When Total Guitar tells Simon Neil that his lyrics for latest single Instant History – specifically the line ‘This is the sound that we make, I love the sound when it breaks’ – feel like a reference to his stadium-conquering crunch tones, the Biffy Clyro singer/guitarist grins with excitement.
“That’s absolutely what I mean!” he explains. “I managed to get an [EarthQuaker Devices] Sunn O))) drone pedal; that’s what you’re hearing through the chorus and it’s honestly one of the best bits of kit I’ve ever bought – just really twisted and an absolute life-changer. It was a limited-edition one, which cost a small fortune, but I think they make another version now.
“I cannot recommend it enough. Which is why I liked sticking it in such a pop song. So I totally agree... And it’s a little ironic that I’m singing that when it’s a song that doesn’t probably sound too much like what we’re doing. But that key line represents where Biffy sits in the world of things. We like the sounds that are slightly askew and wrong!”
That flair for all things unexpected and off-kilter stretches back to the experimental math-rock the Scottish trio started out playing, though – now in their 25th year as a band – it’s the latter half of their career that has seen them evolve into one of the most admired rock acts of the modern age.
Talking to us ahead of the release of ninth opus A Celebration Of Endings, in an interview that runs well past its allocation, the Biffy Clyro frontman is as gracious and forthcoming as it gets, with no shortage of revelations and tips to share...
You’re one of the biggest British songwriters of a generation. What have you learned about penning anthems?
“Normally when I start writing a record, the stranger and more defining characteristics come out in my initial songwriting spark. That will usually be 10 to 15 songs to start with, letting me know where my mind is sitting and where the music is going.
“As for tweaking, I’ve learned to be more efficient with the flow of a song. If it has that moment where your goosebumps are going and it feels like the wind’s been knocked out of you because of a melody or key change, I will do whatever that moment needs.
“Some songs should be five minutes long, they need a few climaxes to build into that last minute as its most important part. For other songs, it’s literally just one melody making you feel all sorts of ways. You learn how to maximise that only through writing music over years.”
During which you become less precious about your ideas?
“Exactly. Sometimes the initial spark or riff will end up being removed from a song entirely. Take Sunrise from our movie soundtrack [2019’s Balance, Not Symmetry] – the actual main riff ended up getting cut and it turned into a more complex tune.
“Maybe when I was starting to write, I would have said, ‘Well, no, that bit needs to stay in because it’s where the whole song came from!’ Sometimes, the simpler a song is, the better. Now I can hear something and know if it needs to sound open and widescreen, or twisted and tightly knit, and arguably less friendly. It’s about letting the song tell me what it needs and not being afraid of being brutal with it.”
You’ve been using a Strat since day one. What makes it the instrument that speaks to you?
“For me, it’s always been about the dynamic of a Stratocaster. I’ve always played guitar with a really heavy right hand. Because I learned violin before guitar, I ended up using my fourth finger for every chord, it was always all fingers on! That can give me a more beautiful chord or something more atonal.
“There’s also that rhythmic dynamic from one guitar, especially playing in a three piece. We have the bottom-end filled out by the bass, so I never felt like I needed a Les Paul in our band. I need something more abrasive and attacking.
“I honestly couldn’t imagine stepping on stage with another guitar. If I got handed a Les Paul, I’d need a top hat or something! I like my Strat to sound like someone losing their mind and clawing at the door, trying to get the fuck out of the room!”
So, what was the main one for this album, then?
“I’ve been lucky to have a good few over the years, but for the last few records I’ve been using a Michael Landau reissue Strat. I swear I’ve used that on every single song since discovering it. The sound of that thing is just perfection – the intonation is perfect; it sounds as good on the 15th fret as it does open and I can get a lot of weight out of it.
“For a lot of Biffy songs I tune down to an open C or DADGAD or something similar, and sometimes Strats can struggle a bit if you tune low. But this Michael Landau signature can handle everything I throw at it.
“Actually, the opening song, North Of No South, is the first I’ve recorded where there’s only one track – it’s that guitar going into a JHS pedal called The Kilt and a Vox amplifier with one mic.
“We wanted it to be as lo-fi as possible and it gave that Strat a potency I’ve never achieved on any record. You get the heaviness of the bottom end but it still sounds like a Fender!”
Last time you worked with producer Rich Costey, you ended up using his ’68 Peavey combo. Did you consider digging that out at any point?
“No, the great – and most infuriating – thing with Rich is that he never wants to use the same thing twice. So it was a new studio full of brand new gear because he’s a very restless man! The amp I used most was a Black Volt, which is made by this fella in California who knows how to design beautiful amps and pedals. It’s only got three knobs on it and had this real classic sound.
“Obviously there were some Marshalls in there, mainly for overdubs, and a Fender as well. The DeVille is a go-to amp for a lot of my sounds. With the way I play, letting high notes ring over chords, it just sings and cuts through the fuzz and heaviness of everything else.
