Interview: Ben and James Johnston on Biffy Clyro: MTV Unplugged

Mere hours before Biffy Clyro made their triumphant return for Melbourne fans, we find ourselves in the guts of The Forum, where tech crew and band members are readying themselves for showtime. Soon enough, we’re joined by the Johnston brothers – James and Ben – raring to go off the back of a momentous gig in Auckland only a few nights prior.

“We fully did not expect to be playing in front of that many people.” Ben says of their Spark Arena show. “It was a wonderful, lovely surprise to get that many. We had a great time in Auckland, we had a couple days to acclimatise and get our jet lag dealt with. It was a great start, we weren’t expecting it to be so awesome.”

Finishing their Ellipsis tour cycle in Australia, both Ben and James feel the effects of such a stretch of time out on the road with this record. With a new album already in the mix, as well as Biffy’s first time scoring a feature film in the pipeline, the band looks ahead to the exciting projects on the horizon, while also relishing these last threads of Ellipsis action.

“It’s been fun,” James says. “We’re playing the record to people who haven’t heard it before, so it’s not over! It’s just starting here. It’s always nice to move forward, we’ve got a lot of exciting things planned. We’re going to do a movie soundtrack when we get home and we’ve got another album coming.”

The next major release for Biffy Clyro is the much hyped MTV Unplugged recording that will be released later in May on both DVD and live album formats. Recorded at London’s Roundhouse, the trio brought their beloved back catalogue into an intimate setting Ben admits they didn’t think they were worthy of.

” We thought that we weren’t a big enough band to be asked to do that,” he admits. “It was a real pinch yourself moment. It took a while for it to get confirmed; we’d been asked and we thought it would never happened because we’re not a big enough band for this, but it did. We’ve got a lot of songs that work in the acoustic guise; we can definitely do that. Our wonderful live players helped us out, it was a really smashing night. Really special. I’m so glad that we’ve gotten an album out of that and a DVD.”

“I think we made the mistake, you see all those 90’s performances being so iconic, of going back and watching them all.” James adds. “We got really nervous and naturally we compared ourselves to some of our favourite bands, which was a mistake. We’re not Nirvana, as much as we love them, we’re a different thing. We just had to be ourselves, as corny as it sounds. As Ben said, it’s really nice to just play those songs stripped back and let the song be the star of the show.”

Known for their high energy shows, thrashing live presence and of course, Simon Neil‘s frenetic frontman qualities, how did Biffy Clyro deal in an environment that called for a more grounded performance vibe?

“There was nowhere for the energy to go,” James says. “There’s a lot of tension. Usually you get to smash your drums or beat your guitar and run about on stage and scream and sweat. The energy just didn’t go anywhere, so for three days after we were [pent up]. It was really strange. I think the audience, to some degree, had the same feeling.”

“We went to play the song “Bubbles” at the end and everyone started clapping out of time; the audience ruined it, basically!” he laughs. “To see that restrain…they were definitely restrained in some way. That’s the beauty of it though, it’s a different sort of thing, compared to a rock show.”

“We always used to stand with our back to the audience, mumble a hello and not say too much.” the bassist remembers. It’s such a cliche of letting the music do the talking, it’s really lazy, I know. I think we’ve gotten a bit better. I think it’s best not to take it too seriously, what you’re going to say to the audience. You’re going to say something stupid before too long.”

“It’s fun to acknowledge it as well,” Ben adds. “If it’s tense, you just say that it’s tense. That, in itself, loosens everyone up a little bit.”

It was important for Biffy Clyro to eschew as many of those ‘studio audience’ vibes as possible for their MTV Unplugged gig; down to the dressing of their stage, to the natural environment they conjured to have the connection with their fans remain as engaged as it is on any festival or headline stage.

“A lot of MTV performances in the past have been filmed in a TV studio, so it’s a bit of a sterile environment.” James says. “That’s why it was important for us to go to The Roundhouse; a place where the audience was familiar with seeing bands. It’s been a real iconic venue for decades, back home. I think that was a real big part of it, dressing the venue to look like an enchanted forest! It felt like we could make the venue our own, in that respect.”

“If you file a bunch of people into a TV studio and then expect them to act an appropriate way and get a cool vibe, it’s not going to happen.” Ben adds. “It was important it was in a venue and when you see it, it feels like gig. It doesn’t feel like a TV show.”

Above us in the main theatre hall, fans decked out in ‘BIFFY FUCKIN’ CLYRO’ t-shirts filed in excitedly, while support band WAAX prepared to take to the stage for what was to be a killer opening set. The vibe down in the artist’s area remains chill; Neil is taking his own time pre-show to rest his voice, while Ben and James are casual in the face of performing to over a thousand people out in Australia for the first time in just over four years.

It is of no real surprise though, these guys take successes and challenges as a band in their stride. For fans, this unplugged release is as much a gift from the band as it is a bucket list moment ticked off for them.

“It’s a nice bookend in a way for this period of the band,” James says. “It’s a nice way to take a wee break before we move on to the next thing; a way to celebrate the history of the band through the songs and do so with the people who have supported us all along the way.”

Biffy Clyro finish their Australian tour in Sydney tonight. Their MTV Unplugged DVD and live album is released on May 25th via Warner. 

Photos by Michelle Grace Hunder.