Biffy are back with a bang with their new album Ellipsis, their seventh studio album and their first with the legendary producer Rich Costey. We caught up with the boys to cover the inspiration behind the album, their thoughts on the future of rock music and their love of David Attenborough...
Ellipsis is released 8 July 2016
The new album is fantastic - a particular highlight of the album is Re-Arrange - can you talk us through the writing of the song?
Simon: I went through a few months of not writing anything that I thought was any good and it felt like a continuation of our previous album and there was one day last summer at home in Scotland, I wrote three songs at the piano in an afternoon, and I sent the boys a recording of it - the other two were pretty good - but one of them was Re-Arrange and I remember the boys getting back and going like, "This is really fucking special". What we didn't want to do with that song was stand in a room and play it as a band - we wanted this album to be something different and say things in a way that we'd never really spoken before and that was a very important song in that regard, cos we didn't bring proper drums in, or bass or guitars, we just kept the chords and had an idea of a rhythm. I think if we'd recorded it on previous albums with Garth [Richardson], it would have sounded more like a rock song and part of the reason we wanted to work with Rich was his expertise in kind of more dance stuff, electronic kind of world - and certainly his mastery of the studio... I've always wanted to put trap beats on a song, and I know that trap beats are ubiquitous and they've been around for a good few years now but it was almost the only thing that wouldn't leave me alone since the last album - Biffy have to get a trap beat on this record.
And I think we've managed to pull it off in a way that it's not like, "Oh, Biffy have discovered hip hop!" And there's a real swagger and swing to this song that we've never even tried to achieve before. I don't even think we could have. I think it's just as we're becoming more... at one with our sexuality! There's a confidence to it - it is a bit of a ballad, but I think there's a real swing to it, it's a bit more R&B and it feels like these are the kind of areas we'll move into on the next couple of records with Rich Costey, just embracing the studio a lot more. It feels like we've said a lot with volume, with guitar, bass and drums and we're just trying to say things with different textures these days.
The whole song is in falsetto...are you apprehensive about doing this song live, because it's quite vulnerable isn't it?
Simon: Yeah, it's a tough one. We've done it live a couple of times now and I'm still finding my way with it. I was probably the one person that was like, "I think I should do it full voice, but at a lower vocal," but Rich and the boys were like, "You know what, there's a bit of magic here," and the vulnerability, I think, shines through, because while the music has a bit of swagger and cockiness, the vocal really doesn't. And actually, on that song - as much as I hate Justin Bieber - we used his vocal guy to edit up a version of my vocals - because it felt like a real pop song, we thought well let's go full Slick Rick here! So we did a version of that and it was too much. With me doing a falsetto and with all this syrup poured on top of it, it made me wanna gag! So we kind of pulled that back, so we actually made the vocal a bit more vulnerable than it was going to be. But yeah, a tough one to sing live - because my adrenaline normally takes over and before I know it I'll be like, "AAAARRRGGGH" - that's what I don't want to happen!
You've done a double album (Opposites), you've done an album in a day (The Vertigo of Bliss), you've done the whole gamut - before making this record did you consider doing a soundtrack or something different... did you worry that you'd run out of album 'styles' to do?
Simon: It's definitely a worry - the more albums you make, the more you've said, the more formats that we've used, for me the main thing about uncovering where this Biffy record was going was making - I made another album called ZZC, an electronic kind of record - and for me that cleared the decks for Biffy. After the third album I made a couple of Marmaduke Duke records which I think kind of informed the next few Biffy albums - they don't sound like them but I think we kind of embraced scale on those records, which I think we hadn't done before and this time round, going down that more electronic path was definitely informed by ZZC. You have to kind of make a decision - each album we make now we need to kind of get a point of view and a focus of what it's going to be, 'cos inevitably if we went in just to make music it would, of course, sound like previous records and then every album's just suddenly got a slight evolution.
There's definitely conscious decisions made - we restricted ourselves, we didn't want live strings, we didn't want anything... basically the less organic the better on this album. So basically, for me, making something like ZZC was the version of doing that - just taking ourselves out of the comfort zone, not worried about being a band or standing on a stage and singing - and that's why the Biffy record took a few months to get going, because every time I wrote a song I was considering us being on a stage singing it, going, "Oh there'll be loads of people there, it needs to sound like this," and that's not very conducive to making good music. So, yeah we'd love to do soundtracks at some point but I think we still feel we've got a well to mine - we've still got some oil down there.
You toured for six years, and you made three albums before you moved to a major record label, what advice would you give to bands who think maybe it's never gonna happen for them? They're slogging round on their fifth time round the toilet circuit or whatever...
