Biffy Clyro's Simon Neil talks guitars, writing riffs and new album, Opposites

"You can break people's hearts with a guitar," says Biffy Clyro's Simon Neil, quickly adding, "and smash their faces in a second later."
"You can break people's hearts with a guitar," says Biffy Clyro's Simon Neil, quickly adding, "and smash their faces in a second later." (Image credit: Rune Hellestad/Corbis)

Coming up with songs was never a worry for Biffy Clyro's Simon Neil. But shortly before the band headed for the studio to record their new album, Opposites, the singer-guitarist discovered that he had nothing - zilch. Thinking quickly, he did the only normal thing a guy in his position would do: he panicked.

"It was really stressful," Neil admits. "I usually write at home, but what happened was, we just finished a two-year tour and I wasn't able to do any writing. So there I was, sitting in my house, and I had no songs. I started to think I had writer's block."

And then, magically, a tune appeared put of nowhere. And then another... and another - they wouldn't stop. In a six-week span, Neil amazed himself and wrote 45 numbers. "The floodgates just opened," he says with a laugh. "What started out scary wound up being very hassle-free."

Flush with material, Neil and his Biffy Clyro bandmates (bassist James Johnston bass and his drummer brother Ben) flew from Scotland to LA to work with their longtime producer, GGGarth Richardson, and even after taking a weed whacker to the songs, they wound up with 20 winners that just wouldn't quit. And so, Opposites is a double disc of bold ambition and staggering originality, full of luscious, supple melodies that wallop into stadium-razing choruses. Due out 28 January, it builds on the musical triumphs of 2009's Only Revolutions, upping the grandeur factor while tightening the pop hooks. Already Biffy Clyro are big-time attractions in the UK and Europe, and with Opposites, they appear poised to crack the US as well.

Neil sat down with MusicRadar recently to talk about a couple of the tracks, how he comes up with riffs and what he loves (and doesn't love) about the guitar.

This is the band's third record with Garth Richardson. Obviously, you all get on well with him.

"We have a real trust with him. He knows us and everything we want to try. He's from the old school of production. He gets that from his dad, Jack Richardson, who was also a producer - he did the first Alice Cooper records, and he taught people like Bob Ezrin. Garth knows about the right amplifiers to use, the right microphones - all that stuff. See, we're an old-fashioned kind of band in that we like to get into a room and get the best sounds.

"When we first worked with him, it was a little strange because we'd just moved from an independent label. The most time we'd spent on a record was two weeks. To go from two weeks to two months took getting used to - it's like we couldn't slow ourselves down. But Garth made us realize that sometimes you have to spend that extra time to make things sound right."

Simon flanked by drummer Ben Johnston (left) and bassist James Johnston. © Anthony Mandler

How do you like recording in LA?

"Oh, it's great. [Laughs] It's the opposite from recording in Scotland. LA is such a creative city, and you find yourself just soaking it all in. So many great records were done there, and you feel like you're in the middle of such history. It's nice to be in LA: We can leave the studio and go out at night, or go to the beach on a day off. Relaxing is very important when you're making a record, because you put so much pressure on yourselves to make something amazing."

You guys are in a curious position career-wise. In the UK, you're arena headliners, and yet in the States, you're playing large clubs. Is that a weird dichotomy for you?

"A little bit. We toured in the UK and Europe for a few years before we stepped up to the arenas, and we're happy how that's going. Playing clubs, there's nothing to hide behind; it's all about being a good band. So playing smaller places is a good tester for us. We actually do relish it. There's something about the energy in a club, the bouncing off the walls and all that [laughs].

"I like the communal atmosphere in clubs. You feel like you're part of the audience, they're part of you. Trying to get that feeling in the larger places isn't always easy. Like I said, it's a good tester. If we were playing exactly the same shows everywhere, it might get a little stale."

Black Chandelier is a funny song in a way. The verses and choruses are quite poppy, but the bridge is straight out of hardcore. I hear Fugazi and Quicksand in there.

"Oh, excellent! Yeah, those bands are big influences. I even liked Rival Schools, who were around for a short time. I guess, when we were 11 or 12, we were into Nirvana and stuff, and then you start investigating other worlds. This was before MySpace and Facebook. A friend would pass you a record, and it really meant a lot. We were really attracted to the US underground bands. They helped teach us to be ourselves and believe that we had something to say.

"Purity is such a big thing, and those kinds of groups were very pure. Music is what it's all about; everything else is kind of extraneous. It's nice to have success, but if you haven't invested yourself fully, you're acting, in a way. Fugazi, especially, were all about evolving and not making the same record twice."

