our show. We thought ‘Well, you might not know who we are now, but I guarantee by the end of today you’ll know exactly who we are’. That was our plan.”
The Scottish three-piece – named after a Finnish footballer from the 17th Century, or the first man in space depending on who you believe – aren’t going to let a meagre Twitter feud get them down. They’re heading to Australia in summer for Soundwave festival, but are conspicuously well down the bill. Somewhat surprisingly, the band is actually relishing the opportunity, describing themselves as perennial “underdogs”. They’re eager to bring tracks from their latest double-album opus Opposites to their growing fanbase in Australia.
It’s been a massive trajectory for you guys to be at the stage where you’re now headlining festivals. Has that affected other areas in your life?
We’re fairly modest people. I guess we’ve all got our own houses and cars now, and it’s nice when people notice you. But we’re not proper famous; we’re not movie stars. When I travel to a new town there are a handful of people that will want pictures, but people are nice. If you’re nice to folk, they’re nice to you back. I remember being a fan, and any band I was into if I saw them out I’d really want a picture. I’d say hello. It really meant a lot to me as a fan and I’ve never forgotten that. It’s never really been an issue for us anyway, but we’re just well known enough [laughs]. But that said, Reading and Leeds was only last weekend but I’ve noticed a wee difference even from that, just being on the television everywhere.
“I think every band should have a double album in their discography.”
It must be weird coming from headlining Reading to playing a fair bit down the bill at Soundwave in Australia, is that disappointing, or do you enjoy being an underdog?
We’ve always felt like the underdog, so it’s kind of a position we’re comfortable in. It almost feels like we can come down there and really excel; it’s a bit earlier in the day and no one’s really expecting anything. It feels like because we’ve headlined a few festivals over here, we know what it takes to do a good festival show. So it’ll take a lot of people by surprise. Obviously we’re a lot smaller band in Australia, but we know how it works. We’re not gonna pull a Trent Reznor. [Laughs] I’m not gonna start losing my shit going, :Who the fuck’s this headliner, get that shit off the stage, me me me!” [Laughs]
I’ll tell you what though, we’re so excited. I think the last time we came was the end of 2010, supporting Muse, and then I think the year before that. It’s just exciting to come over and see people that dig the band again and meet some new folk. And it sounds like Soundwave is such a happening festival, we’ve heard so many good stories about it. And the fact that Perth’s included as well, I think that’s really important. It’s a long way for us to come and it’s a shame for us if we come and don’t hit as many places as we can…
Let’s talk about Opposites. Did you feel like putting out a double album might put your momentum at risk as opposed to just putting out another “normal” album?
Fortunately we didn’t think about that at the time. Once we’d completed it – and it was like a couple of months before it was due to be released – suddenly everyone was realising all these problems that you have: “No one listens to a double album”, “It’s too long”, this and that. And, “No one stocks a fucking double album.” So we all started to panic for a couple of weeks, and then we thought, “You know what? We made this because we thought it was time.” We did it for us, we did it for us and for our fans. Looking back, it seems riskier than it felt at the time. I think we were just really confident in the songs, and going onto our sixth album, if we couldn’t do a double album at this point then when would we do it? I’m really glad we did do it. I think every band should have a double album in their discography and I think we managed to make that one unscathed [laughs].
Any new stuff happening at the moment?
Yeah, we were just practicing some new songs today actually. We’ve got about five new songs, three of them are piano songs, which is fun for me, I can hardly play the fucking thing so when I’m standing in the room playing them it sounds awful – it’s like chopsticks gone wrong. But we’re just starting to move on. I don’t know whether any of these songs will make the next record, but to me it’s so important to keep moving forward. A lot of bands stand back after they’ve made a record, and admire it for a year. Being in a band is about making music, and some bands say “We’ll start writing our album in January.” I honestly can’t comprehend that, how people write with that kind of pressure. Songs need to come organically, we’re always coming up with new tunes. So that was just five songs, and as I say I’m not sure if they’ll make the new record but it’s nice to already have a few under our belt.
Do you know what vibe you’d wanna go for with the next album, would you wanna get even more epic, or would you take a step back from that?
