In an age in which rap and hip-hop dominate mainstream airwaves, I probably don’t listen to as much rock music as I should. When I do, it’s normally old ‘60s and ‘70s classics that I remember listening to with my parents. Yet contemporary Scottish alt-rock band Biffy Clyro has a special place in my heart.
The band’s seventh album Ellipsis was released last July, and they’re about to begin the North American leg of a global tour promoting the project, which debuted at atop charts in the United Kingdom.
Ben Johnston, the band’s drummer, spoke with me about their experience creating Ellipsis, which he considers to be very different from their previous work for many reasons. He said that the band’s break from touring before beginning the project ensured that it had a distinct sound.
“We enforced a break from touring for almost a year purely because we didn’t want Ellipsis to be a continuation of anything we’d done before,” he said. “We had a bunch of songs written, and they were great songs, but they weren’t really feeling different enough so we had to enforce a change.”
Biffy Clyro approaches their albums in trilogies, which Johnston said was simply because they, as a three-piece band, liked to work in sets of three.
“The first three albums are way more experimental stuff,” he said. “On the second trilogy it was all about creating an epic rock sound. So on this one we’re certainly not going to repeat anything from the earlier albums. One thing I can guarantee you is that it won’t go backwards.”
Johnston said that something that sets Ellipsis apart is their new producer Rich Costey, who incorporated influences from hip-hop to lend the album a distinct sound. Johnston joked that they’d hired a producer who didn’t like rock music, but that Costey pushed them to test where they could take their music.
He said that in Costey they hoped to find someone who would find a fresh angle to their music after their previous six albums.
“We employed him to force us not to slip into old habits,” he said. “He’d make me play left-handed or he’d start taking drums away, all kinds of crazy stuff that we’d never done before. We’d always been scared of anything that seemed to us that it was too cheesy. We were always trying to capture the live sound of the band. It’s a great thing for bands starting out, but I think when you’re on your seventh album you’ve got to have a different approach.”
With Ellipsis being the first of a new trilogy, Johnston said it was crucial to capture a distinct sound that will guide their next projects.
“The last thing we wanted to do was end up sounding like a continuation of something earlier,” Johnston said. “It was a lot of experimenting, a lot of frustrating moments, but I think some things that frustrate you bring out the best and make you push yourself to levels you didn’t think possible.”
He also said that spending time in Los Angeles during their break from touring and while recording helped them to be inspired while working on the album.
Their homeland of Scotland inhibits them from realizing their true potential because they are distracted by more mundane concerns, according to Johnston. He said that it was important to get into a completely different headspace while recording.
“Although I love home and I love the people here, everyone’s almost too down to earth here,” he said. “If that’s in your mind when you’re trying to record then you’re not going to dream as far as you would. In places like Los Angeles, it’s the place where dreams happen, it’s where you go to shoot for the stars.”
He said that people in Scotland are a healthy ego-check which prevents them from getting big heads but doesn’t encourage the creative process.
Johnston said that even just the sunny weather in Los Angeles made it easier to get out of bed in the morning and to be inspired in the studio. He joked that he often didn’t want to get out of bed in Scotland because it’s always rainy.
Despite coming to the States for inspiration, Biffy Clyro has a much smaller fanbase outside of the United Kingdom. Johnston said that they weren’t worried as much about building support in the U.S.
“It’s a very vast place, and it would take at least a year of really ramming our music down people’s throats to really get anywhere,” he said. “We’re really happy that we have the fanbase that we have, which is not massive but is really intense. We’d rather be one person’s favorite band than a hundred people’s fifth-favorite band.”
Johnston said that he and his bandmates had a lot of fond memories of touring in the United States, and of Baltimore in particular. He considers himself lucky that he found bandmates whom he loves to spend time with and make music with.
“If you can find friends to make music with, and I mean friends first and foremost and their musical talent comes secondary, I think that’s really important for the longevity of the band,” he said. “If you’re going to treat something that you love and that comes from somewhere honest then I think you have to be close to your band members.”
He said that it was the wrong approach for a group to form with nothing in common other than the desire to be in a band. The creation process tests each member of a band and forces them to spend a lot of time together, and Johnston said it was important to persevere.
“Just keep going until you’re good,” he said. “We weren’t good. We were shit, and most bands are when they start, but you learn a lot along the way.”
Johnston said their slow start was a blessing in disguise because it gave them an opportunity to craft their sound before gaining popularity.
“In this day and age, a good bit of advice would be, ‘Don’t throw the very first thing that you make up online because then it’s worldwide and it’s there for everyone to see,” Johnston said. “We got a chance to really go and eventually become good before we even thought about getting signed.”
Now, however, they have an international name and are chart-toppers in the United Kingdom. With seven stellar albums under their belts, they’ve earned a place among rock-legend canon and continue to impress with fresh, distinct sounds in each new project.
Their album prior to Elipsis, Opposites, also topped the British charts (and almost topped the Swiss charts), a feat that their album prior to Opposites, Only Revolutions, failed to achieve.
Their North American tour visits the 9:30 Club in D.C. on April 15 and comes to Rams Head Live in Baltimore on May 15, just in time to celebrate the end of finals.