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Nine Songs
Simon Neil from Biffy Clyro

Simon Neil talks through the pivotal songs in his life - from the first dance at his wedding to breaking his ribs onstage.

07 August 2020, 07:00 | Words by Sean Kerwick

“I’d say that probably sums up my personality more than anything else,” Simon Neil laughs as he makes a last-minute switch up to his favourite song selections. “That I can’t decide between Roxette and Death Grips”.

It’s not your typical conundrum - “It Must Have Been Love” was the song that didn’t make the cut - but it’s one that captures the unique spirit of Biffy Clyro. “My first ever favourite band was Guns N' Roses but I didn’t include any of their songs here,” Neil notes, as he looks out on what he describes as a ‘fucking miserable looking day’ in his hometown of Ayr. “It’s a similar thing for Nirvana. With those groups it was more the evolution of the band I liked, which is hard to pin down in a specific song.” The same could be said for his band, who are on the cusp of releasing their ninth studio album A Celebration of Endings.

Now over two decades into their career and with the 20th anniversary of their debut LP Blackened Sky fast approaching, their discography is as far-reaching and unpredictable as the frontman’s Nine Songs, which zig-zag between songs submerged in gorgeous pop melodies to those filled top to bottom with thrashing guitars and throat-ripping vocals; the sort of yin and yang that their songwriting continues to wrestle and thrive upon. A Celebration of Endings opener “North of No South”, for instance, finds chiming funk guitar offset to thundering riffs that paves way for a jangly verse and a soaring arena-ready chorus - and that’s all in the first four minutes.

“Some bands reach a certain number of albums and they fold their arms and say ‘Well, I’ve got all my favourite films, I’ve got all my favourite music’, you know, actively trying not to be inspired. If you do that you never evolve, and you get left behind as well,” he continues. “You have this 10-year period of your life where you form the foundation of everything. You watch the movies that’ll have the biggest impact on you or listen to the records that’ll change your life. I’m always gonna be in a three-piece rock band - that’s my love - but in the last few years I’ve barely listened to Rock music. I’m listening to Hip-Hop and weird Electronic music that’ll inspire what I do when I pick up the guitar.”

A Celebration of Endings was originally scheduled for released in May 2020, but like the rest of the world around them, Biffy found themselves pulled into the Covid-19 riptide that has consequently bamboozled their touring and release schedules. The band are hoping to scratch something of a live itch with a special livestream from a secret location in Glasgow the day after A Celebration of Endings is unleashed on the 14th August.

“We’ve been doing a little bit of rehearsing for the first time in a long time and it does something to my soul,” he reflects. “I always thought that I could happily sit in a studio all year making music - that’s what I love - the travelling and the touring I could take or leave. I’ve come to realise that’s bollocks! My body needs that adrenaline we get from playing, after doing it for so long it’s kind of a life force and I know Ben and James feel exactly the same.”

Of the rehearsals, Neil says it’s the most fun they’ve had in years. “I wish people were there to see it in the flesh, because it’s really intense. We’ll be so fucking sharp, as soon as we can play shows again, we’re going to be so ready to go. Once everything returns to some sort of normality, go and see your favourite band no matter who they are because it’ll be the best show you’ve ever fucking seen.” He pauses. “Because we’ll wonder whether this is the last time we’ll get to do this. Everybody in the crowd will be the same as well.”

Neil’s Nine Songs transport him to several key moments in his life - sitting in his Mum’s car in a Tesco car park, the first dance at his wedding and the ‘best night of his life’, where he broke a rib performing on stage with Will Haven.

“I really enjoyed this. It’s a nice way to engage with your past without sitting there thinking about just fucking stories. If you asked me about something that happened in the ‘90s, I’d be like ‘I don’t fucking know!’ I’m immediately transported back with the music. When you look at these songs, you’ll probably understand a little bit more about where my songwriting comes from. I didn’t want to just choose nine songs by bands I love.”

“Only In Dreams” by Weezer

“Weezer were a massive influence on our band and River is a massive influence on my songwriting. It was the first ‘pop music’ I really loved. I know they’re a ‘guitar band’ but going from Guns N' Roses and Nirvana into Pantera, Slayer and Metallica, it’s a different story - I came out of the Metal scene and Weezer landed in my lap.