I think we’ll definitely strip it back, especially with Opposites we really threw everything we could at that record in terms of instruments and all the weirdness going on, so for me it would feel wrong to try and do something crazier than that, in terms of the over-the-top instruments. So I think we’ll strip it back and have just guitar, bass and drums, and there’ll be a few kind of odd things going on, but it should sound just like guys in a room to a certain extent. We’ve peaked as much as we could with Opposites with all the bombast. So we’ll go stripped back.
Are you guys always on the same page in terms of starting work on an album and what you want to do with it?
I think we’re lucky, because I write all the songs – the other two [bassist James Johnston and drummer Ben Johnston] don’t really have a choice [laughs]. I’m kind of half joking there, but in a way I think bands operate better when you have someone with a clear direction and a clear focus. It’s easier for us as a three-piece for everyone to have their opinion, because there’s only three of us, but if you’re in a five or six-piece band, and you’re all trying to give your take on things, I think it can dilute the original idea. So for me, I quite like being selfish about how a song should go and how a record should be. I do think you have to complete a picture in your mind, and if there’s too many things, it can sometimes water down the original intention. We don’t struggle with that much.
“It’s a long way for us to come and it’s a shame for us if we come and don’t hit as many places as we can.”
Does that lead to you being a bit of a control freak though, like a Billy Corgan for example?
I think I’ve caught myself in the past perhaps being too nitpicky about it and almost taking the fun away from it, going “No, this bit has to be like this.” It probably got to its worst on our third record, Infinity Land. It’s a really complex record, with so many ideas on it, and it really had to be this certain way so that there was no movement on it. Then after that record, I think that’s why Puzzle seemed like such a pop record and such a simple record. I realised you can’t always just analyse every moment. And sometimes a song tells you what it should do rather than you tell it what it should do. So I feel like I’ve eased up on that a wee bit. I’m not Billy Corgan just yet.
[Legendary UK graphic designer] Storm Thorgerson passed away earlier this year and he left his mark on a number of your albums, obviously. Can you talk about working with him, and will he be impossible to replace?
Fortunately – well, just to get the bad bit out of the way – we were only going to have these three records with Storm anyway because we knew we wanted to change it up with the next album … Storm’s been ill for a couple of years now and we just kept hearing he was getting worse and worse, and to me it’s such a huge loss to the art world and the music world. The art of the album sleeve will completely disappear now. He was one of the very last people where that was his job, his job was to make album sleeves that sit with the music and he obviously excelled in so many ways. I don’t need to say the iconic covers because everyone knows them. But to have a guy like that taken away from us … Nevermind how it must be for his family and everything which is heartbreaking, but even as a music fan it’s heartbreaking. Even right up to the end he was as sharp as a tack, he’d rip me apart. One thing wrong and he’d tear strips off you.
And he was great with record companies, he hated record companies. He would half mock them, he just had a beautiful manner about him. He loved music. I hope someone can pick up where he left off and extend it … I know album sleeves aren’t what they were at the moment, because of MP3s and things, but I think once everything settles down in a few years and perhaps bands release really special editions of records to try and get people to buy them, I think artwork will become much more important again.
I’ve chatted with James Johnston a couple of times and he mentioned T in the Park as the band’s highest point. Do Reading and Leeds eclipse that for you?
I have to say, I guess Reading has become all of our favourite shows we’ve ever played … Part of it was Trent Reznor being rude to us, and we thought “You know what? We’ll let the music do the talking.” We just had this candidness about us that we don’t normally have for a huge show like that, and right from the first beat of the set we just knew it was going to be a special show. It’s rare that happens, quite often I’ll love a show and something went wrong for Ben or James, or maybe I’d have a sore throat, but for all of us to come offstage together and look at each other and go “That was our favourite gig of all time”, after being in a band for 12 years, it’s a great feeling.
After releasing six albums it’s really something to play your best ever show. It’s put the fire right back in us. Don’t get me wrong, we love what we do, but to reach another high point … We’re just so fucking buzzing. And that’s why we can’t wait to see you guys and come down and play. Hopefully we’ll be in as good a form. But I can’t guarantee it [laughs]. But we’ll try our bloody hardest that’s for sure.
Soundwave 2014 dates and venues
Brisbane: RNA Showgrounds – Saturday, February 22
Sydney: Olympic Park – Sunday, February 23
Melbourne: Flemington Racecourse – Friday, February 28
Adelaide: Bonython Park – Saturday, March 1
Perth: at Claremont Showgrounds – Monday, March 3