Biffy Clyro's Ben Johnston Talks Coachella, Latest Record, And More
NT: You guys are playing Coachella in a couple of weeks. How did it feel to find out that you would be playing this year?
Ben Johnston: Absolutely incredible. We've, of course, wanted to always play. It always seemed a bit out of touch and out of our reach, but yeah, we got asked this year and we're just absolutely stoked. It's always a great lineup. I think it's really cool that it's two weekends, so we kind of get two shots at it. Maybe we'll get some fun things to do in between as well, so I've been looking foward to it. It's going to be good to see some more fans and also check out some new bands.
Ben: Oh, it's absolutely incredible. When you get that many people together in one spot, you know, that's always gonna go off. Reading and Leeds is still to happen, so this year, that's a real big deal for us. It's probably the biggest festival that we've done and it's still the one that always has been amazing over the years. I mean, incredible headliners - it's the festival that Nirvana would play back in the day and stuff, so it's always really special to us, that one, so it's a massive honor to be asked. But we're looking forward to coming over and playing Coachella, for sure.
NT: If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you like to perform?
Ben: I guess somewhere we haven't been before, so I think it would be fun to go play like South Africa or - actually, South America, I think, would be good fun. When bands make the effort to go down there and put on a show, I think a lot of kids turn up and it's usually quite wild, so yeah, we've love to go down and play. Almost anywhere in South America would be a dream come true for us.
NT: What do you guys do when you're not on tour?
Ben: Get showered, then go back on tour? I mean, that's the thing - we're always, always on tour. We're very, very busy boys. I believe we have, I think, two days off after tonight, so it's really just about trying to catch a break. Try and spend time with the family and then we head back out again. We practice and make more music. If the weather's good enough, then maybe play some golf, but nothing too crazy.
NT: You guys have been around for close to twenty years. How would you say your music has changed since you first started out?
Ben: Well, I guess it's matured the same way we have as people. All of our music has fallen in line with that. I guess when we started out, we were more of a kind of punky thing, you know, and then we really just tried to sound like our favorite bands. So I guess we sounded a bit like Nirvana mixed with Green Day mixed with the Foo Fighters mixed with Rush or something.
Then, I guess it took us a few albums to kind of find our sound and, you know, we're on our sixth album and I guess we've just matured as musicians, as people, and - in some ways - got a lot stronger. We've just learned so many things, you know? I guess some people have said that we've become more mainstream, but that was never a conscious decision that we made. Our music seems more accessible now, which is cool.
NT: You guys really branched out with your latest record. I mean, you've got mariachi bands on "Spanish Radio" and stuff like that, which is not something you'd from your genre. Why did you guys decide to experiment with things like that in your music?
Ben: We've always been experimental. Even on our first album, we've got strings and things on there and when we get in the studio we like to try things out. I think, this time especially though, we just really embraced the idea of "let's try everything and anything." And the kind of rules were, this time around, that nothing is too stupid or too daft to try, so we just tried it all, you know? I mean, the thing about the mariachi band - that was all preordained even before we got to Los Angeles.
When we demoed all these songs at home, we had access to so many great people and we tried lots of things. Because we're from Scotland, we brought bagpipes into the song ["Stingin' Belle"]. We really wanted mariachi and we really wanted kazoos and tap dancers and all of these things, but we weren't doing these things for the sake of doing them, you know? They all serve a purpose in each song and it's a challenge to try and make, you know, mariachi work with rock music. On paper, the whole thing should be an absolute car crash. It shouldn't work, but I think - somehow - we pulled it off.
NT: You guys have said that the theme of "Opposites" is sort of about 2 different points of view, about looking at things both negatively and positively. What influenced you guys to go in this direction thematically?
Ben: I guess it's all about when and where the songs were written, the main thoughts [lead singer] Simon [Neil] had when he was writing songs or the lyrics. We had about forty-five songs that we demoed for this album, then we had to whittle that down to twenty and then we realized that we can split them into two sets of ten and make one of those [records] seem slightly more negative than the other and one, you know, have a bit more positivity. And that's purely the reflection of Simon's emotions and stuff when he was writing those songs, I guess. The first ten songs on the first record were written earlier and then the next ones were written a bit later, so it's a bit more optimistic. We're not really inspired by, you know, a piece of art or a movie or something else, the inspiration just comes from the lyrics.
NT: What songs from the latest album do you enjoy performing the most?
Ben: I love doing "Spanish Radio" right now. That's just so confusing, I think, for people - just with the mariachi band and the rock band. It should come across as comical, but hopefully it doesn't. And we're doing that right now. When we play live, we're a five-piece, so we have an extra guitarist, we have a keyboard player and those guys do all the mariachi parts and it's just such great fun to play and it's sort of a challenge, you know? It's difficult time signatures, lots of syncopation, and it's a bit of a mindf--k if you're not ready for it and it's just fun to test yourself live and have a challenge. I think that's one of the most challenging songs to play live and I'm really digging that. But any new songs at the moment give me a real thrill to play because, you know, it's the first time that that set has been heard live, so that's going to be fresh for a long time still, so yeah, all new ones are great fun.
NT: If you could perform or record with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
Ben: Oh man, that's a difficult one. I'd go with Michael Jackson - when he was very young. It'd be great to perform or work with Michael Jackson when he was still young. I actually just got my hands on some kind of rare Jackson 5 [masters] that are just incredible. You can listen to like just Michael on his own or like just the drums and it's just really intriguing to hear how great it sounds when it's together. The one thing that impressed me the most is Michael's voice is just unbelievable, it makes me fall in love all over again with Michael Jackson.