“Us three used to sit in Ben’s bedroom and literally listen to this song on loop. We could listen to those songs 20 times in a row and not be sick of it. We would sit, drink and smoke terrible council hash. It was really that bonding moment. We’d just started playing music together as friends and this song bonded us as a band, as people, as 14-year olds.

“Nobody else was ever as interested in doing that as we were, and I think when I look back it’s those nights and those moments that really cemented our bond. That’s when I knew we’d be a band for a long time together, because nobody else ‘got it’. Other people would come and listen to a song or two then fuck off - me, Ben and James were like ‘Again, again, again!’. “Only in Dreams” is very important song that developed the songwriting in our band, but especially for the relationship it gave us too. We’d close the door, switch out the lights, crank it and listen.

“It’s the same bedroom where we recorded a cover of Nirvana Unplugged - the whole fucking thing with the chat in between. This sounds like a cliché, but we used to get two large cans of haggis - haggis is best out of cans by the way - drop it into a massive bowl and the three of us would sit there slinging haggis, smoking hash, listening to Weezer and formulating what the band was going to be. This was the early days, but that’s what sums us up as a band - hash, haggis and Weezer.”

“In Like Flynn” by Girls Against Boys

“I still believe Girls Against Boys to be one of the truly underrated bands of the ‘90s, they’re a stunning band. I’ve always adored Nirvana, Soundgarden and other bands from that era, but when I was first into them, they blew my mind. Scott McCloud’s voice is unlike anything - he sounds like he smoked a thousand cigarettes a day!

“In Like Flynn” was the first Girls Against Boys song I fell in love with. I kept reading about their second album, which was bigger and the one that everybody talks about, but back in the day if you wanted a certain record and they didn’t have it at the record store, you’d buy another fucking record that the band made, so I bought the early one. I listened back to this record in the last year or so, and the guitar playing and the rhythms have really been part of that foundation I was talking about earlier.

“In my first few months of living away from home at 17 or 18, when I was going to Glasgow University. Girls Against Boys came through on tour and myself and James went to see them at King Tuts Wah Wah Hut, which is a venue we now have a long history with as a band. They were the coolest, most intense rock band I have ever seen - it’s still truly one of the greatest shows I’ve seen to this day. The way they walked into the venue, walked through the front door looking cool as fuck 20 minutes before the gig. They dumped their stuff, went on stage and just played these cool fucking songs.

“I’d seen Metallica at that point, as well as Status Quo with my parents and a lot of shit, but this gig spoke to me in ways that others didn’t - they were so tight, it was so tense, it was so taut – it was fucking pretty sexy. If there’s one word you can’t apply to a number of ‘90s bands, it’s ‘sexy’, but they had this real fucking swag to them!

"The way Scott McCloud moved on stage - I loved it, he did this kind of leg movement which I realise now I’ve probably adopted, because at that time I was like ‘I want to be this guy’.”

“I’ve Seen My Fate” by Will Haven

“I heard this song in probably a similar timeframe as the Girls Against Boys song - I originally found this Will Haven song on a Kerrang! CD sampler back in the ‘90s’. I thought I knew what heavy was, I thought I knew what screaming was - I thought it was like the James Hetfield growl from Metallica - when I put this on it was this guy Grady Avenell just screaming from his fucking soul.

“I’ve been very lucky since then that I have performed this song with this band. When they toured maybe ten years ago now, Grady fell ill and I got a call from the band, because they knew I was a fan. I was so into it that I broke my rib. I was fucking screaming and jumped down into the crowd onto the barriers, not realising there was no step in front of the barriers and ended up singing the next 3 songs with a broken rib - you should see the pictures, I’m bent-double in absolute agony, it was the best night of my life! I went to the hospital about 6 hours afterwards because I was so wired. Only Will Haven could make me break my rib singing a song - it was a cathartic moment.

“When you listen back to Will Haven records it’s kind of hard to get across how intense and brutal it was - that mixture of the shoegazey guitar and violent fucking scream, it sounds like Thor. That’s where I learnt to scream - in fact, the reason I’ve fucked my voice over the years is because of Grady from Will Haven - I’d just scream at the top of my lungs. I still remember the fright on the band’s faces when I started screaming with the monitors all the way up in the show. It was the loudest thing you could hear from a mile away - they must have thought I was a fucking idiot, you know, I’m joining them and I’m the obnoxious maniac!

