It’s a nicely warm spring day in Las Vegas and Scottish rock band Biffy Clyro are backstage at the city’s Vinyl venue, inside of the Hard Rock Hotel, about to play the first show of their North American tour. Back in the UK, the band are a household name, headlining huge festivals, selling out arenas and being played on daytime national radio alongside the likes of Kanye West and Katy Perry. Their last two albums both went to Number 1 in the UK album charts but they’ve yet to have anything like that kind of success this side of the Atlantic.
On Sunday 9th April Biffy will play Montreal’s Cafe Campus. With a capacity of just 600 people it’s a long way from headlining Download Festival which is what they’ll be doing two months later along with Aerosmith and System Of A Down!
You can win tickets to their Montreal show below, but first we sat down with the band’s Ben Johnston to dig a little deeper into what he calls “the biggest underground band in Britain”.
MR: What were you guys listening to when you first got the band together?
Ben: I guess we were all locked to Nirvana and that whole Seattle sound thing. That really woke us up to what was possible in terms of how simplistic you could be but still have power. How you didn’t have to be a virtuoso. We liked Guns N Roses and stuff before that and then when Nirvana hit us at 14 or 15, everything changed. We started to think we could be a band possibly. Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and then some more obscure American bands like Karate and Braid, and proggy stuff like Rush, Yes and Dillinger Escape Plan. Then we get into more softer things like Red House Painters and more folky stuff. But we always wanted to be somewhere in the middle of that. I could play you parts of our songs that sound like Dillinger and some that sound like Red House Painters… the most un-pigeonhole-able band in the world.
MR: Do you think, on this side of the Atlantic, that’s part of the problem?
Ben: Definitely! Lots of people have tried to put a finger on why things haven’t kicked off in America cos everyone always said you guys will do great in North America, and I’m never gonna complain, we have hundreds of people coming to the shows which is amazing, but it certainly hasn’t taken off in the way that it has in the rest of the world. But I think it’s cos we’ve got a stupid name and we’re too hard to pigeonhole. You need to work to like our band.
MR: How many times have you toured North America?
Ben: It must be almost into double figures now. Lots of support tours… Queens Of The Stone Age, some stuff with Muse, Say Anything, Manchester Orchestra… but we’ve never done that thing where we moved out here for an entire year and nailed it over and over again. That’s the way we’ve been told we need to properly get a foothold, but we’ve never really been that careerist a band in the first place. It’s meant to be fun, this!
MR: Do you remember a time where you realised things were changing in the UK and you were hitting the mainstream a bit more?
Ben: Not really. I still think we’re this weird underground band. We’re like the biggest underground band in Britain. We’ll play Radio 1’s Big Weekend before Little Mix and we played the Brit Awards where we’re hanging out with (model and TV presenter) Abbey Clancy…
MR: You’re almost like the go-to rock band for the big pop events.
Ben: Aye, which is weird cos I think people forget that our music is still pretty weird. We’re kind of omnipresent and people are used to our quirkiness. Our biggest chart single was Mountains and that’s in the count of thirteen. No-one does that! And people still manage to dance away to that.
MR: So for all these people that don’t know anything about Biffy Clyro what song would you say, listen to this, this sums up Biffy? Is there one song, cos your music’s so varied….?
Ben: I know. It’s really tough. How can you possibly sum up a seven album band in one song? There’s probably one song on each album that might sum up that album. At the moment, from the most recent album, probably In The Name Of Wee Man is the song from that album that would give you a good idea of what we’re properly about. Wolves Of Winter maybe. It’s aggressive and weird as hell.
MR: So I’m seeing you twice on this tour, Vegas and Montreal, and the venues are around 600 capacity. Do you enjoy the fact that you get to play smaller venues for a change?
Ben: Definitely. There’s less expectation for a start, more to prove and not as much to live up to, if that makes sense. We relish that challenge. It’s much cooler than when you’ve got a number one album and you’re on the radio, everyone’s expecting this thing, and all you can really do then is fail or meet the expectations. But out here all we can do is impress surely. We know we’re a kick-ass live band, we know how to put on a good show, so we’re only gonna earn fans out here.
MR: Last time I saw you it was playing after Fall Out Boy and they had dancers and flames. It was an over-the-top rock show. And then Biffy Clyro headlined the night and you did your thing. So what changes when you play a show like this or Cafe Campus compared to walking on in front of tens of thousands of fans?
Ben: Way less nerves I guess. We all still get nervous cos we wanna do a good job so when you’re headlining Reading Festival it’s fucking terrifying and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. We’re able to suppress it so it doesn’t get in the way of the show, but here that’s gone and we’re bearing our teeth a bit more when we come here. It feels a lot more punk rock.
MR: Does the way you interact with the crowd change?
Ben: Yeah. It’s a little bit more relaxed. When you play those big shows you can’t be too specific, you have to address the whole room. It’s a bit more show-like, a bit more of a production, whereas here somebody might shout something and you might feed off that, so there’s that element which is cool cos you can’t do that on a big stage. So I’m hoping for a bit of that on this tour cos Simon has only got better and better at being a frontman.
MR: What’s the last album you felt you had to recommend to your friends?
Ben: I think it was a band called Crying. It’s a terrible band name but I’m into that! (laughs) Beyond The Fleeting Gales, that’s a fantastic album. The band that are supporting us tonight O’Brother are unbelievable. Really dark and a little bit like Oceansize who we have two members of playing with us live now. But also I’ve been listening to a lot more hip hop and stuff recently. My son’s been getting me into that. I love the new Childish Gambino record. I love the new J. Cole record. But I’ve also just got into The Cure. It’s so bizarre cos all my favourite bands over the years have been talking about The Cure. I always knew I liked them. I liked Friday I’m In Love when I was a kid but I thought they were just a bit namby-pamby and then I realised they’re really not. They’re probably the first real Emo band when you think about it. That emotion in his voice when he sounds like he’s about to cry all the time. It’s fuckin’ heartbreaking! But then they can have those really twee, happy songs.
MR: If you could take two albums to a desert island what would they be?
Ben: It’s gonna have to be the first Ben Folds Five album. You weren’t expecting that were you?! And then… Orbital. In Sides. My wife got me into Orbital recently and again I always thought they were a band I should definitely avoid… Something changes every bar, even if it’s the tiniest thing. You can just sit and chill out, and for me it’s a real triumph in electronic music.
MR: Last question… if you could sit and speak to the guys trying to think of a band name back in the mid-90s, what would you say to them?
Ben: Before Biffy we were called Screwfish. We were listening to Silverchair and Blind Melon and we just thought you get two words and put them together. So we did and we were called Screwfish for a good four months. And then we thought this is a terrible name and we changed it to Biffy Clyro! We should’ve stuck with Screwfish. But no other band names sound like Biffy Clyro.
MR: And if you Google it, nothing else is gonna come up.
Ben: Exactly! See, we didn’t know that cos it was pre-Internet. We should start telling people we were ahead of the curve and we predicted Google.
And with that, Ben heads off to get himself warmed up for the night’s performance, safe in the knowledge that, next time somebody asks the meaning behind the name of his band, he has a new made-up story to tell them!
Biffy Clyro play Cafe Campus in Montreal on April 9th. You can get tickets HERE but we have a pair to give away to one lucky winner.
To win two tickets to the show, just answer this question.
Which Biffy Clyro song was covered by the winner of the X-Factor TV show and went to Number 1 in the charts in the UK?
Send your answer to steve (at) montrealrocks.ca before midnight on April 4th to be in with a chance of winning.
Interview – Steve Gerrard
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