Biffy Clyro’s James Johnston on marriage, the peculiar name, songwriting and indifference toward Trent Reznor
No matter how many hard rock musicians I’ve interviewed, I’m still surprised to learn how friendly and pleasant they are in conversation. Last week I spoke to the very charming James Johnston, bassist for Scottish trio Biffy Clyro.
"I’ve had a good day, so I’m in a good mood," Johnston said early in the conversation. "We’re just coming out of hibernation as a band. We had some quiet time over Christmas and New Year. We’re getting back into the practice room, dusting the cobwebs off and working on some new material. We’re looking forward to joining you guys in a couple of weeks."
Biffy plays at the Great American Music Hall Wednesday, and my story will appear in The Bay Bridged in the next few days. Until then, I believe Biffy fans will find the following teaser to their satisfaction.
You just got married, congrats! All three of you are married, now. What effect does that have on your band?
Thank you, Roman. It’s an exciting time all around in both the band and personal life. I suppose you could say I’m finally a man. We’ve all been with our partners for quite a long time. The girls, the ladies all know how much we devote ourselves to this band. We’ve been doing this since we were 14 years old. As we’ve gone along, the tour buses have gotten a bit larger, and we’ve had maybe more opportunities to have the girls out. When you’ve been on the road for four or five weeks, you start to lose touch with your life at home, so it’s nice when the girls come out. I don’t think they particularly like sleeping on the tour bus, but they enjoy our company, I hope. We try to get home after a month and just have a few days off to sort of relax. I think last year was the best year we ever had as a band.
How many different explanations for your band name origin have you give over the years?
There must be a half dozen or so. Sadly, there is not a great story behind the name. It’s a complicated name. It’s made up words, so we just tried to make up stories as we’ve gone along. One of my favorites is Simon said that he was in the shower, and came out and he stepped on newspaper, and all the ink from the newspaper came out onto his foot, and it spelled out the word, ‘Biffy Clyro.’ We’ve talked about 16th century warriors, and we’ve also made up an acronym, and it stands for Big Imagination For Feeling Young. … I don’t think names are often that important. There have been some great bands with some terrible names and great names for terrible bands. It’s something we’ve gotten over after 15-odd years.
Do you prefer smaller venues in North America, or do you have inspirations to play arenas and stadiums, such as the jump Muse made?
That would be nice, of course. We would love to keep moving forward. We don’t expect to get to arenas overnight. That certainly didn’t happen back home in the U.K. … We’re in it for the long haul. If it takes a few years, or even if it doesn’t happen at all, we’re still really excited to come to North America. It doesn’t matter that we’re not playing to thousands and thousands of people. The people who come are still very enthusiastic.
Have you or Ben considered sharing songwriting duties with Simon?
Yes. It’s something that we’ve talked about and something that we’ve tried to do. It’s also something Simon has encouraged. You know, we’ve got the six albums now and Simon has been working so hard. He’s been such a great writer and such a prolific writer that in some ways it’s not been the most important thing … but it is something we’re trying to do; just to be in the practice room and trying some of our ideas, building some amazing rhythms and amazing drum parts. It would be nice to maybe bring another strength aboard; … another way of looking at music – who has a slightly different outlook. It’s something we would love to do. We’ve been moving forward as a band and I feel that’s important after so many years together.
Which artists have you dreamed about collaborating with?
Over the years, lots. … Sometimes a band like Pearl Jam, who has been in my life as long as any other band. They’re not massively dissimilar to us, and maybe to collaborate might just be an exercise and you know, a vanity or something like that. It might be more interesting to collaborate with somebody like Aphex Twin or maybe Baroness or something like that … or a female vocalist like Cat Power or Annie Lennox. It would be nice to look outside of the box for a collaboration.
That would be interesting; to hear you and Annie Lennox. I’d pay for that download.
We’ll put the call out and see if she’s busy. (laughs).
Have any of you spoken with Trent Reznor since August? What would you tell him if you were suddenly in the same room with him? (You’ll either need to Google the specifics or wait a few days for my story) to get a recap of the whole story).
I think it was eye opening that he was so quick to diss somebody that he didn’t know anything about. He shouldn’t have had any beef with us because we didn’t do anything wrong. His frustration was with the festival itself. … A lot has been written about it. A lot has been said. We just don’t have the energy to want to talk to him anymore. We’ve lost any respect for him we had.