The Liberation Of Getting Older: Empire State Bastard Interviewed

"This made me feel so fulfilled..."

Empire State Bastard is a new band featuring former Oceansize member Mike Vennart and Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil. With Vennart having also been Biffy Clyro’s live guitarist since 2010 the two share a long history together, as well as a deeply held love of heavy music. 

This new venture is not for the faint hearted though, and their debut record ‘Rivers of Heresy’ is a brutally heavy assault to the senses. As Vennart himself explains “with each song, you don’t know if you’ve enjoyed it until the end. There are no signposts as to where it’s gonna go, it just does what it does. And then when it’s over you can decide.” This is especially true of tracks such as the gripping ‘Sons And Daughters’, which, during its doom-inducing outro leaves you some space to come to terms with the previous three minutes stuffed with the levels of adrenaline you’d expect going toe to toe in an octagon.

This project is no gimmick though. It is a manifestation of a lifetime of devotion to heavy music and a chance for the two to reclaim aspects of their former – younger –  selves that may have been clouded by time. Throughout Clash’ chat with the pair, both speak passionately about the bands that inspired them as kids, as well as the new crop of artists coming through.

‘Rivers Of Heresy’ comes with some heavy themes. Largely informed by the often catastrophic times in which we live, it screams into the abyss as a means to channel feelings of futility. But there is also a sense of levity largely attributed to the passion Vennart and Neil have poured into its creation. It relishes in extremes and flies in the face of expectation; thoroughly embracing the music of their youth and acknowledging its importance free from a critical perspective. The fact that Slayer legend Dave Lombardo recorded drums for the album, and then along with the insanely talented Naomi Macleod of Bitch Falcon, signed up to be a part of the live band, only adds to the credibility of the project. 

“It keeps us young,” says Vennart when asked of the appeal of starting a metal band in his forties, before Neil adds “it’s remembering why we love music in the first place. And the older you get the more innocent it becomes again.” 

It feels like the beginning of a new chapter for the pair as opposed to a one off experiment, and they buzz with excitement at throwing themselves into the scene they have loved for so long. “We’re playing ArcTanGent festival and we’re on just before Converge and that is one of the most exciting moments in my fucking life” Neil enthuses and Vennart erupts in laughter. “I love it when I see Simon in fanboy mode” says the guitarist. “Its very, very rare that he get phased and giddy.” 

Despite being thoroughly endearing to see one of the country’s biggest rock stars beside himself with excitement at playing with his idols, it is also an insight into how serious the two are taking this band. And one can only hope ‘Rivers of Heresy’ is one of many records to come from Empire State Bastard. 

It feels like the origins of this record stretch back quite a long time. Why has it come to fruition now? Was it purely logistical or was there a particular spark that kicked things off?

Simon Neil: A bit of both. We probably wouldn’t have had time logistically without the pandemic happening. We didn’t want it to be a flippant project that we did if we had a few weeks off here or there. We wanted to spend at least a year or two making a record and going out and touring. So that was prohibitive for a few years. 

Then, the deterioration of our civilization is really hard to ignore. So there was definitely a stimulus coming from that. So a combination of both, we had the right poison in our minds to spit, but also we had the time to spit it. 

‘Rivers of Heresy’ is a brilliant listen. And I think it’s fair to say it is far heavier than anything either of you have done before. What is it about getting older that has drawn you to making this type of music, in addition to just listening to it? 

Mike Vennart: I wouldn’t want to speak on Simon’s behalf, but not so long ago we did the MTV Unplugged tour. And I think the next couple of Biffy records felt like a response to that. They just had a lot more bite and poise to them. And this to me feels like my version of that. While Simon was doing those records, I was writing this stuff, and then we came together.

It feels like I’ve come full circle. Growing up learning to play guitar because of Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, those are things that have stayed with me as a constant. But I’ve never really explored how to assimilate that kind of fucking heaviness and into my own music. I’ve always been a little bit tentative with it. 

And I’ve really, really enjoyed being able to just free myself of any concerns about expectations of what I should be doing, and what people want me to be doing, if anybody gives a fuck at all. This made me feel so fulfilled. I’ve been doing it for a long time now and it’s just so exciting to be you in your late forties and deciding to make an extreme heavy metal album.

