A chat with Ben Johnston, Ben Johnston interview, Biffy Clyro, Only Revolutions
Ben Johnston

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We are loath to be late to a musical party, especially when it involves any band that could be described as ‘Anglo.’ When Scottish power trio Biffy Clyro first popped up on our radar last week, well, we were embarrassed. An intense rock band with a fondness for melody and Muse-like tendencies, whose 2010 album Only Revolutions sent a whopping six (!) singles into the UK Top 40? How the hell did we miss these guys? We could come up with some sorry excuse, but it would be just that – a sorry excuse. Still, better late than never, and thankfully the band are good sports about their relative – though most likely temporary – anonymity in the States, if our chat with Biffy Clyro drummer Ben Johnston is any indication. And as luck would have it, the band’s hometown of Kilmarnock turned out to be one hell of an icebreaker...

Bullz-Eye: Where in the world are you right now?

Ben Johnston: We are in sunny Vancouver.

BE: How are the plans for world domination going so far?

BJ: Good! (Chuckles) You know, like always, it's a lot of work, and it's a lot of fun. But this is what we love doing, so everything is going according to plan.

BE: So you’re from Kilmarnock. One of my all-time favorite bands is from Kilmarnock.

"That's been our mission statement; get these kids hooked with a killer melody, and then hopefully turn them on to something a bit more intense and more thought out."

BJ: (Surprised) Really? Who's that?

BE: The Trashcan Sinatras.

BJ: (Excited) No way, really?

BE: I love those guys.

BJ: I was friends with Paul [Livingston, Trashcans guitarist]. We used to hang out in their studio years back, before we were old enough to go in the pub.

BE: I interviewed Paul a couple of years ago.

BJ: He's a nice guy.

BE: He's a very nice guy.

BJ: He took pity on us poor, struggling musicians, and he let us hang out at his studio and practice. I know they talk about being big in Japan, but they couldn't really get arrested in Britain, as far as I can see.

BE: I never understood that.

BJ: Yeah, it was weird, especially to the people of my generation; nobody got it at all. But they've always had a following in Japan, and apparently, a following over here as well.

BE: I'm seeing them next month.

BJ: Really?

BE: Yeah, they're coming nearby at the end of March. I'll tell him you said hi.

BJ: That's incredible. I'm so impressed that you mentioned the Trashcans. I haven't heard anybody talk about them in so long.

BE: Well, let's talk about you guys for a bit. What I want to know, and I hope you’ll forgive me for being honest, is how you managed to stay off my radar for so long. I’m an avowed Anglophile, and the first I had heard of the band was a week ago.

BJ: Wow. I dunno, we've always retained some kind of anonymity, and been a cult band. I don't know how we've managed to do that. Maybe the weird name – a lot of it might have to do with that. It takes three times to hear it [for the name] to stick, and I think that works against us in some respects, but also helps us as well at the same time. But we've been doing a lot in Britain for a long time now; I'm surprised you missed us. But at the same time, it's kind of cool. It's the sort of thing that happens with this band. Even in Britain, I talk to people who have absolutely no idea who the band is, but it's cool. We never wanted to be recognized, or be a household name.

BE: You just finished an Australian tour with Muse. That’s a very fitting double bill, as I hear some similarities to your approach in the break of “That Golden Rule.”

BJ: Yeah, we're both coming from a very similar place, and we both have similar ideas about what's cool and what isn't. And they're good guys; we've played with them a bunch of times back in the UK and around Europe. They were nice enough to ask us to Australia. It's a good double bill, and I think the fans have a great time, and we had a great time playing the shows.

BE: Then again, there are songs like “God and Satan” and “Many of Horror,” which could easily pass for Snow Patrol. You’re a hard band to peg, but I’m guessing that’s the idea.

Ben JohnstonBJ: That's always been the idea, man, from day one, to mix all these different elements of music that we like together. And hopefully we manage to pull it off. You can hear one song of ours, and then hear another, and think it's an entirely different band, and we find that very exciting. That's a cool thing for us to achieve, we think, and not just be two dimensions, I think that's one of the reasons we have such a diverse fan base.

BE: That's funny you mention that, because I was watching a bunch of your videos on YouTube today, and I remember seeing all these teenage girls, and I thought, "They don't strike me as the type that would be into a song like 'That Golden Rule,'" but it was probably "Many of Horror" that hooked them.

BJ: Yeah, and that's always been the mission. We're not scared of melody. We love pop music, and there are elements of pop in almost every song we do. Our first EP, made back in 1996, was called thekidswhopoptodaywillrocktomorrow. That's been our mission statement; get these kids hooked with a killer melody, and then hopefully turn them on to something a bit more intense and more thought out. We try to have all those elements within an album. It's crazy that there are people in the UK who are so not even hardcore music fans who are listening to progressive music because we've gotten them to like it. That's always been the dream, and you see these teenage girls who listen to Kings of Leon and Biffy Clyro. It doesn't really make that much sense, but we're very happy about it.

BE: One of the other things I noticed while watching your videos today is that you are a basher. You beat your drums like you just caught them in bed with your girlfriend.

