Biffy Clyro Talk Musical Memories

Bassist James Johnston discusses the sounds that shaped NME's Best British Band of 2017
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Bassist James Johnston discusses the sounds that shaped NME's Best British Band of 2017
Biffy Clyro Interview

Biffy Clyro are having a good year. Enjoying the success of their most recent album, Ellipsis, which is being broadly celebrated as some of their best material, the Glaswegian trio recently won NME's "Best British Band Award", and to top it off their tour is proving so popular they've just added extra dates to their North American route. 

Just last summer we spoke with James Johnston from the band, chatting around Ellipsis and the realignment of the bands intentions to go big or go home. Now, with the band heading back to US shores we figured it was a good time to catch up with James again, and to chat about the musical memories that shaped his musical DNA and influenced the path of this year's best British export.

Sit back, turn up the volume and be prepared for some surprises...

First single I bought…

The first single I bought was "Circle in the Sand" by Belinda Carlisle. I was 9 years old and I remember saving my pocket money and buying it in the local record store, which is sadly long gone. It’s a great song with but I’m not convinced that was my reason for getting it, I think really belinda was my first crush !

First live show I attended…

If I discount being taken by my father to a 2.5 hour Ry Cooder marathon in my early teens, I think the first ‘big’ show that I went to was possibly Rancid at the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow (thankfully still there) The venue is arguably world famous and one of those rooms where you can just feel the history seeping from it’s pores. I was totally intimidated by all the big guys with mohawks and tattoos and found the whole experience to be dangerous in the best possible way. I was struck by the camaraderie and communal atmosphere and felt like I had found a new gang, even if was too young to be a full member!

First song I learned to play…

The first song I learned to play was “Till There Was You “ by the Beatles. I learned it with Ben and my dad on Christmas day. Ben had just got a set of timbale drums and I had got my first bass. I’m not sure what my dad thought ben would do with the timbales but i was really happy with my bass. we jammed all day and i remember my mum had to plead with us to come for Christmas dinner.

The song that encouraged me to learn my instrument of choice…

When I was younger, one of the cool bass lines that I loved was “Gratitude” by The Beastie Boys. What a great record Check your Head is and it’s full of some of my personal Beastie Boys favorites although not always their most highly acclaimed album. I absolutely love the tone of the bass on this song and it definitely got my interested in distortion and trying to mess with the sound as much as it made my want to pick up the bass and play along.

The song that reminds me of home…

Pretty much the whole of Bjork’s Vespertine record. It is most certainly one of those records that makes me think of my wife and being at home. It was ‘our’ record for a good couple of years and something that i keep going back to from time to time. I think ‘Cocoon’ is one of the most intimate sounding songs I know. the sound of Bjork's voice makes you think she is in the room with you, very comforting.

My guilty secret track…

It’s got to be “I’m Gonna Getcha Good” by Shania Twain. It’s really sickly sweet and impossible to love. Everything about should make me feel sick, but I’m such a sucker for the chorus. actually every time I play the song, as i’m listening to the verse i worry that make i’ve put on the wrong sone, but then the chorus comes and the whole ‘band’ drops out to leave a big 80’s sounding vocal. It’s a wonder.

The song I wish I wrote…

“Mother” by John Lennon, is one of those songs that gets me every time. It’s quite a simple song musically, a great melody, but pretty simple all the same. The thing that gets me is the lyrics. It’s such a raw emotion that Lennon conjures up in this song. He’s so honest and vitriolic. I have read that the engineers on the session were all in tears when Lennon did his vocals as they could feel what the song meant to him, and it certainly comes across to me, and shows the power of a really well written song, and an unbelievable performance.

The finest song from my all time hero…

This is a strange one as most of my heroes were my first musical loves. Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Guns ’n Roses, but the song I’m going to choose is “Hungry Face” by Mogwai’s Les Revenants soundtrack. Traditionally my heroes were from the other side of the world, and were so exotic and untouchable, but Mogwai are a band from Glasgow around my age, so it’s not an obvious choice, but there a real inspiration to me. they’ve released so many great albums over the years and have grown into doing soundtracks and other projects. It’s amazing when you have a band be part of your life for so long and they still release music that gets you excited.

The song I’ve written of which I’m most proud…

Well Simon is the songwriter in the band so I should note that I’m especially proud of him for this song! The song is “Living is a Problem” from our Puzzle album. I think it’s so ambitious and brave musically. It was the first time we were able to use string sections and choirs and to be able to merge those elements with the sound of the band was something I’m really proud of. It was such an important record for us to be able to try new things and I think this is when Simon’s writing really started to blossom.

The song that should be played at my funeral…

“A Careless Love” as sung by Bonnie Prince Billie… Well, I wanted everybody to be in floods of tears and i’m pretty sure this would do it.

My favorite track from my most recent project

My favorite track from Ellipsis is “Friends and Enemies” it feels like quite a departure for the band and I’m really proud that we can keep moving forward and trying new sounds and directions. This song took quite a lot of work to get right in the studio and there’s something really satisfying when you get that moment when you feel like it just clicks and everything falls in to place.

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