“James [Johnston, bass] bought this weird 80s amplifier that was – I mean this in the best possible way – a total piece of shit. It looked like a microwave and didn’t even have a name on it... So I used that on a couple of songs! So it was a combination of real high-end expensive stuff and weird cheap gear.
“I used a 335 for a few parts, too. Obviously, they’re one of the most classic guitars of all-time, and it was a nice warm juxtaposition to the Strat. I actually did buy myself a Les Paul just a few years ago, for the first time ever, and it was a 1977 Randy Rhoads kind of number. That got used for extra bottom-end just to colour in a few corners, though it all needed to build off that Strat sound. That’s my home.”
You’ve been very loyal to Boss pedals over the years – generally sticking with Metal Zones, Mega Distortions, DD-3s and DD-7s…
“Yeah! I’ll tell you why – at the tail end of last year, I started working on a new rig. I just wanted to deconstruct a little, it had grown too big. I needed a Peavey, a Fender DeVille, a Marshall head, a Kemper... At some point, I felt it had gotten just too out of control.
“The days of just plugging in a guitar were so far in the rear-view mirror! While I was making it, I tried every distortion pedal on the market and every time I heard the sound that excited me, it was the Metal Zone!
“I swear, even at this stage in my life, the Metal Zone speaks to me in a way that no other pedal does, because of the saturation. The thing that makes it sound a little bit cheaper than other pedals is what excites me so much. It has this chaos in the high frequencies. You can really make your guitar shriek!
“It’s such a big part of my tone, combining it with a really on-the-nose, crisp and slightly overdriven tone. That is my sound. I haven’t been able to find a pedal that can do the same thing, even Big Muffs.
“And I’ve got it within half a millimetre of my exact settings – if one of the knobs gets knocked even slightly, that’s my whole sound gone to shit. It came from years of dialling in and getting closer and closer. My sound really comes alive with that pedal. Even after trying to move on and evolve, it’s still top of my list!”
Worst Type Of Best Possible packs some serious fuzz and has an almost Soundgarden kind of feel because of the bends…
“Over the years, I honestly haven’t talked enough about Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil’s influence on me. If you look at the voicings and tunings on Superunknown, you can learn so much. Chris and Kim would trade off each other and say things that the other guitarist wasn’t saying.
“They were the first band that made me aware of how the tuning of a guitar could really change its overall feel. The chords in Fell On Black Days and 4th Of July felt so sophisticated. Even Black Hole Sun, their biggest song, was really fucking weird.
“You have to remember they were coming off the back of Badmotorfinger, which is basically a horns-in-the-air metal record. Superunknown made me realise you don’t need fuzz or distortion to make something heavy. I love it when I write a riff and think, ‘Wow, that sounds a bit like Soundgarden or Tool or The Afghan Whigs!’
“I’m really keen to shake it all out, finding somewhere completely different with new twists so it doesn’t sound 25 years old. Instead it should sound like a record of now, which benefits from the knowledge of inspiration. When I started out, I ended up learning both Chris and Kim’s parts. It led to finding melodies with notes and chords and more unusual voicings.”
You definitely seem to get a lot of mileage out of Csus4 tunings and chords, especially on Tiny Indoor Fireworks and North Of No South…
“Initially, for the latter, I wanted to keep that big jazz intro and stick with the concept at the start. It was going to have a clarinet part, basically just a full-on jazz band before kicking into something that sounded more like Tool.
“But when we decided it would be the opening track, I knew it needed to be more straight to the point so I said balls to the jazz band idea. It’s still quite a smoky start. It’s quite a friendly jazzy chord to begin with. I love taking people off the scent with a chord before it all comes in. It’s almost like misinforming the listener before the song arrives!
“I’m always trying to find new ways to say things and the more records you make, the tougher it is to find those new voicings and means of expression. We all have this habitual way of playing.
“Some ideas came from sitting around and messing about on a keyboard, the kind that I know I wouldn’t have found on guitar. I’m very aware of what works when I play guitar, I know my movements. So it’s good to break free out of anything you’ve learned too much.”
You and your bandmates have mentioned your love for progressive rock like Rush, Gentle Giant and Yes in the past. Cop Syrup – the epic six-minute closer – definitely has an element of that…
“Rush have spoken so much to all three of us as a band. There’s something about the fearlessness in those records, specifically from that era. Prog-rock gets a lot bad press because it’s seen as the flip side to punk. I don’t feel like that. I see it as equally out there and obnoxious as punk, just presented in a different way. That sophistication in the journey of the song has always been something I loved.
“On our earlier records I kinda took that to the nth degree, being influenced by all this math rock stuff from America through that medium of progressive rock. I guess the reason why it hasn’t been more present in our sound is just down to being a three-piece.
“We haven’t fully embraced synthesizers and things, but as we’ve made more and more records I’ve become less afraid of letting the influences shine. The end of that song has an almost pastoral vibe with flutes and things I perhaps might have been intimidated to try initially.
