“It was about reminding ourselves that we’re a twisted rock band”: Simon Neil on Biffy Clyro’s visceral new record, A Celebration Of Endings
The Scottish guitar-slinger sits down with Guitar.com to talk second dates, waking up, scaling back his guitar set-up and why he will “never apologise for being a three-piece fuckin’ heavy rock band”.
Image: Kevin Thomson
Biffy Clyro have always had one eye on the future. There’s now, and there’s what comes next. There’s that restless creative buzzing in the back of Simon Neil’s head. But this is different. “In 100 years, they’re going to talk about 2020 – this moment when we all woke up,” he says.
The Scottish rock giants’ new LP A Celebration of Endings represents their two cents in a conversation that’s altering the world before our eyes. Amid a global pandemic, as Black Lives Matter protests make an indelible mark, and as venal politicians flounder under the most basic scrutiny, it’s a call for compassion and accountability.
“I was thinking about how I wanted to step up as a human being,” Neil adds. “We’re at such an important moment. You look at the world and think, ‘How the fuck did we end up here?’ But what I’ve realised is that asking that isn’t enough. You have to make a difference yourself. You have to change your behaviour, your outlook, your engagement with things.”
On the album’s seismic first song, Neil is unmoored, and he’s using Biffy’s music to help him figure out exactly where he stands. “Your north has gone out west,” he yells. As an opening statement it’s extremely potent, blending its searching anti-authoritarian streak with a thunderous riff and the arena-ready anthemics that broke the band into the open almost a decade and a half ago with the release of Puzzle.
“When I was growing up there were things you just believed,” Neil says. “If someone with a certain position in society told you something, there would be an element of, ‘They must be telling the truth’. But we’re not in an era where we can assume someone is being honest, or that they have the right reasons behind what they’re doing.
“That song’s about being somewhere that you don’t feel you belong – your foundations that you built everything on are starting to shake. But just now I’m feeling more positive about the perspective of the songs. We are fuckin’ making a change. I’m not just making my own personal changes. We are fuckin’ changing. We are moving forward. We’ve found our true north, and our head isn’t in your fuckin’ mouth anymore.”
Biffy’s latest effort was written following a couple of career moves that cast the band – completed by twin brothers James and Ben Johnston on bass and drums respectively – in markedly different roles. Ellipsis, their last album, was a sonic exercise recorded with Rich Costey that took sandpaper to their rough edges.
The soundtrack to the film Balance, Not Symmetry followed last year, allowing the trio to co-produce and reset by catering to the narrative beats of a script co-written by Neil. With Costey back in the saddle for A Celebration of Endings, they forged ahead with a different idea of what a Biffy Clyro record should sound like in the here and now.
“Everyone said, ‘You can’t play a Strat in a three-piece.’ And I was like, ‘I’ll fuckin’ show you’”
“Balance, Not Symmetry reminded me of who we are as a band,” Neil admits. “I’m dying for us to experiment all the time, but also there’s an essence that has to be in every record. And it’s the quirkiness, the aggression. Ellipsis was deliberately a studio record. It wasn’t meant to be abrasive at any point. But when I listen back it’s probably the personality characteristic of our band that I wish we had a little bit more of on it.
“Going in with Rich again, it was about embracing his way of working but also reminding ourselves that we’re a twisted rock band and we’re going to experiment as a twisted rock band. Our identity was a bit closer to the surface. When you make a record with a producer for the first time, I’d describe it as like going on a date. Everyone’s on their best behaviour, no one wants to upset the other person. You’re getting to know each other. The second date, maybe you’re going in for the kiss and you can be a bit cheekier. That’s how it felt. It felt like we knew what Rich could do, and he knew what we could do.”
Let’s revisit that ‘twisted rock band’ thing. We’ve heard this all before from major artists, but in this instance, Neil isn’t simply ladling PR gravy over a milquetoast record from a comfortable festival headliner. Alongside the synth diversions, proggy orchestral interludes and pop-leaning melodies that have characterised latter day Biffy records, A Celebration Of Endings is home to moments of searing heaviness and off-kilter riffage that can be traced back to their days as toilet circuit heroes trading blood and sweat with Hundred Reasons, Hell is For Heroes, thisGirl and Jetplane Landing almost two decades ago.
