The Cover Story

Empire State Bastard: “I’ve been needing to make a record like this for a long time”

You might know them as the frontman and live guitarist for Biffy Clyro, but together, the duo of Simon Neil and Mike Vennart make a much heavier, angrier beast known only as Empire State Bastard. Upon the announcement of their debut LP, we meet the metal-loving pair to find out why this is more than just a side-project…

Empire State Bastard: “I’ve been needing to make a record like this for a long time”
Ian Winwood
Paul Harries

Mark it in the calendar: June 14, 1992 was the day that Mike Vennart’s life changed forever. On that early-summer Sunday, the mulleted-teenager from Embleton Road in Methley, West Yorkshire, travelled across the border to Moss Side to witness a concert for the ages at Maine Road – an ageing football ground, then home to a once perennially under-achieving Manchester City. To be sure, during this golden age for loud music, there was plenty to savour. Atop the bill sat Guns N’ Roses, while Soundgarden were the event’s opening act.

But it was the day’s other group, Faith No More, that provided the young Vennart with his own priceless “we’re not in Kansas anymore” musical epiphany. That evening, the truculent, confrontational, non-conformist and richly talented San Franciscans delivered their 11-song set in a manner that seemed designed to antagonise and excite in equal measure. Five of its tracks came from the quintet’s fourth album, Angel Dust, released the previous week. Recognised today as a capstone in the history of alternative rock, at the time the LP was described by no less an entity than London Records, the label on which it was released, as “commercial suicide”.

Light touch-paper, stand back…

“That day, before my very eyes, everything changed,” Mike says. “I can look back at it now and recognise how, at the age of 15, my consciousness 100 per cent changed. Because Faith No More were on some dark, dark trip back then. Angel Dust was just out, and they were threatening to call it Alienating Your Public. I was, like, 'I’ve got to hear this fucking record…' Even onstage, they were provocative, antagonistic bastards. They were encouraging everyone in the audience to pelt them with garbage, which they duly did. It was such a revelation to me that a band could be like that onstage. Over the next year, I went to see Faith No More three more times…”

You join us as Mike Vennart and Simon Neil are attempting to identify the moment their extra-curricular band, Empire State Bastard – ESB for short – was born. Drilling down into the bedrock of facts, Mike has gone right back to the point in his life when things were flipped upside-down forever. He’s gone back to first principles. Because for him, the genesis for all this stuff can be traced back to an adolescent evening of volatile surprises in a sketchy part of a Northern city some 31 years ago.

Because the thing of it is, in a specific sense, it’s kind of difficult to nominate the exact point at which this new creation was born. Certainly it was a while ago, maybe as far back as 12 or 13 years. The location was likely the back lounge of Biffy Clyro’s tour bus – Simon Neil, of course, being that group’s singer, guitarist and principal songwriter, with Mike Vennart ably deputising as a touring guitarist since 2010 – where, back in the fragrant plumes of time, according to Mike, “there was an awful lot more partying going on, so specific vivid memories are absolutely out of the question”. So as the Good Ship Biffy ferried its passengers from city to city, these two music-makers created a new band made only of words. But their talk wasn’t cheap. The pair have been friends for more than two decades. Both of them knew they were playing for real.

“We just knew that one day we were going to make a racket together,” says Simon. “It just had to be the right time, is all. It wasn’t just a case of, ‘Oh, let’s have some fun and make a racket.’ Because what we owed to whatever we ended up doing together was that it was the best thing it could possibly be.”

And so the clock ticked, and tocked, and ticked, and tocked…

“To be honest, the title of the project came around first,” Simon says. “Empire State Bastard. That was probably about 10 years ago. I mentioned the name to Mike, and we both just knew that that was the statement that was going to describe the music we make. So, yeah, it all happened a little backwards.”

“We just knew that one day we were going to make a racket together”

Simon Neil

Today, the chronology is somewhat confused. Although Rivers Of Heresy, Empire State Bastard’s debut album, is due to emerge screaming into the light on September 1, the group decided to head out on a short but noisy debut tour of small Scottish and English rooms back in April. Appearing in Glasgow, Manchester and London, ESB played for 55 minutes that to Simon Neil “felt like three hours” – an ardour that doubtless had much to do with the livid nature of the music on display, which we will get to. Either way, audiences at the Cathouse, the Rebellion bar and the Underworld became the first people in the world to hear live renditions of songs that were written by Mike Vennart, with lyrics by Simon Neil. As represented on Rivers Of Heresy, the guitars and bass were recorded in England, the vocals in Scotland, and the drums – and, yes, we will get to them too – in San Francisco.

Please make your acquaintance with the upside-down world of Empire State Bastard.

“Part of my issue with doing this project is that as soon as I pick up a guitar, it’s going to sound like fucking Biffy,” Simon says. “And I didn’t want this to be anything other than me and Mike working in a different way. The spark had to be different. The challenging of each other had to be so important. ‘Is that obnoxious enough? Have you heard this band? Have you heard this artist from Japan that only 17 people have heard of?’ Things like that. We wanted to push that extremity and get ourselves into the right headspace for it.”