Simon: Have patience. We never pinned our hopes on anything. We didn't do it with a view to moving to a major label - that became an option later on and I think the main advice is make sure you enjoy what you're doing, enjoy the music you're playing, don't make music for anyone else - which sounds incredibly obvious but sometimes if you've got one eye on ambition, you start altering - you maybe get rid of your pal that's in the band because of such-and-such, and little things like that... so just make sure you like the guys and girls you're in the band with and just make sure you enjoy it, because unfortunately you've no control over it. That's what you need to kind of embrace. You need a little bit of luck, but you have no control - some of the best bands in the world sold zero records and barely got record deals and stuff, and some of our friends are uber, uber-talented and have never had an opportunity to make a record, so have faith in yourself and don't worry about having faith in anyone else, just believe in what you're doing and something positive will happen. You can never guarantee whether things are going to blow up, or loads of people are gonna like you but things will move forward if you enjoy what you're doing - 'cos people can tell, they can tell if you're doing it for the right reasons, so never be desperate about what you're doing.
Do you think, as well, the fact you got success a little bit later, did it help you deal with that success - because it feels like Biffy have only ever made strong steps - you've never really made a misstep - d'you think that's because you didn't panic?
James: I think so, I think also looking to what Simon just said there about younger bands - we were never craving that success, in terms of selling x amount of records or anything like that - it was about making x amount of records, you know - being a band and doing it - that was success to us, just being a band.
Simon: I think the age thing does help. If Puzzle was an album that we'd released when we were 19 or 20, I know we would have thought we were the best thing that had ever happened. And I think we probably thought that on Blackened Sky anyway! But we know the context and the luck of being a band - as I say, some people have made the best records, or records that I consider to be some of the greatest of all time and no one likes them or has heard them and we definitely knew, we were able to embrace the opportunities a bit more because we knew that those opportunities aren't always there as well. Being able to take advance of, you know, being on a major label and having money to make a record I think was so important. And just knowing that just because you make one good record, or one record that sells a lot doesn't mean that anyone's gonna like your next album and I think us making three albums that basically not a lot of people liked made us very grateful for the times when people did like it.
So simple things that we started to probably care about - how we looked - in that we would wear different clothes! You know, at photoshoots.. in the first three albums I remember thinking, "Well if it's a problem how we look then we're not making good enough music!" and you just learn that there's ways to help yourself perhaps.. we became a lot less outwardly [awkward]... more just like trying to challenge people in the wrong way. We were so obstinate for so long in that we wouldn't face the crowd - it sounds like simple things but I don't think I talked to the crowd until Puzzle! Y'know, other than, "Hi" - I don't think I even said, "Hi" actually! I think was just our thing... definitely to be in your mid-20s when it kicks off, you're a bit more aware of who you are as a person, and as a man and we knew friendship was the thing that came first for us - the band came from the friendship and I think that helps whenever things are going good or bad - if we look at one another and one of us is being a wanker, the other two are very aware of it.
Ben: I think we'd been around long enough that we'd seen a few bands kind of fall from grace, or a few bands go 'bang' and get some success, and then it's so hard for those bands when it goes away and stuff, so when we started doing that not at any point were we getting ahead of ourselves thinking we've made it, or we're gonna dine out on this.
Simon: We always believe you're only as good as your last show, or your last album, and you can't live in the past on former glories and so I think's why it maybe seems like we've always been kinda moving forward and building things because we judge ourselves against everything we've done previously and at no point do we autopilot this band. I think a lot of bands after four or five records just think they know it and I learn as much from brand new bands as I do from my favourites, and we're not obnoxious enough or arrogant enough to think we can't get better. Biffy - getting better since 2002!
I wrote an article after watching Straight Outta Compton - where has all the angry music gone? Where is our Rage Against The Machine? Where is our NWA? Do you have any views on that?
Simon: I think there's always some very aggressive music. I mean I read a magazine called Rock-A-Roller and there's plenty of aggression - there's some real nihilistic music out there, I think sometimes when the world becomes so bleak, people crave a little bit of sunshine and a bit of happiness... but that's by-the-by. You're entirely right, when you see governments lying to their people more than ever and people are just getting the piss ripped out of them and kids these days, like their future's almost been taken from them, the opportunities... I'm surprised there's not more fury out there, coming from youngsters. I guess you maybe look at the grime scene...
Yes, it's almost like the most angry music is stuff like Stormzy...
