The road to Reading & Leeds: Biffy Clyro’s raucous history of the rites-of-passage festival
“Reading & Leeds has always been such an important part of our history as a band,” Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil tells NME. “It was the first festival that I had a dream of playing. I remember drawing out my dream Reading line-up when I was in high school. We were headlining, Nirvana were just before us – it was total cockstar stuff!”
Bold as it may be to wheel Kurt Cobain out to open for you, even as a daydream sketched out in the back of a maths book, the young Neil could never have envisioned the legend that he would come to share with many of his heroes.
This weekend, 20 years since they first arrived to play in those hallowed fields, the Biff will be stepping in to replace Queens Of The Stone Age and headline R&L for a third time. From once experiencing Arcade Fire “change his DNA” with their emotionally wrought “religious experience” of a show to sharing a stage with his Nirvana idol Dave Grohl when playing alongside Foos, Neil knows all too well how much a Reading gig can matter.
“The experience of playing Reading as a band and watching so many different artists as fans has educated and inspired us so much over the years,” he says. “I saw an article on NME with every line-up poster ever. It was essentially hundreds of the best artists from all genres. To know that we’re now going to play Reading & Leeds for the 10th time is just bonkers and blows my mind.”
To celebrate, we asked Neil to walk us through each and every appearance the Scottish trio have made at Reading & Leeds – from their debut as awkward math-rock upstarts to bill-topping underdog champs – along with a few words on what to expect from their set this year…
2001: the hazy first time
Simon Neil: “We were opening the second stage. It was so early in the day, I think we were on just before breakfast! It was such a big tent for us to be playing in, but it felt like we’d joined the big people’s league. It was back when we would drive ourselves to shows through the night, get some kip, wake up and play. Ben [Johnston, drummer] was sick all the way up to the gig because we thought it was best to get a little bit oiled before the show with a few vodkas. I remember seeing Rick from Shed Seven and going, ‘Oh my God!’ It was a big deal to see all these characters walking around that you grew up reading about in NME.”
2002: the fun one with friends
“We played the Carling Stage that year. It’s still going, but it’s not called that because no one drinks Carling anymore – thank fuck! We were playing with a lot of bands that we’d been touring with like Hell Is For Heroes, Jetplane Landing, ThisGirl, and all our friends were in this tent on the same day. As outsiders, it felt like we were all infiltrating something. It felt like the kernels of a British heavy music uprising at that point. Rock at the turn of the millennium was big, dumb and bombastic. We were trying to be a little bit more sophisticated. It felt like we were all there to be part of our own network. It was probably the best two or three hours of a festival I’ve ever experienced.
“I remember people singing along to our songs ‘57’ and ‘JustBoy’, and had a feeling I’ve never experienced before – I think it was… pride? We’d finally pulled people into our own little world without compromising. That gave us a lot of strength to move forward.”
2003: the awkward main stage debut
“We were not ready for the main stage. We were just three guys getting out of a van and making a racket. I still refused to talk to the crowd, we played with our backs to them. Our second album ‘The Vertigo Of Bliss’ had just come out, which is our most bonkers record. Those songs did not travel well from the main stage. People were just looking at us going, ‘Are you serious? It’s 1pm! Where are KoRn?’ We might not have been ready, but it was a challenge that gave us some fortitude. We learned to grow into it. We wanted to grab people by the collarbone, bring them into our way of thinking and force them to be a part of it.”
2005: the one where shit got real
“By this point, we knew how to not completely fuck up. Previously we wanted our energy and sincerity to come across more than the music. This was the first time we thought about the audience. It sounds very basic, but it took us a while to learn that. Songs like ‘Glitter And Trauma’ and ‘My Recovery Injection’ had hit the goddamn charts! Playing big stages had fed back into the songs. A bigger canvas pushes you to paint differently and that shaped the record that would become [2007 album] ‘Puzzle’.
“In 2005, I was a bit of a mess because it wasn’t long after my mum had passed. The whole year is a blur and the music was the thing I was hanging all my sensibilities, anxieties and sadness on. I’m glad it became a fruitful period for us because I poured everything into the band.”
2007: the one where Biffy truly stepped up
“We were finally popular and the NME tent was packed! A lot of the fans of our earlier records were like, ‘Wait a minute – this wasn’t part of the plan!’ It was a real coming-of-age moment. Everyone in that tent came to see our band and to hear the songs from ‘Puzzle’. It mattered a lot to me that the music was connecting after we’d been through so much. We were third from top and on before We Are Scientists, who seemed way more likely to come back and headline than we were!
