The Blood, The Sweat & The Tears: Biffy Clyro

Drummer Ben Johnston speaks about how he almost broke Ayrshire’s finest rock band.
Biffy Clyro

On hearing that tickets for Biffy Clyro’s April show at London’s 20,000-capacity O2 Arena had sold-out within a matter of hours it felt that, for once, the good guys had won. With the recent release of their sixth album – the 20-track leviathan, ‘Opposites’ - Ayrshire’s finest have surely arrived at rock’s top table. It may have taken Simon Neil and brothers Ben and James Johnston almost 15 years, but the Biff have earned their stripes. They are now a fully fledged festival-headlining, arena-filling, riff-roaring success.

But, in fact, ‘Opposites’ nearly didn’t happen. At all. Ben Johnston almost broke Biffy Clyro. Last year, on the evening before the band were set to enter a recording studio in California, the drummer went out for a drink. And another. Hours later he reappeared with a deep gash in his head and no memory of how he had suffered the injury. Ben’s drinking habit was on the verge of destroying his beloved band and, through a collective veil of hot tears, the three childhood friends sat down to face some harsh realities.

“It made me change,” Ben tells Clash, recalling the infamous and career-saving night. “After I had shocked the guys by returning covered in blood, the next day I realised how much I had hurt them. I immediately stopped drinking.”

Clash retains the right pose at least one stupid question per interview. We ask Ben whether sobriety has been good for him. “Yes, of course it has,” he says politely, before continuing at length, “after the night I cut my head, I then recorded all my drum parts. I think we had two weeks in the schedule and I did them all in a week. That was my time to show the guys that I was committed and I did care. I think alcohol had got in the way of expressing that and it is quite easy to come across like you don’t care. It was time for me to show that I did.”

“Hopefully, I did do that and then we hung out as friends and did everything together for five months. We reignited that almost hobby-like feeling that we had for music, as opposed to it being a job. We weren’t thinking about the pressure of making an album, or the reviews, or the festivals we might play, blah de blah; it felt like we were back in my parent’s garage again and it was a special feeling to have.”

Clash suggests to Ben that, sometimes, having to endure a hugely dark period can, paradoxically, enrich one’s life. “Absolutely,” he agrees, his Scottish burr sounding momentarily wistful. “To see the results of the change I had to make - a rekindled friendship and five months in a house being creative - and hearing that reality on tape was just amazing. Through adversity you find closeness from bonding and that is certainly what happened to us in Santa Monica.”

Even down a telephone line, the quietly spoken Ben emits a certain aura of tranquility. He recently married his long-term partner and is stepdad to her teenage child. He is a keen golfer and fisherman – which may seem very un-rock ‘n’ roll but are both perfect activities to enjoy in western Scotland – and makes huge attempts to equilibrate the insanity of being in one of the Britain’s most successful rock bands. “I like to do other things to get balance in my life,” Ben concedes. “Walking around the golf course is the polar opposite of being on stage, and catching a fish is a beautiful thing to do. I love to unwind like that and always have done, even when I was drinking. I was never an alcoholic – I never woke up and starting drinking; it was always about having a few too many beers and not having a stop mechanism, which many people suffer from – so it wasn’t that I had a huge void to fill when I stopped drinking. That aspect hasn’t changed dramatically, I have always enjoyed those moments of solitude.”

Ben, along with his closest of pals (the Johnston twins met Simon when they were seven), has experienced a steady rise in Biffy Clyro’s career arc. ‘Opposites’ is the last of, what Johnston describes as, “a trilogy of big, cinematic rock records” coming after 2007’s major-label debut ‘Puzzle’ and 2009’s hugely-successful ‘Only Revolutions’. Every tour has seen the band play in bigger venues to more rapturous crowds, meaning that a sold-out O2 Arena shouldn’t have been a surprise to Ben. But it was; “I think I don’t realise how popular this band is,” he admits. “I’m naïve and maybe stupid but I didn’t really think about it.”

Clash doesn’t quite believe Ben. Surely, there must be an element of anticipation, of dreaming of playing shows to ten of thousands of fans across the globe and of shaping those songs into anthems for the masses. “It would be ridiculous to say that it is not at the back of our minds,” he admits, “but it is definitely something that we try to block out. It is quite easy for us because we practice in a cowshed on a farm in Ayrshire. There is nobody there except the three of us and we focus on the music. We don’t think about the venues at which we might play the songs, or at which festivals, or any of that stuff. We are very honest and organic in how we go about making songs. It’s always got to be a snapshot in time and represent 100 per cent how we were feeling at that point. That’s what matters.”

