Biffy Clyro on Ellipsis and their UK tour

Feature by Rachel Bowles | 03 Nov 2016

Ben Johnston of Biffy Clyro discusses the making of the band's new album Ellipsis, and the eclectic influences that fed into the record

It may be an ugly word in rock circles, but Biffy Clyro's album Ellipsis is potentially their most 'pop' album to date. Not necessarily in terms of commerciality – Biffy's prog rock double player Opposites claimed top spot in the UK album charts back in 2013, a feat Ellipsis has impressively repeated this year – but in the boys' ability to take diverse influences from a range of zeitgeisty sources and distil that into an urgent, disciplined and punchy 11-track record.

"It comes quite naturally through us getting a bit older and listening to more," explains Biffy drummer Ben Johnston. "When you're younger, you're very much one type of music, one kind of genre and a bit blinkered to other styles but you maybe start listening to more music and you're not quite so bull-headed so you'll let other influences seep into your music.

"I guess we all listen to a bit of hip-hop and a bit of dance now, and that certainly wouldn't be the case back when we released our first album. I think it's about trying to broaden your horizons a bit and let other forms of art seep in.

"I guess with [Ellipsis] being our shortest album, because it's eclectic there's a lot of different styles within that half hour and we're really proud of that. We've always liked a bit of folk and country music and you can hear that in Small Wishes, you've got more angry stuff with In The Name of the Wee Man and then an almost R&B/hip-hop produced tune with Re-Arrange so, I mean, I guess we're just pulling from all corners of our influences."

"A lot of pop people are taking more risks than rock bands..."

Throwing around inspiration and influences, it's refreshing to hear the politics of a black feminist record like Lemonade aren't wasted on Biffy and helped mould Ellipsis: "Beyonce is just very cutting-edge and pretty out there," Johnston says. "A lot of pop and hip-hop pop people are taking more risks than rock bands, that's what we felt going into this album. I think with a lot of rock bands you hit play and know what you're going to get. Once you've heard two songs you kinda know what you're going to get for the rest of the album and that's quite sad. Rock used to be the stuff you couldn't play to your parents but now it's really the hip-hop stuff you wouldn't want your parents to hear."

To record Ellipsis, Biffy did the unthinkable, swapping their home turf of Ayrshire for a high-tech studio in glamorous L.A. where they could really sink their teeth into experimenting with production. Johnston says: "It's probably one of the most fun albums we've done, if not the most fun. Definitely one of the most creative experiences we've had in the studio. We usually have every single detail worked out, every single lick and the drums and harmonies, everything, before going into the studio but we purposefully didn't this time.

"So in some songs we'd actually record just the guitar and vocals first, which was just a brand new thing for us. The idea was just to get the essence of the song down then decide what kind of song it is, what kind of genre it's going to be. That's what happened with Re-Arrange, it was about just getting the skeleton of the song down and then working around that. That was really interesting for me as a drummer, to be engaged right up to the very end of the recording process because usually I know exactly what I'm doing, I've practised my arse off then go in and play drums for 8-10 days and then kind of crash for the rest of the time. That certainly wasn't the case this time."

"There was a lot of getting songs to a certain stage and then scrapping them, and starting all over again. Working with Rich [Costey, producer] was a whole new experience. He's like a mad professor and an excitable child, and he never stops living and breathing your music. He'll send an email at 3.30am because he's had an idea lying in bed and we have to go into the studio and try this new Russian synthesiser that he's found for two hours. It was like working with an absolute maniac at times. It was difficult because we're used to quite a scheduled recording process. It was really organic and we really can't wait to work with Rich again."

From Ayrshire to arena tours

Despite L.A., Biffy haven't forgotten where they've come from and are clearly humbled at being labelled a Scottish institution. "It's cool as hell," Johnston says. "I hope we do kind of sound like Scotland. We certainly sing with Scottish accents at least. Scotland and Ayrshire, and the West coast in particular has had a really big effect on our music, it has a large bearing on our outlook towards things.

"In this part of the world they're not really so optimistic, I'd say quite pessimistic to be honest but also really hard working and salt of the earth people, they've always kept our feet on the ground and as people like ordinary people. Nobody treats us any differently and I love that; I would hate for anybody to ever put us on any kind of pedestal, we keep ourselves approachable and I think being from Ayrshire has a lot do with that and I think you can hear that in our music.

"There's just something hopefully very honest about what we do and I think that's definitely a trait that you find a lot around here. I'm very proud of where we're from and very proud of that fact that hopefully you can recognise us as a Scottish band within seconds."

It's important to the band to maintain a connection to UK fans, even more so on the grand scale of a stadium tour. "When we first played the big stages at the festivals," says Johnston, "we felt a bit of a disconnect but it's our job to fix that and make the gig feel intimate regardless of size of venue. I think we got better and it particularly falls on Simon's shoulders to try and really reach the people at the back as much as the front. We used to be so terrified doing big shows but now we love them.

"There's not really anything like it, you can't beat that feeling when maybe thousands of maniacs are singing our songs that we were just playing in a wee farmhouse in Ayrshire. It's really quite special when that happens."

Ellipsis is out now via 14th Floor Records. Biffy Clyro and Brand New play SSE Hydro, Glasgow (29 Nov), Manchester Arena (3 Dec) and First Direct Arena, Leeds (4 Dec)