“I think for us 90s kids it had a really big cultural impact at that point,” Biffy Clyro lead singer and guitarist Simon Neil, freshly shorn of his much-admired flowing locks, tells me from a sofa in in the West London Warner Bros studios. “Especially with noisey bands. Because the essence of it originally was rock acts unplugged. It’s something more than that now. But it was like, ‘wow, Nirvana can play acoustic music.’ And I always remember discovering Neil Young through unplugged. Now here we our punting ours, ‘get it in the pantheon of the greats…’” he belows with a charismatic grin.
I’m sat down with the alternative rockers - Simon plus drummer and guitarist twin brothers, James and Ben Johnston - ahead of the launch of their latest record. But we aren’t yet celebrating the arrival of their hotly-anticipated eighth studio album, expected early next year, but a standalone live acoustic recording of a selection of their back catalogue at London's Roundhouse to relaunch the iconic “MTV Unplugged” TV series in the UK.
Having grown up listening to the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana on the show in its heyday - Kurt Cobain’s 1993 appearance in particular took on legendary status and was released as Grammy- award winning album MTV Unplugged in New York after his death – taking up the offer was a no brainer for Biffy Clyro: “To get asked was a huge honour,” James explains. “To look at all the bands that have played - it was a hugely important thing for us.”
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The chance to “reshape” the famed music channel’s series for a new era has also formed a kind of milestone for the band, giving them an opportunity to revisit their material and test it for what could work in an acoustic setting: “A few songs picked themselves,” Simon says. “We knew we’d always want to do ‘Machines’ for example. The others were the ones that felt the best to us playing, the ones that had enough of a twist.”
Though the singer admits, not all of their tracks worked “stripped-back”, particularly the more experimental output from their initial albums: “Some of the more quirky, earlier songs we tried just didn’t work with acoustic guitars. There’s a dynamic element to those early records that was essential to those songs.” Even of the shortlist they performed, there were some that didn’t make the cut: “On the night we played 18 songs but when we listened back something just wasn’t quite right with the other three: they didn’t capture the spirit of the song or the magic - or maybe there was no magic there to start with...? Well there was certainly none in the fucking room!” he jokes self-deprecating. “Anyway, we made a couple of executive decisions, just to make the album really sing.”
Conversely there were some that sounded even better than they imagined, such as 2009’s ‘Bubbles’ from 'Only Revolutions': “That song ironically surprised me because it was exactly as we normally do it and it just felt great,” says Simon. “And I think, in amongst the more tender moments, I’m really glad we could flex our muscles, musically. It was good to have something that just felt as if it could tip over into a real rock show.”
While for Ben it was ‘Opposite’ from the 2013’s 'Opposites': “It was just a song that really worked in an acoustic setting. There wasn’t a dry eye in the whole house that night for that song. When you watch it back there’s people crying all over the place.” “- tears of joy, we should add,” Simon cuts in.
For James, it was ‘Small Wishes’ from 2016’s 'Ellipsis', “which arguably fitted better on that album than it did on the actual album.” “Well fuck you!” Simon reacts. “But actually yeah when we put that wonky kind of country and western song on that album I think people were like, ‘oh what are they doing, they’re really about to lose it!’ But it just felt like an old friend in that show. I think I joke after it on the CD to our fans ‘we’ll get you guys to like this...’”
The process was an extension of one they went through pre-Ellipsis release, preparing for three nights at Glasgow Barrowland: “We practised all 150 songs we had up until that point. It gave us the chance to play those we don’t get to play very often, the wee favourites of the fans. I think we learnt a lot from that to really hear the evolution from where we went from showing off as much as we could to then kind of maturing,” Simon explains, though he winces at his use of the word. “Or even just allowing ourselves a bit of space,” Ben helps out. “By not having 140 ideas at once. It sounds like I’m saying we had less ideas but that’s not quite what I’m saying…” he finishes, laughing.
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My interview with the Scottish-hailing trio oscillates between serious discussion of the new record and the trajectory of the music industry, reminiscence of career highlights and hellish low points interrupted by sudden piss-taking followed by contagious laughter, the band members all at the ready to pounce on one another’s comments with acerbic wit if they belie anything too lofty or corny. It’s telling of a group who, despite their now bona fide status among the greats of rock ‘n’ roll bands - indeed, they’ve played alongside most of them, including all their own childhood heroes The Rolling Stones in Barcelona and Rome, The Foo Fighters, Guns N’ Roses, Weezer, Pearl Jam, Metallica in India, as well as headlined countless festivals, released multiple chart-topping albums yet hung on to a discerning music-fan following - cannot escape an innate humility, their feet firmly nailed to the floor where lesser characters may have suffered bloated egos. “There’s been a few moments in the past where our tiny heads have blown up,” Simon admits. “Now we’re a little bit older I guess we try and take things in our stride as much as possible.”
So on reflection how do they think their sound has evolved, if not matured? “Initially I wanted us to be Will Haven meets the Beach Boys,” recalls Simon, harking back to his days as a teen in Kilmarnock when the beginnings of the band first took root. “Will Haven were this really kind of abrasive hard core band so obviously that was completely unachievable. But as I’ve grown, that’s still kind of the mindset I think. Our music is somewhere in the middle of two extremes.
