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Biffy Clyro will soon release their new album Opposites, due out this Friday, 1st February. Although Opposites will go down in the record books as Biffy Clyro’s sixth studio album, it could be considered the Scottish trio’s sixth and seventh album.
Comprised of two discs, each with its own title – The Sand at the Core of Our Bones (Disc 1) and The Land at the End of Our Toes (Disc 2) – and each with its own lyrical theme, the double allowed Biffy Clyro greater space to expand their sound in a single release.
Speaking to band member James Johnston as Biffy Clyro toured through Germany, the fiery haired bassist talks about the motivation behind recording a double album, the various genres Opposites dips into, and working with Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell.
Is Biffy Clyro already testing out new material on your current tour?
James Johnston: We are, we haven’t really started absolutely going at it ‘full tits’ as it were. We’ve been doing some TV shows and warm-up shows, if you like, but it’s been fun to try some of the new songs and see people’s reaction. It kind of makes the rest of the songs reinvigorated in a way, so it’s been a lot of fun so far.
When you try out new material on the road, is it to gauge the reaction from fans or more so the band can get a feel for the new songs live?
JJ: I think a little bit of both, you know, I think sometimes when you’re playing a new song you just keep your head down and you’re concentrating so hard that it’s almost hard to pick up what people’s reaction is.
It definitely takes a little while to settle into playing things, but there’s nothing quite like that feeling of playing a new song for the first time. It’s just totally electrifying, and that’s kind of what we live for.
Why make Opposites a double disc? Does each disc have a different theme or different sound?
JJ: Not so much a different sound, you know, but there is a little bit of a theme. The first disc, The Sand at the Core of Our Bones, is about reflecting on the past and dealing with difficult things in your life that have brought you to a certain place. There’s a certain amount of resignation to that, I think it’s definitely a more negative album.
And the second disc, The Land at the End of Our Toes, is about moving forward and projecting forward and dealing with the things; the feeling that you can take on the world and do anything if you’re part of a gang. I think they’re definitely feelings that a lot of people have in their life. Some mornings you wake up and you’re ready to go and some mornings you wake up and you want to go straight back to bed (chuckles). It’s the kind of feelings that everyone has at different points in their life, I suppose.
Was there a different preparation going into a double album as opposed to a single disc record?
JJ: I think in many ways [it's] the same. I guess there’ more work and you have to keep focused for a lot longer. I think we naively thought making a double would be a little bit quicker than making two records, but it more or less took exactly the same time; it was exactly twice as long as making a regular album.
We always play a lot before we go in, we kind of know what we’re going to record; what sort of sounds we’re going to get. So I think largely the same apart from the fact that it just takes so much longer. But it’s fun getting a chance to try so many different things and get those different sounds. So we started with the drums: we would have different drum kits in different rooms and just really try to make it as exciting as possible.
Did you have any double album influences?
JJ: I think there’s been some great double albums. London Calling [The Clash] and The White Album [The Beatles]. It’s not really strictly a double album, but Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion, one and two, was one of the first records that we got into and has been a big influence on this [Opposite]. It’s such an eclectic album, more thoughtful when you think about it, and that was something we tried to achieve with this one.
Opposites is 20 songs split between two albums. That’s a lot of music. Were all these songs written after 2009's Only Revolutions?
JJ: Simon [Neil] picks the songs and doesn’t really write on the road, so it’s really more at home and between tours and, you know, sort of during some of the tours, but really after we got home from touring for a couple of years the songs just started to flow out.
We had about 45 songs that we demoed and…we just thought it was a fairly risky and courageous thing to do, you know, we like to take risks as a band.
From the looks of it the band used a wide range of instruments for Opposites. With this album, was there a policy of ‘anything goes’?
JJ: Yeah, very much so; the only kind of rule was that it had to sound good (chuckles) and fit with the song and not be on there just for the sake of it. I think the temptation is to just throw the doors open and do anything, and at the time it can sound great, but 6 months later you really regret it.
So I think it’s got to be something that you can live with and that fits with the music. And things like the bagpipes just sound so natural to us, and this song Spanish Radio with the Mariachi band and the trumpets on there, it can make people raise their eyebrows a little bit, but we’re not doing it to have a laugh, it’s not joke music; it fits really well.
Have Biffy Clyro broadened their sound for artistic expression or is it to also attract a wider audience?
JJ: I don’t think we’ve ever done anything deliberately to get a wider audience. We don’t really think about audience when we’re making the music. We still practice up in a little farm in the middle of nowhere and there’s nobody around. We’re not near the record company or anybody apart from a bunch of cows in the fields (chuckles). So we’re not really thinking about, in some ways, that part of it at all.
And I think that’s probably the best way: you want to just initially make music for yourself, and of course make an album for people to hear, but I think at the very birth of the songs you should really be doing something that excites you and triggers some sort of an emotion in yourself.
As you mentioned before, there’s a track that has a Mariachi feel to it, some tunes use bag pipes and others are driven by keyboards. How were you able to mesh the various styles and give a cohesiveness to the album?
JJ: It’s an interesting question and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I think being on our sixth album we’ve got a sound as a band. I don’t really want to pick it apart and figure out what it is (chuckles) but hopefully we’ve got some sort of an identity in the way that we play our instruments or the way that we sing.
I think they all come from the same place, you know, it’s a very personal record like the last few records have been. It’s an emotional input that makes it sound like us.
What was the experience like working with composer Clint Mansell?
JJ: It was very interesting, it was funny working with him. He comes at it from a totally different point of view. I know he’s been in bands in the past [Pop Will Eat Itself] but the way he works now is quite different to the way we work.
We’ve been very maximus and throwing everything at the table and tried to make a really huge sound. And as we worked, he was stripping things back. Every time we’d give him the track it’d come back with less things on it than when we’d given it to him (laughs) …
But he’s just got a great way of creating lots of space with just little sounds here and there. He’s just a really interesting character to work with, and I think the stuff that we’ve done has really helped to progress our sound.
That’s interesting because often when you think of a composer you think of more instruments
JJ: That’s right, we also worked with David Campbell, who we’ve worked with in the past, and he’s very much of that train of thought. But Clint approaches things in a totally different way and it’s really interesting to watch him work.
How did you come to work with Ben Bridwell of Band Of Horses and what did he bring to the album?
JJ: We’ve always been fans of Ben’s voice and the band, you know, Band Of Horses are an amazing band with beautiful songs. It was a little bit of a shame that we couldn’t actually get him in the studio because he was on tour at the time. But he very kindly recorded it when he was on the road and we just gave him the track [Opposite] and gave him a very small input and just left him to it.
He’s just got a beautiful kind of southern twang and his harmonies would just melt your heart. I think he just brought a real nice charm to those songs and [Band Of Horses are] a band that we really respect and we love everything they’ve done.
When can we expect Biffy Clyro in Australia to tour the record?
JJ: Well we’re going to be down before end of the year. We don’t have any dates that I’ve seen of yet but…we’ve always had fun when we’ve been down there in the past, so hopefully you’ll be seeing a lot of us in the future.