Biffy Clyro's James Johnston on Accordions and Perspectives on Life

Please, not the accordion...

While waiting for James Johnston to connect, I’m being subjected to quite possibly the worst ‘hold’ muzak that I’ve ever heard; it’s like accordion blues meets 70’s porn. It hurts so much and I’m quite relieved when the Biffy Clyro bassist jumps on the line with a cheery ‘Hello’ (I shall resist writing his responses in a faux Scottish accent).

He’s at home in Scotland, and he tells me that “It’s fuckin’ freezin’, man!” – he and fellow band mates Simon Neil and Ben (James’ twin brother) have been rehearsing for their imminent US West Coast tour before they head down to our sunny climes for Soundwave 2014. He mentions the current heat-wave that’s sweeping certain parts of Australia and I can almost hear the glee in his voice at the prospect of getting somewhere warm and toasty - the icing on the cake being that Biffy Clyro will get to blast out tunes from their 2013 double album Opposites. James sums it up with “We can’t wait. We really can’t wait to come back.”

The band will be doing their first gigs in Russia in May; what’s all that about?  “When you release a record, you obviously tour your own country and countries you’ve been to before but now we’re a year into the record (Opposites) we want to start going to places we’ve never been to before, and we think it’s a great opportunity and we can’t wait to do a bit more of that.”

And you’ll be headlining at the illustrious Isle of Wight Festival. “It’s a bit of a legend all over the world now. It’s such a beautiful island with really great history – and it’s nice to be headlining!” I mention that Biffy played on the 2012 bill with Pearl Jam, which prompts James to recall “Those were really good memories and we hope to repeat that again this time around.”

The trio also headlined the Leeds and Reading Festivals in 2013, playing to a sea of adoring fans – was it a difficult transition to go from clubs to arenas and festivals? “I think because we did it fairly slowly, we worked up slowly and got to support a lot of big bands playing in big rooms, you start to get used to it. It’s still a massive challenge but it’s something we enjoy. It’s nice to try and unite that many people in a moment, which is a difficult thing to do. We still love getting in a little sweaty club and playing like we did when we were 17 or so but there is something really exciting about that challenge of trying to reach that many people at once.”

He laughs when I point out that certain sections of the media have hyped the band as ‘overnight sensations’ and adds ”We’re quite thankful that we did things slowly and we’ve enjoyed every stage of the way and enjoyed working our way up - and it’s really nice now to have the opportunity to play different types of shows.” So starting out, there were a few shows where the audience consisted of one man and his dog? “There were lots of those!” and he explains how the lack of pubs and venues in their hometown prompted the band to go to Glasgow. “You’ve got to just go out there and cut your teeth and play to people who just aren’t interested and try and make them interested. We always worked with the philosophy that if one person really loves it then that is a good night for us.”

All three share vocals and I ask about possible fights over who sings what. James point outs that “Simon writes the songs and is the lead singer but at the start, when we were younger, Ben (Johnston) was really able to hit those high notes – I guess that Simon’s voice was breaking and going down  – I think that blend between their voices has always just come naturally. I think because Ben and I are twins, when we sing in unison or harmony, because sometimes our voices are quite similar it can have a nice marrying up, and I think the combination of the three voices is a really nice thing - there are certainly no arguments over who does what.” He laughs, adding “Simon is the main singer and we’ve never really had any struggle or battle – we’ve never had anybody trying to steal the limelight or ‘I really wanna sing that bit’ – it’s a good arrangement that the three of us have.”

Is it true the band’s name comes from a Cliff Richard biro pen? “Yes, that is kind of the background story. It comes down to the fertile imagination of a 14 or 15 year old sittin’ in a Physics class. I think at points the name might have held us back, in terms of people going ‘what does that mean?!’ or ‘I don’t like it' - but after all these years, I don’t think we’d ever change it.” Confirmation! Biffy Clyro is Cliffy Biro…allegedly.

The band are still touring on Opposites but I ask about new music in the pipeline, to which James says “We’re certainly going to take our time before we start to record the next album but we’re always working on things – that’s what we were doing today in the freezin’ cold practice room – and I think we’re lucky, having done a double album, when we’re playing live we’ve got lots of songs to choose from, as well as the five previous albums as well. We’re not about to start playing any new songs live yet but we’re always working on them and thinking about them. I think we’ve still got the best part of this year touring on the album.”

Speaking of their imminent Australian tour, he says “We haven’t been down there yet and we haven’t had a chance to play those songs. Hopefully it’ll be new to you guys as it still feels fresh for us.” What about cover tunes; any chance of slipping one into the set? “I don’t think we’ve ever played a cover live as part of a full band/electric set. We’ve now racked up a lot of covers that we’ve done for radio sets and sessions; a part of us does them reluctantly but then the other part quite enjoys getting to fuck up someone else’s songs! We’ve never actually done it ‘full band’ and I don’t know if it’s something we will do. We’re kind of enjoying being selfish and playing our own songs for now.”

You guys obviously enjoy incorporating different musical elements into songs; the mariachi band on Spanish Radio and the bagpipes on Stingin’ Belle immediately come to mind. Is there an instrument that you’d like to weave in that you haven’t had a chance to yet? ”Anything that’s a little surprising. I had an idea the other day about an accordion; it’s something we haven’t done. I don’t think we’d be in a rush to repeat some of the things we’ve used before but it’s all about trying to use something that’s a little bit unexpected.” The word ‘accordion’ immediately brings back the painful muzak that I was subjected to earlier and I shiver involuntarily as James ponders how the band may strip back the next album. “I feel we’re gonna move away from having so many ideas musically or instrumentally – it probably won’t have as much going on. I feel that we’ve done that as best as we could for now and maybe we’ll come back to it…”

Surprisingly, being in a band with his twin brother Ben doesn’t result in ‘Biffy goes the Biffo’ (a tabloid head-line that I’d been saving up for this article), though James does acknowledge that “People around the band might see us shoutin’ at each other but if it happens, it’s all over in two minutes and people can be quite baffled that you’re shoutin’ at each other and then you don’t even seem to make up! Then you’re just talkin’ again. Perhaps it’s a strange relationship but to me it’s completely normal. But even with my other brother, or Simon, who I feel is like a brother, you might have an argument and fall out but you’re in the pub together within ten minutes or playin’ on stage together. You’re living your lives very closely so there’s not really a lot of space to let bad emotions fester – and we are men after all; we don’t really want to talk about our feelings! We just move on and get on with it.”

Simon has said that he sees a lot of pain in existence which is reflected in his lyrics but what is your take on it? “Since we were kids Simon and I have shared a cynical outlook on the world - perhaps more so than Ben, who has a much cheerier outlook. But at the same time, I think, being a twin, I’m able to see life through Ben’s eyes sometimes and therefore be a little bit more optimistic. I think the combination of the slightly different views that the three of us have – and indeed having the same views on many things – it makes for strong team. But Simon, like I do, gets really baffled by life sometimes – but he’s also someone who really enjoys life; he’s a very infectious character who is full of life, and he can be very lively and funny. I think everyone just has their moments, you know? And I think that’s why we’re lucky to have such a strong bond; you learn from each other and you help each other.”

Sadly my time is up with the charming Mr Johnston. He’s off to ponder the potential of the accordion and prepare for Soundwave - don’t forget the sun block, you lovely, pale Scottish fellow…