Biffy Clyro: 'In grief, you feel a dozen different things every day'

The Scottish band provided the soundtrack – and more – for Jamie Adams’s new film, Balance, Not Symmetry. The band’s frontman, Simon Neil, and the Welsh director explain how they bonded over shared experience of bereavement

On an overcast June afternoon in a Scarborough park, Biffy Clyro’s tech team are road-testing a new stage rig. Jumbo plastic water bowsers that can be ingeniously lit from within have been stacked to create an imposing wall. The vibe is a cross between Tetris and disaster relief, which seems appropriate. To the army of fans that have helped propel the Scottish trio from convulsive rock outsiders to reliable arena-fillers, Biffy are a band that could save your life.

Backstage, frontman Simon Neil is in a dressing room dotted with signifiers of touring healthiness: bananas, Berocca, even a plant or two. After years of witnessing Neil and the Johnston twins, James (bass) and Ben (drums), invariably perform stripped to the waist, it is almost disconcerting to see him in a sweater. He is off-duty, but animated, keen to talk about Biffy’s unexpected detour into film. “Not to sound like a wanker,” says the 39-year-old, “but I’d love to make a movie some day.”

In May, the band surprise-released Balance, Not Symmetry, an eclectic soundtrack album that zigzags between fire-breathing rock and delicate piano instrumentals. The film of the same name premiered at the Edinburgh film festival last month and will go on general release in August. A collaboration with the Welsh indie film-maker Jamie Adams, it follows American student Caitlyn – played by BlacKkKlansman’s Laura Harrier – as she attempts to complete her final year at Glasgow School of Art while coping with the death of her father. It is emotionally raw, but often pleasingly dreamy, with sequences where the soundtrack takes over while characters pursue emotional or hedonistic release.

Adams approached the band in July 2017 with the idea of building a film around a bespoke Biffy album. Neil, the core songwriter, was intrigued but initially sceptical. “I didn’t want it to just be someone who was like ‘Can we use your name and fans?’, not that we’re Beyoncé or anything,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be a musical, I didn’t want to name the characters in the songs. I wanted the record to be its own thing. It had to exist by itself, as the movie has to exist by itself, but equally feeding into each other.”

Bria Vinaite and Laura Harrier in Balance, Not Symmetry.
Bria Vinaite and Laura Harrier in Balance, Not Symmetry. Photograph: PR

Being roughly the same age, Adams and Neil had some overlapping tastes in films and music, but also discovered they had both lost their mothers in their early 20s. Discussing how they had coped – or not – became the crux of the story. “We kind of bonded over that,” says Neil, wryly. “Lots of fun conversations about grief.” With hindsight, they realised their artistic outlets had helped them grapple with the severe emotional fallout. “We already had a channel for it, and that’s why, in the film, Caitlyn is a painter – she has this sort of bond with her art, like I have with music and Jamie has with film. It was really important that we kept that. Because if I hadn’t had music, I’d be a completely different person. I would have grieved differently.”

Neil was also intrigued by Adams’s naturalistic approach of encouraging actors to improvise in the moment while working from a general plot outline. “We did about a dozen brainstorming sessions on the phone,” he says. “I’d send Jamie a tune and he’d feed back what he was feeling about the music.” In the end, Neil shares a writing credit on the film, which surprised but delighted him after what had been an intense six months. “Everything we work on, you’ve got to commit fully and almost feel like you’re drowning,” he says. “You’re struggling with it all and then you come up for air and it suddenly makes sense, and I felt like that’s what Jamie was doing too.”

Rewind to October 2018 and the Balance, Not Symmetry shoot is in full swing. A cavernous Glasgow arts venue has been re-dressed as a lecture hall and filled with a crowd of young student extras, with stars Harrier and Bria Vinaite, the breakout star of The Florida Project, discreetly tucked into a middle row. Usually, you might expect to find a director coordinating shots from a nearby video village, but as the art lecture unfolds, Adams stalks behind his roving lead cameraman as if they are a two-man Navy Seal team.

Adams has been a thrifty and prolific maker of improvised comedies with female leads – including Wild Honey Pie!, which starred Jemima Kirke, and Alright Now with sometime Shield agent Cobie Smulders – but Balance, Not Symmetry is a return to his more dramatic roots. “When I started out, I was trying to be like [Federico] Fellini, trying to be incredibly artistic,” he says during a break between set-ups. “I was 27 and had just had my first child and my wife said: ‘Can you perhaps make films that might sell, maybe? Ones that people might watch?’ So that’s what set me down the road of comedy.”

