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Ben Johnston: Prog-Pop Invasion

ben jonhston

It’s a typically pleasant December evening in Los Angeles, which is good news for the growing crowd anxiously awaiting entry to The Satellite. The iconic Silver Lake venue is sold out for tonight’s Biffy Clyro gig, and fans are queued up around the block, eager for an intimate look at the biggest current British rock band not named Muse.

A nice turnout for sure, though a far cry from the throngs the Scottish trio is accustomed to entertaining back home. Thankfully for the 200-plus rapidly filling the room, the phrase “mail it in” doesn’t exist in Biffy Clyro’s lexicon. The lights go down and drummer Ben Johnston, bassist James Johnston (Ben’s twin brother) and vocalist/guitarist Simon Neil take the stage bare-chested; a long-standing band ritual established over the course of countless van tours when the lads’ T-shirts were repeatedly ruined due to excessive perspiration.

Johnston lifts his sticks above his shaved-smooth head and counts off “Stingin’ Belle” – the triumphant first offering from Biffy Clyro’s forthcoming release, Opposites. A hammering, algebraic intro settles into a jaunty 6/8 groove, buoyed by the physical drummer’s shoulder-driven delivery. After belting out pitch-perfect chorus harmonies atop triplet double kick clusters, Johnston drops down to a whisper on a thirty-second snare roll that crescendos into a roar, launching the band headlong into a cathartic climax.

The song is a microcosm of this curiously christened outfit’s sound – at turns brutal and beautiful, angular and anthemic, befitting of claustrophobic clubs and airy arenas alike. Johnston positively punishes his kit for the next 90 minutes, smiling and singing along (both on and off mike) with nearly every lyric Neil utters. Finally, after the trio harmonizes the last refrain of their megahit “Mountains,” band and audience part ways, both sides elated and exhausted.

“I would never disrespect someone who paid money to see us with a s__t effort, even if there are only ten people in the crowd,” Johnston declares through his thick Ayrshire accent. “The same amount of passion and energy goes into every show – sometimes the smaller the betterb even.” It’s 48 hours after Biffy Clyro’s incendiary Satellite performance, and the affable drummer is sipping an espresso in the posh lounge at Casa Del Mar, a luxury hotel in Santa Monica overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Johnston jokes that the lavish location was selected to “create the illusion of opulence” while the band conducts interviews with a celebrity-rabid British press.

And celebrities Biffy Clyro have become, regardless of how reluctant or unlikely. All three members still reside near their native Kilmarnock – a decidedly unsexy, hardscrabble town 20 miles south of Glasgow – where a shared love of American grunge, post-hardcore and emo bands inspired high school classmates Johnston and Neil to start jamming together in the mid-’90s. After a decade’s worth of relentless touring in support of three brilliantly quirky indie albums, Biffy Clyro were elevated to rock god status in Britain on the strength of 2007’s Puzzle and 2009’s Only Revolutions; colossal successes boasting 11 top-40 U.K. singles combined. Their epic festival performances have become the stuff of legend across the pond, with rock authorities NME and Q recently bestowing “Best Live Band” honors upon the group.

Yet for all their hard-won overseas accolades, Biffy Clyro remains virtually unknown in the States – a disparity that could finally change with the U.S. arrival of Opposites. Hitting #1 in the U.K. upon its release, the remarkably succinct double record is stacked with the band’s compelling blend of brains, brawn, and increasing pop sensibility. “Simon has become such a strong songwriter, it’s getting increasingly easier to cloak our obscureness,” Johnston says. “The public are grasping onto his melodies without realizing their ears are being infiltrated by bizarre prog music – it’s the ultimate swindle! I fear we’re about to be found out any minute now.”

Though Opposites is not a concept album per se, the band still lets its prog flag fly unabashedly. The trio excels at crafting math rock for the masses, thanks in large part to Johnston’s expertise in interpreting odd time. While corralling Neil’s sprawling vocal lines and wildly expressive guitar, the drummer’s decisive feel helps smooth out key passages, like the meaty 7/4 refrain in “Victory Over The Sun” and the hypnotic 5/4 loop of “Spanish Radio.”

“In simply playing for those songs, my drumming becomes impressive without me having to write an impressive part,” Johnston humbly insists. “We played ’Mountains’ – our highest charting song in Britain – at the Milton Keynes Bowl while supporting Foo Fighters a couple years ago. Death Cab For Cutie was on before us and Jason McGerr came up after our set and said, ’I can’t believe you get to play in 15 and it doesn’t even sound weird!’ It just feels natural for us to play awkward. It always has.”

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