“But that record El Diablo - believe it or not - I bought that on a day out with my Mum. I pre-ordered it in, because you wouldn’t be able to just go down and get it in the shop. I spent 17 quid, fucking outrageous, but worth every penny, I went down with my Mum because I had to use her card to pre-order it. I remember her looking at me while I’m holding up this record and playing it in the car on the way home saying ‘Oh no, I’ve lost him, you’re gone now.’

“God bless Will Haven. I always wanted Biffy from early on to be Will Haven meets The Beach Boys. I always wanted that real abrasion and scariness - that kind of unsettling type of heavy, not just a good riff or a good groove, I’m talking about ‘Oh my God, they are going through something’ and I wanted to combine that with the harmonies and sweetness of the Beach Boys. I don’t know if we even got close to that holy matrimony, but even now if I’m ever sitting thinking ‘I don’t feel inspired’ I always go back to that combination of sounds. Which leads me onto my next song…”

“God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys

“Truly the greatest song ever written. The most beautiful, perfect song. I will fight anyone to the death on that one. It was the first dance at my wedding, and I have the lyrics tattooed on my chest as a dedication to my wife. It’s not a great song to dance to [laughs] - we should have gone a bit more Ginger Rogers.

“God Only Knows” is a song I could listen to forever and ever. Even now, as a songwriter who’s been at it for 20-odd years at this point, I still can’t work out how Brian Wilson wrote it. I can’t believe it works on an acoustic guitar or with an orchestra - there are so many different versions of it over the years, but it’s so innocent and simple, which is why I love it. It’s one of the most complex songs ever written but it comes across as this sweet, beautiful lullaby and that is what I’ve aspired to as a writer. One of my favourite things as a writer is if I make something complex sound straight forward - that’s so hard to do. That has to be organic, you can’t really manipulate that.

“My Mum loved that song as well and sadly she wasn’t alive for my wedding - I know she would have loved the fact that that was our first dance. You know, she would have been happy it wasn’t “Angel of Death” by Slayer [laughs]. That wouldn’t have gone down too well.

“I was lucky enough to interview Brian Wilson a few years ago for a magazine, it was like ‘interview your idol’ and it was a little bit upsetting to be honest. He didn’t seem in a good place. I tried to show him my tattoo at one point and I think it gave him a wee fright. It was really sad. If you’re sort of touched by God like Brian was - and I’m not a religious person - you can’t enjoy other things, the normal things and the simple parts of life. It was a really strange experience to see the struggle. As I say, it’s what happens when you get such a level of genius that years later, we’re sitting here saying it’s one of the greatest songs ever written. Sadly, it’s a bit of a cautionary tale but my God, he’s such a genius in the truest sense.”

“Guillotine” by Death Grips

“There’s very few bands I have become obsessed with. I mean, you have your favourite bands from when you were younger, but very rarely do you connect or join a band for another journey later in life. Death Grips are that band for me.

“I discovered “Guillotine” on YouTube and I just saw this maniac - I couldn’t quite believe the noise was human, I didn’t know what level it was operating at. One of my favourite sounds is at 2 mins 45 or something - that high-pitched squeal. The second that came on I knew I was gonna love this band no matter whatever the fuck they did. Straight away I got the Exmilitary mixtape, which had that Link Wray sample and these vocal delays I’d never heard before - it was so disrespectful and ominous in the best possible way.

“I felt very fortunate to come of age when bands like Sunn O))) and Lightning Bolt were beginning and at a certain point I felt like all extreme music people were going as fast as they could go, or as slow as they could go. Lightning Bolt without a doubt were the coolest and fastest band. I spent a good few years in a ‘no man’s land’ in terms of extreme music, which was good because I was listening to other genres but I was certainly looking for something. When Death Grips came along and I saw the aesthetics, the sonics, the level of detail within the artwork, the videos, just everything they did was pure fucking class and also it did not give a fuck!

“And looking back, this was like before Twitter and Instagram were really huge, there were still moments of pure mystery. On the internet, you would find corners for stuff but zero explanations for things. They still had their third world net website at that point, so you couldn’t find their information anywhere. I was like ‘I need to know who the fuck this is rapping!’ Then I discovered the drummer played in the band Hella who I used to really like.