Simon Neil: There is a liberation in getting older. Sometimes in your early twenties, you revolt against the foundations of what educated your music, because you’re always on the lookout for new stuff. And I think at this stage, you realise you can have your favourite bands. 

The first show I went to was Status Quo, but the first show I really wanted to go to was Metallica. And I still remember that experience, I still remember how that made me feel. And whereas maybe for a decade or so I would never have mentioned Metallica or listened to them, now as I’m getting older, I’m like, “You know what these bands have been chapters in my life and they’ve been omnipresent.” And I think it’s nice to express a level of gratitude,

Mike Vennart: For a long time when I was in my old band Oceansize you weren’t allowed to like Iron Maiden. It just wasn’t cool. But that’s what I loved from when I was a kid. And I’ve just been able to sort of come out of the closet and go, “You know what, I fucking still love all that shit.” I may have grown older but that’s still a part of who I am. Wherever I’ve roamed in the musical landscape, that’s where my heart is. And that’s where I learned to do what I do. I’m always surprised when I meet people in bands who didn’t start out like in metal. I just thought everybody did that…

How have you found the physical toll of actually performing this music? I know Biffy Clyro are a fairly intense live band, but this next level.

Simon Neil: I don’t think we’ll be doing two hour fucking epic shows anytime soon thats for sure. Fifteen minutes and I’m fucking done. It’s a different headspace. The whole of the Empire State Bastard show is right on the edge of insanity. Mike is obviously an incredible guitarist, but he’s playing right at the limit of his expertise and I’m right at the limit the whole time with my voice.

I think that’s that’s the difference because Biffy has those moments where it’s like, “oh my god,” but we always pull it back and try to give a bit more of an all encompassing picture. Whereas this is like a fucking arrowhead. We want to make sure every gig has that level of insanity and commitment. Because this is not a band that you can do six months of touring non stop. If we stepped on stage and felt like we couldn’t get it to that edge then we would be fucking heartbroken. Biffy shows are fucking exhausting. But it’s almost like Biffy shows are like the 10,000 metres, and this is the fucking 110 metre hurdles. 

Mike Vennart: This is the only band I’ve been in where I’ve not had a drink before a show, because there’s just no room for inconsistency. Every single attack of the plectrum has to be fucking perfect. And even though I wrote the fucking riffs, I know the guy on the drums is going to want to play them about 20 BPM faster. You gotta fucking bring it.

I imagine it’s about doing what you can to keep it sustainable, as there seems to be a fear that performing this type of music has a shelf life. Corey Taylor of Slipknot said recently he thought he maybe only had five years of touring left before he would find a successor. 

Simon Neil: We’ve had a small taste of it but when you see these extreme bands like Slipknot and Slayer back in the day, it’s no wonder Tom Araya fucked his neck or Phil Anselmo fucked his back. It definitely does take its toll but we need to take the lead from Slipknot and start franchising Empire State Bastard so that as one of us steps out we can just have a replacement.

When it came to writing lyrics for Empire State Bastard did it feel like you had more freedom to be angry and antagonistic and nihilistic than you do with other projects? 

Simon Neil: There’s a kind of romance with Biffy. There’s always a hope and an optimism that comes through, even in the melodies if the lyrics are a bit darker and vice versa. There wasn’t so much heart involved in this. The music doesn’t necessarily lead you down a path of wanting to sing about the most optimistic things. And it felt like it wouldn’t have been true. I think we’ve all felt hopeless at points over the last few years, which is not a nice place to be. But in some of the songs, I’ve just let that hopelessness live and breathe because they’re as real as feeling positive

Over those last few years I wouldn’t have been comfortable putting so much aggression and nihilism into Biffy songs because there’s always a heart and soul. Whereas I’ve been describing this as a spasm of rage. We’re not looking for an answer. That’s the difference with this project and the simplest way to separate it. With this, we’re just taking things at fucking face value and spitting it out. With Biffy, there’s always a sense of searching for things. But with Empire State Bastard we’ve found it and it’s a big lump of shit.

I think acknowledging those feelings can be as helpful as trying to provide an answer. Accepting that at times things are horrendous but we’re in this together. There’s definitely an odd catharsis running through the record. 

