Rock maestros Biffy Clyro will be closing this year’s Reading Festival in spectacular style – as the band says, be prepared for ‘Biffy on steroids’.

Here Victoria Birch speaks to bassist James Johnston about the new album Ellipsis and their emotional year off.

Biffy Clyro’s James Johnston was getting ready to play at a Spanish festival before taking the call...

You’re at the Mad Cool festival in Madrid?

“We are, it’s a really great line-up. Because it is a Spanish festival it doesn’t start until 6pm and we’re not on stage until midnight or 1am so it’s a different way of doing things. They certainly know how to have fun over here.”

Do you get to see bands when performing at festivals?

“We do, it’s difficult with the odd press engagement, and doing the boring things like getting your dinner, but I think it makes a difference for a band to gauge the festival and get a feel for the vibe. I think that’s quite important – if you lock yourself away in the dressing room and come out, you don’t really know what the vibe is, so we try to soak up a bit of the atmosphere. You still go out and play your set as-is but it’s nice to feel a part of it.”

Do you ever get to walk around in the crowds? Do people realise who you are?

”We don’t really walk around in the crowds (laughs), it’s (difficult) to get from back stage to front of house, it’s really not worth it and I’m certainly embarrassed to say that since we started playing in a band so young we have never really gone to a festival just as a punter so we’ve always been well looked after! (laughs) We have really good toilets and things like that, so it’s really hard to go backwards after being in the more salubrious surroundings of backstage.”

You’ve been together more than 20 years now, so your sound has changed in that time. How would you describe it now?

“It’s melodic and intense. I think as we have moved forward our songs have become more streamlined. It’s to the point, it’s the shortest record we have ever made. It’s a positive evolution for the band as we continue to move forward. We don’t want to stand still or repeat ourselves. We always want to feel like we’re tackling new ground.”

The X-Factor’s Matt Cardle version of Many of Horror was out six years ago now. Do you think it actually got you a new fan base and took you on a different path?

“Six years! That’s crazy. I actually think, certainly, there would have been a lot of people watching Saturday night TV that would have no idea of who we are, so if it made them aware of us it may have helped. It isn’t something I have given much thought to, I just thought it was quite perverse that the big music machine was coming to us for a song. We thought there was something quite funny in that, like the establishment going underground to find your music.

"It gave us a little bit of a kick, and we’re really proud of the song. And there wasn’t really any kind of backlash, I think at the time there was a campaign to get our version to number one and that was really sweet. There hasn’t really been a negative side to it at all.”

Your twin brother, Ben, plays the drums, your younger brother used to be the drum technician. How is it being a band with your brother?

“The honest answer is that none of us know any different. We have been together 20 years and started a band in the garage after school, and like kids do all around the world – it’s a way to p*** off your parents and annoy the neighbours and have fun with your mates, and that is very much what it was like. We don’t know any different, it’s the only band we have ever been in. I think it brings us really close, our feeling as twins is extended towards Simon (Neil, singer and guitarist) and we feel like triplets (laughs) I’ve never said that before, that’s quite funny. But we’re really close, as close as we have ever been.”

What song gets the best response at a festival?

“Something like Many of Horror, or Mountains or Bubbles, they are still the songs that really get people, but off the new record the Wolves of Winter is an angry start to the set.”

What have you got planned for Reading Festival?

“Plans are coming together slowly, we have got a few things to finalise, but we are going to have a exciting stage set and production. I think all people want are good songs. I think you’re at a festival all weekend and you see 20-30 bands you need songs that keep it going. You want to put on a good show, no shrinking violets or anything like that – it’s going to be Biffy on steroids.”

You have played alongside some major bands, like Metallica and Foo Fighters. Do you have a favourite?

“Some of those bands are ones we grew up listening to and that makes them a firm favourite. Some are just bands that we learnt a lot from, from touring and the way they operate. I think the Foo Fighters deserve special recognition because they have taken us so far around the world and treated us so well. We learnt a lot by the way they go about things. The way they go about their set, it’s really free and organic, and it’s a fun rock show. You know Dave Grohl, gives everything he’s got, he makes sure the audience is having a good time. The band is only half of the show, the other is the audience and you have to try to join those together – I think Dave Grohl does a really good job of that. It was amazing to watch him every night.”

You all took a year off to work on Ellipsis. Where did the inspiration come from?

“Sometimes you just have to wait for inspiration to strike, we spent a good two and a half years on the road for the last record, we were all pretty exhausted by the end and we needed a bit of a break. I know at first Simon found it a little bit tough with the writing, he didn’t feel they were up to scratch, I think, in his head, the pressure started to build, and we spent a bit too much looking at the position we were in as a band and looking at what other people expected of us, and that’s not really a healthy place to be.

"So we had to break that mindset, and going to California, going to Los Angeles for a couple of months was a really important part of that for Simon. It wasn’t writing thinking this has to be the new Biffy single, this has to be amazing. Just to get back into the feel of making music for fun. That was an important turning point. One day Ben and I went through demos he had made, and we thought ‘these are amazing’. We are really onto something here. That was a kind of sea change moment we were looking for. But then it was back to Scotland, back to our little farm house in the middle of nowhere, and we were working on the songs, trying to reconnect with home, reconnect with ourselves as people.

"It was a little bit of a battle with all of us, all this going on, with thinking ‘who am I’? We’re not playing gigs or making music, then why should I exist? An existential question, isn’t it?

"For 15 years it’s just been go, go, go. You don’t always have a chance to sit back and think about your life as a whole. I think it’s important to have that time. We really missed the shows, we really missed recording. We knew it wouldn’t be long before we got back into the studio.”

How would you describe the mood of the album?

“It’s mixed, unsurprisingly! It follows the mood of Simon’s thoughts. Most people can be a little bit up and down. Sometimes happy, sometimes sad. Take Wolves of Winter for example, it was a direct reaction to some of the behaviour towards us previously. When you become a bigger band, a lot of people stick their oar in and have something to say. They give the impression they are saying it for your benefit – really often they are saying it for their own benefit. They are just trying to milk all they can out of you. It can really make you p***** off. This is our band. If you’re going to come on our patch and tell us what to do – we’re going to come at you. It was a really important song and message to really get behind and it made us feel really strong.

"I think love songs will always be part of the band. Simon is always writing songs about his lovely wife, and I suppose she’s his muse - there’s always an edge to them. So I think it’s a really beautiful mix. I think it’s diverse. I think it is kind of playful. I think there is a positive edge to it, even if it’s a snarling beast of a song.”

Where would you like to be in five years?

“Sitting in this chair looking out over this beautiful plaza in Madrid, ready to do another festival. We’re so lucky. We’re able to do this. Of course we’d love to continue to explore new countries. As long as it continues like this we’re lucky and we’re happy.”

Reading Festival, Richfield Avenue, Reading, Friday, August 26 until Sunday, August 28. Details: