Most bands from the United Kingdom often find themselves living in two parallel universes. In their home region they’re superstars playing sold-out arenas and headlining stacked big-ticket music festivals. When they travel across the Atlantic to the United States, they’re sometimes playing the club circuit in an effort to either break through into the biggest music market on the planet or sustain their modest fan base. It’s a stark contrast that can leave fans puzzled — but also give them a chance to see their favorite bands in venues far smaller than the ones abroad.
Scottish alternative rock Biffy Clyro are a prime example: They’ve shredded at Wembley Arena and headlined the main stage at the Reading and Leads Festival. But they’ll be in a much smaller environment this Tuesday (April 11), when they perform at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston with the thunderous Atlanta act O’Brother.
Regardless of the differences in followings between their home country and the States, Biffy Clyro have a dedicated and loyal fan base around these parts. Ahead of the show as part of their tour in support of their seventh album Ellipsis that came out last year, Vanyaland had a chat with frontman Simon Neil from the band about taking a year off in 2015, the deal with Ellipsis‘ album cover, his side projects, and what the summer has in store.
Rob Duguay: Biffy Clyro’s latest album Ellipsis came out in July of last year and it was after the band took a year off in 2015. During the making of the album did the band feel more refreshed due to the time taken off or did it feel the same in the studio as it did during the previous recording sessions?
Simon Neil: It’s hard to compare the session to our previous records but it felt like we almost burned ourselves out while making the last album Opposites. We needed to take some time off because we don’t ever want to feel tired when we’re starting to make a record. We want to put forth a full effort to make the newest and most exciting thing ever. We just wanted to get our batteries recharged at home and bring it back to when it was just friends playing music rather than being in a band that needs to make a record with the label wanting an album ready by a certain time. We wanted to resort back to the innocence of making music with your friends and not worrying about if the songs are commercially viable or not.
It must have been refreshing after taking a year off. Did you do anything in particular during that time or did you just take it easy?
My wife and I went to Santa Monica to enjoy the sunshine for a couple of months. As much as it was a year off in terms of the band playing live, I ended up writing the songs for Ellipsis during that year off and then some material for a b-sides record. I know there is no such thing as b-sides anymore but we have a bunch of songs that are left over from the album that we’ll release this year. I also ended up making a solo electronica album under the name ZZC. From what I thought was one of the quietest years we ever had, I ended up writing and recording an awful lot of music.
It’s still my hobby and it’s so weird when your hobby is your job. I try to relax but I still want to make music so it’s a really strange balance that I need to strike. Mainly making music and enjoying being in one place for a few weeks, that’s what you miss when you’re on the road all the time. It’s waking up and being in the same place that you fell asleep in the previous night. It’s an amazing victory for anyone in a band.
That’s totally understandable, especially with the amount of touring that Biffy Clyro has done. Sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of stability and be in one spot without having to worry being in a different place the next night. The album cover for Ellipsis is pretty interesting with you, James, and Ben Johnston in the fetal position. Who came up with the idea to have that? Was it you guys or was it a photographer who you made the album cover with?
I originally wanted to call the album Ellipsis and it was in my mind for a long time. I had this idea of trying to make the human ellipse and the more I tried to make it, the more I figured out that the album was a rebirth for us artistically. I learned from all the habits that we’ve picked up over the years that everything was pointed toward this next step for the band, which is great. This album we feel is a lot more intimate and up front than our previous albums and we wanted the cover to signify that. I’m glad it worked out that way because you can’t get too worried about what the cover of an album is going to entail.
The idea and the execution brought the end result of something that we really wanted. We tried to come up with a concept for the album that hit upon us starting a new and trying new things musically. We wanted something truly original while also being a bit experimental. I personally feel that Ellipsis is the best record we’ve ever made because of the artistic freedom we gave ourselves.
“Our fans [in America] get to see us in a different way than they would see us in Europe.” — Simon Neil
The symbolism behind the idea for the cover is pretty cool and I personally enjoy the album a whole lot. Biffy Clyro’s touring life is a lot different in Europe than it is in the United States. The band has already performed at some of the biggest stages in the continent while still playing at clubs in the States. As a musician who is dealing with this first hand, what’s your opinion on playing at home versus playing across the pond?
I guess it tough to draw the line between the two experiences. I don’t expect for us to have the same following in America as we do in Europe and the U.K. and America is such a huge country. It’s also such a different place in the way that you’re treated as a band. I feel like there’s a big difference in the way people handle time in the States versus other parts of the world. I’m not surprised by it but I definitely notice that.
I definitely enjoy playing smaller shows and I understand how vastly different it is versus playing in an arena. There’s also a lot less pressure when it comes to playing in front of a few hundred people versus playing in front of thousands. At a club people will come to see us and sing our songs and it’s a lot more of an intimate experience. While playing a huge show it’s a different atmosphere with so many eyes upon you. From that perspective, I enjoy playing in the States because of how you can interact with your fans while they have an up-close look at the music being played.
The attention we get in the States also feels a bit more organic. In that country we’re on a smaller level than we are in Europe and I feel that we get to experience the loyalty of our fans more. People will judge you as a band and I also like when we play in the States that the people who show up don’t have to deal with a huge stage production and all of other things like you do in an arena. Our fans get to see us in a different way than they would see us in Europe.
I can see how playing in a club would make you feel more comfortable than playing in a large arena along with knowing in the States that you’re playing in front of some of your biggest fans while also playing in front of people who are seeing you for the first time.
You’re also in the experimental duo Marmaduke Duke with fellow Scottish musician JP Reid from Sucioperro. When you started working with JP on this project, which creative outlet did you want to tap into and who initially had the idea for the band?
We started working on Marmaduke Duke as three albums based on these stories that a friend of ours brought to us years ago. The final album, The Death Of The Duke, should be out sometime in the future. It’s a nice project where we don’t have to worry about writing an amazing song and we just want to abide by a concept. The creative outlet with Marmaduke Duke is pretty much all the other things that I like to play outside of Biffy Clyro.
Biffy Clyro has a distinct style while Marmaduke Duke is fairly experimental. The project enables me to craft songs in different ways. I also don’t like writing a crap album and crap songs and this type of stuff helps keeps me fresh artistically. I take quality very seriously and with Marmaduke Duke it keeps that intact both lyrically and musically. I think it’s really important to examine all aspects of the artwork and these days we have so many choices. If you make the wrong choice then you might not know where to go moving forward.
Instead of worrying about how great a song can be, Marmaduke Duke is about having fun. It’s somewhat theatrical while abiding by these stories and it’s low key with it all being mostly electronic. Working with JP is pretty relaxed and I love it, we’ve never spoke about how a song should sound and that’s the main base for the project. There’s no baggage and everything is without boundaries so if a song doesn’t work we just create something else and it makes it all worth it.
After the show at the Paradise Rock Club on April 11th, what does Biffy Clyro have planned for the summer? Are there any festivals fans can expect to see you guys at?
We’re going to be playing a bunch of shows and we got a few festivals coming up including Pointfest in Maryland Heights (Missouri) and Rock On The Range in Columbus (Ohio). It’s very exciting to be coming back to the United States and we really want our American fans to enjoy this current run of shows. Going back to playing in Europe versus the States, in Europe we’ve headlined some big festivals while in the States we’re just a band on the road. It’s a different experience but we enjoy it because of the lesser profile that we have in the States. We love making music and we don’t really care if it isn’t the biggest show in the world, we like showing people a really good time and that’s what I’m looking forward to.