The Bowery Presents


Biffy Clyro

Mon, April 15, 2013

Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm

Madison Square Garden

New York, NY

$65, $50, $42.50

This event is all ages

Muse didn’t set out to make the most gloriously ambitious album of their career. How could they have? The band who dreamt up Supermassive Black Hole, Knights Of Cydonia and the three-part Exogenesis symphony were already well-versed in going One Louder. Any wilder, any further out there, and Muse would risk incineration by a dwarf star of their own making.

But you don’t become one of the biggest bands on this planet – in excess of 15 million albums sales worldwide, 5 MTV Europe Awards, 2 Brit Awards, 8 NME Awards, 5 Q Awards, 4 Kerrang Awards and winner of the Best Rock Album Grammy 2011; No 1 in 19 countries with 2009’s The Resistance; filler of arena and stadia across the world – by sitting on your hands.

So when Muse approached the making of their sixth studio album, they wouldn’t stint on the choirs, strings and horn sections. And be reassured: guitar-shredding, piano-thumping, orchestra-arranging, book-chewing, big-thinking Matt Bellamy, as the band’s chief songwriter, didn’t lower his sights from The Big Picture nor ignore The Precious Details. And nor were the trio afraid of giving space to a brilliant new element to their sound – songs written and sung by bass player Chris Wolstenholme.

But what the Devon-born band of schoolfriends did do different was this: they made things easy for themselves. For the first time since the dawn of their career in smalltown England 18 years ago, all three members were living in the same place during the making of an album. Domiciled in and around London, they block-booked a recording studio – Air – and came and went as they pleased.

This time, the only clock Muse had to beat was their own internal band rhythm. They had the days and weeks and space to experiment, explore ideas, rig up massive in-studio PA systems, hire in remixers, play with pedals, and (technical term alert!) fanny around to their hearts’ content.

And this time, Muse had the experience born of self-producing The Resistance to apply their studio knowledge to creating the album they really wanted to make.

It was about saving aggro, and conserving energy. And, appropriately, it was about The 2nd Law: an album titled after and thematically influenced by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which concerns the inevitable wasting of energy within a closed system.

It was about letting themselves go and enjoying themselves. Muse, after all, had earned it.

“We all had a lot of great fun doing it,” says Wolstenholme, “and hopefully you can hear that on the album. There are some real moments of positivity in the songs. And I just think everyone personally is in a pretty good place at the moment.”

“It feels like the best thing we’ve ever done,” says drummer Dom Howard. “There was a sense of adventure making it.”

“This was a breeze!” declares Bellamy, still high from the experience of seeing rock-operatic new track Survival emerge victorious as the official anthem for the London 2012 Olympics. “We were making ourselves laugh at times with how different things were sounding.”

As Howard accurately describes it, The 2nd Law brims with “wild” sounds. It’s exactly what Muse had in mind when they sat down last October after the completion of the two-year Resistance world tour. Within four quick weeks the trio had 13 tracks in embryonic but viable form.

From solid beginnings came big tunes. Madness, the album’s naggingly infectious first single, pulses with a grimy throb. It sounds nothing like Muse, and it sounds everything like Muse.

“I wanted to do something really minimal,” states Bellamy. “Essentially it’s 12-bar blues. I think it’s probably the best song I’ve ever written. And one of the most personal songs I’ve written. It’s kind of about that time when you’re with your girlfriend and that moment where you have a fight and she walks out the house and leaves you on your own to think about it. And you’re going, ‘no way! She was right! Of course she was right!’”

Wolstenholme knows all about personal songs. He’s contributed two songs to The 2nd Law, Save Me and Liquid State. The former is influenced by his all-time favourite band, The Beach Boys; the latter is a rocket-powered boogie.

“We’ve written two or three albums that have been much more of a global concept. And I think it’s nice just to pull it back a bit and write from within yourself. Which is kinda hard sometimes, ’cause basically,” he laughs, “you’re displaying your emotions to the whole human race”, says Wolstenholme.

Bellamy acknowledges that Big Freeze is also about relationships. But perhaps its defining characteristic is what Howard enthusiastically hails as the song’s “big Eighties sound. To me it sounds close to what we sound like live. Really full-on, in-your-face, heavy and bright.

