GENRE IS DEAD! Interview With Biffy Clyro’s Ben Johnston

2020 was destined to be the year of Biffy Clyro. Not only does mark their 25th anniversary, it sees the release of their eighth album A Celebration of Endings. But the pandemic had other plans. After a three month delay, the band is finally ready to unleash their latest offering, which sees them continuing to push the boundaries of their sound. The album is all about embracing change and according to drummer Ben Johnston, it’s their most confident record yet. Before the album’s release, Johnston chats with GENRE IS DEAD! about Simon Neil’s eerie foreshadowing, the struggles of releasing music during COVID, and why the band trusts themselves now more than ever.

GENRE IS DEAD!: The pandemic has made a huge impact on music. There’s no live music and lots of albums have been pushed back, including A Celebration of Endings. What has been the most challenging thing about preparing this album in the middle of a pandemic?

Ben Johnston: It’s been a challenge mentally because when you put your heart and soul for so many months into making a record and it’s been written in a certain time period you want that album to come out during that period, not necessarily after that. It completely changes the state of life and therefore changes the album to a degree because it’s post-pandemic. It’s a bit crazy when it’s being judged because a lot of the lyrics on the album sound like they could’ve been written about the pandemic. It’s really fishy that [frontman] Simon [Neil] didn’t have any idea of what would happen, yet the lyrics are terribly fitting to what we’re going through right now. So, it’s all been really crazy. It’s all been difficult. It’s been a welcome break to be at home with family, but that’s the only good thing. Other than that, it’s been very frustrating and such a strange normal to get used to.

GID: It’s interesting that this record was written before COVID because everything from the title to what’s being addressed on the singles we’ve heard so far about could easily apply to what’s happening in 2020. That’s some weird foreshadowing!

BJ: It’s been blowing my mind because it’s truly accidental. I promise Simon’s not clairvoyant or anything like that. I’ve been asking that because some of the lyrics are extremely poignant, like the lyric [from “North of No South”] “Have you ever been a place in which you couldn’t breathe/but of course you couldn’t stay?” Like holy shit that was most poignant lyric for the Black Lives Matter movement and for George Floyd. And that was written before any of this came to light! It’s just mind-blowing to me how many things are related to current situations. But I guess art imitates life and vice versa. These things do tend to happen but that had my mind going.

GID: The one line that really made me stop was and wonder if you guys knew what was going to happen was from “Tiny Indoor Fireworks:” “Looking for a new revolution/This one didn’t get very far.” We’re seeing that happen now.

BJ: I know, I know! I’ve been doing all these interviews and people ask what’s the song about and I kind of know what it’s about and I start talking about it and I’m like it can’t really mean that now. Because we wrote an outward-looking album it’s taken on all these different meanings as well as retaining the meanings that we had, so it’s been really interesting.

GID: As you mentioned, the new record looks outward rather than personal matters and it even addresses some of what’s going on in the political landscape. Biffy isn’t really known as a political band. Were you worried at all about making a more political stance this time around?

BJ: I don’t think we were particularly worried. I think that politics are omnipresent now. If you’re writing about your life at all right now it’s going to involve politics because everybody’s touched by it unlike when I was growing up. You could kind of pick and choose whether to be interested in politics or not. But these days you kind of have to be because it’s on your doorstep. It’s kind of miraculous how much the landscape has changed since I was a child. Things you take for granted like empathy, community, and just being nice and not being a horrible person seem to slowly erode away. It’s not right that this is happening, and you can’t stand for it anymore, so there’s that going. We also kind of went through some personal problems where we stopped working with people who have been in our lives for 20 years or longer and that was hurtful, so we had to deal with that.

The album’s about embracing change in a positive way and learning what our past mistakes have taught us and doing things correctly going forward because nothing’s been right in the past at all. It especially irks me when I hear politicians talk about getting back to normal post-pandemic and I just think nobody wants to go back to normal. Nobody wants to go back to the way it was. It was not very good in my opinion.

GID: I do like how the album addresses what’s happening around us, but it takes a very optimistic outlook. There’s this message of things are tough, but they get better. And that’s what we need now because it’s hard to hold on to that optimism. You wake up bombarded with more stupid things politicians have done and more reminders that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

BJ: Yeah, I mean it’s a very hopeful album. We have a lot of hope for the future. Obviously, this album was pre-COVID, but things were still pretty shit when it was written, at least we felt so, but we have faith in the next generation. I think that’s what the main thing is here. All these bad things you hear about are just old dicks misbehaving and being assholes and not doing the right thing by the planet or by other human beings. I’ve got a lot of hope for the next generation because of people like Greta [Thunberg], people fighting for the planet. These people are going to be the force of change because they’ve been born in a planet that is absolutely screwed up and what are they gonna have left, you know? So, I have faith that the next generation is going to make changes to keep our planet from ultimate destruction.

GID: It’s great seeing the next generation saying things are wrong and actually doing something about it. They’re not only making their voices heard, they’re trying to work towards making a change.

BJ: It’s very impressive. Obviously, when I was younger things weren’t quite the same and that’s a good thing. Now, kids can come out being more aware. We need more young people in power because the old people don’t know what the hell they’re doing at all.

GID: Getting back to the album, you guys went in the studio again with Rich Costey, who you worked with on 2016’s Ellipsis. What made you want to work with him for this album?

BJ: We like doing things in threes; we’ve always done three records in a row with a producer, but that wasn’t the reason obviously. If Ellipsis hadn’t been good, we wouldn’t want to revisit it. When we worked with him on that album, we didn’t feel like we could’ve made a better album than Ellipsis, but when you first work with a producer it’s never quite smooth sailing. You butt heads a lot, it can be frustrating, you’re not really showing your true colors all the time. On the second record, things will be a little bit smoother and you actually show people who you are. On this album, we understood each other off the bat a lot better. When we made suggestions, Rich wasn’t pushing back as hard as he was on Ellipsis. He just makes great records. He’s done loads of our favorite bands. We like the way he works even though he drives us up the bloody wall and can be so frustrating like a little kid who can’t sit still. He can’t stick to one idea without losing focus, which is really tough. So, we’re gluttons for punishment, I guess, but we love the results he gets in the end. He works super hard on every song and invests so much into it. He keeps changing things at the very last minute, it can be incredibly frustrating, but the end results are fantastic.

GID: Interesting that you say you guys like to do things in threes because last year you did the Balance, Not Symmetry soundtrack, which was kind of unexpected for Biffy. How did your experience working on the soundtrack inspire what you did on the new album?

BJ: I think it did quite a lot. We made the Balance album without any kind of interference from the record company. It wasn’t funded by them; it was funded by the movie, so they didn’t have much involvement at all. It was just the three of us. We made the record off the leash just going crazy. Any idea was a good idea and every song on that album almost sounds like a different band. I think we just found a lot of freedom in making that record and it definitely affected [us] going forward because we were more willing to trust ourselves to try out crazy things on A Celebration of Endings. I think it was important for the band.  We’re more sure of ourselves now. It helped us see the vision for A Celebration of Endings.

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Ashley Perez Hollingsworth

Ashley Perez is a freelance music journalist based in Chicago. Her work has appeared on AXS, The Crypt 1331, Chicago Innerview, New City, The Millions, and Reality-Comics. She also runs her own music blog at Radio Not Found. Some of her favorite bands include Nirvana, The Cure, Muse, Marilyn Manson, and Green Day.

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