Biffy Clyro’s Ben Johnston Talks ‘Ellipsis’ Album, ‘Howl’ Video + Band Chemistry
Written by Zag Flash on June 1, 2016
Biffy Clyro are back and ready to flip the script again. The Scottish act started off as a more progressively hard rock band on their first three albums, added more orchestration on the next three, and see their seventh album Ellipsis as the jumping off point for even more of an evolution.
We recently had the chance to chat with drummer Ben Johnston about the band’s latest album and he discussed not only some of the key tracks and videos from the disc, but also opened up about how key the chemistry and camaraderie was to taking this next step in their career. Johnston also talks about some of his favorite live songs and discusses the challenge of getting that breakthrough in America to match the success they’ve enjoyed in Europe.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do going into the album and can you discuss how it developed?
We had an idea, but not quite as complete a picture as we usually do. I think working with Rich Costey, the idea was to go in a little bit blindly. There was maybe four or five songs on the record that we hadn’t actually played live as a band, or even as a band. The idea was that maybe Rich Costey would rub off on us and we’d take a different route, to kind of help the songs find their legs. You know this is our seventh album and we wanted to keep ourselves interested as well as everybody else. So we wanted it to be modern, but we wanted it to be a rock record. I think we wanted to change things up and still have our stamp on it but people could be a little taken aback.
You mentioned Rich Costey being a key player in this album. What made him the right choice?
Well, we’ve known about Rich for many years. Way back in college we were listening to bands that he had worked with, like Fiona Apple and those records and so many other bands that are really unmistakable, and he’s done some heavily angular rock records and hip-hop stuff and pop stuff and we just thought this was a guy who was gonna know [how to get what we want]. We didn’t want a guy who was just an expert in one particular genre. And it’s crazy. The guy’s off the charts and he was up for the challenge and we just thought he’d be the guy to challenge us.
He would grab these ideas and he’d stick by them. And I guess as a band working on a seventh album you should be happy, and you want someone who feels like an extra member almost. And this guy came in to produce and he had his own approach and it was a hell of an experience.
I’ve seen someone in the band looking at your career as “thirds,” with the first three albums going one direction, the next three albums evolving differently, and now with Ellipsis, it’s time to change it up again. I know you brought in more sounds and more production this time. Was it more frightening, fun, exciting …
Yeah, it was all those things, including terrifying, scary and engaging and you know and that’s why we wanted to do it this way. In the past, you know we’ve done the drums and then the bass and the guitars and some days now, you don’t know where you’re going to go. You’re not sure what going to happen or even what this song’s going to sound like. Will it be a rock song or will it be a pop / R&B song or maybe a country song? We were a highly scheduled band and we were all sort of control freaks to a certain degree, so it would be difficult for us to just put it all aside and pick up an instrument and just play and wait for whichever direction. But there was a lot of experimentation and we just had a lot of fun making it.
I have to say, I’m loving “Animal Style” off this album and I know it’s a favorite of yours. It would be great for the stage, but does that factor in when you’re writing — wondering how it will translate live?
No, not really. I think that’s a bit dangerous if you do that. If you start writing with that in mind, you’re sort of pigeonholing yourself before you even get started. And I don’t think that any good art’s going to come from that. I think that’s why there’s a big gap between the last album and this is because Simon [Neil] was trying to write, right off the bat, these songs maybe meant for a stadium and it wasn’t really bad songs. I don’t think he’s capable of writing bad songs, but it just wasn’t quite the evolution that we were looking for. So he actually went to L.A. and lived there a few months and came back and went again and forgot he was in Biffy Clyro for a bit, and then he wrote a few songs on piano and they just kicked some ass and sent us the songs and that’s what we started with. But as far as live, you can’t do that. I don’t think that’s right to have in the psyche. You think this is gonna sound great, but you know you’re going to end up having to take stock, so we try to avoid that.
Can you tell me about the video for “Howl” and also a little bit about the song?
Yeah, “Howl’s” a cool song and I guess you can call it a pop song. Maybe we wanted to be a bit off kilter and not to give the plot away, but we do show up at a bar and we’re given a potion and there’s a puff of smoke or something and things start to change and we start to morph into different people. At one point, Simon’s a geisha and me and James are evil twins.
Very cool…. And I also wanted to ask about “Wolves of Winter” — great song and a very awesome animated video….