Ever since his teens, Adams had been toying with the idea of making a movie that reflected and channelled an album. It was just a case of finding the right artist. In the end, it was his brother, a musician, who steered him back toward Biffy, a band Adams had been overwhelmed by when he first saw them in 2003. “I really loved their music and I could tell how it could be exciting to create a film with this really epic sound supporting it. Then we started talking properly and the fact that Simon had lost his mum too … it was after that chat that we really worked out how the story was going to work.”

While the two are very different in tone, the conceptual touchstone was Quadrophenia, the Who’s 1973 rock-opera double-album, which would eventually become a film six years later. “The idea was always that the album would come out first,” says Adams. “So fans will have heard the songs and have their own feelings about them and they bring all that when they come and see this new interpretation.”

What was it like getting to hear essentially his own personalised Biffy Clyro album? Adams grins. “It was very exciting,” he says, “but when Simon finally sent me all of the music it put a bit of pressure on because then I had to deliver my end of it. He’s one of those people in life who you meet and say: ‘Oh my God, to be like you would be incredible but also quite scary.’ He can’t control the fact that he’s full of ideas and brilliance and energy.”

Jamie Adams at the Edinburgh film festival last month.
Jamie Adams at the Edinburgh film festival last month. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty

Back in Scarborough, Neil has just absent-mindedly used the word “chuffed” to describe his feelings about the film being finished and briefly cannot get over how Partridge-esque he sounds. “Chuffed? Chuffed!” He shakes his head and resets. “Proud. I’m proud.” Divorced from the movie, the Balance, Not Symmetry soundtrack sounds even more expansive than the usual batty-and-broiling Biffy album. “The music is really eclectic because, in grief, you’re not just sad for a bit then angry for a bit, you feel a dozen different things every day,” says Neil. “Some days you feel very accepting, and then later on you can feel like you just want to fucking end it.”

Neil also credits Adams for pushing him out of his habitual discomfort zone. “At one point, Jamie was saying to me: ‘This scene needs to have the feeling of a climax of joy’ and most of my songs have real sorrow in them, even the happiest ones, so I had to consciously be a bit more joyful.” Thankfully, the recording sessions also had some lighter moments. “It was one of our most fun times in the studio, our producer Adam Noble really committed to it, working day and night – we were throwing everything at him, from a ukulele to recording footsteps to screaming through a megaphone.”

The title was originally intended for a book Neil was half-working on, a phrase that had been rattling round his brain for years. “It’s been a kind of a mantra for me, I say it myself when things aren’t going to plan,” he says. “Things are never going to be perfect, it’s about finding balance. As soon as I mentioned it to Jamie, he loved it. I think some of the producers were like: it’s terrible, it’s too wordy … who has a comma in their film title?”

The same week the soundtrack was released, Biffy officially began recording their next studio album – their eighth – in Los Angeles. After their last two albums debuted at No 1, there is a certain level of expectation, but Neil seems eager and energised. “I loved just putting the Balance album out to do its thing and then the movie will come out and do its thing, rather than us talking about it for six months in advance,” he says. “It was really nice to just go, here’s some music, enjoy that, we’re already working on the next one.” After striking up friendships with Danny Elfman and Clint Mansell, celebrated film composers who started out in bands, Neil is also optimistic about future movie projects. “The next step would be to try and soundtrack something less from a song side of things, put some of my old violin lessons to use.”

Considering Hollywood’s current mania for rock biopics, surely it is only a matter of time before Ayrshire’s finest exports get the same treatment? Matt Cardle, the X Factor 2010 winner who vicariously took Biffy to No 1 with his (renamed) cover of Many of Horror, would presumably be up for a cameo, as might Nick Knowles, who name-dropped Biffy on I’m A Celeb last year. Neil laughs.

“We’d perhaps have to achieve a few more legendary or iconic things before we could justify that. But never say never.” And who might play them? James McAvoy looks like he could be a long-lost Johnston brother.

“McAvoy’s a good shout,” says Neil. “But just get him to do what he did in Split and play all three of us.”

Balance, Not Symmetry is released in selected cinemas on 1 August; screenings on 1 August feature a Biffy Clyro acoustic set and cast Q&A


Graeme Virtue

The GuardianTramp

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