“That song is almost like INXS or something!” adds Wolstenholme, “with that big, gated snare drum. I know people can think that sound is a bit cheesy, but it was a new thing back then, and it was unusual. It went through a period of being dated, but we wanted to use it and make it a bit more current. So there’s a bit of a U2 influence too – just blending all these things together but making it sound like something that was recorded this year.”

Album opener Supremacy was one of the first songs Muse worked on. Bellamy’s early sketch grabbed Wolstenholme “immediately, ’cause it was just so all over the place. It starts off and you think it’s this dirty, grungy metal… thing,” he grins. “Then by the time you get to the verse it’s gone into pure film music. I said to Matt at the time that it reminded me of Wings.”

“We were layering up loads and loads of snare drums,” adds Howard. “There were tonnes of tympani and bass drums and weird percussion. The idea is it should sound like a marching band coming over the hill, just behind the orchestra. Then it goes off into some Live And Let Die-style freak out section in the middle!

“That felt like something different,” he continues. “We really wanted it to sound like a big, live, massive stadium rock track. We were thinking that way when we recorded it – we had a big PA set up, and the room was shaking to this massive drum sound. Then the verse goes on this completely different journey from the riff – it’s a little wink back to that Ennio Morricone influence which you hear on Knights Of Cydonia.”

Soundtracks, affirms Bellamy, have long been an under-heralded influence on his writing. On The 2nd Law, this enthusiasm dovetails with his love of classical music. On previous Muse albums his orchestral excursions have been influenced by Rachmaninoff and Berlioz. This time the inspirations were contemporary composers and Hollywood legends such as Hans Zimmer and John Williams.

“I love that big sound in crazy, action, sci-fi, epic films,” says Bellamy. The results of this passion were twofold. Firstly, Muse spent three weeks in Los Angeles working with the cream of the city’s movie musicians and choirs, their hiring and conducting overseen by David Campbell, aka the father of Beck. Secondly, Bellamy wrote a two-part suite to close the album, The 2nd Law: Unsustainable and The 2nd Law: Isolated System, which he envisaged as “almost a soundtrack-type thing”. Here, again, Campbell played a role, transcribing the orchestral arrangements written by Bellamy.

This two-hander album closer also demonstrated another ear-popping detour for Muse.

“I like to follow where the moshpit goes,” smiles seasoned showman Bellamy, “and it’s moved to this world where it’s about going to a gig and watching a guy with a laptop. So our challenge with The 2nd Law: Unsustainable was to create a song like that but then play it with real instruments – an organic version of this new electronic genre that’s going on everywhere.”

There’s more digi-rock revolution on Follow Me. It sounds like Justice produced by Giorgio Moroder. In fact it started as a demo that the band are the first to describe as the workmanlike sound of a three-piece rock outfit. But in keeping with the rip-it-up-and-start-again, cavalier ambition of the new Muse, they decided to go off on one: a four-on-the-floor beat here, drum experimentation there…

“Until we decided to go the whole hog and get it remixed,” recalls Wolstenholme of the band’s decision to outsource the completion of the song to producer Nero.

“We were happy to remove ourselves from the equation completely,” nods Bellamy. Well, not quite: Follow Me is the only song on The 2nd Law directly influenced by the singer becoming a father last year. That beat at the beginning of the song? It’s a recording of the foetal heart of his at-the-time unborn son.

As ever with Matt Bellamy, when it came to writing the lyrics, there were themes big and small he wanted to address. The sinuous funk of Animals began with a jam and now, in its recorded version, ends with a sample of bellowing Wall Street stockbrokers. “That’s the song aimed at the Fred Goodwins of this world,” sniffs Bellamy of the disgraced British banker. “It’s looking at people who are instrumental in bringing down whole countries.”

The lyrics and ideas behind Explorers, like those of the two-part title track, tap into the album’s more “philosophical” side – Bellamy’s thoughts on the depletion of the planet’s energies and resources. But he also applies this thermodynamic theory to the ebb and flow of passion in relationships, as heard in Big Freeze and Madness.

But as Wolstenholme underlines, The 2nd Law is far from a sombre album. “There are some negative undertones, sure. But it’s all about human responses to them and the things we do to get through life. That’s a positive thing.”

