Few rock bands in the United Kingdom had as successful of a 2013 as Biffy Clyro. After more than 15 years of sweating it out on stage with a ferocious live show and six albums that increasingly got them to the forefront of the region’s hard rock scene, the band exploded with their first No. 1 record in double-album Opposites.
Many from America have yet to hear about the Glasgow trio that performs at the Great American Music Hall Wednesday, however. Last August, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor counted himself among that group. Reznor was none too pleased when he found out that Biffy, and not NIN, were the headliner at an English festival. So he took to Twitter to attack Biffy, without even knowing who they were.
“At the time, we wanted to grab him by the lapels and even his face…it seemed so selfish and narrow-minded,” recalled Biffy bassist James Johnston, who makes up the trio along with his twin brother Ben (drums) and Simon Neil (lead vocals and guitar). “I was just really frustrated that a man with such talent, such history, (who) had accomplished so many great things, and has been in the music industry for such a long time; I felt like he would have realized that in some regards, bands are in it together, and you’ve got to sort of stick together and look after each other.”
Togetherness is a central theme to Biffy Clyro, who have been in a band since they were 14 and 15 years old. The band formed in 1995 and has been heavily influenced by the likes of Metallica, Nirvana, Foo Fighters and other heavy and prog rock acts.
There’s no intriguing story for the band’s complicated, quirky name, so the three resorted to making some up over the years. There’s the one about Neil stepping out of the shower on newspaper and getting the words transposed onto his foot. Another involves a fictitious 16th century warrior. They’ve even made up an acronym — Big Imagination For Feeling Young — and have said they are named after a Scottish soccer player (think Pearl Jam going by Mookie Blaylock).
“Eventually people will get over the name, and it won’t be a big issue,” Johnston laughed.
Biffy released six albums since 2002, but it was their fourth, 2007’s Puzzle, that brought them into the mainstream in the U.K. The steady growth and exposure continued through 2009’s Only Revolutions to Opposites — their first U.K. No. 1, 18 years after first coming together. These days, they sell out arenas and stadiums in the U.K. and Europe.
That’s not the case in the U.S., but of course there was a time before Muse could make that claim. The trio is not done trying to make a large impact on American fans, and they don’t treat the smaller audiences any differently than the larger masses back home.
“There are some of the boring logistical things like how much equipment we can take and how big the stage is, but … we still put the same effort into it,” Johnston said. “Maybe it’s a bit of a cliché, but we wouldn’t be coming if it wasn’t important to us. We work to get the people on the West Coast as good of a show as we do in the U.K. and Europe.
As great as the last 12 months have been for Biffy Clyro — which were punctuated last month when Johnston married his long-time girlfriend in Mauritius — it was almost not to be. Shortly before the band gathered in Los Angeles to record Opposites, Ben Johnston, a heavy drinker, hit bottom and admitted he was an alcoholic.
These days, he doesn’t touch spirits. The three know that more tough times will eventually arrive, but they will continue to lean on each other whenever they need help, James Johnston said.
“When you have a difficult period, the only thing you can do is come together and help each other and support each other,” he said. “Ben’s desire to make change in his life is really strong. He’s more present and more up for life.”
At the band’s shows, fans can often be heard shouting a peculiar phrase — ‘mon the Biffy!’ — which demonstrates the togetherness felt not just among Neil and the Johnstons, but their devotees. It all started around 1998 at a hometown show in Kilmarnock, Scotland, and is rooted in the traditions of the local soccer club.
The club is affectionately called “the Killie” and its fans routinely yell “’mon the Killie” to encourage and push them forward, Johnston said. Now, the band’s rallying call is heard around the world, from Japan to the States.
“It makes us feel like we’ve got our own team,” Johnston said.