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Stage Buzz Feature: Biffy Clyro

| April 7, 2022

Biffy Clyro 2022 (L to R: Ben Johnston, Simon Neil, James Johnston)

Scottish heavy rockers Biffy Clyro are set to return to North American shores for their first US tour since 2017. It doesn’t sound like a long stretch of time, but the constant delays, cancellations, and uncertainties that came with COVID make it feel like an eternity. The band is thrilled to open the tour in Chicago in April (April 17 at House of Blues Chicago), but bassist James Johnston is even more excited to make connections with people, something he’s been craving these past few years.

Though Johnston is eager to play music every night for thousands of people, he’s looking forward to chatting with people, whether it be fans, a random taxi driver, or even a music journalist in Chicago. Before we can get down to business and talk about Biffy Clyro’s new documentary, Cultural Sons of Scotland, we chat about vacation plans, what concerts we’ve seen post-pandemic, and must-see Chicago spots. Though he’s nearly 4,000 miles away in Scotland, it felt like we were having a drink together in a pub.

But when we do get down to business, Johnston dishes on the band’s new intimate documentary, what he misses about North America, and how he’s ready to rock the fuck out in Chicago.

Illinois Entertainer: Cultural Sons of Scotland is out now and it’s a look at the making of The Myth of the Happily Ever After and a look back at the band’s early years where you guys visited certain locations in your hometown of Ayrshire that holds great significance to the band. Was it always part of the plan to do a documentary like this?

James Johnston: It wasn’t part of the plan to do a documentary at all because we were already some ways through the recording process before the guys came along. It grew arms and legs as often things do. Unless you explain why the story of the band making a record at home during lockdown was different for us, I don’t know what the story is. We had to explain how we never recorded at home, otherwise it’s like band records in their own place, cool (laughs). That’s what bands do, isn’t it? We’ve always gone away to make albums. So, it was important to tell some of the backstory and tell the story about lockdown and that sort of process. The backstory explains, obviously what brought us there, but why it was unique for us to be recording at home. We had to try and explain the contrast of the West coast of America, where we usually record, and the West coast of Scotland. Throughout the entire recording of that movie, the West Coast of Scotland looked like the West Coast of America because it was gorgeous. The shine was shining for like 12 weeks straight, so it didn’t quite tell the story we wanted to tell. We wanted to tell the story of the glitz and the glamor and the beautiful sunsets in LA and then the rain and the oppression and the degression of Scotland and we couldn’t tell that story because it was so nice every day! It ended up being quite idyllic little few weeks of our lives. It was a really unique time. I think we’ll look back at that time of our lives in amazement to some degree. I’m really happy we were able to document it.

IE: What inspired you to want to capture the recording process for this album?

JJ: I don’t think it came from a spark of any of the band members. I think it was that [director] Jack Lowe came to us. We’d worked on some things with Jack before. We did a really nice version of “Space” at Abbey Road with an orchestra, which was gorgeous. So, we had a bit of a rapport. I think it was his idea initially. I don’t know many bands who’d put their hands up and rush to say somebody put a camera in my face for 12 weeks. Maybe Jared Leto. We’ve done some shows with him and there’s always a camera pointed at him, and I think he’s quite happy with that. God knows he looks good on screen, so good for him. So, I don’t think it initially came from us. But the more we talked about it, the more we realized what a unique time in our history to be recording in Scotland and what that meant to us. To be doing it ourselves; it was quite a hands-on process. There were no meetings about making this album. Usually, there’re meetings about meetings and how did the meeting go? Are you looking forward to the next meeting? It’s exhausting. But with this, we just got in there and did it. In some ways, the movie was similar to that. Not spending hours deliberating things. It was like cool, let’s do this. And very quickly we struck up a great rapport with Jack and the other guys that helped film it. I think that’s really important if you’re gonna spend that long with somebody. We were feeding [Jack] haggis the first day he got there. I look back and it’s like we were trolling him! The national dish of Scotland! You couldn’t get more Scottish if you tried. I think having that relationship with him was quite important for all that to happen and thankfully it did happen, you know? You would’ve seen it in the movie if we were being guarded or somebody else. I think we were able to be ourselves.

