Biffy Clyro’s James Johnston: “There has to be more forgiveness and open-mindedness”

Biffy Clyro have never been the kind of the band to follow the rulebook all too long. The Scottish trio have been around longer than you might think, and over the years they’ve most definitely seen it all: the rise of social media and technology, societal uprising and personal struggles to name just three. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the earth, Simon Neil and co. were in the midst of promoting new album A Celebration of Endings. With live performances shelves and the world in turmoil, the band got together and created a companion album in the depths of Scottish countryside. The Myth of the Happily Ever After is one of Biffy Clyro’s most intense and gripping albums to date, mixing the best moments of their history with the first glimpses of a thrilling future. Jack Parker called up bassist James Johnston to discuss the album, staying happy while in lockdown and why the world needs to be more forgiving.

Hey James. How are you? 
I’m really well, thanks Jack. I’m at home in Glasgow, as we’ve all been for the last two years. I woke up in a good mood today and I’m not gonna question it, I’ll just take it and run! There’s been a lot of exploration of the mind. 

Are you sick of Zoom yet?

You know what? I am, and I’m not. We’re still lacking human contact and the chance to speak to strangers, and my wife is getting bored of my stories. It’s nice to chat to someone you don’t know and share things with. It feels like therapy. There’s nothing like face to face contact though, we all miss that. Human kindness is quite resilient and we always find ways to adapt and overcome, which the world is trying to do at the moment.

Before we get onto the new record, we have to address the elephant in the room. You you found yourselves in a tough position at the start of the pandemic, having to release A Celebration of Endings five months into it. Did you at no point consider shelving it until there was a better moment for it?
It crossed our minds for maybe a moment as it was frustrating not being able to support the record and bring it to people, but we felt it was an important album for the band in terms of dealing with the pandemic. It was a reflection of current times, and we thought it might help people a bit in how it’s something for them to live with that isn’t the world we’re dealing with. It was important to have it out there and to have people enjoy it, and we were so proud of the album that we had to just put it out.

Of course, doing it the way you did enabled you to put out another album featuring some songs which didn’t make the previous one alongside new ones. Why did you decide to re-hash those songs instead of starting with a clean slate?
In the past we’ve always done a B-sides record after the main album. This stems back to when we did a lot of singles with B-sides, so much so that we did EP collections too. That’s fallen by the wayside now as you don’t really do singles. There is no such thing as a B-side anymore, so we started doing sister records. We came up with a couple of new songs which changed the direction of the album; it felt fresh. There were also a couple of songs destined for A Celebration of Endings which we breathed new life into and got them on this record.

Adam Noble worked with you on production duties for this new album, The Myth of the Happily Ever After. You’ve worked with him before [2019’s Balance, Not Symmetry], but what did he bring to the table this time round? 
He gives us confidence. He won’t mind me saying this I hope, but he’s been a fan for a while and he’s aware of our history and doesn’t want to do anything to ruin that legacy. He helps us get to the next step, and we have a great relationship and level of trust with him. He’s able to hold the reins to some degree too, but I don’t know if anyone is able to hold our reins fully. Sometimes you have to let us do our thing, which he did. And like I said, he gives us confidence.

There’s a reactionary element to these songs. How did you find that balance between reacting to the last eighteen months and reacting to the previous album?
Great question. I think it’s a balancing act. You have to find a mental place between where you’re being honest and truthful, which takes a lot of searching and knocking down doors until you get the right answer. It’s about being honest with your feelings and allowing them to percolate and filter through. I’d describe myself as emotionally slow – it takes me time to figure out how I feel. It’s the same with music; it takes time to find out and then you can ask yourself how the music makes you feel emotionally. We judge things like that as a band too.

Would you say that the pandemic-side of this reaction element is more personal or societal?
I think it’s more our personal response to society’s situations. On A Celebration of Endings we talked about human nature becoming kinder, opening our eyes and embracing each other more. In the last eighteen months we’ve seen so much greed and selfish behaviour. We could have a long conversation about politicians but that would be a bit boring. There’s a lot of anger, and I don’t know where this energy is going. I do feel a bit nervous about the future again; after the last album we were more hopeful, but I don’t know if that hope is running out a little bit.

The lyrics are very loaded on this album. But as a bassist, how do you keep challenging yourself with each release?
By trying to keep up with the guys! Keeping up with Ben’s drumming is a challenge, but for me it’s about attacking each song individually and being open to new sounds. It’s also about supporting the song. What keeps it interesting is that, musically, we touch all corners of the canvas as a band. It’s always fun to find the right bass tone and that was a great thing about working with Adam Noble. He’s curious and always looking to find the perfect tone or sound. It was very important to work with someone who had that ‘never die’ attitude; he always wanted to unlock that extra pedal or that perfect tone.

