Ben Johnston: A Man of Joy. Discovery. Invention

On the eve of his band’s first touring dates in South Africa, Ben Johnston, drummer of Scottish rock superstars Biffy Clyro, is remarkably humble, and genuinely believes that their headlining status in our land is “pinch-yourself stuff right there”.

For him and Biffy Clyro, it’’s been a long road to the top, where touring with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, Muse, and Foo Fighters have become commonplace, and their latest album, Opposites, netted them their first UK Number One after almost two decades together as a band. Yet Johnston can’t hide the boyish glee that comes with meeting and befriending Dave Grohl, one of the band’s idols and a major inspiration.

“We were touring America with him, and on the very first day, he just bursts into our dressing room and is like ‘Hey, I’m Dave!’ And we were like ‘Yeah, we know who you are, man!”

Speaking from his hotel in Perth, Australia, Johnston is excited to have the platform they do for their upcoming gigs at Ramfest in Cape Town and Johannesburg. “I think we’ll be able to show a few more sides to the band, but still not everything, you know. It’s still a festival set. But we have six albums, man, so we’ll try and show everything that we have in our basement.”

The contents of that basement date right back to 1995, when Johnston and singer-guitarist Simon Neil formed what would become Biffy Clyro in their early teens, along with Johnston’s twin brother James on bass. He revealed that his prominent backing vocals come from originally having to mask Neil’s breaking voice during some of the higher parts of the songs they were covering and writing. It’s a task that he’s adapted to quite smoothly as a drummer.

“I always had a higher voice than Simon, so I guess I would sing a lot of the choruses. And then when it came to writing songs, Simon would quite often write these high choruses that he was unable to sing, so he would say ‘You sing this bit’. I don’t think it’s really any different than playing guitar and singing, I think that once you know what you’re doing on the drums, you just have to make sure that that’s second nature, and then the singing comes next, so you just sing on top of what you’re playing.”

Being in a band with a twin brother and a friend is “kind of like a marriage”, he says. “It takes a bit of hard work, and it takes a lot of learning. You have to learn when someone needs space, and when someone doesn’t need space and needs a friend.” Earnestness has also kept the lads grounded over the years. “We didn’t start this band to get girls or make money or any of that shit – we’re making music we really wanna hear,” he proudly declares.

Judging from their recent output, Biffy Clyro must like their music epic and grandiose, but Johnston assured that, “on our next album we’re gonna scale it back a little bit.”

“We like doing things in threes, and we had our first three albums which were kinda spazzy and angular, you know? And it was all with the same producer. And then we’ve just done three albums with Garth Richardson, where the albums are very big in their scope. So I don’t think we can make an album that is more epic than Opposites – it’s kind of the biggest-sounding record that I think Biffy Clyro will ever make.”

To translate the complexity and depth of Opposites to a live setting, the band has recruited an additional guitarist and a keyboardist (“There’s certainly nothing missing live, it’s just like an angrier version of what’s on the record”). And with it being a double-concept album, Johnston hinted at the possibility of performing the 20-track masterpiece live in its entirety (“we’re big fans of bands doing that”).

For a simple, down-to-earth guy, Johnston delights himself in the complexities of his music, naming mariachi-flavoured ‘Spanish Radio’ as his current favourite Biffy song to perform live, due to its uncommon 5/4 time signature. “I think complex things are good, as long as you’re able to disguise them and they don’t sound wrong. But the trick is disguising it, these awkward moments with beautiful moments – melody and pop – and the listener forgets that they’re listening to something that is intrinsically awkward”.

See what tricks Biffy Clyro have up their sleeves this weekend at Ramfest in Cape Town (in Elandskloof, Helderstroom) and Johannesburg (Witfontein, Bronkhorstspruit).


Tune into Texxed Up Tuesdays on Assembly Radio on Tuesday the 11th of February to hear the interview in its entirety.