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INTERVIEW: Ben Johnston of Biffy Clyro – May 2018

| 3 May 2018 | Reply

INTERVIEW: Ben Johnston of Biffy Clyro – May 2018
By Stuart McKay

Scottish alt-rock heroes Biffy Clyro were back in Australia for a brief run of shows in the eastern states. Returning for their third time on the back of their most successful album to date; Ellipsis – the band have been touring endlessly for the past couple of years promoting their latest offering and what better way to end the tour cycle than a few shows down under. We caught up with drummer Ben Johnston to talk about all things Biffy – and smoko!

Stu: Hi Ben how are you going?

Ben: Hello Stuart I’m doing very well how are you?

Stu: Good thanks mate. So you just wrapped up your Australian Tour in Sydney last night, how was the show?

Ben: Oh it was absolutely incredible last night. It does keep getting better every time we come back and last night was just especially mind blowing. There was people on shoulders, big sing-a-longs and we just came off stage feeling elated so can’t wait to do it again.

Stu: I guess it wouldn’t be a Biffy Clyro gig if it didn’t have the big sing-a-longs though would it?

Ben: (laughs) exactly! It seems to be that way. We’re just lucky that Simon writes songs that people want to sing. The more the merrier I say, it definitely keep us staying in tune.

Stu: So hopefully won’t be that long until you’re back for the next tour?

Ben: Let’s hope so, I mean we always seem to come at the end of an album cycle but we’re hoping the next time we can come a bit earlier while the album’s still fresh in people’s minds, so finger crossed.

Stu: So what was your favourite show of the tour?

Ben: Ahh they’ve all been amazing. We went to Dubai, that was great fun, then we went to Auckland, also amazing and then Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney but they’ve all been great. Melbourne was a Friday or Saturday night and the place went off and was a little bit crazier than last night but last night the singing was probably stronger so it’d be a toss up between Melbourne and Sydney.

Stu: I did see on your Instagram page that were quite enamoured with Auckland while you were there?

Ben: Och, it was incredible, man. We got time to actually acclimatise and body clock set and also we got time to experience New Zealand a little bit more. We hired a car and went out into the wilderness and got to go to Karikari Beach and some other places, it was absolutely incredible.

Stu: That’s awesome man. Did it remind you of home at all?

Ben: Big time, big time. The scenery is very similar to Scotland. It was nicer; the weather was a little bit nicer. It’s kind of like Scotland on steroids (laughs) and the changeable seasons are even more changeable than Scotland which I didn’t think was possible but you can definitely see why Neil Finn wrote ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ cause it actually happens all the fucking time (laughs)

Stu: I saw some fan footage of your Brisbane show of you playing ‘Living Is a Problem Because Everything Dies’ and during those staccato off time parts Simon broke into ‘I’m On Smoko’ by The Chats. How did that come about?

Ben: (laughs) Simon found them online a few months ago and we wanted to get them to support us on this run of dates but unfortunately they were unavailable. So yeah we’re just big fans of that band and especially that song – it’s both amazing and hilarious at the same time.

Stu: Did you know what ‘smoko’ was before you heard it?

Ben: We’d never heard the term but we’re kind of like Kimya Dawson in that respect I mean we talk about break-o all the time and we get room-o (which is room service) we’re always flinging ‘ohs’ on the end of stuff anyway, we call Simon Simo and when we heard smoko it was a natural thing for us and we thought ‘ahh that means smoke break obviously’ so where a lot of folk were wondering ‘what the hell is smoko?’ we knew what it was. I just think the sentiment of that song is absolutely brilliant. I don’t know how many folk in the Brisbane audience knew what he was actually doing, it’s not like people joined in but it gave me a laugh sitting there on my stool.

Stu: Well I think he pulled off a decent Aussie accent.

Ben: It was all right. I noticed your accent is slowly turning into Scottish during this conversation.

