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Biffy Promo Shots by Kevin J Thomson 4

The Truth about Endings

26 October 2021, 08:30
Words by Ty Bennett
Original Photography by Kevin J Thomson

The pandemic hit Biffy Clyro with their hardest year to date. Ty Bennett finds how the trio overcame existential crisis, depression and lost identity to make new record The Myth of the Happily Ever After.

Google pictures of Biffy Clyro and this is what you get: three Scotsman in various states of undress in front of a crowd losing its mind. ​

Strobe lights criss-cross the stage, every musician in action, thousands of people with their hands in the air, the energy palpable even as it’s frozen in time. Ben Johnston on drums, sticks beating in a fury; and his twin, James hunched over the bass, consumed and cataclysmic. Frontman Simon Neil; his tattooed torso dripping sweat, long hair matted and wild, all beard and ferocity and feeling, standing centre stage, his guitar held aloft like a weapon. His whole body a tight fist of nerve, of rock; mouth wide open mid-chorus. If you didn’t know he was singing, you might think he’s screaming.

For twenty years, this has defined Biffy Clyro. The trio formed in 1995, in their hometown of Ayr. Still in their mid-teens, Simon started jamming with Ben and James was brought in on bass soon after. For two years they played covers – Will Haven, Beach Boys, Guns ‘n Roses – before moving to Glasgow to study. In 2000, they were spotted by Beggars Banquet at T in The Park and signed, releasing debut record Blackened Sky a year later.

By 2006, they were three albums, a handful of career-making performances and a re-signing to Warner Brothers down. Fourth album, Puzzle, reached number two on the UK charts, catapulting them into two decades of success and sold-out shows. Those early years are marked by supporting gigs with Muse, The Rolling Stones and Red Hot Chili Peppers, not to mention major slots at Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds and a sold-out show at Glasgow’s largest venue, the SECC.

Most fans will know Biffy Clyro’s Puzzle as one of their defining works. Inspired by the death of Simon’s mother, it grappled with the intensity of grief and the chaos of fame, set to a cascade of gut-punching choruses, strangled structures and violin solos. Here, the trio set the precedent for what followed: an unnerving and harrowing take on rock music filled with sprawling intensity and fervour.

The next 15 years saw back-to-back shows - as many as 120 consecutive tour dates without a break - and Simon cracking a rib on stage with Will Haven. They released Only Revolutions in 2009 and its follow-up Opposites four years later, after which Simon took time off due to mental ill-health. Describing it as the most terrifying moment of his life, it couldn’t stop the Biffy Clyro machine. And so here is band that has spent three quarters of their lives non-stop bleeding music. They’re strung out on fibre optic nerves, a raw wound of rock music.

But this is not the Biffy who sit before me on a watery skyed Wednesday. We left the band on the very eve of releasing of A Celebration of Endings in 2020, ready to tour. Instead, they were caged into lockdown like everyone else. The last year pushed them to their limits, and caused a re-evaluation.

“When you've been doing what we've been doing for 30 years, the overriding feeling is just disappointment and sadness,” Simon tells me. “The problem with the start of the lockdown was that I started to question the value of things like music. The first few months were really, really tough. The band and music didn't seem to matter. With the news we were getting day after day, the things that I'd written and the way I'd lived my life suddenly didn't seem very important.”

Brothers Ben and James agree: “It went to shit, to be honest,” Ben explains. “We spent months putting every bit of energy and every thought we had into A Celebration of Endings, and we wanted to share it with the world. We didn't make that record to listen to in our bedrooms. We had these plans to go out and tour, to get in people's faces. But that didn’t happen. It was really unsettling, the sun shifting around our feet, and we just didn't know what way was forward.”

The band are no longer the ravenous rockers of the last twenty years, but three men, exhausted and uncertain. Simon’s hair is short for the first time in years, and his moustache well-groomed. If it wasn’t for the tattoos crossing his knuckles, he could be any guy on the street, worn out by a long day at work.

“We were supposed to swing back into action and can get going with A Celebrations of Endings,” he tells me, recalling the last time he was doing press. “Back then, I was already convinced that life couldn't get any worse. I felt that with Brexit starting to take hold and climate change, we were hinting at this point where we were bouncing off the bottom and we're going to discover this new way to live and connect, to try and become more of a happy society where we look out for each other. Little did I know the pandemic was around the corner, which was going to actually stalk even more divisions than we had previously.”

He shudders: “I remember the initial chat was putting the album release off,” he continues, recalling the realisation they weren’t going to get the tour and release schedule they wanted. “I think we were in denial for the first little while - there was this fantasy that maybe in a few weeks things will be back to normal and we'll be able to go on the road. So ignorance was bliss, to be honest, because it allowed us to connect and keep a sense of optimism for a little while.