IE: It does feel like a genuine, honest look at the band. It’s like sneaking into the studio and seeing all these intimate moments no one else is privy to. You guys cooking and hanging out and bouncing ideas off each other. It’s all smiles and laughter and good times. When going into the film, were you hesitant or worried at all about letting fans into this intimate, private experience of recording the album?

JJ: It’s a funny one. When you’re making an album, I’ve always found that you get about 90% of the way through and then you go fuck people are gonna hear this! I forgot. You get so caught up in what you’re doing you forget that people are gonna see it. In the same way, you sort of forget that there’s a public at the other end of the camera. You’re just talking to Jack. So not really, no. I don’t think it’s because we were ready for it. I think it’s ‘cause I didn’t think about it. I think I’m just emotionally slow (laughs) It wasn’t until we were at the premiere watching it that I went oh Christ people are watching me cry and seeing the emotion we have attached to the band. I didn’t give it much consideration – probably for the best. It’s kind of all in with this band like let’s get on with things. I didn’t have much trepidation. Five years ago, you wouldn’t have gotten in the door. There’s been more crew coming over the last few years, so the place has naturally opened up to more people. We’ve done the occasional photoshoot there for example. I think with the passage of time, we’ve become a bit more open to letting people in. If you tried filming that movie four years ago, we would’ve just laughed at you. (laughs) It was nice to let people in and have a glimpse at it.

IE: Biffy is a band that’s about looking forward, embracing change, and challenging yourself. So, what was it like revisiting locations that were essential to the band’s beginnings and just looking back at where you guys started in general?

JJ: It didn’t have a big profound effect. I look back at those moments with a smile. It’s nice to think about three young lads having fun who didn’t really know what was in front of them. No real massive ambition. Maybe quietly ambitious but perhaps we weren’t as ambitious as some of the other bands that were kicking around at the same time. I don’t pine for those times. There’s no great outpouring of emotion. It was great, it was amazing. We obviously enjoyed it because we kept doing it. We definitely got the buzz from doing it. I kind of feel nervous when I think back to those early shows. That’s the overriding feeling –thinking about how nervous I was. Going around with a mailing list trying to get everyone’s name to let them know when our next show was and all that sort of stuff, but I don’t feel teary. I don’t feel emotional thinking about it when usually it doesn’t take that much from me to get a little emotional. I’m not swelling with pride or anything like that. We’re not really a band who looks back. I don’t spend a long time sitting looking back thinking those were the days. Tomorrow might be even better than any of that shit.

It was a great period in our lives. I loved it, but in the band’s life, we’re having a better time now. We were shit (laughs). We were totally shit! And now we’re coming to Chicago! So, would you rather stand about in a grey part of West Scotland staring at a pile of bricks going that was amazing, or would you rather go and fly to Chicago? Fucking hell. Our band has gotten to the point where we can come play Chicago. Let’s go!

IE: Thi month you’ll make a triumphant return to North America for your first tour since 2017. It’s insane that it’s been that long! Considering that you have not one, but now two albums to tour with, A Celebration of Endings being 2 years old at this point, what are your plans for the tour?