In any case, any album that includes both Survival, their po(m)p and circumstance Olympic anthem, and a song with the Queen-go-disco abandon of Panic Station can’t, ultimately, take itself too seriously. “We weren’t afraid of doing something that’s just a dancing track,” smiles Bellamy of the latter song, a groovy belter recorded with a horn section comprising classic Chicago players (one of whom played on Stevie Wonder’s Superstition).

“There’s an eccentricity to the album which makes it fun,” their frontman offers. “I don’t think it’s taking itself too seriously even though some of the lyrics are.

“I’d go so far as to say we had a bit of a laugh making this album,” concludes a bouncily chipper Matt Bellamy. “The spirits were up, more so than on any previous Muse album, that’s for sure.”
Biffy Clyro
Biffy Clyro
The story of Biffy Clyro is as romantic as it is archetypal. Three childhood friends from Ayrshire formed a band, delivered three albums of abrasive youthful exuberance and finally cracked the big time when their fourth – 2007’s Puzzle – hit the charts at #2. By the time the promotion of their fifth album Only Revolutions had ceased, they were bona fide stars who could headline festivals, fill arenas and deliver hit singles in an era in which rock bands rarely trouble the charts. With well over a million album sales to their name, no-one would’ve been too surprised to see complacency set in.

Such thoughts, however, certainly weren’t going to cramp the creativity of Biffy Clyro vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Simon Neil who instead proposed the idea of a career-defining double-album, which was subsequently titled Opposites. “It was a reaction to music being so disposable these days. Music still matters to people but often it’s just a distraction. I want our music to be a companion to people’s lives and something they’ll listen to in the future, and not just something that they’re into for a week or two until they move onto the next thing.”

“We were excited by the prospect, but the question seemed to be: how do we achieve that?” recalls bassist James Johnston. Yet not one member of the band – completed by James’s twin brother, drummer Ben – could’ve foreseen its inspiration.

As much as Only Revolutions delivered everything that the trio had ever dreamed of, the subsequent burnout slowly wore the band down. As they drifted apart, Ben’s drinking manifested itself with increased unpredictability. “I’d play these things down,” he admits. “Like, we got through it, so it’s okay. But I didn’t realise how much I was letting the guys down.”

The fractions within the band had already inspired Simon’s writing and the 45 new songs that he had written at home had been whittled down to 24 prior to arriving in Santa Monica to commence work with producer GGGarth Richardson. The day before recording was due to start, Ben became lost in a fog of alcohol and blacked out. Something had to change.

“I’d written all of these songs about us ending up in a situation I couldn’t believe we’d ended up in,” grimaces Simon. “Then one day we decided that we couldn’t let something as silly as drink get in the way of something we’d spent our life doing. We weren’t willing to let this take hold of our journey.”

“After the first couple of weeks in Santa Monica, I thought we were not only not going to make the album, but that we’d end up going home with no band,” adds James, almost struggling to get the words out. “For a few months it felt like it might not last. That’s absolutely devastating to even say out loud.”

The proposition that Ben should stop drinking was embraced by the drummer. “It’s usually the person who causes the trouble who realises last. That sounded like a good idea, because cutting down didn’t seem to be working. It never does,” he opines, offering a self-deprecating half-chuckle. “I’m truly grateful that I’ve got people in my life who are so sensitive, so close and who care about me. They could’ve just as easily kicked me out of the band.”

Subtitled The Sand At The Core Of Our Bones, the first disc of Opposites focuses on the dark challenges of Biffy Clyro’s past. Lyrics such as “It could’ve been a wonderful year / Instead we might not make it to the end” (from Biblical) and “The fog has cast a shadow homeward / We’re losing our direction so forget the whole thing” (from The Fog) reflect the band’s fragile mental state.

“There were a couple of times where I realised that my words sounded so sad,” says Simon, who’s happier discussing general lyrical themes rather than specific lines. “But you’ve got to be honest with yourself. That’s how I felt at the time, so you have to learn to trust your muse and to trust your instinct. I love listening to bands when I feel that someone is really giving me a glimpse into their mind and soul. I’m not afraid of that because music isn’t just a bit of razzle-dazzle. It should be something that can connect with people, and that starts with yourself.”