“Is a flute too far? Is it fuck! Some of the best records ever made do exactly that. I love combining the punk side of us, which feels very abrasive, with more calming or unsettling orchestral sections. So Cop Syrup was us going, ‘Fuck it, if this is fucking prog, let’s go, man!’”
And out of the modern wave of guitar players, who are your favourites?
“More recently, I’ve really been blown away by St. Vincent. Some of the sounds on her album Strange Mercy are absolutely astonishing – I love her playing so much. Her tones are so saturated and almost ignorant, in an incredible way. I just love it.
“She has such an amazing interpretation of what can be right now, so she’s definitely one of the most exciting – even though there have been tons over the last few years. I think Anna Calvi is wonderful as well!
“Those are probably the modern equivalents of the guitar sounds that gave me, and still give me, goosebumps – from players like Slash, whose guitar work got me into music, to the Joe Walsh tones on Life In The Fast Lane.”
How many guitars do you own in total and which are your favourites?
“I’ve got 18 guitars at my house and I only know that because I’ve been having a clear-out and made an inventory. I have no idea why I ended up with that many, so I got it down to just nine now. Overall – and this is embarrassing as well as amazingly exciting to say – I probably own about 50 guitars! And you know what? I fucking love them all.
“There’s about 30 Strats in total, all in different tunings. Fender have been really kind to me over the years, I’m very lucky, plus I had a signature come out too. Then there are a few Martin acoustics and a couple of 335s, but those don’t live in the house. I don’t get to see them at home!
“If I had to save only a few, one would be the Dean guitar I bought in 1995 because I wanted to be like Dimebag Darrell. It’s still got pride of place, hanging on my wall. I’ve also got a DeArmond, which was the Guild version of a Gretsch, kinda like that sparkly one Chris was playing in the Black Hole Sun video. I always loved that look, so it’s a cheaper version of that.
“My mum, God bless her, was around when I got those instruments so they really mean the most to me. I’ll never let go of them. Band-wise, I’d say there’s my 1988 Strat that I took all the knobs and front pickup off...”
That’s the one you mainly played during the early years?
“Yes, and honestly it’s one of the most efficient guitars you could have. It was a gift from Ben and James’s dad. I’ll never forget the moment he gave it to me, I’d borrowed it for a gig and after the show he came over and said, ‘You keep that guitar and use it for your record!’
“I toured with that guitar for years and recorded three albums with it. I’ll forever be grateful for that. It’s probably the most important guitar I have. It was there for our first shows, first time in a tour bus, every ‘first’ memory in this band is linked to that instrument. I have so much loyalty to it, because it’s been kind to me, so I’m going to be loyal to it!
“Sorry to interrupt my answer... But guess what guitar I ended up buying last year? The fucking Prince guitar! I ordered it in the first week of recording the album just because I wanted to check it. It’s actually an alright bit of kit. It’s a beautiful thing, such a fuckin’ weird shape, man. And it’s a short-scale neck, but I would probably still save it if a fire happened, purely because I love Prince so much. Sorry, I digress...”
What else have you learned about sounding big as a three-piece over the years?
“It never has to be as heavy as you think it does. Even now I’m still learning this! If you listen to the guitars on North Of No South without the drums or bass, it’s really thin. There’s almost no bottom end. For the first few records it was all about heavy and thick barre chords down the bottom.
“I’ve learned not to do that, that’s what the fuckin’ bass is for. Don’t worry so much about those low notes. This is such a cliché, but what you don’t play is more important than what you do play. Don’t fill up your sound with more music, like you had another guitarist playing, fill it up with your chords. Add some extra notes into your riffs.
“If you play a fuckin’ G chord, fling another finger on somewhere. Then take that shape and move it somewhere else. If I need to shake something off, I purposefully try to do things wrong. I’ll do a backwards barre-chord shape just to take my ear away from what is ‘right or wrong’.
“I’m still learning how to make a three-piece sound big, though when we play live we do have an extra guitarist [Mike Vennart], which really helps fill it out.
“Don’t always use guitar overdubs, either - sometimes just a low piano note at the beginning of every bar against your chord can make it sound like the heaviest thing you’ve heard in your life. Try that instead of six guitar tracks and see what it sounds like.”
Finally, is there anything else you are working at the moment?
“I’m actually putting out a pedal. It’s gonna be quite straight up with two different distortions - I want it to be straightforward because the Biffy sound and essence is clean, heavy and heavier. They’re being made by my tech, who is working on a few different circuit boards; we’re just keeping it low-key and entirely in-house.
“I think at some point I would maybe do something with Boss, but with all the time off this year and my tech being such a talent, we thought we’d try to make our own ones! We’re hoping to get it out later in the year. I’d love to send one to you guys at TG and see what you think...”
- Biffy Clyro's new album, A Celebration Of Endings is out now via Warner Bros.