JJ: We did shows last October and in rehearsals, we were like “we’re gonna play A Celebration top to bottom. Then we’re gonna walk off, mic drop, boom, see ya later.” And we didn’t do that (laughs). We were like yeah, this fucking great! We sound amazing! And then we thought ‘ nah that’s not fear.’ To do that with two new albums in a reasonably small club? We’re probably playing to a thousand odd people a night. Any more than 90 minutes plus an encore? Fuck people are leaving! We played with a band I really liked once in North America, and they were doing covers and jamming out their own material. So, they jammed out from the first song, a big, long rock outro, and then two and half hours later they’re still doing the same thing. And the singer’s like you guys want to hear one more song? And everyone says yeah! You guys want to hear two more songs? You want to hear ten more? And it’s like no. No, I don’t want to hear ten more fucking songs. Give me three! (laughs) I know that makes me sound like a miserable old sod, but the point is you can leave people wanting more or you can bore them to death. I think we have an intense show. It’s loud. It’s in your face, but you’re gonna start losing people after 90 minutes. People who bought tickets are in charge to some degree. That’s how I see it. We’re not bored of playing any of our songs. We’re happy playing any of them. So, it’s not gonna be an easy choice, but it’s gonna be amazing.

The other thing is we don’t have any hits in America. There’ll be songs that people like yourself or people who have seen some live videos, will know are more popular here. But none of our songs are massively popular in America. I know that’s not really what I should be saying, but let’s be honest, we don’t have any hits in America so there’s nothing that we feel we have to play. So, the roundabout answer I don’t really know. We’ll play 25 songs it’s gonna be great. You’re gonna love it.

IE: Not having as many hits in America as you say, does that give you a bit more freedom to do what you guys want on tour?

JJ: A little bit. We want people to have a good time. We want people to come back next time we come to town. When we started being a band, if there was one person in the audience, we were determined they were gonna be there the next time. That’s how we survived as a band. So, we don’t want to come 4000 miles to piss off a bunch of people. That would be silly. But there’s a little bit more license. In practice yesterday we played deep cuts and some weird b-sides and were like these are all great! WE should play all of these songs! But we just want people to have a good time. We want to challenge them a little bit as well. We kind of want people to get pissed off with us now and again as long as they don’t walk out the door. There’s a kind of part of Scottish nature where we don’t mind being obtuse, a little difficult at times. But ultimately who are we kidding? We want people to have a good time.

IE: The tour launches soon in Chicago, which we’re really excited about. Do you remember the first time you played Chicago?

JJ: No. (laughs) I remember being there with our tour manager, Stevie Bradford, who’s no longer with us. He took us around America a few times. Of course, I remember the pizza but don’t remember the show. But Chicago’s a proper town. There’s no bullshit in Chicago. That’s certainly how I see it. I get the feeling there’s hardworking people there. Certainly, Chicago house music made its way to Glasgow and there was a big connection there between Glasgow and Chicago. It reminds me of Glasgow where Edinburgh gets the castle and the capital and it’s pretty fucking gorgeous. And Glasgow has always been this slightly dirtier, grimier, dirt under the fingernails type town. And I mean this with the greatest respect, but I do picture Chicago a bit more like Glasgow. A little bit more dirt under the fingernails, but a little more interesting and a bit more of a story to tell.

IE: I can see that. There’s definitely a lot of beautiful sights in Chicago, but we have a lot of hard-working people here. It’s not oozing with glamor like LA. There are hints of that sure, but we still have that gritty side we’re not afraid of. Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing when you arrive in the city?

JJ: It’s just that memory of when we went to get a pizza. We’re looking at this pizza and we’re like it’s only four slices. I’ll have two! We only had one slice each and we were all completely fucking done in. We’re like that’s just wrong! We’re professional pizza eaters! So, we went to a bar, we got drunk, we came home. And then we’re heating this slice of pizza in the microwave determined to try and get this pizza finished. I think we even had a go at it the next day. It’s a bit embarrassing, but basically trying to eat a whole pizza will be quite a challenge. I’d be quite happy with that. There’s great history and culture in Chicago and unfortunately, we haven’t had time to see it. We’ve played in your city eight times; I’ve probably spent two nights there. I don’t mind doing tourist things, but then it’s the other wee things like discovering a pub or a market or having a chat with somebody in a taxi. Those wee moments I quite like. You remember that guy for the rest of your life.

IE: What are you most excited about your big return to North America?

