Comprising Simon Neil (guitar /vocals) and the twin brothers James and Ben Johnstone (bass and drums, respectively), the alternative-rock act Biffy Clyro formed in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1995. These days, the raucous, heavily-inked trio can count Dave Grohl, Robbie Williams and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme among their celebrity fans. Biffy’s last album, 2009’s Only Revolutions, reached No 3 in the UK, but now they are releasing Opposites, a bigger, much more daring affair.
Opposites is a double album that packs bagpipes and mariachi brass – when you unveiled plans for it, did your record company approve?
Simon Neil: Ha. They trusted our vision and bizarrely money wasn’t an issue, but as the album neared completion they started worrying about how to market it. They’re releasing a condensed 14-song version in the US, much as we argued about that. They pointed out that it might make the difference between people hearing or not hearing our music, and we gave in.
I read that you recorded some tap-dancers for Opposites too – a wind-up, surely?
SN: No, it’s true. You can see them on the DVD that comes with some versions of the album.
What themes do the album’s lyrics address?
SN: It’s basically about our struggle as a band over the past two years. We’d kind of drifted apart as mates and that was strange for us. Before that, we’d always been able to rely on each other no matter what life was throwing at us. Ben had to stop drinking, both for himself and for the band to survive, and there were other major things going on in our personal lives too [in 2011, Neil’s wife Francesca had three miscarriages]. A lot of realities have hit home and we’ve started asking the big questions about why we’re here and where we’re going. I’m a lot of fun at parties, as you can imagine.
The record’s two discs are subtitled The Sand at the Core of Our Bones and The Land at the End of Our Toes.
SN: Yeah. The Sand has a very lonely and solitary outlook, and it’s “How did this happen? How did I end up here?”, and The Land is much more “How can I change my life and make it more enjoyable? How can I galvanise the people around me?” It’s a projection into the future.
The graphic designer Storm Thorgerson (Pink Floyd; Led Zeppelin) created the album’s cover image of an ancient South American tree bent-double by the wind. What’s he like to work with?
James Johnstone: Storms’s the smartest guy in the room – he’ll run rings around you. His work is instantly recognisable and it’s always about creating the right metaphor for the album.
SN: He went through all my lyrics and peeled back the layers, asking: “What does this mean? What does that mean?” He’s in his late 60s now and he’s in and out of hospital with stomach cancer. We send him our love.
You recorded the album in Santa Monica, California. Did you make any new friends there?
Ben Johnstone: We absolutely don’t network, so we made no new friends at all apart from the neighbours. They were like: “Which one’s Biffy?”
James, I understand your latest tattoo has special significance?
JJ: Yes, it’s of the Robert Burns poem John Anderson, My Jo. Ben and I used to recite it as kids. That tattoo was a little bit of a tribute to him when he decided to give up drinking [Johnstone dried-out with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous]. I wanted to remind him of our history together as brothers, and of our future.
• Opposites is out on 14th Floor Records today