Date of interview: 4 March 2014
Method of interview: Phone
Original publication date: 5 March 2014
External publication: Texx And The City (Cape Town, South Africa)
On the eve of his band’s first touring dates in South Africa, Ben Johnston, drummer of Scottish rock superstars Biffy Clyro, is remarkably humble, and genuinely believes that their headlining status in our land is “pinch-yourself stuff right there”.
For him and Biffy Clyro, it’s been a long road to the top, where touring with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, Muse, and Foo Fighters have become commonplace, and their latest album, Opposites, netted them their first UK Number One after almost two decades together as a band. Yet Johnston can’t hide the boyish glee that comes with meeting and befriending Dave Grohl, one of the band’s idols and a major inspiration.
“We were touring America with him, and on the very first day, he just bursts into our dressing room and is like ‘Hey, I’m Dave!’ And we were like ‘Yeah, we know who you are, man!”
Speaking from his hotel in Perth, Australia, Johnston is excited to have the platform they do for their upcoming gigs at Ramfest in Cape Town and Johannesburg. “I think we’ll be able to show a few more sides to the band, but still not everything, you know. It’s still a festival set. But we have six albums, man, so we’ll try and show everything that we have in our basement.”
The contents of that basement date right back to 1995, when Johnston and singer-guitarist Simon Neil formed what would become Biffy Clyro in their early teens, along with Johnston’s twin brother James on bass. He revealed that his prominent backing vocals come from originally having to mask Neil’s breaking voice during some of the higher parts of the songs they were covering and writing. It’s a task that he’s adapted to quite smoothly as a drummer.
“I always had a higher voice than Simon, so I guess I would sing a lot of the choruses. And then when it came to writing songs, Simon would quite often write these high choruses that he was unable to sing, so he would say ‘You sing this bit’. I don’t think it’s really any different than playing guitar and singing, I think that once you know what you’re doing on the drums, you just have to make sure that that’s second nature, and then the singing comes next, so you just sing on top of what you’re playing.”
Being in a band with a twin brother and a friend is “kind of like a marriage”, he says. “It takes a bit of hard work, and it takes a lot of learning. You have to learn when someone needs space, and when someone doesn’t need space and needs a friend.” Earnestness has also kept the lads grounded over the years. “We didn’t start this band to get girls or make money or any of that shit – we’re making music we really wanna hear,” he proudly declares.
Judging from their recent output, Biffy Clyro must like their music epic and grandiose, but Johnston assured that, “on our next album we’re gonna scale it back a little bit.”
“We like doing things in threes, and we had our first three albums which were kinda spazzy and angular, you know? And it was all with the same producer. And then we’ve just done three albums with Garth Richardson, where the albums are very big in their scope. So I don’t think we can make an album that is more epic than Opposites – it’s kind of the biggest-sounding record that I think Biffy Clyro will ever make.”
To translate the complexity and depth of Opposites to a live setting, the band has recruited an additional guitarist and a keyboardist (“There’s certainly nothing missing live, it’s just like an angrier version of what’s on the record”). And with it being a double-concept album, Johnston hinted at the possibility of performing the 20-track masterpiece live in its entirety (“we’re big fans of bands doing that”).
For a simple, down-to-earth guy, Johnston delights himself in the complexities of his music, naming mariachi-flavoured ‘Spanish Radio’ as his current favourite Biffy song to perform live, due to its uncommon 5/4 time signature. “I think complex things are good, as long as you’re able to disguise them and they don’t sound wrong. But the trick is disguising it, these awkward moments with beautiful moments – melody and pop – and the listener forgets that they’re listening to something that is intrinsically awkward”.
KD: Hello Ben, it's Kurt Duvel of Texx and the City in Cape Town - how're you doing today?
BJ: I’m good man, how are you?
KD: I am incredibly happy to be speaking with you, this is a massive honour for me, I’m a huge fan of your band and your work. So I’m pretty happy right now (laughs)
BJ: Thank you so much, that’s very kind of you.
KD: Yeah, well I’ve also only been a fan of yours since about 2009/2010, from Only Revolutions, but you guys have been around for almost 2 decades now. I'm sure that there's many more like me who’ve got into your music once it hit the mainstream - how do you cater for such a diverse, perhaps divided fan base?
BJ: Say that again, sorry, what was the question?
KD: There’s quite of few of your fans that only got into your music really around the time of Puzzle and Only Revolutions – when you really hit the big mainstream. How do you feel about fans that’ve been with right from the start, possibly even 1995 when you started the band? How does that feel?
BJ: It feels amazing to have fans dating back that far to the start of our career. It’s certainly nice when we meet people that have been with us from the very start and still enjoy the music that we make today. Of course there’s always going to be fans that get into the band at the beginning, then as the band develops and matures and evolves, maybe that your style of music isn’t suited to the same people? So sometimes you do get divisions within the fan base, and you get some that only like the first three and some people only like the most recent three, and some people like all six albums. So it quite like a diverse, varied fan base that we have, and I’m really happy for that, you know? I’m glad that we’ve evolved over the years, I’m glad that our music presents different challenges to people, and that we’ve changed and challenged ourselves. Any fan’s a good fan in my book – I wouldn’t pick older fans over newer fans, or vice versa, but we’re very happy with anybody buying our music and coming to the shows.
