Metro Weekly

Scottish Pride: An interview with Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro

Biffy Clyro's frontman gets candid about what working in a gay bar taught him about music

Biffy Clyro: Ben Johnston, Simon Neil, and James Johnston – Photo: Luke Gilford

When it’s revealed to Simon Neil, the abundantly illustrated frontman of Scottish rock trio Biffy Clyro, that he’s talking to an LGBTQ magazine, the response is tantamount to a shrug.

“I’m glad [the publicist] didn’t mention you were a gay and lesbian magazine, because it shouldn’t even matter,” says the 37-year-old, launching into a brief, impassioned monologue about Scottish pride.

“Every Scottish person is proud of how liberal and free and progressive we are,” he says. “A lot of the world is afraid of change — ‘Things are changing. Oh, wow. We must resist.’ — but Scotland has always embraced change. It’s part of our life. But this year, Brexit and Trump are reminders that not everyone feels the way we do….

“So yeah, I’m proud to be Scottish. Proud of the things we do. Proud of the moves we make. I just hope that we can slowly get the rest of the world up to speed. The tough thing about this last year is that — and my wife and I talk about this a lot — it’s really scary to see people that don’t share our values. Which is love, togetherness, people being what they want to be, doing what they want to do. As long as you’re not hurting anyone else, who gives a fuck? And that’s what’s really scary: there’s lots and lots of people in this world who feel the exact opposite.”

Neil, who grew up in East Ayrshire, founded Biffy Clyro when he was 15. The bizarre yet playful origin of the name remains a stubborn mystery, as Neil and his bandmates, brothers James and Ben Johnston, notoriously give a different answer each time they’re asked (today, it’s the name of a pet goldfish Neil won at a fair and a Welsh village his family once visited). The trio creates addictive pop riffs, powered by raw, forward momentum, elaborate, skillful songwriting and — secret sauce — Neil’s Scottish accent, which provide his vocals an alluring and distinctive hard edge.

“At the start, all I wanted to do was sound like singers that I loved,” he says. “I realized I wasn’t feeling as though I was being sincere when I was singing the songs. I felt like unless I sang in my accent, the emotion was never going to come across.”

Still, he concedes, “certain words I sing sound too Scottish. Some words can sound really cold and don’t sound pretty in Scottish. It sounds ridiculous to say it, but there is a balance where I want it to sound pretty.”

Wildly popular in the UK, the award-winning band doesn’t shy away from intricate, graceful melodies. On the magnificently constructed “Friends and Enemies,” a cut from the band’s newest release, Ellipsis, they shrewdly deploy a chorus of children to punctuate a sing-song refrain, coating the song’s bitter sentiment with sugary irony. Biffy Clyro is truly at its best, however, when it combines a heavy metal aesthetic with pop hooks that make you hit repeat an absurd number of times. Give a listen to the soaring, energetic “Flammable,” or the sumptuous, swirling rock waltz, “Opposite.” Both are hard to quit.

“I’ve always loved pop hooks,” says Neil. “I have always wanted our music to have that kind of melody to it. Because at the end of the day, it’s more often than not the melodies that make you go back to a record or a song. I feel like melodies become your friend. I liked some really avant garde stuff in the ’90s — I listened to an awful lot of Lightning Bolt and weird underground bands, like the Black Dice. But I never went back to those records. I felt very cool at the time, but I certainly don’t put them on these days.”

Neil often writes from life experience, and one of his finest compositions, “Biblical,” from the 2013 masterpiece Opposites, dealt with a deeply personal trauma.

“That song was about me and my wife trying to get through a really tough time in our life,” he says. “The first few albums we made, I wasn’t worried about what I was singing about — I wanted to kind of paint pictures and give general feelings rather than talk about specific things. Then, before we made our fourth album [2007’s Puzzle], my mom passed away, and I couldn’t write songs about anything other than that. At the time I really struggled with it. I was worried about my dad hearing the song. But it was all I could write about — it was the only music I could write. Everything else seemed worthless and not important.”

It took Neil time to feel “a positivity” about his newfound openness. “I struggled while touring [Puzzle], and singing certain songs. I felt very guilty thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be out here ostensibly trying to entertain strangers while I’m singing about something that was the most important thing to myself and my family.’ But then, as the years ticked over, I realized how much I was taking strength from — and this probably seems a little cliché — the fact that other people cared about the song as much as I did.

“I feel that sharing sadness can bring people together a lot more than sharing joy or sharing good times,” he says. “If someone comes up to me and says how a song helped them get over certain things, that makes it worthwhile. It makes me want to write more songs that are truthful and honest and hard to write, because they’re the ones that will stick around. They’re the songs that in twenty years when, I hope to God, we’re still touring, I’ll be happy to sing because I know that every single emotion in the tune was true and pure and honest.”

Over the course of a lively half hour conversation, Neil lets slip that, during his university days in Glasgow, he worked at a gay bar.

“It wasn’t a full on leather and chains kind of place,” he laughs. “It was…the same as any other place. I always had a beard, so I’d get a lot of the ‘You’re my grizzly’ kind of thing, even though I’m not fucking built like a bear. And people would pinch bums. But it was no different to any other bar you’d work in, you know what I mean?”

The experience advanced Neil’s musical education in an unexpected way. “I learned a lot about dance music — quality dance music. At that point I was a big rocker — I only ever listened to metal and things that were written on guitars. As an 18-year-old, it opened my eyes to the world and to different cultures. It was exactly what I needed coming from a small town. It made me appreciate genres of music that I didn’t know about.

“Life has a way of bringing people together,” he concludes. “Cultures collide. And I’m really glad [working in the bar] did that for me. I feel sorry for people who are isolated and are afraid of things that they don’t know.”

Biffy Clyro appears Saturday, April 15, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. Tickets are $25. Doors at 10 p.m. Visit 930.com.

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Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at rshulman@metroweekly.com.