“I want to try and find a brand-new sound for my guitar”: Simon Neil on building pedals, and falling back in love with being in Biffy Clyro
“There was just this need and hunger to make music, to feel this sense of purpose.” The guitarist and vocalist of the infamous Biffy Clyro clenches his fists as he stresses the all-consuming thirst he felt to make music amidst the confusion of the last 12 months. It’s been a while since we last caught up with Simon Neil, and 2021 was a big year for not only the band but himself as an individual, with the success of new album The Myth Of The Happily Ever After and the second drop of his signature Booooom/Blast pedal selling out once again. “We didn’t even tell the record company we were making a record,” he continues, sat in front of a print of The Girl With The Pearl Earring wearing a suitably contrasting hot pink hoodie. “It was very much purely about trying to find slices of happiness in a tough time amongst friends and fortunately it was fruitful.”
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Neil is full of enthusiasm and a bright spirit as he tells us about his re-ignited passion for music and his friendship with fellow bandmates, James and Ben Johnston: “It’s nice to look back and think ‘You know what? We fucking put another record out’,” he reflects. “I’m so proud of it. The purpose of the album was to come back together as three pals making music and doing it for us and no one else, the simplicity of it brought me a lot of joy.”
Musically, the album delivers on everything we expect of Biffy Clyro: Punchy drums, explosions of distorted and fuzzed-up guitars, scorching vocals and lyrical magnificence. However, the record’s theatrical, twisted fairytale theme gives this one a different energy to previous albums.
“I was really worried it was gonna be a cynical record but I think musically and hopefully spiritually as well, the album does bring a sense of romance and wonder.” He adds, “The album is unsure of itself lyrically but musically it knows exactly what it is.” Formed over a short period of six months, Neil tells us the music was instinctive and spontaneous, and it’s unusual vibe was crafted from the Scotsman putting less of his head into it and a lot more heart.
Since the album’s release back in October, the band headed out on the road, and touring is something that Neil says makes him feel ‘complete’: “There’s something in the air, there’s electricity and a real necessity in people’s souls and spirits, I certainly felt that as the guy on stage playing,” he explains, “There’s this real unique excitement and also the fear that things could change in two weeks, we might not get a chance to do this again if we do go into lockdown but there was a real sense of ‘This is it, we’re in the moment’. That’s what made the shows so special.”
He admits the nerves were ‘very raw and very real’ as it had been the longest amount of time in over two decades that the band hadn’t played live, but the community spirit of the wonderful industry of music acted as a comforting hug to welcome the trio back to live music, “It’s why music is my favourite art form, there’s such a communal spirit,” he says. “During lockdown we’ve all formed new relationships with music, it felt like new times; we’ve all discovered a new level of consciousness and it couldn’t have been more exhilarating.”
Image: Kevin J Thomson
With the tour came a new outlook on his guitar rig, with Neil’s notoriously individual and complicated live rig giving way to something more straightforward.
“I used to take four heads leading through four different cabs to make the one guitar sound,” he explains. “Since the last 18 months I’m trying to streamline my sound.” The recipe now is much more straightforward – an Audio Kitchen Flying Squirrel and a Marshall Silver Jubilee, which he says keeps everything simple.
There’s one life-long habit he won’t kick, however. “I’ve still got my Metal Zone pedal going all the time!” He grins wickedly, “I live and die for the Boss Metals.”
Guitar wise, he dabbles between his Michael Landau signature Strat or his ’67 Les Paul regularly and admits the recording process also involved some changes when it came to the rig in order to adapt to the challenges that came with recording on a farm in Ayrshire, “I didn’t have access to a lot of my normal gear,” he explains. “I used a Matchless head for the very first time and the BE100 Friedman head, which I never used before, you can drive these heads to match the frequency if you really crank it. I used an [Universal Audio] Ox box to simulate a speaker drive and that was a real revelation.”
He also notes Hoof EarthQuaker pedals as a staple piece to the set up and couldn’t give enough praise to the Jackson Audio Prism drive pedal, “It just gives you that extra ten per cent,” he enthuses. “Especially with a Stratocaster it just gave it that extra drive and bite. It made the clean tone just sing, I was able to give it that little bit of shimmer and sparkle.”
If you’re thinking there’s one Gear Of The Year-nominated boutique dirt pedal you’d have expected him to mention at this point, well don’t fret: “I used the Simon Neil signature Booooom/Blast pedal,” he says leaning forward, raising an eyebrow and chuckling at his shameless plug.
Image: Kevin J Thomson
Neil’s collaboration with his guitar tech Richard ‘Churd’ Pratt’s fledgling Gone Fishing Effects brand was one of the stories of the year for effects heads, with the first run selling out instantly in early 2021, and a second run doing likewise at the end of the year. It was an interesting move for the guitarist to make, but clearly a hugely successful one.