“I don’t want to sound like an arsehole but we played a brilliant show; one of my favourite ever. It was the first time I thought, ‘We fucking belong here’. Looking around I was like, ‘We’re the best fucking band here – no doubt’.”
2008: the one with Rage Against The Machine
“That year was special because Rage Against The Machine had come back to headline after no one thought they would. We were lucky enough to see them at Glasgow Barrowlands back in ‘93, so for us to share a stage with them all these years later and be stood there as they went out in their Guantanamo Bay jumpsuits was insane. To go from being the kids at the back who’d snuck into the gig to a band sharing a stage with them was incredible. Moments like that always happen at Reading. Those moments tell our story both as fans and as a band.”
2010: the one with all the blonde ambition
“We were in Canada the week before so I just thought, ‘Fuck it, I want to look like Gandalf.’ I bleached my hair blonde and everyone told me I looked fucking terrible, but I loved it. Queens Of The Stone Age were on after us and were fantastic, the weather was glorious, and at the Leeds gig I was almost deafened. All my monitors were squealing, so then I lost my mind and threw them off the stage and then I couldn’t hear a thing – but it didn’t matter because the vibe felt so good! ‘Only Revolutions’ had been out for just under a year, people knew the songs and there was no Matt Cardle at that point ,so there was no controversy! [X Factor mum-magnet Cardle would later cover Biffy’s ‘Many of Horror’] It was just a pure celebration of the music.
“Guns N’ Roses were one of the first bands I ever fell in love with, but that year they were headlining and such a shambles. They were two hours late, people were booing, the crew switched off the PA and the band sat on the stage to do an acoustic song. It was really fucking bizarre. One of my most overriding memories is of Axl Rose coming off the stage in a total rage.”
2013: the emotional first headline slot
“This was the first time we headlined, and we played after Nine Inch Nails. I remember Trent Reznor threw his toys out of the pram beforehand because we didn’t make room for his ego. But that’s alright, there’s plenty of room for his ego elsewhere! To go on after a band like that who we’d loved and respected for so long was insane.
“I don’t know how we survived that weekend. It was one of the few shows of my life that was a total out-of-body experience. I don’t really get emotional after gigs but I just burst into tears. It was such an overwhelming experience for the three of us. To be three buddies who started making music for a laugh as 12-year-olds to then be headlining is something I’ll never forget. The show couldn’t have gone any better. It just mattered a lot to a lot of people – to our friends, our fans and other musicians who’d watched our journey. There was a real pride in our community – for a band of our ilk who never played the game to have come so far.”
2016: the one where they eased up a bit
“There are always a lot of nerves. I’m a very anxious person and I always try to retain a little bit of that. There’s never a full-on sense of, ‘Hey, this is what we do!’, but we were more prepared this time. It felt more liberating and more real to headline again. It was less of a milestone and more of us just being ourselves. It felt like we really brought a proper Biffy gig onto the Reading stage and didn’t compromise a jot.
“It’s always the crowd that make Reading & Leeds. It’s not about how well you play or if you jump off a fucking amp, it’s about the people. I remember playing our song ‘Friends & Enemies’ in Leeds. I’ve normally got my head down and occasionally look up, but I remember staring out to see James [Johnston, bass] getting his old Cliff Richard on to get the arms a-waving. It was like every pair of fucking arms in Yorkshire was up there.”
2021: the one where we all get to be together again
“It’s a real shame that Queens Of The Stone Age can’t make it, but I was originally really heartbroken that we weren’t going to be playing this year. When we got the call I was like, ‘Fucking right – we’ll do it!’ It’ll be celebrating so much more than a weekend of music. We’ll all be together at last. It’s more important than any Reading & Leeds before. This time last year I just couldn’t envisage more than 20 people standing together ever again as I’m a bit of a cynic. It’s going to be pure joy.
“It’s a really fantastic bill. The way that Reading & Leeds has evolved over the years is so healthy. There’s so much young music on there and that’s where the most exciting stuff happens. Not to take away from the best show of the weekend, which will of course be Biffy fucking Clyro, but I really hope people appreciate that hunger to soak up as much new music as they can.
“We’re going to play a bunch of stuff from [2020 album] ‘A Celebration Of Endings’, and we’ve also completed another new record, which should be coming out in October, but I don’t know if we’ll play anything from that. We’ll probably save that for our own headline shows. We can’t play for two hours, so we’re just going to go out there and give everyone a good time. It’s going to have to be a biggie. It’s going to be a gig for the ages.”
– Biffy Clyro headline Reading & Leeds 2021 alongside Liam Gallagher, Post Malone, Stormzy, Catfish & The Bottlemen and Disclosure this weekend from August 27-29. Visit our dedicated page for NME’s latest coverage from the festival