Stu: I actually am Scottish (laughs) I’m from Inverness and I’ve been here 12 years now. When I first came here I remember being at my first job and one of guys who started the same day as me asked me if I knew what time smoko was and I didn’t have a fucking clue what the guy was talking about so you did better than me.

Ben: (laughing) Nice one

Stu: I’ve got to give credit to Simon to be able to play such a technical song to then go into ‘I’m On Smoko’ and then back into ‘Living Is a Problem’ it was a seamless transition.

Ben: Yeah well we’ve always got that little gap in Living where we just stop and Simon gets to do whatever he wants and there’s a cue, we just wait for him to go brrrr on the guitar and then we all kick back in. We never know how long it’s going to be. Some nights it’s a few seconds, other nights he’ll do like – ah man! He does the theme from Golden Girls or he’ll sing Roxette or he’ll do like, Sweet Child ‘O’ Mine. He just does whatever he wants. It’s a really good fun part of the night, it’s nice and early on and it helps you relax and I like it when it’s something funny like The Chats, I think that’s a great thing to do and especially to do it in Queensland, it was ideal.

Stu: Yeah it was definitely an unofficial anthem for a little bit when it went viral a few months ago.

Ben: (laughs) I’m so glad

Stu: So next time you’re at the airport and you’re having a meal or something and someone comes up to you asking for an autograph you can say ‘I’m on smoko, so leave me alone’

Ben: (laughing) (puts on Aussie accent) leave me alone I’m on smoko

Stu: Last time you were in Australia it was part of the Soundwave Festival. About 4 or 5 months prior you headlined Reading Festival and then you come to Australia and you’re basically opening on the main stage, I think there was a band The Porkies before you. How did that feel going from probably the biggest gig of your career to then come to Australia as essentially an opener?

Ben: I guess it’s just all about mindset. It felt fine, it felt great. Even though it was early we were fairly well attended, we were book ended by a couple of decent bands so it felt fine. It was early I remember doing vocal warm ups in the shower, I had time to eat a banana and go on stage type thing but it was all great.

Stu: So you felt like you weren’t under so much pressure comparatively?

Ben: Yeah there’s not as much pressure when you’re playing that early and people in the crowd are still waking up. You’re not expecting any mosh pits and you’re not expecting the gig of your life so the pressure’s off in that respect but it’s tough to get your blood pumping. You’ve just got to make sure you’re up a couple of hours early before show time and get jumping around and have a little bit to eat. I loved the shows. It was really good fun to actually get done and then having the day to watch other great bands, it was a really fun tour and I had a wonderful time. There was no feelings of ‘ Oh Christ we’re on early” we don’t ever get like that; we don’t get complacent as a band. We’re thankful for any gig we get anywhere and the fact that we were playing on the other side of the world at all is excellent.

Stu: So you didn’t go all Trent Reznor on the headliners then?

Ben: Hah Trent Reznor?! I don’t have much to say about him right now.

Stu: Yeah no worries man. You recently recorded an MTV Unplugged performance and I know that you guys are very much influenced by Nirvana; did you draw some inspiration from their iconic unplugged performance?

Ben: I mean that album just means so much to us. We grew up listening to it. Every day we used to cover that record including the dialogue and everything. That means the world to us. Inspiration wise I guess we wanted to the set to look a little bit like that with a kind of organic vibe going on. We recorded it at The Roundhouse in London which is a bit more industrial so we had to kind of dress it up with flowers and foliage and we actually had a tree onstage with real turf so the stage was actually alive and breathing. We took a bit of influence in that respect and I guess we made the brutal mistake of going back and listening to all these wonderful seminal unplugged performances and getting the mad fear like ‘Oh geez what have we done’ but it was such a huge deal for us to be asked and the fact that we pulled it off and had a great night is phenomenal and also the fact that we’re on the list with all those incredible bands is mind blowing to me.

Stu: And you’re taking the MTV Unplugged tour on the road once you’re back in the UK.