“But after a few weeks of lock down, as everyone was not even leaving the house or seeing their families, that was when the reality started to sink in. At that point, the disappointment of the album not coming out very quickly sunk into the background and really I was just worried about friends and family.”

Ben agrees, “I think that the scariest thing was the uncertainty. Of course, that's us talking about our own wee part of the world, but you couldn't ignore what was happening in the world on a larger scale either. It was strange because we were obviously doing promotion for the record and we were moaning about not getting to tour, when people were actually dying. You have all these crazy existential thoughts. It makes you question even what you're doing and how valid music is. There are so many different emotions to go through, but back then disappointment was top of the list. We all lost our identity for a while.”

The loss of identity is an ongoing theme for the trio. I speak to them separately – Simon in a plainly-furnished hotel room in Wembley, the twins in an obscure venue. We start by discussing what characterised those early months in 2020, when all seemed lost.

“I had a delayed reaction to the pandemic because life kept going and it was like ‘okay, I'll play some songs every Friday, try to keep my spirits up, safe keep other people's spirits if possible.’” Simon recalls. “It was only after I finished doing live streams where I had the reality check of, ‘Oh My God, we really have no control over this over this period of our lives.’ It's strange when you feel that you've had control over every part of your life to then have that removed was really tough.”

Pretty soon, this new reality took all the control Simon had away: “I couldn't read a book; I couldn't watch a movie. I would periodically pick up my guitar and it just felt pointless. It was waking up in a day and going, ‘what is my purpose in this world, what is my purpose as a human?’

“The musician thing just became something that wouldn't even talk, it felt like that was a previous life. That part of my life of being in this band and being Simon from Biffy Clyro for so many years was suddenly stripped away. I had to find who I was without the band and that was tough. I think I’m probably more invested in this band than is healthy, because it took getting together with Ben and James to feel normal again. It was a period of proper crisis.”

Simon speaks in chunks, without pausing. He has a lot on his mind, quick to sashay between his own human worries, and a growing concern for the rest of the world: “I think it'll take us all years to come to terms with what we've been through,” he laments. “How we've changed as beings, and how it's affected the younger generations who lost a year of their lives and a year of their development.

“I don't want to talk politics, but the governments are slowly slipping back into the status quo and the way things were before the pandemic and I think it's gonna be too easy to half ignore what happened. This is a hinge point where we can restart everything if we want to. We've had to make so many sacrifices that I think people are willing to grow. 2020 is going to be a year that's discussed for another 100 years, and it will be discussed either in a positive fashion or a really detrimental fashion. The next generation has the right attitude to make changes, but my fear is just these old bastards want things to be the way they were.”

Some of Biffy’s most poignant moments reflect his cynicism - Opposites is a record that bites off a huge emotional chunk, filled with nervous guitar lines which rub against prog-rock melodic accomplishment. It grappled with fame, British political systems and disappointment. Album track “The Sand at the Core of Our Bones” addressed the issues that beset the band in the wake of their success – among them Ben’s drinking and Simon’s depression. A Celebration of Endings put fear of climate change and irreversible global damage at its centre point. “Champ” was a reaction to Brexit and the Scottish Referendum, featuring lyrics inspired by pictures of Syrian refugees ‘washed up on the shore.’

More sensitive than he appears on stage, Simon has an emotional reaction to global politics and human affairs. With his professional world in crisis too, how does he cope? He sighs, letting his guard down: “There was this period where the news was horrific, I had no identity, no purpose. I was in that position where I was low, and I was struggling to get myself out of it. I didn't speak to the boys about giving up the band or anything, but there was definitely an element of ‘what is this all for? What is the point of Biffy Clyro?’ I wanted to feel like I was contributing something to society, to the world, rather than just doing something I felt was purely a selfish pursuit. I just can't stand on a stage and play things and think that’s worthwhile right now.”

These are not uncommon thoughts for Simon Neil. After his well-publicised breakdown in 2014, he revealed that he’d been on medication for most of his life. “I do struggle with really dark times and when things are bad, I just become a bit of a nihilist and a misanthrope, and it can be dangerous. I spent probably ten years swinging between taking meds, coming off them and realising that I need to keep on them to stay balanced - otherwise I just go down and I struggle to come back up.”

"I think we’re better than the previous generation. I do think we’re learning from the mistakes of our fathers." - James Johnston

The Johnston brothers were similarly affected, and perhaps this is why new album The Myth of the Happily Ever After strikes such an emotional chord. Where at first James was content doing things around the house, gardening and getting round to the ‘boring aspects’ of life that he hasn’t had time for, he quickly found himself at an existential breaking point. “I'm just cutting the grass and washing the car and what help is that to anybody? In the really dark moments it was like, what have we been doing for the last 20 years? Have we contributed anything to society?”