“I’ll never get tired of quiet-loud,” Neil says. “Going from a whisper to a scream is such a powerful thing. That whole era coming out of the late 90s in the States influenced a lot of British bands – there was a real fearlessness. That is the foundation of who we are, and I will never apologise for being a three-piece fuckin’ heavy rock band. People who aren’t into heavy music, they can’t understand what it’s like in those moments. There was an awful lot of respect among those bands. Everyone was doing something exciting and new. The possibilities were endless.
“I still see us as the same band. I was listening to [Dischord post-hardcore band] Faraquet’s record the other day and I got fuckin’ goosebumps. I hadn’t listened to it in 15 years. That is my era of music. I still enjoy so much new music but I feel so honoured to have played with all those bands. It’s thanks to them we got a lot of opportunities, things like going on tour with Hundred Reasons. I’ll be forever grateful to them for that. It’s just a shame that not all those bands got the respect they deserved. There’s a lot of luck involved, and that’s something I’m very aware of. A band like Reuben could have been fuckin’ massive. I hope we’re doing them proud.”
Strat’s all you need
Stitched across the surface of Biffy’s discography in a similarly stubborn fashion is Neil’s Stratocaster. It is as absurd today as it was 18 years ago that the squalling noise produced by the band comes from an instrument that hasn’t always been associated with getting its hands dirty. “I just like pushing people’s buttons, I guess,” Neil laughs, adding: “The Stratocaster, I swear to God, feels like part of my body. It’s second nature. Whenever I put on another guitar I feel like something’s missing in my connection.”
An embryonic Biffy Clyro was kicking around between Ayr and Kilmarnock as early as the mid-90s, with their attention-grabbing debut album Blackened Sky released in 2002. They caught on to the twisting dynamics of American post-hardcore and the open-hearted indie-rock hooks of their countrymen in Idlewild, fashioning songs that could overwhelm with brutal distortion one moment and soar with a perfectly placed chorus the next. The presence of Neil’s Strat was a conspicuous fuck you to some early doubters that stuck around.
“I’m less worried about being an architect and more worried about being a demolitions expert”
“The first guitar I ever bought was a Squier Strat,” he remembers. “I fell in love with it. It’s what I learned to play Nirvana songs on, and what I wrote my first songs on. My knowledge of guitars at that point was so limited. Ben and James’s dad had a 1988 Mexican Strat, and he loaned that to me for one of our very first shows, and he then gave it to me as a gift.
“We made our first three records with that guitar, and it just became this extension of who I am. At that point, if I could afford another amplifier, I’d just buy one and add it to the setup. I ended up being able to build this combination sound from a Strat that really had an awful lot of meat on the bone, a lot of body. Everyone who saw me with it said, ‘You can’t play a Strat in a three-piece.’ And I was like, ‘I’ll fuckin’ show you.’”
Of late, Neil has turned some of that indignation inwards. “Over the years I’ve ended up using six amplifiers to just get my guitar to work, and that started to scare me,” he says. “It moved away from the reason I played the Strat.”
While working on A Celebration of Endings, he sought to disassemble his setup in pursuit of something straightforward and honest. The colossal riff to North Of No South barrels into the world as vindication of this approach. It sounds huge. “That’s one Stratocaster, with one Vox amp cranked to fuck. I used a [JHS] pedal called The Kilt, which is dynamite,” he says.
“The main appeal of the Strat to me is the percussive side of it. As a three piece, I didn’t want to have big blocks of sound, I wanted it to be wiry and sound like another percussive instrument in the band. That informed my playing a lot. I used to play violin before I picked up the guitar, so I would always put my fingers in slightly weird positions. I always suited the feel of a Strat more than something that has a lot of bottom end. The guitar I’ve used for the last three records is a signature model for a guy called Michael Landau. It costs a small fortune, but it is the greatest fuckin’ guitar I’ve ever put around my neck.
“The main aim on this record was to get one amplifier, one microphone, one pedal, and one Stratocaster. When we could achieve that, it kind of blew my mind. As a player, it’s the first time I’ve ever thought less is more. I’m still discovering new ways to make my Strat sing. It’s one of the defining sounds of our band, which I’ve slowly realised. I’ve not been as aware of it over the years as I should have been. Until I put a Stratocaster on a song it’s not a fuckin’ Biffy song.”