Ben: Yeah we’re touring in September some time but before that we’ve got a movie soundtrack to do.

Stu: I read about that, sounds really interesting.

Ben: Yeah we submit the music then the movie gets made after that so the movie is reacting to the music. It’s pretty exciting.

Stu: It’s such a unique way of making a movie. Would it be kind of like a concept album from you guys then?

Ben: Ermm I guess it’s a concept album in a way. The director’s told us loosely what the movie is going to be about. The way he works is he workshops all these actors intensely for weeks and then shoot the thing in a matter of days which is incredible. He lets the actors kind of just run with it giving them loose scripts and kind of make up the rest. So I guess it’s a concept album in that we know the vibe loosely of the story. We’re not writing to order as I say it’s the other way round, the songs are written already, we’ll record them and then Jamie the director will take a bit of influence from that and turn it in the movie, so it’ll be interesting to see how it ends up.

Stu: That’s really cool. I’m looking forward to hearing it. It’ll be interesting to listen to the album and have the visual as well.

Ben: Yeah it’s going to be amazing.

Stu: On the unplugged shows are you going to be playing a good selection of renditions from all of your albums?

Ben: It’s a fairly decent spread. I don’t think we managed to get…no we didn’t manage to get anything of the first album in there. It’s mostly new stuff I guess. It’s hard because we have so many songs we could have been up there for three hours easily. Like, nearly all of our songs work acoustically with only the odd song that doesn’t. We had to pick the most popular songs, the ones that just felt right as an album because you have to remember that it is an album, it’s an MTV Unplugged album, and it’s not just a night so we wanted to pick a set that would flow like an album would. There are a couple of b-sides in there, a couple of wee oddities and a few crowd favourites as well.

Stu: Yeah that’s great. So are you looking forward to playing some of the theatres? It’ll certainly be a different environment that you’re used to for these shows.

Ben: Yeah man it’s gonna be great. We’ve talked about doing acoustic tours for years but it always felt a little too grown up, a bit too mature but I guess having done the MTV Unplugged now it’s the perfect window to do an acoustic run and we’ll take a bit of the set with us and we’ll have Mike and Gambler play with us as well and just have a relaxing time. It’s going to be fun to be able to eat quite close to show time and not vomit (laughs)

Stu: Haha yeah you can take it easy now. Sit back and not have to be so crazy and energetic.

Ben: Yeah I’m going to get really fat that’s what going to happen

Stu: Haha well I’ve seen you playing the cajon in a lot of your acoustic performances at least you won’t be playing that for the unplugged shows.

Ben: Yeah there’s no way I could stay bent over playing that thing all night

Stu: You would need to go and see a chiropractor after every show

Ben: (laughs) You’re absolutely right. Later today we’ve got a four song acoustic set at Triple M and I’ll be using the box on that and aww it’s such a pain in the arse. I loved it for a while but I’ve now decided that I hate it, it hurts my back, it hurts my hands and I’m getting too old. I was really happy to be playing the kit on Unplugged and going forward, definitely going to use it as much as possible.

Stu: So you’ve done Unplugged, Live at Wembley, I myself would envision the next project would be to do a Metallica and get the orchestra in for an electric live show. I mean you have the songs to accommodate an orchestra like Living Is a Problem, That Golden Rule etc so I think it would sound amazing.

Ben: No you’re right we’ve got a lot of orchestration on our albums so there’s no doubt in the future at some point we could work with an orchestra. We haven’t thought that far ahead yet. There’s so much on our plate with Unplugged, the movie and then right after the movie we have to write and record album number 8. So yeah, we’re just the busiest guys on the world right now. But looking forward you know, why not? We could definitely do a Metallica number there with the orchestra I think it would work really, really well with us. The likes of Kasabian have done it as well and I would have thought it would suit us even more and that was fantastic so definitely something we’d never rule out.

Stu: So Biffy at The Royal Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra in a few years then?

Ben: Haha you never know.

Category: Interviews

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