It’s been almost ten years to the day since Biffy Clyro first performed down under and, while enjoying huge success on their home turf with sold-out arena tours and headline festival sets, growing their fan base in this part of the world has been a slow burn. However, thanks to the Scottish trio’s sheer relentlessness, their commitment to the cause is beginning to pay off.
We caught up with drummer Ben Johnston to chat the thrill of coming to Australia and playing in front of larger crowds, and following in the footsteps of Nirvana and Eric Clapton with the release of their first acoustic album, MTV Unplugged: Live at Roundhouse London. Oh, and did we mention they’ve just written a movie soundtrack?
From the main stage of Glastonbury to Enmore Theatre: after 10 years dropping in to Australia, Biffy Clyro are starting to feel the love.
HAPPY: Hi Ben, thanks for chatting to us. You guys absolutely took the roof off the Enmore Theatre on Monday night. How has the tour been this time around?
BEN: Thank you very much. These gigs seem to be getting better and better. The fans are getting way more passionate and the sing alongs are getting way louder. It’s been fantastic.
HAPPY: There was a moment towards the end of Many of Horror where you could hardly see the stage through all the people on their mates’ shoulders. There seemed to be a lot of joy in the air.
BEN: Absolutely. Geographically, we couldn’t be further away from home and when you see people on each other’s shoulders like that, it really makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. That feeling never goes away, but it’s especially cool when you experience it on the other side of the world.
HAPPY: You guys probably have one of the most peculiar stage entrances I’ve ever seen…
BEN: (laughs) We’ve always liked to walk on stage to strange music. We’ve done it to Jump by Van Halen, which is really obtuse and happy, all the way to the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme tune. The music we have now is quite threatening. It’s a girls choir singing a slightly atonal piece over a solo piano. It gets us pumped and it goes really well into Wolves of Winter. It sets the tone; it shows that we mean business. I guess it’s also kind of a metaphor for our band.
HAPPY: You’ve been coming over to Australia for ten years now. How have the audiences changed in this time?
BEN: When we first came over to Australia, it was purely expats in the audience and you could hear the Scottish and English accents everywhere. Obviously, we love the expat crowd, but we don’t come to Australia to play to Brits. We want to play to as many Australians as possible. We’ve always felt very welcome here and, as the gigs have been getting bigger and bigger, they’ve been attended by more locals, which is great for us.
HAPPY: Is it hard to nurture an audience in this part of the world?
BEN: Unfortunately, we only really get to come to Australia once every three years and it’s usually at the end of an album cycle, but the locals don’t seem to mind. They’re happy that we’ve made the effort to come down and the place always goes off. Actually, Monday night was very much like an old Glasgow show!
HAPPY: So, now you’re at the end of the Ellipsis album cycle, what’s next? I hear you’re producing a soundtrack for a movie, but the movie hasn’t been written yet…
BEN: That’s correct! Basically, we write the soundtrack and then the storyline is reactionary to the music. So, the lyrics might bleed into the dialogue, for example. It’s all a bit of a mystery at the minute, even to us! As soon as we get home we’re going to start recording it.
HAPPY: Any Hollywood names signed on?
BEN: We’ve got some exciting actors lined up and it’s all going to be shot in a matter of days.
HAPPY: Are there any movie soundtracks that really stand out for you?
BEN: I’m a big fan of the Midnight Express soundtrack, which was composed by Giorgio Moroder. It was one of the earliest electro-inspired movie scores and it had an amazing feel to it. I also love the soundtrack to Swiss Army Man, which was written by a friend of ours Andy Hull from Manchester Orchestra.
HAPPY: Amongst all this, your performance for MTV’s iconic Unplugged series is to be released as a live album later this month. How did it feel to be following in the footsteps of legends, like Nirvana and Pearl Jam?
BEN: It’s unbelievable. When we got approached by MTV I don’t think any of us believed it was actually going to happen, but lo and behold it did and it was such an honour. To stand alongside those iconic bands is unthinkable for us, because we still consider ourselves as this alternative group from Scotland and now we’re on the same series as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the bands we grew up adoring.
HAPPY: You’ve said before how much Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged record inspired the band when you were young.
BEN: We grew up on those MTV Unplugged records, especially the Nirvana one. We used to learn and rehearse that set when we were kids, from the cover songs to all the dialogue in between. It’s a beautiful thing to hear your favourite band stripped down like that.
HAPPY: As a drummer, was it frustrating having to scale back for an entire gig?
BEN: (laughs) It was a bit weird. When we came off stage we had all this adrenaline that hadn’t really gone anywhere. I usually lose it all smashing the hell out of the drums, but none of that got to happen, so we didn’t really sleep for three days.
HAPPY: We’ve seen a clip of you guys performing Many of Horror and the way the crowd joins in with the band is unlike any other Unplugged performance. Did you encourage the audience to get involved?
BEN: Well, because the previous MTV Unplugged shows were filmed in a TV studio, the room felt kind of sterile. We performed ours at Roundhouse London, so it felt like a real gig… the connection between the audience and the band was amazing to witness.
HAPPY: Were you worried that some parts of the crowd might get a bit too over enthusiastic?
BEN: The crowd did actually get quite rowdy to a point that we had to re-do a song. It got so loud in Bubbles that we couldn’t hear what was happening and it put the whole song out of time. We had to re-record that one.
HAPPY: You guys have brought WAAX on the road with you for this latest tour, how familiar are you guys with the music scene over here?
BEN: Not massively, to be honest. WAAX were one of the bands that submitted to play with us and we liked their stuff. They’re making waves over here so we were more than happy to have them along. We do love The Chats… we think they’re absolutely brilliant. We also used to be massively into Silverchair when we were growing up and they were one of the biggest influences for us when we were 15 years old. I kind of like how there’s a bit of a time warp in the music scene in Australia, where it seems like grunge has never gone away, which is really cool.
HAPPY: You should check out Gang of Youths.
HAPPY: Gang of Youths. They definitely fit the Biffy mould.
BEN: Awesome! I’ll check them out.
HAPPY: Back home and across Europe, Biffy Clyro are festival headliners and you sell out arenas wherever you go. Do you guys ever see yourselves becoming as big in Australia?
BEN: I’d be foolish to say that we’re not aiming for that, but it doesn’t just magically happen. We managed to get that way back home through relentless touring, word of mouth and putting on great shows. For us, the variety of playing big and small venues is really important because I think if you only play massive shows it would end up getting kind of samey. We’re ambitious people, but we’re not businessmen, and we’re not happy because we’ve sold x amount of tickets. We’re still very much relishing these smaller shows, although any gig over a thousand people is still a big show to me! We’re not in anyway underwhelmed by these things, they’re still very important to us… as long as the numbers don’t start dropping!