Ben is less content with mundanity and struggled to navigate lockdown as well as the realisation that it was going to make him reevaluate everything about himself he presumed to be true: “I thought I was a genuinely happy person. Even through dark times in my life previously, I've always managed to maintain somewhat of a positive outlook. But now I don't know if I can still say that about me. I feel that I've got processes to go through, as does the world, to put their soul in its place, to put all the blocks together just to have a positive outlook again. Honestly, I can’t even see right at the moment.”

James puts a reassuring hand on his brother’s shoulder. The twins especially haven’t spent more than a few days apart their whole lives and were separated for months this past year. Looking at the two men, it’s striking how open they are with their emotions. Were they able to connect and support each other during lockdown?

“We had group zoom meetings, but you don't really get a chance to talk personal stuff on them because it's always other people involved,” Ben tells me. “Also, we are these Scottish guys, we're not massively open with each other emotionally.”

James disagrees, but only in part, “I think we’re better than the previous generation. I do think we’re learning from the mistakes of our fathers. During those first few months though we weren’t talking about our feelings, we were just isolated.”

With wife Francesca and the help of a lockdown puppy, Simon finally started to pick up the guitar again. “We are that cliched couple with a lockdown dog!” he says, perking up as a ray of sunshine slices through the dull upholstery of the room. “Just the act of having to look after the dog and take it for a walk is what saved me because every day, I was just digging deeper into the memory of me. I needed to just care for something else and feel responsible for something other than my band or the music.

“The one thing that we could keep control of was being creative and making new music and trying to make sense of a nonsensical part of our lives. I feel very lucky that I get to play in a band, and we’ve been able to go back to being a band. I keep thinking about how many extremely talented people have had to give up their professions and their artistic pursuits, and that breaks my fucking heart. So the fact that we are still able to sit here and do this, it's like, I want to make sure we take that responsibility seriously.

“I just had a really fucking tough time. I don't want to say ‘oh woe is me,’ because I know people have had it so much harder, but I just felt like I lost every aspect of who I was and it took my wife and the dog, and seeing Ben and James again to bring me back.”

The Johnston twins share Simon’s sentiment. “When we got back to making music it was like, ‘oh no wait, this does have some value’,” says Ben. “This has value to us, it has value to the people that we're sharing the music with. That connection that you create with people through music lasts a lot longer than the hour and a half you're on stage. You take it away with you and you feel that you're part of something.”

Making The Myth of the Happily Ever After brought a semblance of normality and joy back into the band’s lives against a backdrop of negativity. “I think I've trained myself so that when there's traumatic situations going on I just dive down a song writing hole and see if I can make sense of it,” Simon explains. “Creating the new music really gave us a sense of purpose. We were also in an industry that was just being ignored, because musicians and music wasn't even on the list of things to do. That was tough, so being able to just have some slither of happiness and to be in a team that was prioritizing our art was fantastic.”

James agrees: “It wasn't until we got together to record, when we were going in every day, that we had the chance to share our frustrations with each other and then with the world. That was really something that struck me from when we started working together again – that more than ever, on a deeply personal level, putting the music to one side and just having contact with my brothers and having someone to share my worries was so valuable.”

“Just having a laugh as well,” chimes Ben. “I know that I didn’t laugh that much for about a year. It wasn’t until we were hanging out every day and kicking our heels and making amazing music and starting to feel worthy again, that I realized what a big part that plays – just creating and having fun with the guys.”

And when you get into the studio for the first time and you've made it through so many lonely and miserable months, what are the first things that start spilling out when you're making the music?

“My first memory is realizing the camaraderie we have together,” answers James. “We spent most of our career recording on the road, but this time we were in a farmhouse. Maybe it was the act of us plugging in the cables or setting the instruments up, but there was something about it that felt like the first time we recorded aged 16 - like we were just making music for ourselves.”

“It was really organic,” agrees Ben. “It was more hands-on than our debut album was. We were actually plugging things in and trying to get a good drum sound and moving mics around and just being involved in the process. It really did take us back to feeling like teenagers again. When we left the studio each night I was already excited about coming back the next day and that you can't always say that about your day job.”

“When everything is stripped away, I’m just reminded that we're the same three 15-year-olds that got together in 1997,” offers Simon. “When you've been a band for so long, there's so much noise in the industry side of things, there's always teams of people around. But, when we strip things back, and it's just the three of us, we might not be as happy as we've ever been but it’s still just us.”