“My main plan and first directive was ‘let’s make a pedal that’s the loudest pedal you could possibly buy’,” Neil explains of his thinking behind the pedal. “That idea stems from when I used to play through a Peavy Bandit, I could never get a distortion pedal that jumped enough.”
He explains how he wanted to replicate the signature Biffy Clyro quiet to explosively loud dynamic and stuff that magic right into a pedal, “I [envisioned] a kid who’s playing a guitar through one pedal, there’s one amplifier, in his or her room with his or her friends. I wanted to give their parents a fright, give the crowd a fright, and really attack people with the pedal.”
Image: Kevin J Thomson
Pratt had the electronics skills to make it happen, and the results were stellar – earning it a 9/10 from Guitar.com and a claim that it was “endlessly creative and enormous fun”, but it doesn’t sound like he’s done with effects pedals, not by a long way.
“We’ve made a few prototypes of just random shit, just to try and find these new sounds,” he says of the future plans for Gone Fishing Effects. “There’s so many incredible pedals on the market and I don’t want to put another one out there that just fills the rack; I want something with purpose.” He grits his teeth with passion, “I want to try and find a brand-new sound for my guitar, I want something that sounds like a synthesizer, I wanna be able to make my guitar sound like a trumpet,” he states firmly, before bursting into laughter at his bizarre concept. It may be a while before we can expect another signature Simon Neil pedal, but it looks like whatever comes next will be worth the wait.
Image: Kevin J Thomson
Take it slow
Whilst Neil is in no rush to launch any new gear, he’s also realised there’s no rush when it comes to his music, “It’s only since we’ve finished recording that I’ve kinda learnt that lesson that it’s okay to take time off and not to live and breathe music and the band every minute of the day,” he reflects. “We sacrificed almost everything for this band and I wouldn’t change a moment of it but seeing it removed from our lives suddenly made me realise I need to find another aspect of my life to bring me joy.”
Lockdown presented itself as reality check and opportunity for the band to rebalance their priorities, with Neil wanting to maintain his ‘love affair’ with music, there’s been an epiphany within the band that they can slow down and wait for the music to come to them, admitting there are aspects of being in a band that they won’t engage with going further, “I don’t feel worried about not feeling inspired,” he says. “I think that’s the big thing that I’ve come to terms with. I’ve realised something worthwhile will come when it’s there, I don’t want to force music, I want it to be the most romantic thing in my life. I want the music to bring me only joy.”
He opens up to us on how his hobby becoming his job presents the challenge of finding that balance, “Sometimes we’d spend six months away from home and having been at home for so long that can fuck with your psyche a little bit. I want the creation of the music to be as pure and as naive as possible and we’ve always battled trying to make that happen but that’s what this record was. It was pure innocence and not worrying about how people would receive it or how we would play it live.” And fans will be glad to hear that Biffy Clyro will always be around, with their passion ignited once more, things feel brand new for the band: “I think it’s helped me strip back a few layers of stresses and anxieties that I’ve built around what I do, things feel simple again. It made us re-fall in love with being in a band.”
Image: Kevin J Thomson
He tell us he doesn’t want to sound like a motivational speaker, but the core message of this record is definitely intended to light a fire beneath your feet:
“I’ve spent my life thinking about what’s ahead what’s gonna happen next year and this is the first time I’m just trying to live in the moment,” he insists. “That’s what the title [represents], it’s not saying there isn’t a happily ever after, it’s just saying that happily ever after implies that it’s not happening right now.”
He interrupts himself to apologise for ‘sounding like a fucking hippy’ with a giggle. “Make yourself happy right now and be with the people you care about now, we cloud our minds with so much noise. If someone’s looking to take something from this record, it’s okay to not know what’s around the corner, it’s okay to be anxious.”
He tells us how track A Hunger In Your Haunt is about exactly that; the worry of not knowing where you are in the world, but Neil tells us to not waste time, and that all we should worry about is the here and now, “We’ve all seen a lot in the last 18 months, let’s not piss about, let’s just do the best that we can with our lives right fucking now!”
The last months of 2021 brought further uncertainty to the live music industry that was barely recovered from the shut-downs of 2020, but if you’re longing to be in a crowd chanting ‘Mon the Biff!’, then you’ll be pleased to hear the band are heading out on tour once again and returning to the UK with some shows in the summer. Although the pandemic has taught him ‘not to count his chickens’, Neil is besotted with the Biff and ready to share his pride and joy with you.
“I love this band more than ever, I love making music more than ever and I think that is what we’re most excited about moving forward.” He states, “The hunger to get on that stage is just still there, we got a wee taste of it a month ago and hopefully everyones favourite band will be out near them and we can all go out and share and interact and just be together ‘cause I fucking need it,” he flashes his wide grin. “That’s the plan for next year, pure joy.”
Biffy Clyro’s The Myth Of The Happily Ever After is out now.
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