Simon Neil: It’s alright to not know what the fuck is going on and it’s alright to just be angry or frustrated for a bit. And hopefully you won’t always feel that way but this felt like a positive way to express those feelings. I’m not on social media or anything but if I had an outlet like that, I could potentially be doing something without purpose, just venting. 

In this day and age, everyone’s so obsessed with wellness and I think that’s healthy. But also the human experience is good, bad and everything in between. And I think to not acknowledge that these feelings exist in people would be the wrong perspective. Hopefully it’s not an oppressive listen and there’s enough fun moments that pull you out of that intensity. 

Mike Vennart: I feel a sense of levity in the record. It changes gears quite a lot. If it was oppressively bleak then I think it’d be a little bit too much. But this is such an eclectic record and I think that when metal is heavy to that kind of extreme it is kind of funny. A really fucking heavy riff will make me guffaw a little bit. 

There is a huge range of influences you can hear on the record and yet I have noticed quite a lot of comments online where people are desperate to try and define it. I am assuming that moving forward you’re just going to keep it as open and as free as it already is?

Mike Vennart: It will be the exact same mentality, just worse, much, much worse.

Simon Neil: The amazing thing about this band is we didn’t know for sure if we were ever going to release this record. We were making the music and then once Dave Lombardo heard it and got involved, that was when we realised, “Wait, maybe this actually a really good record”. 

Up until that point, we were just cheering each other up. And that’s the same mentality we want to keep. As long as I can make Mike have a great reaction and vice versa to the music that we’re sending each other, then I think that’s the goal. It won’t be for everyone. There’s a lot of longtime Biffy and Oceansize fans who maybe expected us to do something slightly different together. But we have to do what we’re drawn to. 

The main thing was just that this needed to live alone. And I don’t think there’s anything in these songs that could live in Biffy world or Vennart world and that’s the one rule we have. 

How much of a challenge was writing the music for the record? My assumption is that it was primarily recorded by Mike in isolation but it’s quite hard to get your head around the fact that it wasn’t like fleshed out in a practice room because of how technical it is.

Mike Vennart: It was an ideal situation for me to be honest. I left Oceansize 13 years ago, and I’d kind of had my fill of negotiating every single fucking note. So it was great to be able to come to work every day and go upstairs, plug my shit in and set the metronome real fucking fast and just jam along with myself. And it doesn’t matter if it sucks or not, because I decide if anybody’s gonna hear it. It’s just fucking fun. Maybe a shot of tequila, double espresso and the riffs just fucking write themselves. I glue them together, email them to Simon and see what he thinks.

What new heavy bands are you particularly excited about at the moment?

There’s a couple of great British bands. One called Heriot, who are a really incredible heavy band. They released a record last year. There’s Pupil Slicer who brought out a really eclectic heavy record which really touched on a lot of different genres. And one of our favourite bands is a band called The Armed from Detroit who are a few albums deep, but they’re really very interesting in the way they approach their videos and their music.

We’ve also just discovered our favourite new doom band called Body Void. It’s like a three piece from upstate New York . There’s some footage of them online playing a gig in New York and the first chord they play is one of the heaviest and most insanely oppressive sounds I’ve ever heard in my fucking life.

There’s so there’s so much fucking good music out there to touch on there really is. Then also we’ve got our favourites for a reason. I’m always gonna love Converge. I’m always gonna love Will Haven, and Metallica, the first band that I went to see back in the day.

But I get really, really excited by new music and new bands. Because the way younger people process music and the access they have to music is so different to when I was growing up. I had to imagine what an album would sound like. I couldn’t hear it if they didn’t stock it in fucking Our Price. I love hearing how younger folk are processing all the fucking different music they’re hearing and channelling it in a fearless way into some fucking heavy music.

‘Rivers Of Heresy’ is out now.

Catch Empire State Bastard on tour:

9 Cardiff University Students’ Union – Y Plas
10 Birmingham O2 Academy 2
11 London Brixton Electric
13 Manchester New Century Hall
14 Glasgow SWG3 TV Studio

Words: Craig Howieson
Photo Credit: Gavin Smart

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