Drop by Simon Neil's flat in the Scottish hamlet of Ayr, and you'll never detect the fortress of fearsome Fenders that's become his stock in trade with Biffy Clyro, the punk-metal trio that's topped British charts with its deafening but intricate music. Instead, all you'll be able to hear is the quiet ching-chinging of Neil composing on an unplugged electric guitar.
It's like this, says Neil: "If you're standing in front of a wall of amps and it's distorted, you can play one chord and it just sounds amazing. But I think it can make you lazy as a songwriter, so I end up making more interesting chords and more interesting melodic movements if I'm doing it on a quiet guitar."
The strategy's been working. Biffy Clyro's 2007 album, Puzzle, reveled in dark lyrics and flowery filigrees, performed with Helmet-sharp stop-on-a-dime precision; it quickly went gold overseas and rocketed the band to stadium-sized superstardom. And the new follow-up, Only Revolutions, is no less thoughtful or carefully conceived, with inventive galloping anthems like "Whorses," "God & Satan" and "Born on a Horse" all held together by Neil's straightforward, gale-force bellow. And yes, it's loud as hell.
So what's with the horse/religion motifs?
"Love's in there, too," notes Neil. "But it's weird — I just started to obsess with horses for a while, and I've gotten a couple of horse tattoos. I don't know if it became a metaphor or something for me, but maybe there's a sense of freedom, singing about horses. And religion always interests me. Sometimes your mind can make you think that's what you need, and other times you think there's absolutely nothing to it. So for me, at least, there are still a few unanswered questions."
Neil formed Biffy Clyro — allegedly a play on Cliff Richard's name — as a teenager with brothers Ben and James Johnston on drums and bass, respectively. But the frontman's deep-thinking brand of music didn't catch on for three overlooked albums. It was Puzzle, in which he poetically dealt with the passing of his mother, that finally took his ideas mainstream overseas.
America has yet to catch the brainy buzz, but Neil's hardly had time to notice; he's currently juggling four other side outfits. There's the Marmaduke Duke, a daffy duo already plotting its third album, in which Neil appears as a costumed character named The Atmosphere. Empire State Bastard, meanwhile, records sweeping singles for imaginary charities. And don't forget Ronnie Hollywood & the Eager Dudes, who write oddball odes to celebrities, or Neil's most ambitious brainstorm, People, which will invite fans to jam onstage at every gig.
Neil believes that his mother's death changed him.
"When you're growing up, you think it's forever and that nothing will change and people will always be there," he says with a sigh. "But the truth is, we've all got limited time, and you wanna squeeze in as much as you can, workwise.
"So right now, while I'm loving it, I've gotta do as much as I can and really take it to places that I maybe wouldn't have before. Because we're not gonna be able to do this forever."