Scottish rock trio Biffy Clyro like to do things in threes. Before they released their first three albums, they each got a band tattoo. Before the next three, starting with Puzzle in 2007, they each had a jigsaw piece inked on their bodies. Now, as they release their seventh long player, presumably the first in another trilogy, they’ve been to the tattooist once more for the most elaborate design yet.
This is no mean feat for permanently shirtless singer and guitarist Simon Neil, who was already more tattoo than man. He’s got a geometric design that begins in a point on his left thigh and spreads up to his hip. Then the image continues on the back of bassist James Johnston, and finishes up on his drumming twin brother Ben. “This one is particularly meaningful because without one of us, the tattoo is incomplete,” explains Neil. “It’s important for us to redeclare our commitment to the band and each other. We see it as showing our journey, diverging and converging and reaching the same point together.”
It’s apt, because the band have come a long way over the years – releasing two platinum albums, recording in LA and being in demand as a ferocious live act all over the world – and hardly moved at all. Having befriended each other in Kilmarnock at age seven and begun making music together in their early teens, they’re now all 36, all married and still writing and rehearsing in an Ayrshire cowshed. How far removed from civilisation is it, I ask them? “About 25 years,” deadpans James. “But there’s something about seeing the farmers going out every day of the year, working themselves to the bone, that makes you want to work harder as well. It feels like you’d be cheating them if you just sat and dicked about.”
No one can accuse them of that. In late 2014 they performed three gigs at Glasgow’s Barrowlands venue at which fans could choose the setlists, and ended up playing 84 different songs. Their last album, Opposites, in 2013, was a 20-track double. It was also their first number one. I tell them I’m struggling to think of another band who can get as far as album number seven and still be on the ascent. “You’d probably have to go back to bands like REM or The Flaming Lips to find another career like that,” says Neil after some thought. “When we try and decode it, it gets us in a right state. People tell us that we’ve played the long game, but we didn’t play any game. If someone had said to us around the first record, ‘Do you want to be a huge band?’ We’d have said, ‘Yeah!’”
The whole band are jolly company, negotiating Greek meze including a dauntingly large charred octopus tentacle outside a King’s Cross restaurant. Ben makes a terrible joke about a radish that doesn’t bear repeating. He and his brother seem quiet next to Neil, who is extravagantly hairy with a wolfish grin and a big voice. You wouldn’t guess that the singer has talked in some detail in the past about struggles with depression.
“Things complicate your life as you get older, but we see Biffy as the glimmer of light in all that,” he tells me. “If I’m in a tough period of time, the music helps me to process it. I’m a healthier person because of it.”
The band took their first significant break from touring at the end of the Opposites campaign, staying off the road for the whole of 2015. It was helpful in terms of renewing their hunger. “It felt like being a footballer who was out injured, lying on the physio’s table watching everyone else playing and dying to get back out there,” says Ben.
“We needed a bit of a break, and people needed a break from us,” adds Neil. “I would hate to be a band that outstays their welcome. And you need to have a reason to make a record. People will see through it if it starts to feel like a treadmill.”
Ellipsis, the new album out today, is a new start in many ways. The three men are naked and foetal on the cover, a band reborn. It was recorded with a new producer, Rich Costey, at his Los Angeles studio, following three albums on the trot with Garth Richardson. And it sees the band in playful, inventive form, using a children’s choir on Friends and Enemies, buzzing electronics on Animal Style, and coming close to making a pretty pop ballad on Re-arrange. Wolves of Winter, the bold, anthemic lead single, “sounds like a mad Seventies prog rock song” according to Neil.
There are long-term fans who wish that Biffy still had the meaner, more jagged sound of their early albums, but few seem to begrudge them their success and they still haven’t had the one mega-hit, like Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire, say, to make people sick of them. They even seem to have escaped any tarnish from their 2010 ballad, Many of Horror, being renamed When We Collide and becoming the Christmas number one for forgotten X Factor winner Matt Cardle. “We believe in what we’re doing and we can’t necessarily expect everyone to come along with us, but I do like to think that at this stage, there’s a level of trust between the fans and the band,” says Neil.
Now they’re about to top the bill at the Reading and Leeds Festival for the second time, and have no desire to shrink down again. “Doing Reading the first time [in 2013] helped to kickstart this next chapter for the band, because it was the first time we really felt comfortable on a stage of that scale,” says Neil. “We didn’t know if we could do it when we stepped on, but it felt like a resounding success and gave us a hunger to do it again. It was one of the most joyful weekends of our lives.”
They went on to fill the O2 Arena that year and will surely do so again soon once festival season is out of the way. Things will still change for Biffy Clyro – Neil will release a solo album as ZZC next year, for starters – but more things will stay the same. “The band has given us this constant in our lives for a really long time,” says Ben. “In a life that is constantly changing, from young adulthood to adulthood into this semi-permanent adolescence that we now find ourselves in, it sounds strange to say, but this band is what keeps our feet on the ground.”
Ellipsis is out today on Warner Bros. Biffy Clyro headline Reading Festival, Aug 26-28, Richfield Avenue, Reading (0871 220 0260, readingfestival.com)