Sounds Like Balloons has a very tricky riff. I'm amazing that you can sing it and play it at the same time.

[Laughs] "That took a while, believe me."

Every guitarist has their own process for writing riffs. What's it like for you?

"I write all the songs, and really, what I do is just sit and play the guitar. I don't do this while plugged into the amp - I prefer to sit someplace kind of quiet. I use my Gretsch a lot. Sometimes a riff will just come up. It's not there one minute, and the next it's flowing out. I think because I don't analyze what I do, the songs are a bit of a mystery.

"I do like big riffs, though. Back in the day, I liked bands like Pantera. Big, distorted riffs appealed to me. As I've grown older, I found that some of the best riffs aren't always super-loud and downtuned. I like my Fender Strat for riffs too - there's something about the pop of the strings. Riffs just fly out of that guitar."

The solo in Sounds Like Balloons has a very Edge-like quality.

"Yeah, sure."

In your opinion, has there been anybody to come along recently who changed the way people think about the guitar like The Edge did?

"I think he really figured out a new way to express himself through the guitar. I do agree with you - that part is pure Edge, it's pure U2. Sometimes it can be dangerous to emulate too much.

"There's a girl named Marnie Stern who's an exceptional guitarist. She doesn't really write songs so much as she writes riffs that get played over and over, and then she kind of yelps overtop. I also like St. Vincent. She's the first person in the last few years who's blown me away from the way she plays the guitar and the sounds she makes. It's not classic in any sense, but it's so expressive. Her last record, Strange Mercy, was the first time I looked at the guitar in a new way in quite some time."

The song Opposite sounds like a single to me. When I first heard it, I thought, He definitely wrote that on an acoustic. I'm guessing now that it was on your unplugged Gretsch or Strat.

"That was the Gretsch, yeah. I did it in DADGAD, which is one of my favorite tunings. I've written a couple of songs on previous records in that tuning. It's very relaxing - I sit in front of the TV and just play along. I wait until my wife goes to bed and sort of daydream while playing. I think that song came out pretty quickly, and it could be a single, so you're a very wise man! [Laughs]

"Sometimes songs can really affect you and be overwhelming. I remember when I first heard our recording of Opposite, after we'd laid it down and I did the vocals, and I was so blown away by how beautifully we captured it. Everything I imagined it could be was right there. That doesn't always happen."

Neil: "What frustrates me about guitars? They go out of tune!" © Black, Steve/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

Let's talk about your Strats. Obviously, you have a few, and you even have a signature model. What models are you using these days?

"I like the relics a lot, the reissues. There's something about their sound that really works for me. The Mexican ones are pretty great. When I'm in the studio, I open the palette a bit. For this record, I played a Paul Reed Smith, and there was a beautiful 335 as well. I used that on the song Opposite, and the sound was just gorgeous.

"What's great about Garth is, he's got really cool guitars and amps from back in the day. He's got a beautiful Gary Moore Les Paul from the 1970s. Some of these guitars I'm not comfortable playing live, but on the record I'll try different things. Certain songs want to be lush, and some need to be more aggressive. For the biting tracks I'll use my Strats, and for things that want to be softer, I'll use the Les Paul or the 335."

What kinds of demos do you usually do before you get in the studio? Are they loose sketches, or do you plan everything out?

"This is the first album where we did proper demos. Usually, I write songs and keep them in my brain, and I'm the worst person to be around 'cause I have all of these songs clogging up my thoughts [laughs]. But I moved into a new house recently, and I set up a room with Pro Tools and everything.

"We used a Nord Stage 2, a beautiful keyboard, and worked up string sounds. For the first time, we were able to demo all the instruments. We knew we wanted a mariachi band, brass, bagpipes and some other things. It was great to fulfill our vision for the songs on the demos. I'm really excited about the setup, especially now that Ben and James want to start writing songs."

What do you love about the guitar more than ever - and what continues to frustrate you about it?

"What frustrates me about guitars? They go out of tune! [Laughs] I can never get a guitar to stay in tune. That might have to do with my technique - I hit the guitar pretty hard live, so I'm always knocking it out of tune. I have to change guitars a lot. I've tried so many different kinds too. What can I say?

"What I love about it is, I think it's the most expressive musical instrument around. I played the violin when I was younger, and I love the piano too, but the guitar has such a range. You can break people's hearts with a guitar - and smash their faces in a second later. That's pretty incredible. I don't think I'll ever get tired of exploring everything you can do on the guitar."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.