“It’s the first time I’ve ever thought less is more. I’m still discovering new ways to make my Strat sing. It’s one of the defining sounds of our band, which I’ve slowly realised”
There have been times in the past, though, where Neil has branched out. Along with some Les Paul overdubs in the heavier moments on A Celebration of Endings he’s maintained a relationship with Gretsch hollowbodies – among them a White Falcon and a G6120T – for many years. But these guitars must work to unseat his Strat, offering something sonically that his go-to cannot.
“For me, when we’re playing live it’s always an audio thing where I’m thinking, ‘This needs to be more lush, and I don’t need to worry about the physicality of this song,’” he says. “If it’s a song where I’m expressing some sort of catharsis, the Strat is like my sword and shield at the same time. But what I’ve realised over the years is that texture on a record is so important.
“Maybe a few years ago every overdub would have been a Stratocaster. Now, I might try to layer it with a piano for a change, or put some other guitars on there, or a weird effect, to fuck around with what you’re listening to. It’s about learning to not be afraid. Initially, I wanted to hear my Strat the whole way. Rich Costey definitely taught me how to find this middle ground.”
Neil also sees a sharp distinction between his studio work and the kit he utilises on the road, with the subtleties of a record eventually being funnelled through his desire to “stand on stage and be a fuckin’ egomaniac.” In recent years he has turned to a Kemper Profiler to model sounds from the band’s back catalogue, but it must work in harness with a rig that rides that chaotic wave alongside him. Neil has been running multiple amps since he was a green kid seeking to obliterate the front row of clubs everywhere, and while the gear has changed that remains his default mode.
“I had the loudest fuckin’ amplifiers, you wouldn’t believe it,” he laughs. “At one point it got to 121 decibels at my microphone, which is the volume of a jumbo jet. In the last five years I brought the Kemper in for consistency. I basically model all the songs from the album so I have that option live. In theory the Kemper should work by itself but with my style of playing it really doesn’t. It’s so important to me that there’s air moving, that something is actually being driven on stage.”
“I had the loudest fuckin’ amplifiers, you wouldn’t believe it. At one point it got to 121 decibels at my microphone, which is the volume of a jumbo jet”
These days, to borrow a phrase, Neil is seeking a sense of balance. “I have my Peavey [Delta Blues 1×15 combo] which runs off stage,” he adds. “What I’m operating with most of the time on stage is a monitor system that has a mix of my amplifiers. It used to be that wherever I was on stage the sound of my guitars would change too much. If I was standing on the right-hand side, my guitar would be really clean, and then I’d walk to the middle and it’d be really distorted. Since I’ve gone with in-ears I’ve tried to change that.
“In my new setup I have a power amp running a cab by itself. I’ve got an Audio Kitchen Big Trees pre-amp to drive, and it’s stunning. It’s got a wonderful sound. I’m still using my [Boss] Metal Zone pedal through a Marshall, and I have a monitor that combines the two. I’m trying to be more efficient, because my whole raison d’etre is just ‘add more, make it louder, make it bigger’. In the last couple of years I’ve discovered I need to streamline it. I’m using a Black Volt on the record a lot. There’s a fella in California, just a wee workshop, and he makes these beautiful amplifiers and pedals. This amp is a work of art. It sounds like 19 fuckin’ 72.”
“I’m going for something a little more sophisticated,” Neil acknowledges, but nestled amid it all is that pesky Boss Metal Zone. As with his Strat, it’s a survivor that has become indivisible from the Biffy sound. “I’ve spent about 10 years with people trying to get me to get rid of this fuckin’ Metal Zone,” he says. “I reset my rig just before lockdown and tried to get rid of it, but every time my tech set up I’d be like, ‘What’s that? That sounds amazing,’ and he’d say, ‘Your fuckin’ Metal Zone.’
“But I cannot get it to work in a studio setting. Live, that fuzz in a high frequency works. You’re looking for more subtlety in an album, not just that explosion. I’m lucky that I have [touring guitarist and one-time Oceansize guitarist] Mike Vennart. He can recreate string sections and keyboards with his pedals. It puts me off going too far down the effects route when I’m playing live – he can do things I could only dream of. I can hear things in the studio and make it happen in there, but live I’m less worried about being an architect and more worried about being a demolitions expert!”
A Celebration Of Endings is out now on Warner Records.
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