This sense of unity and relief translates to The Myth of the Happily Ever After - but only just. A chaotic roller-coaster of an album, it’s a dark exploration of disappointment, but without the bells and whistles of fame and fortitude that characterised their early work. The waves of sadness and optimism that break on the shores of The Myth of the Happily Ever After are that way because of the process behind the record. When they started creating, Biffy Clyro were still grappling with emotions and in no way in a position of reflection.

“Writing the first song and recording the album was probably only a six month period of time,” Simon reveals. “That's the shortest time that we've ever had from the birth of a project to the end of it, so I was still writing the lyrics and still processing my feelings right to the end – and even now. So, literally some songs and some weeks I'd be feeling joy because we're recording, and things felt normal and then the next week would be back to lockdown or someone else that we knew dying and you just suddenly start wondering what it's all about. It's a genuine reflection of the mixed feelings of the last 18 months.

“I didn't try to hide from that... I didn't try to find the conclusion because I honestly think it will take years before any of us can actually figure out the changes that have taken place. All I could do is be honest with who I was, with moments of extreme sadness.”

This is omnipresent and inescapable on The Myth of the Happily Ever After, which is perhaps why it feels like such a journey. The record begins with “DumDum,” a song adrift with heaviness. “Errors in the History of God” carries an immense hopelessness, and was written when Simon felt like a leech – feeding off the planet, taking all its goodness and then moving on, absorbing resources and nihilistically keeping them for himself, using his religious doubt to great effect. “Hunger in Your Haunt” speaks to the emptiness of a house when the world shuts down, and allows a moment to reflect on the experience of Simon’s partner, Francesca, as she tried to pull him out of his depression. The record ends, gorgeously, with “Slurpy Slurpy Sleep Sleep,” a song which strikes the chord that the only thing that matters is connecting to people you love, in a track so sincere it leaves you dismantled.

“There's more negative emotions in this than in Celebration...,” Ben reflects. “But I think there's a glimmer of hope as well. After all this diatribe of me being fed up, my favourite thing about the record are the positive parts. Like how the record ends with the lyric ‘love everybody.’ When you're going through a difficult time you must look for the beauty and I think Simon's managed to find that with the lyrics.”

“There's remarkable light and shade in there,” James elaborates. “It starts with ‘Dum Dum’ and ‘Hunger in Your Haunt,’ which is all basically about how there's no point in life. There’s a very nihilistic view of life in that song. But then we finish with the sentiment of ‘just love everybody.’ I think we started out admitting that yes, we're in the shit, but here's a possible way to fix it.”

"I went through a period of worrying about whether music was important to me or important to anyone, yet by the end of the year I realised it's the most important thing in my life. It was our way of battling the world." - Simon Neil

James is unapologetically emotional as he thinks about the weight of the songs and what it will be like to play them in front of an audience again: “We played a couple of them live, and when we played ‘Unknown Male 01,’ I was biting my lip, trying not to cry. There’s a lyric, ‘And now all that weight is gone / Does it bring you sweet relief? / You're looking down upon the sum of you and me.’ When we played that, I was trying not to let that lyric take me down because it's a really strong, really strong image.” He laughs, choking up. “I'm never that far away from crying!” But then sobers up. “You can't really sing when you’re crying, it doesn't sound good. But there is a balance of really allowing things to wash over you, really let that emotion hit you, but then also still be able to function.”

The Myth of the Happily Ever After takes us on this journey of recovery and remission, but it still stands as the antithesis to A Celebration of Endings. For Simon, endings may not be the positive opportunity he thought they were – although of course we are talking about the end of the world, not your driving license expiring – but they do offer the possibility of change. He fears that government will fail the younger generations, return to the status quo and not allow the vital change that is possible in a time of great reflection of revaluation. This is what remains on the new record, above all else.

“The title of this album is a flip from A Celebration of Endings, but I think it's not as perhaps as nihilistic as it first sounds. It's almost taken ownership and responsibility that on no day are we going to wake up and go ‘everything's going to be great from day one.’ But we have to contribute to that, we have to make choices and make decisions and actions that make things better. So I see the title almost in a positive way, even though it's the opposite of a celebration of anything.”

While extreme loneliness and loss of self threatened to overcome them, the band remain stronger than ever. A little tired, much better groomed, but still Biffy Clyro. Still the same 15-year-olds making music. “That's the joy that I took from it,” agrees Simon, leaning forwards. “The fact that I went through a period of worrying about whether music was important to me or important to anyone, yet by the end of the year I realised it's the most important thing in my life. It was our way of battling the world. There are points where being in a band can be a bit of a headache, but actually any headaches you have are either optional, or you're fucking lucky to have the headache.”

The Myth of the Happily Ever After is out now via 14th Floor and Warner Records
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