Biffy Clyro: "The last couple of years, I've been doing a lot of searching quite simply, who am I? What's my purpose...our fans have touched our lives, and we've touched a lot of people's lives. I'm really proud that we're able to honour them"
Alice Gee | 20/11/2021
I greet Biffy Clyro’s Simon O’Neil and James Johnston with a congratulations on the release of their new album “The Myth of the Happily Ever After” which has been met with glowing reviews.
(SIMON) “It still feels like a bit like a birthday. You know, it’s weird that you wake up expecting something to happen, and then nothing happens. But it’s a good feeling. It’s a good feeling, Alice.”
I can hear the mix of appehension and excitment in his voice as we talk about the lead up to the albums release, altogether the bands 9th. I ask James how it feels to let it go out into the world that has changed so much since their last record.
(JAMES) “I do think it’s been such a weird time of all different kinds of emotions. I know that I’ve watched people go into COVID who’ve never in their life had to deal with something to do with their mental health or life-changing and all of a sudden, it was like, what the hell is happening? I won’t lie I didn’t have a great night’s sleep. Probably nervous, you know we’ve put a lot of work into this. And then suddenly the day comes around, and you forget that people are going to heat it. You get so caught up in your own selfish world of just trying to make the music for yourself, so in the intervention, you remember that other people are going to hear it and suddenly it’s so “oh my god”. It’s a bit nerve-wracking.”
Having spent so long in the studio contributing every waking moment to the nurturing of The Myth of They Happily Ever After throughout several national lockdowns I’m not surprised there were some heavy emotions still lingering. Though Simon insists there were also little moments of overwhelming excitement and happiness.
(SIMON) “I think everyone has reevaluated what’s important and, kind of reprioritised what we cherish and what we need in our lives rather than what we want, or the baggage we’ve picked up over the years. Making music with my two best friends, that’s important to me, being able to see my nieces and nephews is important, being able to spend time with my wife, it’s all-important to me. I feel that my life has been simplified in a way that I can kind of get my head around for the first time because our lives and our jobs make us pick up all this baggage and we pick up all these habits and routines and rhythms and not all of them are healthy. It’s the spirit of the world these days you know, we do have to operate at a fast level in this day and age but you know what, being forced to slow down I think will be good for society at large. I think these conversations are now happening in platforms where they wouldn’t have happened before.”
(JAMES) “We were in a bubble. That was during a period where you were allowed to go to work, just by maintaining certain measures. So we feel quite lucky at that point that we were able to go and do it. My wife wasn’t working, she was at home, quite fed up most days because she wasn’t getting to work probably because it was such a heightened time emotionally. It was like the best eight weeks of my life making this album and doing it ourselves here in Scotland, which we haven’t done since the very start. We’ve always gone away to record. Los Angeles to Canada, to be honest, and we’ve talked in the past about recording at home but we’ve always been a little bit scared about having to live real life. Often making a record you want to be in Fantasyland, and there’s nowhere better than Los Angeles for that. So it was quite a change to be driving 20 minutes down the road through the rolling hills. It actually gave us a lot of pride. We always take the music so seriously, so we put every effort we could to feel free. We had fun while we’re doing it and I think hopefully you can hear that.”
It feels almost full circle, to come back to their roots and write music like this again. I ask if it felt like that to them, and how they found writing under COVID restrictions.
(JAMES) “It was probably in some ways less precious. We worked a little bit quicker, we didn’t spend so long standing in a room together playing the songs. You know, a couple of times we said let’s just hit record, and maybe it allowed us a little more freedom, to wrap things up and start again. We’ve always been quite good at drawing up ideas together and having such shorthand when it comes to communication.”
As they weren’t isolated together, I wondered who they were locked down with and how they found the pandemic impacted their mental health and that of those around them.
(SIMON) “I was with my wife, Francesca, at home, and thank goodness. I know, a couple of friends that were entirely by themselves. Those first three months of lockdown, even for people with the strongest kind of constitution, I think they struggled. Fortunately, I had my wife. Of course, we both had those moments of crisis but being able to kind of bounce off each other and pick the other person up was a huge relief. Because in those first three months of lockdown COVID was still so unknown, we didn’t take any chances, I only live less than a mile from my brother and his kids actually, but I couldn’t see them and give them a hug. So there was nothing to really grab ahold of, so I feel very lucky to spend time with my wife at home and but yeah, it was tough trying to find positives from it.”
We find ourselves sharing advice on how we’ve coped with these constantly changing scenarios. Sharing is something both Simon and James are passionate about in the hopes that’s someone, even just one person might find comfort in hearing their truths. Often these moments of weakness or crisis come when you least expect it. I ask whether their past experiences made them slightly more prepared for this past two years and for what may come in the future?
