Simon Neil on the return of Biffy Clyro: ‘I felt I was in a void, I needed a sense of purpose’

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

Like half the country, Simon Neil bought himself a pandemic puppy. Unlike the rest of us, though, the Biffy Clyro frontman’s lockdown pet wasn’t acquired just to make lockdown a bit less lonely.

The new dog also helped Neil get back in the musical saddle and fired up his songwriting synapses – to such an extent that, barely four months after the August 2020 release of the Scottish rock trio’s A Celebration of Endings album, they had finished another one.

“She is a wee French bulldog called Silky Smooth,” says the singer and guitarist with a doting grin, “and we got her primarily to help me get out of my headspace. When the dog’s done a shit in the house and I have to go clean it up, I have to shake off the dark thoughts. That was liberating, and it fed into the music. It gave it more of a carefree element musically.”

Neil is loath to describe The Myth of the Happily Ever After as a “lockdown project”. But from its pointed title inwards, Biffy Clyro’s ninth studio album is a questing, questioning, often frustrated, occasionally furious and consistently brilliant response to the brutal new reality forced upon us by the past 20 months.

Biffy Clyro on stage at Glasgow Green in September (Photo: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns)

It opens with Neil, his voice at its most bell-clear over washes of ambient synths, singing: “Everything’s great, it’s all been a pleasure, nothing has changed, life couldn’t be better, I will ignore, all of the bodies piled up at my door…” Then in comes a typically belting Biffy chorus: “This is how we f**k it from the start.”

This is “DumDum”, a sarky-as-hell song about a deluded politician, which lays the blame for the “bodies piling up” squarely at the feet of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“Aye,” nods the rock star, who is as low-key affable offstage as he is charismatically compelling on it.

We meet in a hotel in Irvine in Ayrshire, on Scotland’s west coast, birthplace of Biffy Clyro in 1995 and still home to Neil, 42, and his bandmates, twin brothers Ben (drums) and James (bass) Johnston, 41.

“This isn’t a particularly political record,” continues Neil, “because I don’t see the pandemic as political. But it’s about these people who are so sure of their reality that they can’t possibly empathise with someone going through something that’s actually a lot tougher than they think it is. And I think every step of the way, Boris Johnson has been a disgrace. He’s disingenuous to a sin, he doesn’t tell the truth.”

Simon Neil: ‘A lot of the best art comes when you’re not quite sure what you’re aiming for’ (Photo: Kevin J Thomson)

Next to Johnson, he adds, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – who, coincidentally, was born in Irvine – has been “an angel! She’s just straight-up. You get proper reasoning from her. She’s made unpopular choices, and tells you why.

“Scotland’s been a lot tighter with restrictions than England, and I’m glad we were. She’s just got common sense, and has a connection to the people.”

Neil casts his mind back to A Celebration of Endings. It was completed long before the pandemic, but eventually released in the teeth of it.

“My mind was a lot clearer then. I was only worried about Brexit and the climate! The good old days!” he laughs.

Then, with Biffy Clyro’s typically extensive international touring plans scuppered (and repeatedly so – he says they’ve had to reschedule their ironically titled Fingers Crossed tour three times), the songwriter admits he began to spiral.

Ultimately he and the Johnstons would make the best of the situation by creating a studio in the Ayrshire farm property they use as their base, a jerry-built solution when their well-honed habit of recording in Los Angeles was impossible.

But before that, “there were times when I just couldn’t get my head in the game. I couldn’t motivate myself, or get myself out of first gear. Towards the end of summer last year, before we decided to make this record, I just felt like I was in a void. I had no reason to get up in the morning. So I thought: ‘I need to find a purpose’.”

That frustration would eventually be encapsulated in the ferocious new song “A Hunger in Your Haunt”. What was he like to live with at that time? “Oh, my poor missus!” he exclaims. “I can be so unreasonable – when I’m in a cynical mood, no one can get me out. My negativity breeds more negativity.”

Hence Silky Smooth and hence Neil’s continued use of medication.

“I discovered a long time ago that that’s the way I am. I’m always saying to my missus: ‘I feel stronger, I think I could come off them.’ And she says: ‘Don’t.’ I’ve tried a couple of times and it’s been a little bit dangerous because that’s the downside of taking anti-depressants or anxiety medication – it really does f**k with your body when you withdraw.

“And I still smoke weed to calm down,” he adds. “It’s probably not the best thing for mental health, but it’s my only proper vice, and it does work for me. But thankfully, I have a very supportive wife who very much can read me.”

The band on stage at Glasgow Green in September (Photo: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns)

Biffy Clyro’s opening statement on their new album is drawn from those dark thoughts. Neil’s writing on the six-minute “Unknown Male 01”, about male suicide, finds the musician at his reflective, emotive, melodic best (see also “Many of Horror”, which 2010 X Factor winner Matt Cardle turned into a Christmas No 1, albeit with the more festive-friendly title “When We Collide”).

Neil began writing the song in response to the death in 2018 of Scott Hutchison, from fellow Scottish indie heroes Frightened Rabbit.

“I admired [him]so much, he was one of my favourite musicians, a proper poet and someone I cherished as a friend.”

Then, the death last July of former NME journalist Dan Martin, a long-time champion of the band, also hit him hard.

“I miss Scott and Dan so, so much. It was hard for me not to write about that. It wasn’t like I felt I needed to address it, because I’m not that kind of writer, but it was such a raw time… [that song]is a reminder to keep an eye out on your pals and do everything you can for them.”

For all that, Neil doesn’t want The Myth of the Happily Ever After to be a downer, or hectoring. There’s nothing worse, he says, than being told by a rock star what you’re doing wrong. “I do want people to be able to enjoy it just as an album of music,” he says.

And indeed, self-recording and self-producing in six brisk weeks has resulted in an album that makes glorious, uplifting use of electronic and DIY symphonic flourishes alongside Biffy Clyro’s always blistering guitar/bass/drums combo.

“Then, if people want to dig deeper into the words, they can. But because we didn’t know what was happening month-to-month, that’s fed into the music. It’s given it its vitality and youthful energy. Because we were literally flying by the seat of our pants.

“And a lot of the best art comes when you’re not quite sure what you’re aiming for.”

The Myth of the Happily Ever After (Warner Music) is released on Friday


About Author

Leave A Reply