However, despite this noble this philosophy, Biffy’s status as a major band does have its disadvantages. Unfortunately for Ben, his pivotal role in the making (and almost breaking) of ‘Opposites’ has resulted in a constant promotional cycle of prying interrogations from journalists. “I’m always quite surprised when I am talking about myself, or my personal life, as I cannot see why it is of interest,” he reveals, reflecting on his ‘new-found’ celebrity. “I’m almost in complete denial because I never expected it and never wanted to be famous and so I still live in this world where I am not in any way. So, I wasn’t prepared for a lot of the questions I have been asked but I am getting better at answering them.”

Thankfully, Biffy Clyro’s music can still do most of the talking. ‘Opposites’ is their most audacious album to date. Weighing in at 20 songs, and chopped into two ‘sides’ named – and reading disturbingly like 70s prog-rock twaddle – ‘The Sand At The Core Of Our Bones’ and ‘The Land At The End Of Our Toes’, much of ‘Opposites’ features the familiar Biffy template of earnest, angst-drenched lyrics and air-punching guitar riffs. But that’s not to say that Biffy have gone stale – ‘Spanish Radio’ features a breezy mariachi melody, while ‘The Fog’ is genuinely beautiful, radiating a dexterous musicality amid a swirl of noise. Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell adds backing vocals on two tracks (the best being the pounding chug of ‘Accident Without Emergency’), and Johnston admits to being thrilled at hooking up with someone “we’d been big fans of for a while.” “We were both supporting Foo Fighters and it turned out he [Bridwell] was a big fan of ours as well,” he reveals. “We didn’t tell Ben what to do; we just gave him the songs and he came up with some beautiful harmonies. It was a pleasure to work with the guy.”

However, having wisely turned down a recent opportunity to work with Robbie Williams, Biffy Clyro aren’t likely to indulge in a spot of Who’s Who of collaborations. “That’s not how we work,” Ben says when we ask as to whether Biffy’s burgeoning reputation meant they were tempted to work with numerous rock heavyweights. “We are not a hip hop act who would release an album with five or six different contributors. It’s a slippery slope when you start doing that and it’s almost like trying to get a seal of approval from these bigger artists and that’s not something we want to do. We did have Josh [Homme] on ‘Only Revolutions’ but, in general, we are not that sort of band. However, we did want some female vocals on ‘Opposites’ but it ended up not happening - we wanted Annie Lennox but she was too busy with her charity work.”

That’s Annie Lennox on a Biffy freaking Clyro record. Picture that for a minute.

One person who did hook up with the trio was Garth Richardson, who once again took production duties over the five-month recording period. “Garth is old school,” Ben tells us about Biffy’s relationship with Richardson. “He is cut from good cloth; he’s the son of a famous producer [father Jack produced Alice Cooper albums, amongst others, in the 70s]. Garth did the first Rage Against The Machine record, which we’ve all loved since it came out.” But, more importantly, Richardson is able to extract the ‘Biffy sound’. “He just knows how to record a rock album,” Ben says. “A double album is a behemoth task to undertake but we knew that Garth would give us the results we wanted, which was that big cinematic record. He likes to record onto tape and won’t cut corners. He makes sure it sounds correct. He’s part of the family now - he is one of the Biffy team.”

However, Richardson could soon be jettisoned from the Clyro camp (“we may well work with someone else on the next record,” Ben admits) as ‘Opposites’ signifies the end of this particular phase of Biffy Clyro. “What we know is that the next one is not going to be a big rock record,” Ben confirms when we enquire about the future. “We feel that we cannot possibly make a better album than we have. I hope that doesn’t sound too bigheaded but there are moments on this album that are better than anything we have ever done before. It would be near impossible to write another record as honest and emotional and gut-wrenching, as some reviews have kindly described [‘Opposites’].”

Hopefully Ben is correct. ‘Opposites’ forced Biffy Clyro to look into their own personal abyss (in addition to Ben’s problems, Simon Neil’s wife sadly suffered three miscarriages during 2011) and many tracks are laced with grief and frustration. It makes for incredible listening and is “the perfect end” to that “trilogy of cinematic rock records” that Ben described.

The next stage in the life of Biffy Clyro is up for grabs. “We definitely need to revamp our thinking, our recording process and potentially even how we write songs,” Ben reveals. “So, we have no idea what the future holds, all we know is the next album will sound quite different.” Different and, quite possibly by then, coming to a stadium near you.

Words by John Freeman

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'Opposites' is out now.

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