It was a bizarre, twisted love story written by American author Mark Z Danielewski that shaped the sound and content of Biffy Clyro’s latest epic journey Only Revolutions . Based on the experiences of two characters, one half is ‘Sam’s’ point of view of an affair and the other half is ‘Hailey’s’ story; it’s only when reading both parts of the book together that both the plot and the album starts to come together… Kind of like a Puzzle you ask? Not at all, according to Biffy Clyro’s drummer James Johnston.
“Not in sound, anyway. Look, Puzzle (Biffy Clyro’s previous album, their fourth, in 2007) did some great things for us, it was definitely the one that kicked in the door to all the amazing tours and experiences that we’ve had ever since. But you’ve got to move forward and do things differently on every record.
“I like to think freely,” the drummer – and one half of the band’s sibling rhythm section with brother Ben, notes, “and there was no way that we were going to spend too much time worry about bettering Puzzle. If you spend your time obsessing about your last successful album, it’s like you’re going into battle with it or something. And we just weren’t prepared to do that. We appreciate Puzzle for what it is, but we also decided to leave it well alone.”
It was the right decision too, as Johnston agrees, because in 2009 Only Revolutions reached number three in the UK charts, going gold within days of its release. It’s also seen them rise and rise through the touring and festival spectrum – even to the point where they’re the special guests of Muse on the band’s current Australian jaunt. Oh, and then there was the Mercury Music Prize nomination, as Johnston casually adds…“God, that’s something that came as a shock,” he laughs.
“It’s certainly something that we never ever grew up thinking we’d be a part of. The Mercury Prize is something that’s not traditionally accepting of indie rock bands. When we found out that we had been short-listed for it, we were quite chuffed and pleased, to say the least,” he grins. “It was a huge honour.
“But we knew that the Prize is quite traditional in nature and so we didn’t get our hopes up too much. But, you know, you’re always sort of crossing your fingers in the back of your mind, aren’t you?” he chuckles. “It was important to us to get recognised in that way because it’s not like we’re some band that grew up in the better part of London and who got signed at our first gig. We’ve come from a completely different world where you were expected to make things happen yourself.
“There have been times when there was no music scene and nobody to look up to…” he adds of their inexorable rise to chart-topping rock band. “But all of that just made us better musicians because we were always playing for just ourselves. We never really expected anybody to give a toss. We’ve been learning as we go.”
Some 15 years later and Biffy Clyro are the pride and joy of Scotland’s indie scene – an ironic outcome for a band that never went chasing fame and fortune. If anything, Johnston describes the trio as ‘pretty reserved at best of times’. “I think it speaks for itself that we’ve stuck together for 15 years too – I think that’s probably more amazing than anything else!” laughs Johnston. “Especially in an industry like this where people love gossip and everybody’s just waiting for you to fail or make a fool out of yourself or something.
“The UK media is the worst,” he adds. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that all that time has passed – quite frankly, you don’t even think about it unless somebody asks or brings it up. It took a bit of a time for people to come running our way – I hope that doesn’t sound too pompous!” he qualifies hastily. “We’re not the biggest band in the world by any means, but we’ve got a decent-sized fan-base after a decade. We’re just this little band of three guys, we’ve got a silly name, we’re from a small town in Scotland, we’ve never looked cool and we’ve never really fit into people’s brackets. It’s pretty weird we even got to here.”
Actually, “weird” the same way Johnston describes the love story which unfolds across the length of the enticing narrative of Only Revolutions , but it’s really the band’s upcoming sixth album that’s getting the drummer excited and keen to tell more.
“When Simon (Neil, the band’s lead vocalist/guitarist and resident purveyor of a semi-casual no-shirt policy) wrote the songs on Only Revolutions, I realised they all had some sort of correlation to be book,” says Johnston.
“The book talks about a couple and you get to hear the same story but from two different points of view. It sounded brilliant when he married those two ideas together and it actually made for a much more positive record than Puzzle,” Johnston muses.
“Personally,” he admits, “it was nice to go through a fun, positive experience like that because the subject matter wasn’t as heavy as Puzzle. It was a little emotionally draining with our last album. But to be honest, I’m so ready to talk about the next album, even though I can’t too much at this point. It’s a bit frustrating!” he laughs. “I think it might still be a while before it comes out though, just because we’ve got that many commitments coming up.
“All I can probably tell you is that it’s looking alright, the material sounds good, and we’ve been going at it at every opportunity that we get to come home.”
As these things go then, who knows what to expect next from Australia’s favoruite Scots – a revolutionary puzzle, perhaps?
BIFFY CLYRO support Muse at Rod Laver Arena this evening, Wednesday December 15 (tickets from ticektmaster.com.au or 136 100) but play their very own headline show at The Hi-Fi on Thursday December 16. Tickets from thehifi.com.au. Only Revolutions (which features their single The Captain – which spent the year being flogged on AFL broadcasts) is out now through Warner.