“Anyway, Death Grips blew my mind and since “Guillotine” I’ve loved every record. I love the fact that whenever I put it on, if people are around they’re like ‘What the fuck is this? Death Grips again? please switch it off!’ But I love it! Right up to the new stuff. I was expecting this last album to be a bit more badass, because the singles were exceptional. It didn’t quite blow my tits off the way I wanted it to, but I love Death Grips until they stop.

“I remember seeing them in Glasgow a few years ago. There was no silence throughout the whole thing - it was the most abrasive, ear-piercing screams, screeches and Zach’s drumming. It was literally 90 minutes of the loudest noise I’ve ever heard - all songs with no silence. What I loved most about the whole thing was it was full of kids having the time of their life. I was probably the oldest person in the room by a fair amount. It was people in their 20s going mad to Death Grips and I was like ‘This is it!’ These people are fucking smart.'

“I knew that Death Grips were speaking to me and I knew there were a lot of people online into them, but seeing people turning up to a gig in Glasgow, and seeing hundreds of kids knowing all the words to a band who have never released a single in their lives and done fucking weird videos, you have to really know their stuff.

“It blew me away, it set a fire for me again. I felt like a teenager who had discovered ‘their’ band!”

“Christmas Steps” by Mogwai

“I didn’t even know Mogwai were a Glasgow band when I first got into them, I assumed they were from California or something, I couldn’t believe it! They would really play down how inspirational they are, but they really brought a brand-new vibe that was so romantic. It’s such a Scottish romance - what they do is peculiar because they look like the least romantic people in the world, they have a laugh with their titles and that, but no one takes their shit more seriously than Mogwai do.

“Christmas Steps'' is the song that appealed to me coming from a rock background - it was always going to be the one with the massive climax at the end with huge riffs. It came out in my last year of school, I was studying for my exams and I would put the album on. Whenever I got to the song at about track 9 or 10, I would always stop whatever I was doing - it took over me. I feel so grateful to have found these songs at a certain point in my life, literally they can overpower and capture you, it almost becomes a physical fucking thing. It scars you, you get singed by it and I’ll never forget hearing “Christmas Steps” for the first time.

“I knew at the start of the record it was very low key. To me, they were this lush beautiful band with little bits of singing and then “Christmas Steps” came on and it just blew me away - fucking unreal, it felt like a volcano erupting inside me.

“I’m lucky I’ve got to see them play that song a couple of times. The first time we played T in the Park, Mogwai were headlining at the smaller stage. It was the year the ‘Blur are shite’ t-shirts were all the rage - that were absolutely, absolutely genius - I loved it, it’s so Scottish. Every Scottish person was going to watch Mogwai. They came on with their hoods on and played like fucking Jedi’s. I think they ended with “Christmas Steps” and it was honestly overwhelming.

"It was our first time at the festival - we had played 8 hours earlier, so we were absolutely off our tits having a great day, then you see a band in a world you’re now part of. They were next level. I’m talking about a band that inspired and created a new world and it felt like I’d really hit that level watching them play “Christmas Steps” at T in the Park that year.”

“Katy Song” by Red House Painters

“Mark Kozelek is one of my favourite songwriters of all time. This band was introduced to me by one of my best friends at the time, Craig B who’s a singer from a band called Aereogramme from Scotland.

“I only really wanted to listen to heavy music at the time. We drove to a gig and put on the Red House Painters record and there was so much reverb in this record and in this song, I’d never heard anything like it. With the heavy stuff I was listening to at that time, there were so many ideas packed into one song, there was never a moment of space, never a moment of chill or silence.

“When my friend Craig introduced me to Red House Painters rather than me thinking ‘Oh my god, this is so minimal and what the fuck’s happening?’ it ended up feeling like the heaviest music I’d heard in my life. It ended up feeling heavier than Slayer. Nothing was happening, every hit was important, every note was important. The voice was so exposed and it was so loud in the mix. I’d really never heard anything like it.

“When I heard Red House Painters, suddenly every word seemed so exposed. To be honest he seemed like a bit of a sex addict, but he was so honest about affairs with women and about how he would sleep with people and how unforgiving he was about himself. One of my favourite lines of all time is from this song - “Glass on the pavement under my shoe / Without you is all my life amounts to”.