(SIMON) “I think I can tell the signs of when a bad spell is coming and I’ve been on Antidrepessant medication for years. My first real struggle with my mental health came from a time of grief, I started taking anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants and now, when I try to come off them I, for want of a better word, collapse.
I kind of felt a few years later I’d dealt with it even though I hadn’t really dealt with myself and my own kind of reactions to it. So when I thought I could liberate myself by tailing off the medication I ended up having a bit of a breakdown.
I found it was really hard to connect to anything and everything and luckily realised it was because I’d stopped taking my meds. I can’t imagine going so quickly down that hole again. But I have to say, during the pandemic, I really addressed that real feeling of ‘Am I going to have to take medication the rest of my life, and I think I’ve finally addressed that probably I’m going to have to. Some of us are just going to have to be on this path, and, you know, for some of us we need that little chemical realignment to help keep us on just the right side of things. So I kind of came to terms with that. So that’s a part of my life, which very much helps me kind of know those telltale signs when I start to spiral.
You end up feeling upset that you don’t feel great, and that you have to have something chemical to rely on. As for grieving, you always retrace and look at what may have been. My depression kind of kick started in my 20s but it’s taken me to get a little older to just accept it. Now I think about it in much the same way as a physical medical issue, you know a muscle or leg injury. If someone has bronchitis you to the doctor and you try and make yourself feel better. Why is the brain not the same thing?
Fortunately, the conversation has changed, which is why we are here doing this, but it is thanks to people like you keeping conversations open. In these last 18 months, we’ve all been in a shared trauma, it’s tempting to keep things to yourself or what he or someone’s got it worse than me, But I feel lucky, that this last year anytime I really couldn’t point down a dark hole I picked up my guitar, played the piano and, I do feel genuinely grateful because it helps me communicate. When you have the dark thoughts, and you struggle to communicate to someone else, partly because you don’t want to bring them down but partly because there’s a little bit of you worry it won’t go down well.”
I nod in agreement. As a woman with bipolar, I often find my gender can be a privilege rather than a hinderance. Simon’s honesty is a stark difference to the oh-so-toxic ‘macho male’ attitude that dominates rock music, especially when we discuss the bands tribute to friend and musician Scott Hutchinson. The lead singer of fellow Scottish band Frightened Rabbit tragically died by suicide in 2018, on this album Biffy pay tribute to their lost friend.
(JAMES) “There are so many issues in your life that you’re not getting through all of them. I think with this one Simon really felt he’d been touched by Scott, and we also lost another dear friend of over a decade Dan Martin. I think Simon was really courageous in being so honest. It’s a real source of pride when I listen to that song. There’s a couple of lines in there where I almost put my fingers in my ears when I hear them, otherwise, I’m going to lose it. There’s some of you and me in it and I love that idea that you take little bits of everyone who’s around you, the good and the sort of bad parts, become part of you. I’ve been thinking about that process of growing up, you know, how much of your appearance and inside in what makes you up and certainly with the impending doom that we’ve all suffered. But the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of searching, and in those regards, just quite simply, who am I? What’s my purpose? We’ve hit a big rock pool the last two years, our fans have touched our lives, and we’ve touched a lot of people’s lives. And I feel really proud that we’re able to honor them.”
Before we say goodbye I want to quickly look back to 2020 when they released “A Celebration of Endings” and ponder how the changing world impacted the transition between these two records.
(SIMON) “A Celebration of Endings was a combination of things and it was kind of written pre-pandemic. I think it had a lot more fortitude to it and was quite a stoic album that accepted that things can be bad, or things come to an end, but that you can immediately bounce back. That means rebirth, the birth of something else, or the start of something beautiful. So this album feels a lot more vulnerable and it’s a lot more, the songs really are deal with the pandemic, and the lockdown, and the isolation week by week.I was writing the songs during the lockdown so the album was finished within six months of writing the first song. It felt like a very reactive album, I felt like I had to express my feelings in these songs and the album, I feel it was really important to get it out in these two years, originally it was going to be a few musical ideas expanded upon from the previous album, but I actually couldn’t help but write new songs, with every week bringing a new emotion and a new feeling. After not feeling inspired for a few months in that first part of the lockdown, suddenly, the floodgates opened, and I just started writing music. It was me trying to find that little semblance of control and comfort in the middle of a chaotic time. I think it reflects how much of a different person I was even just 18 months ago but also acts as a reminder to try and take care of ourselves and the people we love moment by moment.”
“The Myth of the Happily Ever After” is available to buy and stream now
Words Alice Gee
Photography: Kevin J Thomson