Ben’s recovery and subsequent battering ram performances re-energised the band. As James recalls with a smile that triumphs over his earlier controlled expression: “Our history shone through and our love for each other brought us back together. If we were a different band we could’ve said fuck this, let’s go home. Because we care about each other, we managed to bring it back together to be stronger than what we were before. When you go through difficult times you can go one of two ways, and thankfully we went up.”

The album’s second disc – The Land At The End Of Our Toes – examines a brighter future for the band with positivity flowing through lines such as “If we hold on, there’s a victory over the sun” (from Victory Over The Sun) and “Feeling alive with a throbbing mind, you’re never gonna break my stand” (Skylight) ahead of the album’s climactic rallying mantra: “We’ve got to stick together.”

As Simon surmises: “The second disc is a lot more positive. It’s about sticking together and feeling like we can achieve anything if the three of us are doing it together. The first album is very singular and very inward looking from an individual’s perspective.”

Opposites was recorded over the course of five months at Los Angeles studio The Village. The studio’s past (encompassing sessions from Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and many more) provided to be particularly inspiring for Ben. “Its history lets you believe that maybe what you’re doing will be considered a classic album, because you think about those bands being there. Did they think they were recording a classic? Of course not, they thought they were just working on their most recent album at the time. And you think maybe one day people will be saying, wow, Biffy did Opposites here. That really spurs you on to try to be creative.”

The very core of Opposites brims with fresh new ideas at every turn. Opener Different People evolves from a tender introduction before erupting into fierce waves of impassioned energy; the stop-start riffs in Sounds Like Balloons are interrupted by a harp; Little Hospitals factors in an explosion of kazoos; and The Thaw offers a redemptive closing statement to the album’s first disc.

The second disc continues in a similar vein with Stingin’ Belle, which reprises Biffy Clyro’s angular alt-rock attack before atmospherically turning to the Scottish highlands with militaristic drum rolls and soaring bagpipes; the Love-meets-Rush mariachi sound-clash of Spanish Radio; and Skylight which, together with the opening disc’s The Fog, is one of two keyboard-based songs written with the help of leading contemporary soundtrack composer Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Moon, The Wrestler) who helped the band to strip those compositions back to their very essence. “He’s a minimalist and we’re maximalists,” says Simon, evidently appreciating his own wordplay. Also featured is Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses who offers his “beautiful, fragile and emotive” Southern twang to Opposite and Accident Without Emergency.

Opposites also finds the band collaborating once more with renowned composer David Campbell who also applied his talents to Only Revolutions. His masterly command of orchestral arrangements again adds an undeniable layer of depth and emotion to Biffy Clyro’s work. It’s certainly a leap beyond the band’s early years, when financial restrictions would see Simon playing violin parts or when an orchestra was imitated by layering together multiple performances by two guest musicians.

“Basically the remit was that nothing is too crazy or mental to try,” states Ben, glowing with pride that almost every idea they tried worked out – one of the few exceptions being the talented if expensive gospel choir that was ultimately edited from the final version of Biblical. “The real challenge is doing that while maintaining the sound of the band and the identity you’ve built up over several records,” adds James.

That identity is something that fascinates Simon, who sees themes emerging throughout the band’s growing discography. “I see Puzzle, Only Revolutions and Opposites as a trilogy of records that are very personal, and that are about discovering what life is about – all the highs and lows of what being an adult entails. They’re very emotive, spacious and dramatic records. But you have to keep giving yourself new challenges.”

Given the trials that it required, the creation of Opposites can hardly be considered the result of a fortuitous collection of events. However, it’s a body of work that can only come from the shared human experiences – as uplifting and devastating as they can be – of three uniquely interconnected souls. None of the band are certain what will happen next – maybe James and Ben will become more involved in the band’s songwriting, the general methods of working will change, and the sound is likely to be stripped back after three albums of increasingly detailed production. But as Simon concludes, anything could happen.

“Even when Only Revolutions came out, if you said we’d make a double album next and what it would be about, I’d say that’s ridiculous. You never know what life’s going to throw at you, what it’s going to inspire you to do, or what challenges it will give you.” He pauses, obviously content that Biffy Clyro’s future is once again secure. “We see ourselves as family and friends first, but there’s no way we’d let this band fall apart.”
Venue Information:
Madison Square Garden
Four Pennsylvania Plaza
New York, NY, 10001