It’s a rare thing to make a living from music these days.
As traditional revenue streams dry up the majority of musicians are under no illusion that there is no money in music anymore. Just to eke out a living is hard enough with bands ever more reliant on crowdfunding and frugal self-management. Romanticized notions of Lear jets, bountiful supplies of drugs, and extravagant spending seem like distant ideas from a bygone era. However, by the law of averages, some artists do make it. Some bands do manage to build a career on a scale that is totally out of reach of the majority of musicians. No.1 albums, huge festival appearances, and a fervent and dedicated fanbase. That is exactly the position that Scottish rockers Biffy Clyro find themselves in.
Having conquered the charts in the UK and Europe with their latest album Elipsis, and with a huge arena tour, including an all-conquering Reading festival appearance, things couldn’t be rosier for the band. Over the course of seven albums, the band has steadily built the type of following that many bands dream of with a fervent fan base stretching from Chile to Slovakia. However, What happens when a band achieves everything they ever hoped for? How does a group keep those fires burning and retain that passion? In Biffy Clyro’s case, the answer is, rather surprisingly, to become a small band again. The kind of band with nothing to lose who has to convince people all over again. Just them, the music and the stage. What better place to take that giant stride backward than America.
For many British acts, “cracking the States” is the very epitome of success. For Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil, touring America is a very different proposition. One which affords the band a whole different experience, one that he and the rest of the band savor. “It’s liberating,” Neil tells PopMatters. “It’s wonderful to be there and feel like a new band. That’s what’s exciting about going to America to go there with everything we’ve learned. It’s nice to leave the baggage at home and have it stripped of everything but the music coming from the stage. I’m really looking forward to it.” It’s this that keeps the band hungry, even after achieving such success at home, “We don’t get the chance to get bored or slow down. We’re not doing this because it’s the seventh leg of the tour. We’re doing it because we want to go to America and play shows that we haven’t played since we last toured the States. I feel with each tour we go on we have a reason to be excited and a reason to be nervous.”
This admission of trepidation about playing smaller shows may seem a little odd, considering they played to an estimated audience of 200,000 people in Glasgow last summer. However, in a way, it is also reassuring that that feeling remains no matter how large the show. A feeling just as easily shared by new bands playing in half empty bars to mega-famous bands playing in soccer stadiums. For Neil, apprehension and fear define the band’s approach to playing live, noting how “I think nerves and worrying about stuff gives us the edge. The day I go on stage feeling calm or chilled out is probably the worst show Biffy ever play. I want to feel out of my comfort zone.”
Changing things up. Throwing yourself into the unfamiliar is what music should be about. A view that Neil agrees with wholeheartedly, “routine can be the enemy of rock and roll and creativity. I want to be in situations where hopefully anything can happen.” However, Neil does have one issue with touring in a place where they are relatively unknown, “We’ll still have to explain why we’re called Biffy fucking Clyro!”
Neil is under no illusions as to how fortunate a position the band find themselves in. Music history is littered with bands who never made it past their debut album let alone built a lasting career, something not lost on Neil: “I feel fortunate that we’ve made seven albums and we are still excited about the music that we’re making because a lot of my favourite bands never got a chance even to make a second or a third record and that’s the kind of thing that motivates me, Ben and James to keep moving forward. I want to be the be the kind of band I would be proud of.”
That forward-thinking mindset has remained with Neil. From Puzzle through to the double album Opposites, Neil has tried to stretch himself as a songwriter. “That’s what we are,” he states. “We aren’t afraid to try new things. Not everything the band tries is going to be loved by the fans. I want to reach out and try new things. I don’t want to be the type of band that makes the same record for the next 20, 30 years. It’s not why you do this. I want to discover things about myself, Ben and James and about life. I would be incredibly depressed if we were making similar albums in 20 years.”
To that end, there are two main concerns for Neil when writing new music: value and connection. The album has to have intrinsic value for the band, Neil noting how “it’s not about being seen to be doing the right thing but doing something that matters.” Similarly, it has to matter to the people that love the band, as “if someone thinks our songs too simple or too prog I don’t give a fuck about that but hopefully, therefore, it matters to other people.”
Ambivalence to people’s perception of the band was not something that came naturally to Neil. Initially and in the earlier part of their career, it was important for him to try and keep up a certain pretense of “coolness.” Nevertheless, he quickly saw through the facade which turned out to be a very liberating experience. “It was like shedding that skin, the skin of being cool,” he muses. “I think when you are teenager, or in your 20s you are a bit more dominated by that kind of worry.” It was the tragedy of seeing his mum pass away that, unsurprising, had a profound effect on his approach to making music. “When my Mum passed, I thought that all I want to do is make music that matters to me,” he continues. “Life was brought into sharp focus about what to worry about and what not to worry about. I wasn’t worried about making something that would be thought of as cool. I didn’t want to be like the Strokes or the White Stripes. I just wanted to write songs that meant something to me and to show us evolving.”
Despite this down-to-earth approach to the craft of creating music, there is still something undeniably romantic about the very idea of a ‘rock star’. The tales of debauchery and fast living. The larger than life on stage persona and the very mythology of rock n roll. However, in today’s overexposed society, the notion of the “rock star” is very different: “Well, the world has changed so much, and I feel like we’re living in a different reality now. I think the rock star fantasy was important back in the ‘70s, ‘80s for people to build up their dreams. These rock stars were like superheroes, like gods. I feel now because of social media and things ... it’s hard to put into words. I do miss it.”
In many respects, Neil is right, the quintessential romance and mystique of the ‘rock star’ has disappeared. There suddenly seems to be a dearth of these larger than life artists who brought a sense of fun, danger, and mischievousness to rock music. That said, there has to be a balance, as Neil explains, “When I was younger I thought I’d just get on the smack and just drink Jack Daniels and go for it. I think that the bands that went out there and partied hard weren’t that good.”
Maybe the rock star myth is exactly that? “I would never have believed how much the rock and roll reality is a myth. I guess there are moments of magic and madness and that’s where the romance comes from. People were happy to have these soft-edged dreams whereas now people know the difference between fantasy and reality.” For Neil, the trappings of fame and living a rock star lifestyle are simply a distraction from the most important thing: “I’d rather be known for making good records and music matters too much to me.”
For all the fame, success and adulation it is clear that there is an unerring desire for the band to stay focused on what is important. A tacit understanding of why the band has endured as long as they have. Every opportunity is something valued by Neil, and he is under no illusion of how fortunate he is. Fame and success might do many things, but for Biffy Clyro, they can never dilute the importance of the music and their appreciation of playing on stage. No matter how large the audience.
// Notes from the Road
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