Biffy Clyro’s James Johnston. (c) Dewi Mik

There are elements of this album which almost hark back to old school Biffy Clyro. Was there some element of conscious choice in referencing your past?
Maybe. We haven’t recorded an album at home in more than a decade. This album was done on a farm in Ayrshire, and absolutely no one gave a damn about what we were doing up here. That gave us the feeling that we could do whatever we wanted; we came up with crazy ideas. We always feel free in the studio but this time more than ever it felt like we were making this record for ourselves. The label weren’t too bothered and there wasn’t an option for any input, the album was just there.

Did you ever contemplate self-releasing with no warning? 
No not really! We’re signed to Warner which also would have made it a bit tricky.

Of course. Then there’s bands like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard who will read the rule book and then rip it up.
Yeah! They release so many records, like two or three a year. We really love that band. Self-releasing definitely has a place but we’ve been with Warner for so long and it’s still going great.

So looking back on that first Biffy Clyro album now all these years later, what would you have said to yourself knowing what you know now?
I wouldn’t say much and I wouldn’t change any of those records, not even – dare I say it – the bad ones. Even the bad moments help inform the good ones, so you appreciate them all. The “struggles” we’ve been through have made us stronger and given us that hunger and desire to keep going. We love everything that we’ve done, not to sound big headed. A lot of big bands move on or disown their early records but we’ve not moved so far forward that we don’t love those records anymore. 

A Celebration of Endings never really received a proper live outing, and here you are with its follow-up. How do you plan to bring both of these albums to life on the road?
Great question, and one which I would like to know the answer to myself, haha. That process will become clearer when we properly start rehearsing. We’re going to have to play a really long set, and it’s exciting to have to have so many songs to choose from. There are so many ways we can do a show now, as we can play two or three different setlists. That’s great, but I don’t think we’ll be doing things like medleys. We just have to cram a lot into our shows!

Not like how Foo Fighters sometimes do those mid-show medleys. 
They do it well, but it’s not really suited for us. 

Biffy Clyro, live in Brussels (c) Dewi Mik

The artworks for both this album and last year’s have similarities. Tell me more about the art direction.
It was important for this album to have a connection with A Celebration of Endings, for them to be two sides of the same coin. A negative side, but also the positive outlook. We wanted to feel connected, and we have to thank Simon (Neil, frontman) and his wife Frankie for the artwork. They made it look all glitchy and intriguing with those little doodles and sketches, which was a nice personal touch. It’s got a scatterbrain approach to it, it kind of mimics the way your brain works. It’s left, right, up and down. 

Of course one thing which has emerged during the pandemic as well is TikTok. As a longstanding established artist, have you had much difficulty or fun embracing this new technology?
I’ll be honest and say that I find it tricky being a band member when it comes to social media. We’d been a band for so long without social media and now it just feels daunting to an extent in which I overthink it. I watch a lot of crap on social media but I find it hard to engage as a band member. I feel like every time I post something the band won’t like it, but that’s because I overthink it. There’s some things which social media needs to figure out, too. Just like we have rules in society, you need to have rules in social media. For example with footballers being racially abused – you wouldn’t get away with that face to face so why should you online? I do have my issues with social media and I think it needs a reboot in some ways. It’s a bit lawless at the moment.

Exactly. Especially with footballers taking the knee this past year and not much coming of it.
It’s not changed anything. I’m pulling my hair out for these guys because they’re trying their best on the pitch. It’s not just a sports problem though, it’s a societal one which just comes to the fore in sports. I feel like a hypocrite saying I like social media, but I also feel like it has to start with educating younger generations so that this comes to an end.

One thing which these new tech platforms have also helped with is the discovery of new music. What have you enjoyed lately?
Over the last two years I’ve struggled to pick up any new music, which I think is a symptom of the pandemic and feeling uncomfortable in life. I went through the albums of my childhood because there’s a comfort and familiarity in it. There is a band, though, called Lucia & the Best Boys from Glasgow. They’re young, there’s a bit of electro in there and there’s also a large helping of pop. They have a real no-nonsense attitude and that all-important indie spin.

The pandemic has taught us a lot about how our industry can do better. What lessons do you think we can take from these last 18 months?
Making gigs more inclusive and making people feel safer is important. There’s a lot of evil men in the world and I hate the way they can get away with terrible behaviour. I also hate the feeling of someone coming to a show feeling unsafe. Just like the rest of society, the music industry has been laid bare to its flaws. We as people need to do better, we need to be kinder and we need to be more sympathetic to others. Not everyone has the same ideas or opinions but that doesn’t mean you have to cancel them. I hate cancel culture, there has to be more forgiveness and open mindedness. The Myth of the Happily Ever After is due 22 October.