Ayrshire rock trio and childhood friends Biffy Clyro were suited and booted in the photography portfolio of Esquire's favourite bands in our current issue, alongside Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear, and others. Quite possibly the nicest men in rock’n’roll, singer Simon Neil (centre), bassist James Johnston and his twin brother, drummer Ben Johnston (left and right, respectively), also sat down to talk about their last album, their first gig and their new axes to grind…
ESQUIRE: Simon and James, you’ve recently been given your own line of guitars. That’s pretty exciting, no?!
SIMON NEIL: We’ve been using Fender stuff for quite a long time, but when they brought it up we thought they were joking. We were like, “OK, we’ll see if this comes to fruition,” and right enough they’ve made these beautiful guitars that are a couple of hundred quid for people starting out. We’re totally selling the product!
JAMES JOHNSTON: They’re exact replicas of the guitars we use but they’re very affordable. You don’t have to go out and spend £1,000 on a guitar.
SIMON: You can look like James for £200…
JAMES: No one will buy that now!
BEN JOHNSTON: Comes with a wig and everything.
ESQ: You didn’t want to go for it and get your faces emblazoned across them?
SIMON: It’s so ridiculous — we’ve put our signatures on the back.
JAMES: We were a little bit embarrassed! It’s really tiny.
ESQ: Next stop, Biffy Clyro: Rock Band?
SIMON: Perhaps, yeah! I mean, what comes after The Beatles?! Bound to happen.
ESQ: Do you come from musical families?
SIMON: Ben and James’s dad plays guitar. He gave me my first ever guitar. He handed his over to me after a particularly good gig that we played. We were 17, 18.
ESQ: That must have been quite a moment.
BEN: He must have been drunk.
SIMON: Yeah, he wants it back! It was a typical gig in a pub in Ayre. There were 10 people there and we'd just played really well. I think your dad just realised that day that we were serious and not bad. He came straight up after the gig…
ESQ: He had it on him?
BEN: Maybe he borrowed it off you and gave it back to you…
SIMON: I think maybe he’d lent it to me.
JAMES: I never got a guitar. [General laughter.] No I did, I did…
ESQ: You remember your first gig as Screwfish [the name they used before Biffy Clyro, of which more later]?
BEN: Absolutely, yeah.
SIMON: We bunked off school to go and do it.
ESQ: Was it in the daytime?!
SIMON: We had to soundcheck!
JAMES: No on has asked us that, ever.
BEN: It was a place called the Key Youth Centre in East Kilbride, which is a suburb of Glasgow. We were way too young and terrified. I think the main band played covers. We played 60 per cent our own stuff and it went down well, which is ridiculous for a first show — to play your own songs and get a reaction.
SIMON: Because we didn’t have friends in bands we didn’t know that it was precocious to scab off school and play our own show when we’ve got no fans or no anything, but no one was there to tell us what to do. It was just us going, “Cool, we’re getting a gig!”
ESQ: Did you load the audience with friends?
BEN: We had our parents there.
SIMON: It definitely was a family affair. We didn’t know any better really — that’s why we spent so long gigging in Kilmarnock. We must have played 20 gigs there before we played Glasgow, because we’d go to pubs and say, “Can we play?” And they’d say, “OK, if you can bring in 20 mates.” They let you play for nothing. It wasn’t even, “We’ll give you money,” it was, “We’ll let you play.” Which is why I guess we’ve always felt quite lucky since then, because we know how tough things can be for bands.
ESQ: You seemed to acquire a devoted fanbase quite quickly.
SIMON: The best way to connect with people was to go to their town and play, and that’s when people really fall in love with a band. If they come and see you a handful of times and realise that you’re not willing to let them down as punters and if your gigs keep getting better, people will come back. In the days before MySpace, unless you were turning up to someone’s town, they would never hear of you.
ESQ: So how much touring were you doing in the early days?
SIMON. We played every single town that would take us. The first few tours the boys drove us in a wee VW campervan, just us with the gear in the back.
BEN: I think we played over 200 gigs in one year, just in Britain. How on earth do you do that, just in Britain?!
JAMES: By going to places like Peterborough, and Stornaway and Orkney…
JAMES: Frome in Somerset… A lot of bands aren’t willing to do that.
