Grain Audio

CULTURE:A Conversation with James Johnston of Biffy Clyro

Last month we talked with Biffy Clyro's James Johnston about their upcoming North American Tour and some of the struggles the band had while writing/recording their latest double album Opposites.

So where are you guys at right now?

James: We are at home in Scotland, just dusting off the cobwebs from Christmas time, and getting back into the practice room, and getting organized. We are coming over to the States next week.

Fantastic. Go ahead and tell us what’s going on with these US dates, going on in February?

James: We came to the East Coast last year and we have learnt our lesson in the past about trying to tackle your country in one go. It is quite a feat.

It’s pretty overwhelming.

James: It is a little overwhelming. It is always fun, but, yeah, you can go a little bit crazy. We decided to split the tour up really and make sure we were full of energy, and a full battery. We've been itching to come back. The West Coast, it’s been a lot of bands that inspired us, I guess, when we started, from that part of the world. It is still really exciting every time you make that trip, so we are looking forward to coming back.

Are you going to be doing pretty much the same show that you were doing on the East Coast last year, or are you mixing it up a little bit?

James: We want to always keep things interesting, and hopefully every night is interesting, even if you maybe play exactly the same set, it is still different in every room. It’s still about the communication with the audience. We will change up some of the older songs that we’re playing. I think we’re obviously concentrating on songs from this latest album, but think we might mix things up. I think we are lucky as a band. There are none of our songs that we don’t like to play. I think some bands get a bit fed up of playing certain songs, but we enjoy them all, so I think we are lucky in that regard.

Talk to us a little bit about the writing and recording process for Opposites.

James: We were on the road for about two years with Only Revolutions, and we just became a little bit burnt out, as happens towards to the end. We had to have a little bit of a break, and then Simon just went through a massive creative streak, writing about 45 songs. It was roundabout the time that we started to talk about the idea of a double record. The more we worked on the songs, the more they revealed themselves to be in two separate camps, not so much musically, but lyrically and emotionally. 

One, ‘The Sand at the Core of Our Bones’ is really about a sadder outlook on life, about things in your life that have brought you to a point, things that you can’t change. There's a certain resignation to that. ‘The Land at the End of Our Toes’ is more about looking forward and what’s in the future, and what you can change. It just felt it was the right time to make a double album. Perhaps a little bit bold, a little bit, not narcissistic, but it is quite a self thing to do, in a way. I think music, you have got to excite yourselves. You have got to keep that passion going. I think by taking that risk, by pushing yourselves, it made us feel really proud and really excited of where we got to as a band.

It’s refreshing getting that amount of music from an artist that you like, because a lot of times, people just put out an album and it’s barely 40 minutes, and you're left wanting more.  What was the hard part, do you think, of the recording process for that album?

James: A big part of recording, as I'm sure you are quite well aware, but you go out and you set up all the equipment, and you put 150 microphones on the drum kit, and it takes a long time to get running,. I think we thought we would save some time by doing it all in one place, and that it wouldn’t take twice as long, but it took exactly twice as long. It took a long fucking time. That was quite tough, I suppose. We were away from home. We went through quite a difficult period as a band leading up to that, and we worked through that where we were making the album.  

It was also a fun time. It was really exciting to have 20 songs and know that they could have either different drum sounds, for example, and different drum kits in different rooms, and really concentrate on getting a sound that every song required. Creatively, it was a really, really exciting project and a lot of work. The tough times you forget about. The hard times you forget about, and those memories have passed now. All I can remember is just having a ball, and making ourselves feel excited by the music we were creating.

The band had some problems in the past with some substance abuse obviously. How did you guys work through those issues and get back on track?

James: It was a tough time. We’re in a rock band touring around. In some ways, we’ve got a lot less responsibilities than many people in their walks of life. You can slip into bad habits, and sometimes that takes a while to break those habits. What we did, we just came together. Ben and I are twins and we've been friends with Simon since we were really young kids. We just came together and tried to help each other.

I think making the album was quite therapeutic in that regard. It gave us something to concentrate on, something to really focus on. I think it was just a re-birth of the band. It felt that we were starting again. We had as much energy and passion for it as we always had. It was a really tough time. I wouldn’t wish anybody to go through tough times, but sadly, life has a way of throwing difficult things in your way, and you’ve just got to get through it. Once you do, you feel a lot stronger. You feel a lot more positive and able to take on the world again.

When were you first inspired to create music?

James: I guess when we were young, very young, there was always musical instruments in our house with Ben and I, and we’d always played a bit. My dad always guitar. Then Ben and Simon started studying music at school. I didn’t study at that point, I don’t really why. I don’t know. I couldn’t really put my finger on why it was. Then roundabout 15, 16, they asked me if I wanted to join the band. Like everybody else, you get bored of the town you grew up in, and you feel there’s nothing to do. It’s the wet weather we have here. It was nice just to, on a Saturday afternoon, get together in the garage and make some noise that would piss off our parents, and make us feel excited.

