James Johnston is soft spoken Scotsman, who in his spare time likes nothing more than cycling. He also happens to be the bassist in one of the UK’s biggest rock bands Biffy Clyro.
Here we talk to James ahead of Biffy returning to Australian shores in April about burning out, trying something new and playing to pirates!
SR. You’re coming to Australia off the back of the new Album Ellipses – can you tell us a little about the album?
JJ. The album came after a period of, I suppose being a little bit burned out from being on the road too long. I think we just keep making that same mistake as we love playing shows so much. You get to a point after 18 months to two years, when you just can’t say no to gigs but eventually you’re just like ‘we have got to take some time off here’.
So I think the songs are always reflective of Simon’s state of mind and they’re always really personal. I think Wolves of Winter, the first song on the record, is really about the kind of pack mentality that wolves have. That need to get together and protect their patch.
For us as a band, I think it’s a little like coming back to making a record and having everyone give their opinion – everyone putting their tuppence worth in and trying to mould you to fit their ideas often just to furnish their own goal and not for our benefit. I think that that’s quite indicative of a vibe for the album – that we have got to stick together and protect our pack. Make the music that we believe in.
SR. Does that mean you have more creative control over the music you make?
JJ. I think we have always had a lot of creative control of our music. Actually, I think what we quite like as a band is to have somebody guide us. I think if we were left on our own then all the songs would be f**king eight minutes long.
Sometimes it’s nice to have somebody point out parts of a song that really get them going – [have them] identify what’s the good thing about this song…what’s not so good? We’re signed to a major label and we knew there could be potential drawbacks, but in terms of having a major label breathing down our backs telling us what to do – we don’t have that. We can make the music we want and it’s nice to have that support.
It’s great to have people to work with that that have so much experience, they can help you decide which songs work – that’s why you bring the on board because you think they can add something to your music.
SR. So someone to kind of put a steadying hand to the process?
JJ. Yes. And I think lot of that comes from the producer – I think that Rich Costey he had a similar [mindset], almost like a teenagers mind. He never settled – he was always searching for something new and I think that is something that we share. And it’s nice to have someone else on that journey with you and can say to you what songs are working best and what parts of songs are best.
SR. You mentioned if you had it your way every song would be eight minutes long but ‘Living is a Problem’ has possible the most epic intro ever. Something I had never heard the likes of before and it takes me back to my Uni days – when are we getting another like it?
JJ. You know it’s one of those ones we…I totally take on board what you’re saying because it becomes a part of your life…when it catapults you back to a part of your life, whether it’s a relationship with a person, a place or a time in your life – that’s something that is really important to us.
But I think what is also important is for us not to try and do that again. You know there is nothing that I would change about that intro, so I think that it is important to try and not repeat it – to try and do something else.
You know, I think it’s important to keep moving forward musically or your life or whatever it is you’re doing – you should always try something new if you can.
SR. Maybe next time just make it slightly easier for you to play night in night out?
JJ. That’s true – we definitely made a rod for our own backs there.
The word ‘Ellipses’ itself signifies a bridge of sorts. Is that something that you saw this album being? A bridge between albums?
I think it signifies a bit of a pause. I guess after Opposites being such a dense album emotionally, a double album that we again toured for a year. And Ellipses signified a bit of a pause – a dot, dot, dot. It’s almost as if we’ve come in and pushed the pause button and now it’s time to go again.
It does feel like a little bit of a start working with Rich Costey, the new producer. It’s hopefully the start of a new trilogy of albums with Rich. And, you know, we had come to the end of our working relationship with Garth (Richardson).
It’s a continuance of what we have learned in the past and taking that forward and trying to build on it, but we definitely wanted to feel like we were starting again in our approach to the studio, instead of the usual getting the kit drum and getting the snare drum – sometimes we’d start a song with a vocal and build it like that or a drum machine or something.
It’s quite important to have a fresh approach and you’re never going to forget the things that you have learned, but if we take a different approach we might reach a different destination.
SR. You referenced Ellipses being part of a trilogy and new albums to come and I have read that one is going to feed off of a film and the film is going to feed off the album. That must be a different experience for you?
JJ. It really is! We’re still in the early stages of that, although we have recorded some music, but it’s really exciting to feel that we can have that influence on the story and maybe the lyrics will be taken a little bit further on a journey through the movie. The way that they are kind of going to respond to each other – I think it is just going to add a bit more to the music you know? And hopefully that means the music adds a lot more to the movie.
SR. What’s your favourite track to play live?
JJ. Off the new record I really love playing Animal Style – it’s just got a real energy and a vibe. It’s not as dynamic as other songs; it kind of motors along and once it starts it does not really let up. There’s something about that, it kind of feels new for us and exciting.
SR. What song does the crowd respond to most?
JJ. The Captain – I think that people still love to sing that. The kind of chant and there is something kind of simplistic about it, like nursery rhyme esque. I think people respond a lot to that. Kurt Cobain talks about that a lot…trying to make songs sound like nursery rhymes and I think there is something within us all that can respond to that.
Especially when you have a lot of drunk people in the crowd and they all feel like pirates!
SR. You’re an ardent cyclist, what music do you like to listen to when cycling?
JJ. At the moment it’s the Marmozets a youngish band from Leeds. A really exciting band, that shows British rock music is in good health. The record is called Knowing What you Know Now and it’s just really amazing.
SR. Finally, what do you think Simon will be wearing in 2020 and what colour will his hair be?
JJ. Lots of black leather – fight leather. I think he is going to shave his hair soon enough.
Friday 27th April Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Sunday 29th Eatons Hill, Brisbane
Monday 30th April Enmore Theatre, Sydney
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