“They’re one of probably the few groups in this list that are one of my all-time favourite bands, I love all their records. There’s a couple of spoken word records Mark’s made that are fucking genius, I swear to god there’s one called “Butch Lullaby” about his friend who died of an overdose and it’s one of the best tribute songs I’ve ever fucking heard. The band detects a really basic groove and he basically just talks for 15 minutes.

“But back on the Red House Painters, it was just this real ghostliness - and now that I’m older I realise it was very much part of the sound of that year. I was listening as a totally uneducated person, coming from the heavy music and getting tuned in to these other things that ended up opening my eyes and really inspiring me creatively. I wouldn’t have wanted to keep writing songs if I’d just listened to Metal. I think I would’ve written 10 songs by the time I was 20 and that’d be it.

“I’m so grateful to my friend Craig B for introducing me to these guys, he introduced me to a bunch of incredible stuff including Hans Zimmer, but Red House Painters’ ‘Katy Song’, is one of my favourite songs of all time.”

“Heartbreaker” by Dionne Warwick

“This is probably one of the very first songs I fell in love with and got obsessed with. When I was younger, I would sit in the car while my Mum went shopping and listen to either Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A or Dionne Warwick’s Greatest Hits. I think it was the first time my Mum realised I was quite obsessive, because I would physically rewind this cassette and go straight back and rewind, rewind, rewind on this song “Heartbreaker”.

“It’s just gorgeous, it breaks my heart and reminds me so much of spending time with my Mum, because this would always be on in the car. It’s a song that sings to my soul and makes me sad. There's no other Dionne Warwick song that's impacted me in that way, and that’s why I was saying earlier about not necessarily mentioning bands.

“Just the start of this song immediately takes me back. For a while I struggled so much to think about this song, and it took me a long time to consider why. I think for a long time I kind of went off the song because it was attached to such a potent memory. I think that’s why I love music so much, because of the memories and emotions you have attached to songs, whether you’re transported back to when you were happy or sad - you can really feel that joy or feel that sadness. This song makes me feel close to my Mum.”

“Mother” by John Lennon

“I think we all go through traumatic things; it can be anything. People go through traumatic things and you’re never quite sure how to deal with it. For me, I think I did the wrong things looking back at my Mum’s passing, I think I put it all into my music, which is great, but I don’t think I addressed things with myself.

“I was listening to the John Lennon record and there were a few songs on it that spoke to me - “God” and “Working Class Hero”. Growing up people would say ‘Listen to The Beatles’ and I thought ‘Fuck that! Why should I listen to them?’ For years I resisted, and I didn’t engage with The Beatles. I had a spell for a few years where I was really lacking confidence after we made Opposites. I really pushed myself to the limit making that record, it was a real undertaking and I had nothing left in the tank. I had a bit of a breakdown and I really struggled, and it was this album and this song that really helped me through.

“It's not because it’s about John’s mother, what I found inspiring was that as an older man, he had to sit down and express himself. He hadn’t addressed his situation and he’d had a horrible situation with his Mum and Dad - I’m not comparing any of my trauma with John Lennon or whatever - but he had the most beautiful fantastic way of revealing it and exposing himself.

“I think I’d written songs which were in part about grief and I felt guilt about that for years, because it was the most ‘successful’ record, and I didn’t know how to take that. I started to punish myself for it, going ‘Oh, you’re cashing in now, making good songs about your Mum passing and that’, so I really gave myself a hard time. It took me to have a bit of a breakdown and then hear John Lennon’s record to come to terms with it.

“When I was listening to John I just thought ‘He’s just getting it out’, he’s doing it for himself’ and it really gave me an inner confidence again, that I think I struggled with. It restored my faith in what songs could do, because here I was listening to a song that’s fucking forty years old and it’s rebuilding me, it was rebuilding me in that moment.

“That song genuinely saved my life - and I don’t mean that in a melodramatic way - I just didn’t know where to turn. I’m really lucky I have family and a wife for support, but personally I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know if I wanted to keep making music. I had put everything into this double record and it got to Number 1. Everything I ever wanted had happened and I wasn’t too happy. This song helped me remember that you don’t make music for those sort of things, you make it for the act of making music, and that’s what it it’s all about.”

A Celebration of Endings is released 14 August
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