Hailing from Kilmarnock, a village south-west of Glasgow in Scotland, Biffy Clyro began as humbly as any rock’n’roll band. In 1995, teenage guitarist and vocalist Simon Neil asked friend Ben Johnston to play drums. Ben dragged in twin brother James on bass. 11 years and six albums later, the ‘Biff’, as they’re affectionately known, have finally achieved ‘overnight’ success.
Rock fans looking from the outside in thought so. The band’s usual mainstay of clubs and pubs a dimming memory, Biffy Clyro headlined the UK’s prestigious Leeds and Reading Festivals in 2013. Earlier this year, they played the main stage at Soundwave. They’ll return to Aussie shores for another visit this September. Does that mean they’ve made it?
“I don’t even know,” answers James Johnston in an affable Highland brogue. “It’s been a very gradual build-up. You don’t notice these changes as they happen.”
Biffy Clyro’s list of accolades is growing ever longer. Last year, they topped the British album charts with Opposites, their sixth.Theywon NME’s Best British Band award in 2011 and 2013, and were selected to open for household names like Foo Fighters and Metallica. They’ve sold over 1.2 million albums, and that’s just in the UK.
“It’s only until a little while later you look back and say, ‘Oh, OK, I can see what’s happening here,’” Johnston says. “You’re so much in the moment. You almost daren’t think about what it means. We’re in a band. What does that mean? It just means we’re in a band. What’s the difference? There is a difference and there isn’t. You’re playing to more people but you’re still playing to people.”
It’s easy winning over rock fans with rock music, but that only takes a band so far. Biffy Clyro work that extra bit harder to reach people outside of rock fandom.
“We grew up as spotty rock kids, like most of our audience,” Johnston says. “If you’re going to be headlining a festival and it’s only people from your genre of music that are following you, you can get stuck in that world. That’s OK for most bands. It’s really nice to turn people on to different kinds of music and feel you’ve got to prove yourself in front of an audience that doesn’t otherwise know much about it.”
Any success, especially in rock’n’roll, seldom comes without hardship. During 2012, James’ brother Ben struggled with alcoholism. Drinking to blackout and missing recording sessions saw his addiction overwhelm not just him, but the band as well. Neil had tragedies of his own, seeing his wife suffer through three miscarriages. It may not seem like it from the outside, but Opposites is a battle that was hard fought and won.
“Sometimes you ask yourself a lot of questions and sometimes you don’t necessarily like the answers, or you don’t even know what the answers are,” James says. “Sometimes you think, ‘Is this it? Have we come as far as we can go?’ The reaction to that is, ‘No fucking way! This is not over. We are not letting this go.’ We can believe, somewhere deep inside, that we can go on. That we can deal with these problems. It’s a case of picking yourself up and dusting yourself off. After that, you do sort of rekindle the fire. Getting through those periods means we’re stronger than ever.
“I think we appreciate each other and where we’ve got to in our lives. At 15 and 16 we dreamed of being in a band. Now we’re in our mid-30s and we’re still doing it. There’s a lot of strength to be taken from that.”
Hopefully, fans can take comfort that Biffy Clyro not only faced off, but drove out their demons. Johnston feels an incredible empathy for those who face the same grim realities. From students and mechanics to touring members of a rock band, “everybody has a tough time in life”, he says. “Whether it’s losing somebody, or grief, or dealing with a difficult situation, there’s someone out there that cares. They have to go a friend or they have to go to a family member and go and get help. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help.”
The Biffy boys learned that the hard way. They’re all still growing up alongside one another, just as they did during those rough and tumble teenage years.
“We’ve been the same three guys that grew up together. We learned everything about life at the same time. We’ve just been the main supporters of each other. The other guys have got your back, no matter what. I think that allows you to be free and not worry too much about getting the right haircut or getting the right jacket. You know you’ve got this little gang. I think people want to be a part of that.
“Like, we’re a gang with the audience. There’s a certain amount of comfort and a certain amount of support from that. Life – our life – can be a very lonely place when you’re constantly trying to put on a face or trying to act a certain way. Trying to be a cool ‘rock star’. That can be really, really tiring. It’s much easier and much more rewarding to be yourself.”