The Hot 100 2016: 19 Biffy Clyro
Henry Northmore talks to James Johnston about Biffy Clyro morphing from ignored underground act into major rock concern
Biffy Clyro had an incredible 2016. The Ayrshire trio released their seventh studio album – Ellipsis, which went straight to the top of the UK charts – and headlined the biggest show of their career by playing in front of 35,000 fans in Glasgow. 'To be in Bellahouston Park and feel that we'd brought so many people together was so special,' enthuses bassist James Johnston. 'Knowing that we've united all those people is something that we'll never forget.'
It's an unusual position for a band like Biffy to find themselves in. Their first three albums were jagged dispatches from the underground filled with complex, serrated bursts of visceral rock energy, weird time signatures and razor-sharp riffs. 'We always wanted to keep doing what we did and hoped that people would come to us,' adds Johnston, who formed the band in 1995 with his twin brother Ben (drums), and Simon Neil (vocalist / guitarist).
2007's Puzzle expanded their horizons by embracing a more epic sound while refusing to compromise. Two years later, Only Revolutions battered down the doors with soaring singles 'Mountains', 'That Golden Rule', and 'The Captain'. In 2010, one of the strangest chapters in Biffy's history arrived. 'When Simon Cowell came to us for The X Factor it felt like we were pulling the mainstream towards us,' recalls Johnston. Matt Cardle's cover of 'Many of Horror' (renamed 'When We Collide') was an unlikely Christmas number one. 'It was fascinating, really funny, and fucking bizarre.'
Despite their now enormous success, Johnston remains an unassuming rock star: softly spoken, considerate and self-effacing. 'When the three of us are in the practice room, it's about that moment where you all hit a certain feeling and you all know that when you look up, the other guys are going to be smiling because it's a shared experience. That's one of the greatest joys in my life.'
Ellipsis is their most diverse album to date, from the spiky rock of 'Wolves of Winter' through the sweet emotional electro of 'Re-arrange' to the jaunty folk of 'Small Wishes'. 'Previously we'd just used the studio as a tool to document our sound whereas now we're using it to create sounds, whether that's old synthesisers or modern drum machines,' says Johnston. 'We're always going to have an organic approach; we're always going to play instruments and we're always going to be a guitar rock band. But I think it's important to try different things.'
Biffy Clyro play the SSE Hydro, Glasgow, Tue 29 Nov, and tour the UK until Thu 8 Dec.