KD: You’ve definitely got many fans in South Africa, and we’ve been eagerly awaiting your arrival for quite a few years now. And we’ve also got a lot of fans who are also in local bands that draw a lot of inspiration from your music. Have you had the chance to meet or even play with some of musical idols?
BJ: Yes, very much so. I think we may have played with almost of all our musical idols.
KD: Really? Wow…
BJ: We’re very, very lucky in that respect. Even years ago, we got to support the Rolling Stones twice in Italy and Spain, and that was a long time ago, you know, that was back way before Puzzle. And also we’ve played with The Who, we’ve played with Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age – all these people were heroes of ours. I mean, Dave Grohl in Foo Fighters obviously was in Nirvana, and Nirvana was the band that made us start a band really…
KD: I noticed that, the comparisons are quite strong…
BJ: Because we’re a three-piece and we tried to keep things quite simple and powerful, and we definitely draw a lot of inspiration from Nirvana. So to get to tour with Foo Fighters and become friends with Dave Grohl is a massive honour for us.
KD: That must be a real pinch-yourself moment right there (laughs)
BJ: Very much so. On the tour – we were touring America with him – on the very first day, Dave Grohl just bursts into our dressing room and is like “Hey, I’m Dave!” And we were like “Yeah, we know who you are man!”
KD: Haha, we definitely know who you are! This is your first time coming to South Africa, and how do you prepare for a show where you’ve never played before, where you don’t have a clear idea of the festival or the audience? You just, you know, first time up there. How do you cater for that?
BJ: That’s what it’s gonna be like when we come to South Africa. I mean, it’s our first foray in the country, and we’re finishing the gig…
KD: Yeah, you’re headlining. It’s a very popular festival in South Africa, Ramfest is a big honour for any band to headline…
BJ: Yeahhh, we can’t believe it! We’re just having to work very hard, and if we come to get any fans, and to get the chance to play in front of even more than a hundred people, we’ve always been put first, so it feels like we’re cheating when we’re coming to South Africa and already we’re headlining a festival – that’s pinch-yourself stuff right there. We can’t believe that’s happened, we can’t believe that we have any fans at all.
KD: You said in a recent Australian interview of festivals and how you "never really have long enough to show every side of your band". But surely with being in a headline slot, do you think you’ll be able to show some more deeper album cuts, not just singles?
BJ: Yeah, I think we’ll be able to show a few more sides to the band, but still not everything, you know. It’s still a festival set, so it’s still gonna probably be about an hour-and-a-half or maybe getting closer to two hours. But we have six albums, man – so we’ll try and show everything that we have in our basement or in our locker, with tape longer than that. I think that we’re one of these bands where you’d have to watch us for probably three hours to get every single side of our band. But certainly we’ll do our very best to try and squeeze everything that Biffy has into an hour-and-a-half we’ll play for both gigs.
KD: I've noticed that your backing vocals are quite prominent in Biffy's music - how do you manage singing whilst drumming? Or is it something that comes naturally to you?
BJ: It’s always been something that’s very natural. It started from way back, I guess, when we very first started as a band, we would cover other people’s songs - as everyone does – and some of the choruses were just a bit too high for Simon to sing…
KD: Oh really? (laughs)
BJ: Yeah, you’re talking back when we were like fourteen, fifteen years old. You know you’re talking about your voice has maybe just broken…
KD: Of course, of course…
BJ: So your voice is all (makes sound of teenage boy’s voice breaking)
BJ: And I always had a higher voice than Simon, so I guess I would sing a lot of the choruses. And then when it came to writing songs, Simon would quite often write these high choruses that he was unable to sing, so he would say “You sing this bit”. I don’t think it’s really any different than playing guitar and singing, I think that once you know what you’re doing on the drums, you just have to make sure that that’s second nature, and then the singing comes next, so you just sing on top of what you’re playing. It’s the same sort of breakdown you get in your head as when you’re playing guitar and singing. I also play guitar, so I find both to be equally challenging.
KD: Okay, that’s really interesting insight there. Speaking of playing with Simon from so young, and obviously including your brother James in the band from the start: what does it take for a band to stay together for almost 2 decades? Is it a familial bond, or just good friends? What keeps it together?