Simon: Exactly, it's strange that rock music has potentially become one of the safest forms of music - I don't like that. I think there should always be an anti-establishment vibe with rock - mind you I'm saying that sitting in Kensington... Warner Records! You know, surrounded by the corporate world! But I feel like almost on this record we've probably got more anger than a lot of bands even just coming out right now. I wanted to embrace my anger on this record, y'know, people that have pissed me off... I've never really talked about politics but you know when the Scottish Independence shit was happening - you know, straight up, people would lie - on both sides, people would be lying to the populace, and I find that unacceptable. I think the one fear for people is that it doesn't make a difference and I think that's what people are worried about - about saying too much about certain things is whether it doesn't make a difference. But having lived through Rage Against The Machine and you watch that NWA film and even Kendrick Lamar - he has made a fucking difference. And I hope that rock can still have that place, have that voice as part of it, because to me that's part of the reason I loved rock music - it was so, "Fuck the man" and make your own world and make your own mind up...
James: ...Sort of about providing an alternative kinda standpoint or viewpoint on things, and it was always like the exception to the norm, that maybe if rock music's become watered down so much and that is the norm - and maybe pop music borrows so much from rock that eventually rock's left a bit questioning where it needs to be, you know? Not providing what it used to be - which is an alternative.
Simon: My worry is that rock ends up the way jazz is - you know in that way, it's a wonderful art form that's still completely valid... don't get me wrong, I know jazz moves forward... but yeah, the anger - you've summed it up, it's the anger that's gone, it's the vitriol and the fury... I think there's a fear of offending people as well these days, I think because everyone has such a voice that I think maybe, even if you were to speak out against the government, your Twitter feed or whatever would blow up with people supporting the fucking government rather than people supporting your thoughts, and I don't know if it's maybe people are worried of being thought of.. I don't know. It's really tough.
Ben: I can only think of Enter Shikari from the rock world right now, that are of a size that are saying things. They're good boys and they're always trying to push their views and speak for the kids.
Simon: They also put their money where their mouth is, which I think's important. But then you've got Anohni, formerly Antony and the Johnsons, she's brought out a record that's entirely about the environment - and I know that ain't rock, but she's putting her neck on the line and kind of made it the bleakest of albums, but telling the truth and talking about things that we need to be talking about.
Ben: It comes in waves I guess, there might be a wave of more politically-charged bands that will come through.
Simon: Just even anger, not even political, just like, "Fuck this, this is what we've been given, you guys have fucked up our generation". I'd certainly feel like that.
Ben: Yeah, why are kids not fucking raging right now? Because we, us included, we have fucked it for them. It's unbelievable.
Simon: I think you're right, so it's maybe grime and things that have that attitude, and it just needs to find its way back to rock music. Sometimes guitars can sound more processed than the sweetest pop songs at the moment and wee things like that are a problem.
One of my colleagues at ShortList recently wrote an article about learning to play Master of Puppets - it took him ages - and I suddenly thought, you're all brilliant musicians - has there ever been a song that you sat down to learn and it's either beaten you, or it took a long time?
Simon: Probably I'm Broken by Pantera, it took me a long time to play that - that was a song that I would play all the time and I never got it quite right. There was a pinch harmonic that Dimebag Darrell played that I just couldn't recreate - and I even went so far as to get a Dean guitar - like the one he played - to try it. So I still can't quite play that properly but I love that song and I love that riff, I think it's one of the best riffs ever. That was one I struggled with.
James: Mine was at the opposite end of the musical spectrum and it was The Beatles doing an old classic called Till There Was You and on Christmas Day I think Ben had got some new drums and I got my bass and my dad his guitar and we sat down to play that song, and it's really simple but Ben and dad were flying and I was just like going, "Fuck, I don't know where I am here!" And I think it was just at that moment that I realised this is gonna take more commitment than I'd realised! I thought getting a new bass guitar was the answer - that wasn't the answer! I think you've just gotta - whether it's a really complicated riff, or you're early in your musical progression, you've just got to stick at it and keep going really.
Ben: I'm still learning Blackbird at the moment! I think that's a tune that kind of any aspiring guitarist wants to learn - I think I started learning that shortly after Simon learnt it and I can just about play it right now.
We named your artwork for The Vertigo Of Bliss in the top 50 album covers ever made - are you still a fan of it? Have you been tempted to do anything quite as edgy as that in the years since?
Simon: Probably not tempted... because we got quite a bad reaction to that artwork when it first came out...
But it is brilliant...
Simon: Well thank you. Milo Manara, the artist is an absolute legend in Italy and he makes pieces of art that do say something, and I think because we were 20 year old men, or boys at the time, I think people took it as a bit of a schoolboy thing, but they're actual pieces of art so we don't regret it for a second. So I think unless we saw something that was like that - that kind of spoke to us - because we were in Marseille when we saw a couple of pieces of Milo Manara artwork and we already had the title, The Vertigo Of Bliss, so when we saw it we were like, "Right, this is where we're going with this album," so unless something similar happened... it's not something we'd actively pursue.