Thank you. Yeah, I want to say “Wolves of Winter” was maybe the first song we had together for this record. It’s the song that we’ve been playing the most, and we tend to feel comfortable playing it, so it’s a favorite as well. We came in and we knew what we were going to do, at least we thought we did, and Rich Costey had us do all sorts of stuff, and tried it different ways and made me a little uncomfortable, but I think we came out with a song that sounds modern but also sounds kind of rocking and I’m very proud of it.
The video, it’s the first animated video we’ve done. I love animated videos because it means we don’t have to be in them, which is awesome because we genuinely hate shooting videos. So yeah, we sent this off and the stuff they sent back just blew our minds. It was absolutely incredible and I definitely just wanted to sit on the couch and watch it all over again.
I know as a band you came here to Los Angeles and had a house in the Hollywood Hills while recording. Can you discuss that experience?
Well it’s romantic. The first time we came to Hollywood was many, many moons ago and we were probably too young to deal with it, but we’ve been to L.A. enough now that we have friends and we enjoy it and that’s good to have when recording. And you get a nice day that makes you want to get out of bed and do things. I mean what I’m looking at right now in Scotland, I just want to go back to bed and do nothing. That’s one of the main reasons we come to L.A. We don’t try to write in L.A. because we want to make sure our music still sounds Scottish at least in terms of finding that home, but in terms of recording you want to go somewhere that makes you happy and you can feel healthy. And most of the studios have all the gear you can get and drum kits you can play and it’s endless. We can’t always do that here in Scotland. There are studios around, but maybe not the gear and then the players, if you want a good honky tonk piano player to help you out, it’s not easy, but you can find one in L.A. There’s lots of reasons to record there, and Rich Costey lives in L.A. and has a studio where he works, so that was a factor. But it didn’t take much for three Scots to move to L.A. to record.
One of the things that has made Biffy Clyro so great is the chemistry between the three of you. But is that more key than ever when you’re going into an album where you’re planning to mix things up?
Yeah, I think when you get to the seventh album, most bands have separate dressing rooms and are going on different flights, but it was very important for each of us to be very close and together. And when you have a disc that’s more experimental, which this album is, then you have to be in the same boat and you have to be close. And that was one of the reasons we got the house in the hills was to just be near to each other for six months and living and breathing and hanging out together all night, like you did in your teenage years. It made it feel like we were making our first record again, and I hope that comes across. It just makes it sound exciting, and not like a band on their seventh album. Cause I think once you’ve done six albums, your audience starts thinking why should I buy the seventh album? We wanted to make an album that was essential. And it’s important that we stay close and we stay friends and that’s the dynamic of this band. Honestly, we were that way before we started this band. And one of the most important things of this band is that we get along and come from the same place.
Now getting a chance to play some shows for this album, do you have a favorite song to play live and why?
I’m really enjoying playing a bonus track, “In the Name of the Wee Man” which is on the deluxe album. I’m loving that cause it’s one of the heavier songs. It’s a bit more Biffy and it’s a long song. I just think it’s a really classic Biffy song with a modern twist. I’m really happy with it.
You’ve had great success in Europe over the years, but are still trying to get that major breakout in the U.S. For a band that has established themselves so well in Europe, how important is it to still push for the American audience?
It’s massively important. Our education in music came from across the pond in Seattle and all those bands that broke in the early to mid ’90s. That’s the reason we made this band was because of those guys. And that will always be where this started. There are other influences along the way, but you can’t ever steer away from Nirvana and Soundgarden and Guns N’ Roses and all those bands that we loved after that. So it breaks our heart that we haven’t had the huge success in America. So yeah, we’re hoping that we can come over and make an impact. We’re not going to get there this year unfortunately, but we’ll be over in early 2017 and everybody’s hoping that it clicks this time and we can come back and have even more shows. But until then, we’re happy to play our shows here. But we’ll be happy to be back in the States and the fans that we do have there are some of the best fans in the world and we definitely want to spend some more time over there.
Our thanks to Biffy Clyro drummer Ben Johnston for the interview. The band’s ‘Ellipsis’ album is in stores now and you can pick it up here. Biffy Clyro have a number of major European festivals and a big fall tour on the horizon. Keep up with their tour dates here, and get a look at the new video for “Howl” above
(Courtesy Chad Childers Loudwire)