"I was obsessing about the setlist": Simon Neil opens up about Biffy Clyro's epic MTV Unplugged performance

In the latest issue of Music Week, we speak to Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil about how the Scottish alt-rock trio have helped resurrect MTV’s legendary Unplugged brand on UK shores.

Albert Schilcher, VP, talent and music, MTV International has already explained to Music Week the lasting power and heritage of the brand – which over the years has offered (quiet) milestone moments for everyone from Nirvana and Pearl Jam to Jay-Z and Lauryn Hill – and outlined his hopes for the future.

With Biffy Clyro’s Unplugged released today (May 25) – and the performance set to premiere on MTV on the same day at 9pm in the UK, and also across the world – it marks an exciting new chapter for this heritage brand and the band, who will take their Unplugged set-up on the road in September,

In this exclusive, unread portion of our interview, Simon Neil takes us further inside their Unplugged journey…

 

 

Historically, Unplugged doesn't just deliver stripped back songs, it's also given us lasting, career-defining live moments – the quiver of Kurt Cobain’s voice at the end of Where Did You Sleep Last Night, say. How important is Unplugged, do you think, in offering an experience that can really last?
Simon Neil:
“For us doing our Unplugged, our main aim was not to play the songs more than once. Some bands go in and play a song three or four times and it can really suck the vibe out of the room. We ended up having to play Bubbles again because of some audio thing, but for me I wanted us to capture that feeling – where if your voice breaks, if something goes wrong or you don’t play the note right, that’s it, that’s the version. You can achieve perfection quite easily these days, but what attracts me to music is the imperfections – it’s not exactly as it should be. It’s almost impossible for anything to have the same impact as it did back then in terms of the way it would slowly saturate culture, but I hope Unplugged still is that.” 

As a band, you’ve always done acoustic performances, but was there more pressure attached to this in that it was a record?
“We tried to keep ourselves single-minded. For me, I was just obsessing about the setlist – that’s where I was focussing my anxiety. We practiced about 20/25 songs, there’s a couple we played on the night that ended up not making the record because of the sonics of them – because we didn’t play them again, like The Rain and Diary Of Always that just didn’t sound great. That’s by the by. That’s why the setlist is what it is, that’s what I’d been obsessing about – sometimes I go in for the details to ignore the big picture. It was really only after we came offstage that we exhaled about it. It’s quite overwhelming to think, ‘This is going to be an album, it’s a live performance, it’s MTV Unplugged and it’s acoustic.’”

 

It’s only really in the last couple of months I’ve been able to relax about the fact we’ve done Unplugged

Simon Neil, Biffy Clyro

 

How do you contend with that?
“Denial. You focus on things that are totally unimportant to distract you – at the end of the day it’s what you do as a band: we’ve played a lot of acoustic shows, we know what we’re doing, on paper it's exactly the same thing we’ve done a hundred times before, it’s just that ‘Unplugged’ looming large. It definitely affected me nerve-wise onstage, I was quite aware. We made a big mistake of going back and listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam and watching the greats as soon as we found out we were playing it and thinking, ‘Oh nooooooo!’ Next time we do Unplugged we’re not doing that. But because we’ve been doing this a long time, you don’t ever want to do something and just feel like it’s what we do, that it’s effortless. It’s finding that middle balance of, ‘This is what we do, let’s not freak out’ but it’s also extremely, extremely special. It’s only really in the last couple of months I’ve been able to relax about the fact we’ve done Unplugged and it feels real now the album’s coming out. It felt like this little figment of our imagination that had disappeared. Now, it’s reality.”

Have you watched it back?
“The TV show once a couple of months ago. I’m actually really bad at… I hate watching myself back from any live things. I’m probably the most critical person, I really struggle with it. I can listen back to records, I’m absolutely fine, that’s my wheelhouse, but as soon as there’s a visual of me, I get really embarrassed. I know that sounds ridiculous after doing it for so long, I’m not comfortable watching myself, I always need someone else to say ‘It’s good!’”

And you didn’t make it easy on yourself by deciding to cover a classic like Beach Boys’ God Only Knows on the night…
“Talk about sacred cow territory!”

Why did you chose that one in particular?
“I thought about it a lot. That was probably what I spent most of my time thinking about. For me the big difference about doing a cover for Unplugged is that I wanted it to be something that was a part of my DNA as a human. We’ve never recorded a cover on an album to be there forever. If this album is going to be with us forever, I want to make sure it’s a song I’m still going to love as much in 20 years and that’s as important to me. It was the first dance I had with my wife at our wedding, I have the lyrics tattooed on my chest – it’s a song I can remember being in love with for as long as I’ve been conscious. I’ve gotten to meet Brain Wilson before and showed him my tattoo.”

Clang!
“Did you hear that drop there? It just felt right. I wanted to pay thanks to music that has really impacted my life and God Only Knows is one of those songs that has always been there. I love the fact it sounds so simple and so complex. We were practicing one day and I’d been playing around with a few songs and it just popped into my mind, ‘It’s got to be God Only Knows’ so I didn’t tell the boys [Ben and James Johnston, Biffy Clyro's drummer and bassist respectively] what I was going to do. I went home and learned it, because I didn’t want to say it and for them to be like, ‘I don’t know, it’ll be tough, do we do the harmonies?’ I had that vision almost. I went home, learned it, and it’s really fucking tough – I’ve learned a few new jazz chords. Our next album will be very jazzy! I came in the next day, played it for them, and I could tell from their faces that it was perfect. And that was it. It felt innocent and true. I wanted the boys to have an honest reaction when they played it, and if they were like, ‘Sounds great!’ it would be all right. It had to be something that was really, really important and mattered to us. And not a song that I liked just now. I wanted it to be part of who we are as people.”

 

Subscribers can read the full Biffy Clyro/MTV Unplugged feature here. You can watch the video for Biffy Clyro’s Unplugged performance of Black Chandalier below:

 

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