BJ: I think it’s a mix of all that stuff. It’s a mix of hard work, obviously. I mean it’s kind of like a marriage, being in a band for this long (laughs). I think most bands don’t last this long or do really well. So it takes a bit of hard work, and it takes a lot of learning. You have to learn when someone needs space, and when someone doesn’t need space and someone needs a friend (and we’re brothers). But mostly the reason it lasted this long is because – it sounds kind of corny – a lot from the music, and that’s the reason this band exists in the first place, it’s the reason we still exist to this day is because we always only care about the music. We didn’t start this band to get girls or make money or any of that shit – we’re making music we really wanna hear…
KD: I saw in a previous interview of yours, you said that this is your hobby and you happen to get paid for it…
BJ: Exactly, exactly that. It’s a hobby we get paid for, but basically if we didn’t get paid for this, we’d still do it. That’s how we keep it innocent. We would never let money get into our heads - when it comes to music, it’s nothing to do with money; it’s art. It’s all about expressing yourself. So that’s what we do, and we have fun doing it, and that’s what we’re still about.
KD: Moving onto Opposites – [it being] your most recent album, which is obviously receiving a lot of press and a lot of attention – I noticed [that] it’s got quite an eclectic array of sounds and instruments that weren't really on your previous albums, like kazoos and trumpets and bagpipe and what-not. How does that translate to a live show? Do you think you will continue in that vein for future albums?
BJ: To be honest, I think on our next album we’re gonna scale it back a little bit. We like doing things in threes, and we had our first three albums which were kinda spazzy and angular, you know? And it was all with the same producer. And then we’ve just done three albums with Garth Richardson, where the albums are very big in their scope, you know, they’re very cinematic and epic? So I don’t think we can make an album that is more epic than Opposites – it’s kind of the biggest-sounding record that I think Biffy Clyro will ever make.
KD: Wow, I’m almost glad to hear that! Because you wonder how more epic it can be when you throw a mariachi band in there?
BJ: Well I don’t think we should put it on that record! (laughs). There’s no way we can do a better version of Opposites, so we have to evolve, and we have to play not a different style of music, but we have to approach how we write our music and play our music a little bit differently, and that’s what we’re gonna do for the next album. It’s gonna be interesting. Also, to go back to translating live: it’s been amazing playing the new songs, they work really well. When we play live, we have two extra players. We have a guitarist called Mike Vennart, and a keyboardist called Gambler, and they were in a great prog band called Ocean Size, coming out of Manchester, but they’re now broken up so we stole them. So they play with us live, and they help to recreate all those textures that you hear on the record. There’s certainly nothing missing live, it’s just like a more angry version of what’s on the record.
KD: Of course. Also, Opposites is a double-concept album - have you guys ever thought of performing it in its entirety, sort-of like Tommy or Quadrophenia by The Who?
BJ: Of course! I mean, we’d love to do that someday. We’re big fans of bands doing that, of playing certain albums in their entirety. We actually did that after we had released three albums. In Glasgow, we did four nights in a small club, where we played our first three albums and then on the fourth night, we played some new ideas for our next album, which became Puzzle. So we like doing stuff like that. We’re thinking about sometime soon doing a special night where we do six nights, and obviously on the sixth night, we would play Opposites in its entirety. So yeah, that will happen, watch this space…
KD: Ok well, [that is] what I noticed with one of my favourite gigs of yours, [which] is your headlining slot at Reading & Leeds last year. The set design, and the fireworks, and Simon setting his guitar on fire – it almost seemed made for like a presentation of just the album in one go. That would be great. What is your favourite Biffy song to perform live?
BJ: It changes all the time. That’s a good thing – I’d be worried if it was always only one (laughs). But I love to play ‘Spanish Radio’ – I think it’s a very complex song, but people may not realise that. It has time signature of 5/4…
KD: Which is something that you’re particularly known for with your drumming: being able to keep in different time signatures, especially awkward ones.
BJ: Yes, yes.
KD: So I’m not surprised to hear that you would like something complex like that.
BJ: Yeah, absolutely. I think complex things are good, as long as you’re able to disguise them and they don’t sound wrong. Because a lot of the time signatures and changes we make – on paper, they’re wrong, they really shouldn’t work. Like a song with mariachi and syncopated trumpets, along with a beat in 5/4 and skimming in the guitars – on paper, that should not work, it should be a terrible song. But the trick is disguising it, these awkward moments with beautiful moments – melody and pop – and the listener forgets that they’re listening to something that is intrinsically awkward. I think that’s something we’ve strived to do over the years and I think that ‘Spanish Radio’ is one of the best. That’s one of the best examples, and also ‘Victory Over The Sun’ – I don’t think people realise how complex that song is (and that [it] was actually a single in Britain). I think that’s one of our main things is to pull the wool over people’s eyes, so we don’t get you guys to listen to something that’s really quite weird (laughs)
KD: Are you doing any sightseeing when you come to South Africa? Or what do you intend on doing in our fair country?
BJ: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, we’re getting a little older now, which is a good thing in terms of, we’re appreciating the world and nature and things like that. We’re not just wanting to be locked up in all our hotel rooms all the time, getting drunk and stuff. So we like to explore now, so yeah, we wanna do what all tourists do and take a safari. I think we’re gonna stick around for a couple of days, maybe two or three days after the festival finishes, and we’re gonna go to Table Mountain I think…
KD: Oh good!
BJ: Yeah, we’re gonna do as much as we can, and any suggestions are more than welcome.
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