“When we got started it was Nirvana and Rush and Weezer and we kind of wanted to sound like them. That’s what happens when you start, you want to be like your heroes and idols and then you kind of find your own voice.” “It’s also interesting though that you spend so many years trying to find your own sound,” says James. “And then when you finally get to that you spend so many years trying to rip it apart.” “Yeah, now we sound like Biffy Clyro we don’t want to sound like Biffy Clyro!” Simon adds with a smile. “On our last record we were listening to a lot of Tears for Fears and Death Grips…”
Having exploded onto a British band scene at its height in the early 00s, and hit mainstream success with 2007’s 'Puzzles', they’ve been riding a wave ever since. They acknowledge however that today rock bands face a new reality: “Unless you get trap beat in your song you’re never gonna get streamed,” Simon suggests. “I don’t mind rap music but it’s become this really narrow, lane for new music and that’s what frightening. We kind of managed to build our reputation before that.”
In particular, he highlights that a domination of YouTube and Spotify as channels has resulted in short attention spans for discovering new music: “You make your decision immediately, I think that’s what’s unhealthy. You need to forge a relationship with a band or artist over time. That why it’s so hard for new acts to make an impact with their music now because it takes a bit of effort. You need to give something to a band or music with depth in general as opposed to just pressing play and going ‘oh, I like the groove of that, that’ll be nice on Sunday when I’m out having a BBQ.’”
Simon also see this disposability as leading to a place where, perhaps counterintuitively, it’s hard for fresh scenes to take hold: “People wouldn’t have chosen punk music in the 70s because they were happy with disco. But then suddenly when punk came along and destroyed all in its path it was an essential reset for everything else. Same with Nirvana in the early 90s with all that hair metal, they came in and kinda said you don’t need all that - you just need guitar and the truth. It’s people’s instinct to react against what’s new and fresh and unusual. The initial instinct is to keep it away.”
It’s in the live arena though that he sees rock music still has its hold, if not showing a resurgence driven by fans wanting to see their favourite old school bands in action or the new generation’s appetite for the band music their parents grew up on: “Live - that’s when it really comes alive,” Simon explains with passion. “Because there’s something just so natural and pure about seeing people make a racket, actually doing something that results in something else. It’s so powerful. That’s why after 10 or 15 years of playing people still talk about Muse shows. Or U2 have been doing their big shows for fucking 25 years or 30 years and it’s still how you kind of judge what a live show can be.”
That’s not to say there aren’t bands find their way through: “There’s a Danish band called Ice Age that I really really love,” says Simon. “A band called FatherSon also from Scotland,” says Ben. “So far what I’ve heard is fantastic.” “And Young Fathers” says Simon. “They are amazing, quite unique,” agrees James. “But they don’t need our help. They’re on the Trainspotting soundtrack for fuck’s sake!”
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They premiered the Roundhouse performance on MTV on May 25th and are now preparing to tour the reimagined tracks from September across the UK and Ireland’s cities as well as Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The prestigious Royal Albert Hall is also on the list, though it’s not the band’s first time on its stage: “We were lucky enough to do it years ago,” Ben tells me. “But we did it all guns blazing and I don’t know if it’s actually the best room for that. I’m really looking forward to taking something acoustic - it’s made for a quieter performance.” So will it be a highlight for them? “I don’t want to say it’ll be pinnacle of the tour because I don’t want to cheapen any of the other dates...But it is a special venue. It’s going to be a magical night.”
In the meantime, there’s little rest for the musicians, who are simultaneously working on a further standalone project, 'Balance, Not Symmetry', a unique type of film soundtrack in that it will by design precede and form the starting point for the making of the film. It’s the brainchild of Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams who is set to shoot the movie, centreing on a story of a young girl who loses her mother, in Glasgow this summer, aiming for release early next year. The band will also tour the 12 original songs ahead of the film’s release with a teaser first track, ‘Different Kind of Love’, making its debut in the unplugged set.
Looking ahead, they feel some burden of their success and a desire to ensure they don’t stagnate or become complacent: “I think it’s always about creating stuff that always kind of spurs us on the most,” says Simon. “The more albums you make the tougher it is to justify another album. For me I always want each record to have a purpose and that’s where the real thrill comes from, that constant hunger to move forward.” While they want album eight to be “bigger and better than Ellipsis” they reflect that undertaking new and different challenges such as Unplugged and Balance Not Symmetry have been refreshingly liberating, giving them free reign to create something not necessarily designed to sit and be judged within the Biffy discography. “In that respect there’s a lot of freedom,” says James.
Certainly it seems they’ve managed to cultivate a pretty hard core set of fans: “We get people that travel a lot. You see people who are from Europe and they’re at every single show in Australia,” says Ben. “People not from Scotland get slightly more obsessed with us because we’re maybe a bit more, um, exotic?” says Simon, prompting room-wide laughter. “No there’s is a lot of pride in Scotland - people are like ‘yes boy.’ But people from Japan for example love James, his colouring, just cos you’re like a God!” “Yeah, Scottish people are a bit funny. They’ll never give anyone too much fuss,” adds James. “They’re fans behind your back. It’ll turn out they’ve secretly got a Biffy tattoo on their back. It’s just the Scottish psyche.”
So it how they expected at the top? “No, not at all! We should have been rock stars in the 90s!,” jokes James. “Yeah, it’s nothing like you think it is...but it still amazing,” adds Simon. “The reality is the world is a different place. We’re not living the Axl Rose dream if you know what I mean. But we get to play fucking music, you know? And that’s all we’ve ever wanted.”
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‘MTV Unplugged: Live At Roundhouse London’ is out now.
Biffy Clyro will play the following 'unplugged' shows:
15 Dublin The Helix
16 Belfast Waterfront
18 Cardiff St. David’s Hall
19 Birmingham Symphony Hall
21 Edinburgh Usher Hall
22 Manchester Manchester Opera House
24 London Royal Albert Hall
For tickets to the latest Biffy Clyro shows click HERE.
Words: Sarah Bradbury
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