BEN: Yeovil Labour Club, places like that — people who really shouldn’t like your music but we’d still go up and give it our all, and maybe one or two people from the crowd would like it and they’d tell somebody.
SIMON: We were young and precocious, weren’t we!
BEN: “We’ll turn you, you Whitney Houston fan!”
ESQ: Did you have any bad experiences?
SIMON: The worst gig was Lincoln — our dressing room was the promoter’s daughter’s bedroom. It was really inappropriate. And the floor was like a gig floor. In the bedroom.
ESQ: How old was she?!
BEN: We don’t know, she wasn’t there!
SIMON: We don’t know, she was crying…. [Everyone laughs.] Not to judge the guy, but you were like, “Ooh, this doesn’t feel quite right.”
BEN: It feels weird smoking a joint with a Cabbage Patch Kid.
ESQ: Then of course there was the change of name to Biffy Clyro. We know better than to expect a straight answer as to how you chose it, but what's your current apocryphal story?
SIMON: The current one is there’s a Welshman who tried to become an astronaut, but didn’t quite make through training. His name was Biffy Clyro and our name is out of respect to him.
JAMES: Nobody talks about Wales being right at the spearhead of trying to go to the moon. [For the dangers of speed-reading, see here.]
ESQ: In researching this interview, we discovered that Biffy is also a make of bidet.
SIMON: It was terribly upsetting when we found that out. We were 15 when we picked the name. The first record company said, “You’d have to change your name.” We were like, “No”. In retrospect we probably should have, but once people know the music the name doesn’t matter. It’s probably given us a drive — we know you’re going to think our name’s stupid, but wait till you come see us.
BEN: We try and use it America and say it’s because “We don’t take any shit.”
ESQ: How do they cope with it over there?
SIMON: You have to write it down.
BEN: They’re like, “Beefy what? Buffy The Vampire?”
SIMON: In France they say Biffy Clee-ro. Nous sommes Biffy Clee-ro!
ESQ: Your fifth studio album, Only Revolutions, came out in November. How do you feel listening back to it?
SIMON: It feels almost a kind of happy sounding record I guess…
ESQ: You sound nervous about that.
SIMON: It’s weird! It’s not LA happy, but I guess it’s a bit more hopeful sounding, musically and lyrically. Our last record, Puzzle, was about losing my mum and it was a very sad record. Everything about it was melancholy. This one is a bit more of a celebration of life I guess.
ESQ: So in a way it’s a later stage in the same process?
SIMON: If you go through a really tricky time you think you’re not going to get out of it, and then you just come into a happier phase of your life. I think because we’re in a band that obviously comes through our music, but we’re always smiling anyway, even when we’re miserable.
ESQ: You’ve documented your career on your bodies, in a manner of speaking. When did you start getting tattoos?
JAMES: The first tattoo we got when we were 21. We all went and got a Biffy tattoo. I’ve got mine on the back of my leg and Si’s got his on his left arm. I’ve studied your body. [Laughter.]
SIMON: It was on Ben and James’s 21st birthday. We sat round their friend’s house who was a tattooist. We had a few drinks and got tattooed. It was cool.
ESQ: Did anyone look like they might bottle it?
JAMES: I nearly passed out when I got my second one. It was on the small of my back.
SIMON: Then we got the puzzle piece next, for the Puzzle album.
JAMES: I’ve got some puzzle pieces and girl off one of the first singles on the second record that was done by a comic book artist called Milo Manara.
BEN: I’ve got a very immature Star Wars tattoo on my arm. The Rebel Alliance.
ESQ: How long ago did you get that?
BEN: That’s probably the most recent tattoo I’ve had!
ESQ: Getting any more?
BEN: Definitely. We all want loads more. My next one is I’m going to get James’s face tattooed on my face.
JAMES: There’s no room, man! I’ve got a big face.
BEN: His big hid!
SIMON: Do it slightly off centre. That’d be horrible.
BEN: Grinning out of one side of my mouth…
Biffy Clyro will play an Xfm Live Session in London tonight and will return for a series of UK dates starting in Perth on 29 April. Their new single, "Many Of Horror", is out now. For more information visit www.biffyclyro.com