JJ: Obviously playing our music to people. We’re really proud of the music we’ve made over the last few years, and it doesn’t properly exist until you play it in front of people and get a reaction. See if there is a reaction. Maybe there will be no reaction. But also, those little moments where you’re walking back to the bus and you’re meeting somebody from wherever. Just having a little chat with somebody and figuring out you’re quite similar. I’m quite looking forward to that because it used to make the world feel smaller for me. The world has kind of gotten a wee bit further away, especially over the last few years. I’m looking forward to reminding myself that folks are just folks. It’s a strange leap to make but thinking about Russia and having to cancel shows there and people asking us questions about it. We were never going to play for the government of Russia. We were always gonna go play for the people. And the Russian people are having a fucking miserable time right now. They’re just folks. What are their lives gonna be like for the next decade to come?  But yeah, I’m looking forward to reminding myself that folks are just folks. We may speak a bit differently or wear different clothes. That’s the bit I like when you chat away to people and you’re like I could maybe go for a pint here.

IE: It’s great to make those connections, especially with how disconnected everyone has been for the past few years and to some extent remains disconnected. Being at a concert with the band and all these people who are there for the same reason: to watch a great fucking rock show, jam out, and have a good time. It’s all about making those connections.

JJ: It’s when you lock eyes with another member of the audience. Or how – we grew up in a small town and you’d see a kid in a Pearl Jam t-shirt or a Nirvana t-shirt and think yeah! It’s those little moments of I don’t know your name, I’m never gonna know your name but it’s like you get it! We’re in the same wee gang here. It’s been an isolating period. There’s no point in glossing over it. It’s been really difficult for everybody. There’s no point in pretending it hasn’t affected me. I found it really really tough not being able to just get out. In some ways when we’re not on tour, this is sort of my general life. People in bands spend a lot of time indoors. When you come home off tour, you just isolate. You hibernate. I’d be doing this anyway. But we don’t have those periods of joy in between when we get to come out and see the world. It turns out there is a social side to being in a band, as much as we’re anti-social loners. There’s that social side to it where it’s meeting five hundred thousand people every night. We really miss that.

IE: Getting back to Cultural Sons of Scotland the recording of your latest album, it was an all-encompassing experience where you’re hanging out, cooking breakfast together, not just recording. Walking away from that experience, would you want to do an all-encompassing thing again for a future album or is it something you’ve checked off a list and are now ready to try something different?

JJ: I wouldn’t try to repeat it. That would be a mistake. We’ve done “making of documentaries” before when we’ve made albums, so it depends on what story you’ve got to tell. This was more than just the story of making an album. It was about the pandemic and what we were all going through. What that meant to us three as individuals and collectively. I think you have to tell a little bit of our history, what got us there. There’s still a little more to tell with the history of the band, but I’m not in a rush to try and repeat what was successful about that. I thought it was great. I really enjoyed watching it. Anytime you try to repeat something that’s gone well you fuck up. There’s always a story to tell with the band. It just depends on what’s going on. So, let’s see where we are when we make the next record. I don’t even know if we would make another record on the farm. I’m not gonna bend myself in knots trying to figure out what happens.

I would love to do it, but only if we have the same freedom we had with the last record. With the greatest respect to the record company, who we genuinely love there, I don’t want them coming up every weekend telling us what to do. If it’s different if we’re in Los Angeles or London. But I don’t know if I’d be too happy with folk coming to Ayrshire to our place telling us what to do. But there’s always a story to tell. You don’t know it until you get there. I’d hate to try and force a narrative. I think you have to do it with a degree of naivety so you’re not thinking about it too much. If you prepare for it and you’re gonna decide what the story is in a documentary before you start filming then that’s writing, is it? it’s the same when making an album. You have just wait and see what happens.

Biffy Clyro will return to North America for their spring tour on April 17 at Chicago’s House of Blues. Their new documentary, Cultural Sons of Scotland, is available now on Amazon Prime.

– Ashley Perez Hollingsworth

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