BJ: (Laughs) You gotta hit them hard, man. They sound better when you hit them hard. We're passionate guys when it comes to performing, and we feel it as much as the audience does. We like to try, at least. In the videos, you can fake it to a certain extent, but at the same time get across the aggression and the passion that we have live. I get taken away with music as much as anybody else. You gotta hit 'em hard.

BE: The bass player in the band is your twin brother. On the rocker siblings scale, are you closer to the Reid brothers in the Proclaimers, or Ray and Dave Davies?

BJ: Uh, (Laughs) I don't think we're entirely the same as either. We're not the Gallagher brothers from Oasis. We're definitely good pals. We're the best of friends, and we obviously spend a ridiculous amount of time with each other, and when we have a falling out, we tend to make up very quickly. I've been asked that a lot, 'what's it like to be in a band with your twin brother?' I haven't been in any other band, so there's no real reference point, but I like it. He's a friend as well as a twin brother, and he's a good person to make music with.

BE: I’m curious to know what differences you’ve noticed, if any, between how the American music machine works, and what you’re used to back home.

BJ: There doesn't seem to be much of a machine here, to be honest, due to the scale. There are so many states, and they operate like countries. It's not like each state is just like the next one. In the UK, you have Radio 1, and it's very much a press machine. One you're on that media outlet, you have a good chance of reaching a following. Over here, it's like Europe, with all those different countries, and just because you're big in one place doesn't mean you'll make waves anywhere else. It's very different, but it's exciting. You have to work hard and put in the hours to get people to your shows, and that's exactly where we are in America. We're touring in a little van, playing little venues and really enjoying being at that place again.

Ben Johnston

BE: I always ask bands from the other side of the pond this: I've noticed in the past few years that Americans are...I wouldn't say hostile, but pretty finicky when it comes to accepting foreign bands. Some of them break – Muse finally broke, and obviously Coldplay's huge – but for many of them, we're a tough nut to crack. What is your attitude towards breaking in America? Is it a goal, or is it just a bonus?

BJ: Um, (Pause) somewhere in the middle, I guess. We're not the sort of band to have your five-year plan, or we don't like talking about trying to break a territory; it always seems too businesslike. It's cliché, but we're more about just playing music and enjoying it. If we come over here, and people like us, that's cool. But we're not going to go, 'What angle to we have to take to crack this cookie?' We're just going to do what we've done everywhere else. We're not going to force [ourselves on to people]. We hate bands that force their stuff to people. And it's fine that you guys don't like bands that are big in Britain. There's no reason why, because we like it, you guys should just jump on the bandwagon and say they're a great band, too. If a band comes over and doesn't impress, that's totally your preference to like it or not. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. It's the same way that there are bands in America that are huge that a lot of people in Britain don't like, so it doesn't always work both ways.

BE: I'm a bit of a snob on that front, so when I see an American artist not make it in England, I just say, "Well, that's because they have taste."

BJ: (Laughs) You're too nice.

BE: All right, this is an odd question. you know the band Phish?

BJ: Yes.

BE: You know how they cover a classic album in its entirety on Halloween?

BJ: Okay.

BE: If you guys were to do such a thing, what album would you choose?

BJ: Oh, that's a tough one. It would probably be something nobody's heard of. But it's gotta be a classic album, doesn't it?

BE: No, it can be anything you want.

BJ: It would be good fun for us to cover Pinkerton by Weezer. They're a band that inspired us massively, and that's probably the best album they ever made. It's so raw and rough.

BE: Are you ever going to give up the origins of the band name, or are you having too much fun making people guess? 

BJ: Yeah, there's going to be more and more stories daily.

BE: I like the ‘Cliff Richard’s pen’ story, personally. (Note: The story is that the band name is a malapropism of ‘Cliffy’s Biro.’)

BJ: Yeah, well, that's actually the true one, so that's good.

BE: It is? You can tell I've been to your Wikipedia page. I never know what to believe.

Ben JohnstonBJ: We like to keep people guessing on that front, and I'm sure we'll come up with some even better stories in the future.

BE: So what happens after you finish this tour?

BJ: We finish at the end of February, and we go home. We'll take a bit of time off, but we've got some new stuff to work on, so we're going to be knuckling down and getting demos done, and try to get a new album together, really. And then we're coming back to the States in April with Cage the Elephant, and hopefully we're going to get another tour arranged as well. So we're going to be spending months over here in the US. It's going to be a lot of fun.

BE: I'm looking up your discography right now, and I didn't realize that you had six Top 40 singles from your last album. Wow. That doesn't happen anymore. That used to happen all the time on both sides of the pond, but bands are lucky to get three singles from an album now.

BJ: We're like the new Def Leppard.

BE: This is your Hysteria, is that it?

BJ: And the next one has to be even better, so we'll see what happens.

BE: We'll call this one Pyromania, so the next album can be Hysteria.

BJ: (Laughs) Okay, nice. I like it.

BE: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. And no joke, I'm friends with Paul Livingston on Facebook. I'm going to write him and tell him that I talked to you.

BJ: I used to drink with him at a place called the Paris Match. Mention that.

BE: I will. Thank you, and take care.

BJ: Thanks, David.

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