Exclusive – Biffy Clyro return with ‘Instant History’: “I feel a responsibility to the world now”
“This is the sound that we make, and I love the sound when it breaks,” sings Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil on the disarmingly danceable, swaggering pop of their comeback single ‘Instant History’. “That lyric sums up our entire M.O. right now,” Neil tells NME. “We’re fairly unapologetic, and have been since the start. We don’t give a shit and we’re going to keep doing this our way.”
Few bands have made raising eyebrows into an art quite like Biffy. With their jarring, madcap math-rock, they once seemed the unlikeliest of bands to graduate to sold out arenas and festival headline slots. Last year, they dropped soundtrack album ‘Balance Not Symmetry‘ completely out of the blue and now they’re back with a dance-tinged banger. Like the new genre-destroying Rich Costey-produced album that’s on the horizon for later this year, The Biff’ are full of surprises.
“‘Instant History’ does not represent the record, but as always we like to put the first song out as a bit of a rug-pull to set the panic stations,” Neil tells us. “The song is about embracing progress without completely dismissing everything that we’ve learned from the past. You can’t just go on blindly and ignore everything that’s happened, but equally you can make your own history ahead of time.
“I don’t think you’re always cursed to make the same mistakes again. I’m sure that this generation will find new ways to make mistakes, but to me this feels like the start of a new century. This song is me looking back on my life personally and the things I’ve learned over the years. There are things that I saw when I was growing up that I wish I hadn’t. Even going to football matches in Scotland as a kid and being exposed to a lot of bigotry – that’s part of the lexicon that you just take for granted. But why? Why do we need to just accept this shit?”
Why indeed. As you may have gathered, we find Biffy in a highly reflective mood. To get the lowdown on their new direction, we sat down with the Scottish trio to talk politics, going ‘vibro-pop’, bio-hacking, why rock dinosaurs must die and why Billie Eilish is “the best thing out of this century so far”.
How representative is ‘Instant History’ of your new album?
SIMON NEIL: “We wanted to come back slightly left-field. Every two years we come back and there’s a new way to present a record. We thought, ‘Fuck it – let’s go big and ballsy to start with’. Putting out the first song from a record is one of our least favourite things. Inevitably, people take a lot from it. I don’t want anyone to freak out. Whatever you think the next song will sound like, it won’t.”
JAMES JOHNSTON, BASSIST: “There’s not one song that encapsulates the whole record.”
“We need to learn from the good, the bad and the ugly. We can make a better world for everyone” Simon Neil
So, your new album – what’s all that about then?
SN: “The whole album represents us as a band and society as a whole. We need to learn from the good, the bad and the ugly. We can make a better world for everyone. That sounds so fucking drippy, but it’s within our power. There are good people in the world. We have a song on the album called ‘The Champ’ that talks about “the grey man’s curse”. So often, decent people don’t pipe up. Empty vessels make the most noise. It doesn’t reflect what’s going on in any situation.”
Is it another double album? Or have you upped your game and gone triple?
SN: “It’s just 11 songs this time. It’s the first record where I’m looking outwards a little bit more. I’m normally very personal with what I write, but in this day and age it’s impossible to not be affected by these things that are constantly happening and infiltrating every aspect of all of our lives.”
Were you reluctant to ‘go political’?
SN: “I always remember saying, ‘I’m never going to write songs about society’ or whatever, but it’s just impossible not to. The songs felt like they were the ones that spoke to me the most.”
“I feel like I’ve investigated myself more than I probably should – more than is probably healthy!” Simon Neil
Was this a reaction to your last record ‘Ellipsis‘ being so personal?
SN: “Yeah! I feel like I’ve investigated myself more than I probably should – more than is probably healthy! Over seven records I’ve just been singing about little old me, to a certain extent. I think it’s an age thing. When you’re younger, you think that you can keep the personal and the political separate, but I really don’t think that we can now in this world that we’re living in. I feel a responsibility to the world now – especially as a white male. I think that the world needs to change in the right way. It’s just been bad news for years, and the title of the album – which I can’t tell you right now – reflects that very as well.”
So is the mood in Camp Biffy these days for activism?
SN: “Well, Biffy 2020 definitely feels like another version of ourselves. For any band who have been active for this long, you’ve got to force yourself. It doesn’t always come easy to evolve, progress and change, but if you’re not trying then why fucking bother?”
JJ: “Rock music as a genre always seems to have at least one foot in the past and is always tied to its rules. I can’t think of any other genre where there’s so much fear about stepping out of your lane and trying something new. Rock music should take a leaf out of everyone else’s book.”
SN: “I love that artists like Rex Orange County are playing so much guitar. The last Tyler, The Creator record [‘IGOR‘] is almost like a fusion record – well, a confusion record!”