We almost made the artwork... he does some really really out there stuff and one was a picture of a nun fondling her breast like licking a crucifix and I remember taking that in to Beggars y'know and going, "What d'you think"? And they were like, "You know you're lucky that you're fucking getting to use that one [the final cover]!" But yeah, we take pride in our artwork, it's something we consider a lot about and I feel like the exclamation of the artwork suits the exclamations of the album. It's not an easy album to accept necessarily on face value, I think there's a lot of depth to it, but yeah I love that record and James has the Questions and Answers Milo Manara artwork actually.
James: We managed to use all the artwork for all the singles and everything and keep it, for that whole record, the singles, all came from Milo Manara.
Simon: Yeah, an Italian legend, so it really means a lot that you guys rate the artwork because it's something we spend a lot of time on on every record. Amazing. So thank you for validating The Vertigo of Bliss artwork 15 years later!
James: If only Australia felt the same way...
Simon: Yeah, we got a call from Australia saying, "So Australia won't take your fuckin' record!"
So what did you do, did you have to do a Spinal Tap thing...?
Simon: I don't think they even released it! It was on Beggars [Banquet, their first record label] so it was probably easier to just not release it than it would have been...
James: It's quite open in Australia, but quite conservative at the same time, it's quite a strange sort of mix...
Simon: And that was our first kind of lesson learned that perhaps not everyone shares your perspective on life, or what you value as art, because we were naive enough to be taken by surprise, and then I was naive enough that when people started saying, "Oh this is fucking schoolboy shit," I got really annoyed because I was like, "It's so not that - you're actually being schoolboy here by judging it on just a shallow level."
I do have to ask this - you're famous for your lustrous locks and excellent beard, do you have any grooming tips to pass on to our readers?
Simon: Oh right! Actually, the amount of women I've had saying, "What do you use in your hair?" and I'm like, "Fuck! I don't do anything!". What you've got to do is abuse your body, bleach your hair and don't shower for days on tour and I guess your hair will stick with it and look fairly luscious!
What's it like being a bit of a rock pin up these days?
Simon: I don't know!... Fortunately I think we don't take it too seriously, I remember us being described as looking like Justin Hawkin's ballsack back in the day! So you know what, we might be pretty this week, but next you ain't gonna be pretty so I guess it's a bit of fun with a pinch of salt.
Going back to the new record, there's a lot of animal themes, lyrically - is there any reason for this? And I previously asked Harry Kane if he could be an animal what could he be - and he went for a lion - so which animal would you guys be?
Simon: Wolves of Winter came from the name of a David Attenborough documentary and I think the other animals... I never really notice what I'm writing about until I see all the songs together and then I kind of see it, but then I think I've associated a crisis of confidence I had last year and I think I've kinda equated that with becoming an animal - that sounds fucking bollocks - but I think of it as instilling confidence in myself and just following your instincts and trusting yourself and wanting to defend who I am and who we are and I think that's where the animal metaphors come in. But I probably I did watch too much Attenborough last year! And to be an animal?...
James: An elephant. You've got a long life, you don't forget much, you've got loads of pals around [everyone laughs]... they're communal animals! I happened to watch a show on elephants last week. They've got really long eyelashes - who doesn't want that? But it made me realise, with long eyelashes, they can't look up - but then I realised there's nothing up there for them to see - they're the biggest guys...
Simon: I will trump that. I will be a giraffe. And I'll be sitting above James. Love giraffes, met some nice giraffes, they've got huge, horrible big black tongues. It was on an Attenborough last year when they were fighting - have you ever seen giraffes fight? And it kinda reminded me of me and my neck on stage! I didn't know giraffes were fighters and I like the fact that they know how to defend themselves but you know what, they're big, sweet, tall gorgeous animals, so I would be a friendly giraffe - until you fucked with me!
Ben: I feel like I should say a cat. But they don't do much, they just lie about - I mean that's quite a good life isn't it? They just fucking lie about and when they have to go they fucking go, they're vicious, but you wouldn't really know that, because they're quite chilled most of the time.
James: And it would mean I'd be allergic to you...
Ben: Aye, it would put James out of my way, so I'd go for a beautiful house cat.
Simon: I would say you're more of a woodpecker because you can't stop moving...
Ben: Yeah cats are very cool and collected whereas I can't stop moving all the time. So no, I'm not a cat. A woodpecker. How about that? Or a jellyfish, because they have to keep moving. Fuck it, a shark - they never stop moving! Or they die, it's true. I have a shark tattoo and I'm terrified of sharks. I'd be a shark, so I could scare myself!