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'It has been heartbreaking... I miss playing live music so much'

Biffy Clyro drummer Ben Johnston talks to Alex Green about his political anger and how lockdown put the passionate football fan right off the game


New album: Ben Johnston, Simon Neil and James Johnston of Biffy Clyro

New album: Ben Johnston, Simon Neil and James Johnston of Biffy Clyro

Press Association Images

Ben on the drums on stage in Glasgow

Ben on the drums on stage in Glasgow

Press Association Images

New album: Ben Johnston, Simon Neil and James Johnston of Biffy Clyro

Scottish rock titans Biffy Clyro have a fire in their bellies. Perhaps the nation's most successful in recent years, they are angry - about the "buffoons" in charge, about the treatment of nurses, about the bands that play it safe.

Their ninth album, A Celebration Of Endings, which became their third number one earlier this month, distils this anger into something bright and bombastic.

"We are living in a world right now in which politics cannot be ignored," explains drummer Ben Johnston down the phone.

"We are not historically a political band and we are not about to become Rage Against The Machine."

He pauses for a rumbling laugh. "But I just think, right now, living in this world, you cannot ignore the buffoons in charge and all the crazy stuff that is going on.

"If you don't sing about it you are only lying to yourself because it is omnipresent."

We speak ahead of the album's release and a week after Johnston reunites with his twin brother James, the band's bass player, and frontman Simon Neil for their first rehearsal since lockdown.

For the hard-touring outfit, the music industry's sudden grind to a halt was especially unsettling.

"The first few weeks were all over the place - a lot of fear," the 40-year-old admits.

"My regime went entirely out the window and I started putting on a bit of weight and sleeping crazy hours and all sorts of stuff.

"But once the novelty of that wore off I got some more routine back in my life and things are fine now."

Johnston, who had no formal music training, has spent lockdown going back to basics, practising his rudimentals on a drum pad and improving his technique.

Lockdown has also affected the band in other, more unexpected, ways.

Hailing from Kilmarnock in East Ayrshire, Biffy Clyro are famous for their eccentric style of power rock, performing topless at every opportunity, and for their love of Kilmarnock FC, affectionately known as the Killie.

Football was one of the immediate casualties of the pandemic, but, now it has returned, Johnston appears to have fallen out of love with the game.

"I'm definitely missing the Killie," he enthuses.

"I really have missed the football, although weirdly since the English football came back - Scottish football hasn't come back yet - I realise I have slightly fallen out of love with football.

"I don't really know what happened.

"I'm watching it going 'this isn't as good as I remember' and it's really upsetting because I love my football.

"I think there are too many live games on a daily rate. I think that's just putting me off - 'Oh God, live football again'.

"But no, I miss seeing my local team for sure.

"I miss going to my ground and shouting at guys in shorts."

As you would expect, Johnston agrees that the arts need government support and worries about how the £1.57bn rescue package for the sector will be divvied out.

But he's equally concerned for the nurses, junior doctors and healthcare workers who have spent the last half-year on the front line of the pandemic.

"I'm not one to get on my soapbox and start to worry about government stuff," he admits.

"There are more important things like nurses - they need to be taken care of.

"They need all the support in the world. They need to be paid twice as much, regardless of this pandemic.

"They need to be given free housing, they need to be given all the help, not turning up to food banks trying to feed their kids because they can't get a good enough wage as a nurse.

"They are not given nearly enough support and this pandemic has shown that the people who are paid the least on the social structure are the people we need the most.

"We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves, think about that wealth gap and fix it."

Despite their studio wizardry and penchant for aural experimentation, Biffy Clyro are at their heart a live band.

If you have seen them on stage - leaping to and fro dressed in colourful garments - you will understand that this period away must have been painful.

"It's been heartbreaking," says Johnston after emitting a long sigh.

"I completely forget what it is I do for a job. That happened so quickly, you wouldn't believe it.

"Even a couple of months, I'm like 'Am I in Biffy Clyro? Did we play these shows?'

"It's hard to even remember. I miss live music so much. The feeling you get from playing live cannot be replicated in any other manner. I miss it intensely.

"I was so happy to get back in the practice room just this week with the boys. It's the first time we have played since lockdown. It's such a release. I've missed it heavily."

He laughs at the suggestion that A Celebration Of Endings is Biffy Clyro's most danceable album yet - but agrees.

"We have really broad tastes," he says by way of an explanation.

"We like almost every genre of music. We like making ourselves a bit unsure.

"You should always slightly question your music. It should always be on the edge of 'Is this brilliant or terrible? I'm not sure' but certainly not safe.

"The last thing we want to do is make safe music and call it in. I hate bands that do that.

"We always want to be on the precipice, looking over the edge."

A Celebration Of Endings is out now

Belfast Telegraph