“It goes from being really vulnerable to being really cocky…” - Biffy Clyro talk hmv.com through the making of Ellipsis
With their new album Ellipsis out this week, we sat down with Biffy Clyro to find out all about making the LP, why it was inspired by a crisis of confidence and whether they’ll be taking on Springsteen-esque live sets...
How did making Ellipsis compare to making your previous albums?
Ben (Johnston, Drums): “It was a very different way of doing things.”
Simon (Neil, Vocals/Guitars): “It was meant to be shorter, but it ended up taking exactly the same amount of time as Opposites, which makes no sense at all. We changed our way of working on this album, previously we knew what we wanted the songs to sound like in our minds and then you’d climb the ladder to get there.”
How did you do that?
Simon: “This time, on at least five of the songs, we didn’t know what they’d be, they could be big rock songs, electronic, weird folk songs, so we spent days and days smashing our heads together, trying to figure them out. We had two days when we just spent them trying to get a Russian synthesiser to work, those are the days when you question why you work in music!”
“It was a nerve-wracking album to make because we didn’t know where the songs were going to end up, but it was also liberating for that reason. Still, it’s embarrassing that it took as long to make as Opposites did!”
You went back to America to make the record, why did you decide to go there?
Simon: “There’s something about the ambitious nature of making a record in California, when you walk into a studio where the Rolling Stones or Fleetwood Mac have recorded, it makes you aspire to make a great record. When you write the music it’s important to not be thinking in those regards, because the music should come out naturally and organically, but when you’re recording you want to be thinking that you’re making something as tasty and iconic as those guys. Even if you get nowhere near it, that’s what you’ve got to aim for.”
You worked with Rich Costey, who has worked with Muse and Mew in the past, why did you decide to work with him?
James (Johnston, Bass): “Simon met with him and really hit it off. He’s like us, he has no interest in just recording the sound of a band in a room, he wants to push things forward and not just borrow from other rock bands, but borrow from all types of music and throw the doors open. We wanted to unlearn everything and learn it all again. He’s an incredibly engaged person and no day is just a day at the office, he was the perfect choice.”
Simon: “He’s the only producer we’ve worked with who’d text you at the two in the morning going ‘I’m listening to this song and I think it’s absolutely unbelievable, it just needs a tambourine…’. He always pumped us up and made us feeling like we were working towards something great.”
Do you think you’ll always need a producer? A lot of bands have started doing it themselves when they reach the stage in their career you guys are at…
Simon: “I think it’d be like getting ready without having a mirror, you can think you look alright, but until you see yourself you don’t know and that’s what having a producer is like. We listen to our songs differently when there’s a producer in the room, we’re harder on ourselves. When I hear bands are self-producing I’m never excited by it, there’s a bit of chemistry you get from having that extra person, I don’t know how different the album would have been without Rich, but he was a big part of it.”
James: “You need someone to point out your strengths and flaws, to break habits you’ve built up and Rich had no problem telling us what our flaws were.”
Simon: “He savoured it if anything!”
How would you sum up the album lyrically? Is it more personal than your last LP?
Simon: “It’s a very specifically personal record. I always write about things that are happening in my life and my relationships. Opposites was about our relationship as a band, Only Revolutions was about my wife, Puzzle was about my mum and my family and this one was a lot more internal.”
“I felt under a lot of pressure last year, both self-imposed and from outside. I wanted to fall in love with writing music again, I felt under pressure to write these big rock songs to play in these huge venues for our band and I needed to shake all that off. In some of these songs I’m questioning myself, in others I’m extremely confident, it goes from being really vulnerable to being really cocky. I normally don’t worry about confidence, but this time it was a real issue.”
When do the lyrics first get presented to the band?
James: “Sometimes it’s when they’re sung to make rough demos and Ben and I will be looking at each other trying not to cry. Sometimes he’s changing lines right up until they’re sung in the studio. Different lines hit you at different times.”
Ben: “You can be concentrating on your part in a song and then, when it’s more together, some of the lines will hit, it’s a very strange thing.”
When did you decide on the title of Ellipsis? And was it always the title?
Simon: “Originally it was going to be just three dots, I had the idea of making a big point about how we’re all dots in this world full of dots, but Ellipsis seemed more appropriate. The music is the start of the sentence and we’re formulating the next stage of our lives, it came quite early on. Album titles take a while to come, but you do know as soon as you find one, as soon as we came up with Only Revolutions, we all went ‘of course!’ and it’s like that every time. You don’t always know when it’s wrong, but you know when you’re right.”
How are you going to structure your live sets when you take the album out live? You’ve got a lot of songs, are you moving to Bruce Springsteen style sets?
Simon: “I’d love to play for four and a half hours, but I don’t know if our fans would love that!”
Ben: “We’re very proud of all our albums and I think we would like to play really long sets, but realistically a few of our older songs will have to make way for the new ones. It gets tougher to pick the set every time, we can’t wait for the album to sink into people’s psyches and then we can add more songs.”
Simon: “It’s really hard to take those songs out of the set though, you take one out and you realise you might not play that song again for four years! When we tour we’ll do longer sets and we end up being that Springsteen type band!”
Finally, you’ve not announced a UK headline tour as yet for the album, will that have to wait until after your festival commitments are over?
Simon: “It’s exactly that. We’ll be touring the UK in December. We know we’ve announced lots of shows and there’s nothing in the UK so far, but there are shows and they’ll be very special!”