It is surreal to go to a laid-back Rex Orange County gig and see kids moshing…
SN: “Same with Easy Life! I saw a picture of them playing live and thought, ‘Oh, here we go’. It’s marvellous and so fucking upbeat, but not what I was expecting. That’s the identity of the kids coming through right now. They’ve got an awful lot on their plate that we didn’t have when we were growing up. Whatever way you’ve got to balance it to keep the tunes happy but get your aggro out in some way.”
Can we assume you’re fans of Billie Eilish, then?
SN: “She’s so marvellous. She’s the best thing out of this century so far. The fact that she did the Bond tune is fucking brilliant. The way that she handles all the pressure is really exceptional. I’m sure that having her brother around has really helped. Being in a band with family is what has kept us going.”
BEN JOHNSTON, DRUMMER: “Because we’re a gang, we feel supported to try something a bit more risky. It feels less like someone’s going to go, ‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?’”
SN: “Even Billie’s vocal style is amazing. Kids have as much passion as they ever have. It’s so disrespectful to tell them their music doesn’t matter as much.”
“Billie Eilish is the best thing out of this century so far,” Simon Neil
‘Confident’ is a great word to describe the new stuff.
SN: “We could make an album in a week if we wanted to, but it needs to bring something to the world. It can’t just exist because you made it. To me, that’s pointless. This album has a purpose. To me, 2020 feels like the future. It feels like it’s time to restart.”
So it’s not too late to turn the world around?
SN: “This is when a century begins. A century doesn’t begin in 1901 or 1801 – it begins when you’re in your second or third decade. It’s only now that we’re realising the potential of the next generation and the technology that we’ve made. It still baffles me, but I find it very exciting. Also, I’m bio-hacking myself at the moment.”
SN: “We met a bio-hacker, who was 40-years-old but says he has the body of a nine-year-old. It’s basically like becoming the bionic man. He looks like an android, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want the physical attributes of a nine-year-old.”
Would you have embraced technology and written a full-on dance song like ‘Insant History’ 10 years ago?
SN: “I probably would have balked a little bit! It’s about embracing the tools that we have as a band. There are certain times where we feel like pure punk rock – doing everything raw and stripped back like we always did. Whenever we go through that period we come out and ask, ‘Why are we tying one arm behind our back here? Let’s use every tool at hand.”
But it’s not EDM.
“I hate the term EDM. Can we think of something else? Let’s say ‘vibro-pop!’ It was just a chance for us to do something different and ridiculous. If it doesn’t feel slightly stupid and like we’re putting our necks on the line then I can’t see the purpose. I still like the thought of freaking people out. We used to freak our fans out by doing stuff that was really weird, now we freak them out by doing something really simple.”
JJ:“There’s a band we’ve all loved for years, I won’t mention them by name, but they bring out a record every five years and you know what you’re going to get. There’s some comfort in it because it’s familiar, but you want something to come out and make you go, ‘Wow’. That’s what’s always attracted us. We hate the thought of someone going, ‘Oh, Biffy? We know what that’s going to sound like’. If it does happen, then we haven’t done our job.”
Do you think the experimental new stuff will shake up the Biffy live experience?
JJ: “I think we’re always trying to shake it up and move it forward. Using some of the technology from the studio is something that we’ll have to incorporate. We’ve tried to bring in the artwork into the look of the stage. It’s still got to be ferocious. It’s still got to be in your face and wild. You’ve got to feel that the world is about to end.”
“To me, 2020 feels like the future. It feels like it’s time to restart” Simon Neil
A spectacle but never choreographed?
SN: “That’s it. The ‘Ellipsis’ tour was one of my favourite stage productions. You could have just as easily been at a techno show. Sometimes rock bands can just be a little too scared that it needs to be sweaty and dirty. Do whatever the fuck you want. As long as you’re being yourself. The best live shows of the last 10 years have been EDM shows – they’re the ones who are visually pushing things forwards. I want our show to be the best thing you’ve ever fucking seen.”
Would you say you’re bored with rock music?
“We played with Another Sky, and they’re amazing. There’s a Belgian band called Brutus who we love. Mannequin Pussy are big favourites of ours. Great Grandpa are stunning. These are great new guitar bands who are paving the way. Rock’s dead? Fuck off. It’s just evolving. I just don’t want more burly blokes telling us the same fucking story for another 15 years. I love my classic rock music, but I don’t want to be referencing a record that was made 45 years ago when I’m going into the studio. That’s why I love the way things are going. Kids are pulling from everywhere.”
When will you be hitting the road?
SN: “We’re getting all of our festivals sorted out. Depending on how many we do, we may tour in September. We might have a quiet-ish summer then come back with our own tour – maybe early next year. We’re really keen to play all of this record. That’s how you know you’re fucking buzzing when you’re genuinely fucking salivating at figuring out how to figure these songs out. We’re excited to get out there but it will be a wee while. We’re doing some cool stuff around Europe.”
JJ: “Patience may be required, but we are fucking coming.”