At no point was it, “Right, we’re going to form a band and take on the world.” That kind of idea didn’t come until later. At first, it was just a love of expressing yourselves and doing it together with your brothers. That was the most exciting thing.

Do you still go out and listen to live music when you're not on tour?

James: No. Actually one of the most frustrating things is hearing about all the great bands that come through town, and you always seem to miss them by one day. It’s the day you leave or the day before you come back. When we get a chance, we do. It’s been a little bit of a while for me. I can’t actually remember the last two. I went to a show in Glasgow. Luckily, this town in Glasgow, there’s some great venues from small, really small clubs, a few hundred people, and you can more or less work your way all the way up to the big rooms. There is definitely a good scene here. Although as a band, you don’t really feel part of any kind of scene. It’s nice that there's always great bands coming through town.

Have you ever met any of your musical influences?

James: We have. We met Dave Grohl. We did a few shows with the Foo Fighters. We supported them around the Mid West, and we did a bunch of shows in the UK. It’s the one time that wasn’t a disappointment, they lived up to all of our hopes. Musically, it’s inspired us so much, but also the way he carries himself, and they way the whole Foo Fighters, not just as people, but the way they operate as a band, it’s a really great way of doing things. It’s shown that they’ve lasted. They’ve been a band now for a lot longer than Nirvana were, and think Dave’s really got his head screwed on, and is still a musical hero of ours.

If you could collaborate with another artist, whether they are alive or dead, who would it be?

James: Do you know, I just got asked the same question in the last interview, and usually I would jump to start listing my favorite bands, but all my favorite bands are rock bands and that might not be too interesting a collaboration. I would say somebody more like Annie Lennox or a female vocalist like Cat Power or something like that, and just something that would be a little bit different. Maybe Björk, I've always been a huge fan of Björk, so we’d love to get in a studio with Björk, that would be amusing.

Who in the band has the best music collection, do you think?

James: I think Simon. Simon, he’s a music nut. We all love music, but he consumes music, like nobody’s business. He’s always just picking up bands. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s always managed to find the coolest bands. Yeah, I think he’s got a pretty big music collection. He’s still got all his cassettes from back in the day and stuff like that. Mine is perhaps more varied in some ways, but certainly not as extensive.

Do you have any artists that you're really into, that you want to have people check out?

James: Yes, because we’re not at home, we miss a lot of the bands from home. We've got friends that keep us in the loop. There’s a Scottish hip hop band called ‘Young Fathers.’ I think they live in Edinburgh, but they’ve come from Nigeria, and just really of interest in hip hop, salsa beats and interesting takes on things. Another band called ‘Three Blind Wolves,’ who I don’t really know much about them, also from Scotland. Great band. They sound like a band from Scotland. It’s always nice when a band wears their heart on their sleeves, and I think they're definitely worth checking out.

What advice would you give to yourself, back when you first started the band, that you know now?

James: We always try to avoid advice. The best advice would be, “Don’t listen too much to advice. Try and be true to yourself and have the courage to make mistakes, and the conviction to make mistakes. If your heart’s in it, if you're committed, you’ll figure things out eventually. Life is about making mistakes, just as much as it is doing everything perfectly.” We’ve been lucky enough to enjoy it, so not a moment has passed us by that we weren’t enjoying.

Fantastic. You guys are touring in the States for a little bit, and then you're heading over to Australia, and just bouncing around the world, right?

James: That’s correct. We've been meaning to come to the West Coast for a while, but we went round fairly extensively, round Europe last year. This year we hope to go to some more far flung places and places we haven’t been before, so it should be an exciting time. We had such a good time last year, so I'm looking forward to things getting rolling.

What do you think’s been your favorite place to tour, or your favorite single show that you’ve done?

James: I love the variety. Every room’s different. Every club’s different. People remarkably around the world, are more similar than you might like to think. Everyone has similar kind of things that they live for and they hope for in their lives.

Last summer, we played our biggest ever show, and that was at the Reading Festival in the UK, and it’s been one of the biggest rock music festivals in our country for a long time. To get a chance to headline there was just absolutely phenomenal, a dream come true, and it felt it was one of our best ever shows. It is difficult to do in such a pressured environment, so that’s one that’ll take a long time to get over the buzz of that.

Anything that you tell us about what’s coming up for the band, that hasn’t already been said?

James: There’s no surprises. We’re going to keep touring. We’re going to keep having fun. We’re going to start thinking about a new record. We’ll start working more on songs this year and hope to start recording next year. We are not going anywhere. We love doing what we’re doing, and we’re going to keep doing it, and we appreciate everyone’s support and everyone who comes to the show. Looking forward to seeing you guys on the West Coast.

Fantastic. Definitely looking for the show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and we’ll talk to you soon.

James: Cheers. Bye bye.