On a pleasant Monday in May, thick as thieves, Simon and Mike appear on a computer screen from their respective homes in Greater Manchester and Ayrshire. Laughing and swearing, the Scotsman’s voice lilts and sways like lovely music; swearing and laughing, the Englishman sounds like the kind of Northern club comic whose act features jokes about nuns and Alsatians. Twenty or so years ago, both men were fronting bands that were ascending one of rock music’s trickier routes to success. Biffy Clyro were a trio with a startling name who played weird music at such distant venues as the Stornoway Sea Angling Club. Out of step with just about everything, Oceansize, meanwhile, were a six-piece from the English Northwest who mixed progressive rock with metal and indie. Given that both acts shared a record label (Beggars Banquet) and many concert stages, it seemed inevitable that the two principals would become friends. Even then, though, the set-ups were different. On his first campaign as touring guitarist, Mike couldn’t believe the harmony that is the norm on Planet Biffy. He couldn’t believe they didn’t bicker and squall as did his own band.

“I was still in Oceansize when I started playing with Biffy, and the difference in strategic attitude was absolutely night and day,” Mike recalls. “Ultimately, in any band you’ve got to have trust – and I don’t mean hoping that a bandmate doesn’t eat the last Twix on the rider. It’s the hope [that] the guys in my band aren’t going to be too stoned to play tonight. With Biffy there was just this inherent trust that things were going to be done right. ‘We do it like this, we will sit and discuss what the set is going to be, we will have our shit together.’ And those kinds of attitudes were sorely lacking within Oceansize.”

Despite sharing the desire to present music in its purest form, it seems that, even early doors, Mike knew that his group weren’t made of the same stuff as Biffy Clyro. He knew they weren’t destined for the same heights. “Come the endgame,” he says, “we were at the behest of drug addiction, basically.”

But because Biffy don’t allow passengers into their orbit, the hiring of Mike as an additional guitarist implied shared trust and common values that went beyond the requirements of a salaried musician. There were things that united them in love and in passion. When it came to the absorption of music, for one thing, he and Simon were both sponges in an ocean of sound. Between them they had dedicated years to the cause of seeking out the kinds of artists who turned their collar to the mainstream. As a teenage devotee of magazines such as Kerrang!, Simon bought albums like Wolverine Blues, by Entombed, on the strength of the title alone. He purchased Clutch’s Transnational Speedway League… because he liked the artwork. He borrowed tapes featuring the music of Suicidal Tendencies and Crowbar from a lad in the year above him at school. To this day, he remembers his delight at discovering in 1994 that Far Beyond Driven by Pantera had debuted on the U.S. Billboard Hot 200 at Number One. Surveying the achievement of an album that managed to pack hitherto unmatched amounts of aggro into its grooves sitting atop the chart, he thought, “My God, anything is possible.”

He continues. “When you don’t know how to express yourself properly as a young man, which is quite common, discovering something that expresses your rage in a way that’s non-articulate, that’s something you need. I felt that I was a bit of an angry young man who needed to bond with music that helps you get angry. Because doing it that way helps you have a positive spin on your life. It helps you find that positive outlet.”

“Ultimately, in any band you’ve got to have trust”

Mike Vennart

Bet your adolescence it does. With music at the vanguard of youth culture, in the 20th century muddled youngsters exorcised their demons and doubts with the help of, say, Ministry or Sepultura, Bad Religion or Prong. Today, blinded by stimuli, too many lost souls stumble into the clutches of ghouls like Andrew Tate. And while it would be folly to suggest that Empire State Bastard are capable of turning back time, the music with which they emerge swinging into the light is possessed of the power to clean any and all clocks. Intense, immense, indomitable and unbiddable, it is the sound of underground music, and underground culture, as expressed by expert hands. That these artists’ day jobs involve playing a perfect hybrid of mainstream and alternative rock to tens of thousands of people in the UK’s largest indoor arenas makes the achievement all the more remarkable. Because Empire State Bastard is not music made by tourists. Fact is, they’re stronger than all.

“I know I’ve been needing to make a record like this for a long time,” Simon says. “This is where I’m almost trying to be provocative. I said to Mike that I don’t want to sing any melodies – although there are a few melodies on the record, which is me following the service of the song – but my intention was no melody at all. Just fucking mayhem. We wanted people to feel that they’d almost struggle to get to the end of the first song. Thankfully, it became something more sophisticated than that, more musical, but at this point I needed to do this project. I haven’t sat down with my guitar and written a song for Biffy in a long time, and I think post-pandemic I’ve struggled a little bit with inspiration. This will help me [going forward], I think.”

But before it does, for the second time, let’s return to those first principles. With Rivers Of Heresy written, ESB realised they’d created a rod for their own backs with the drum parts Mike had written for their record. Between them, S&M spent months thinking, ‘Who can we get to play like this?’ Because the rhythms, they realised, and the patterns, were reminiscent of the work of – whisper it – Dave Lombardo, the man who defined an entire movement with his work on Slayer’s third album, the eternal Reign In Blood, in 1986. The man who proved that even the fastest and heaviest music could sashay and shimmer with groove and swing. The man of whom Simon says, “When you trace back any metal album that you’re into, anything complex, it always goes back to Lombardo”.

Yeah, him.

So, figuring that the only people who win the lottery are those who bought a ticket, Mike and Simon dropped the man a line. Probably he’ll be busy, they thought. As well as keeping the beat for Mr. Bungle – with Mike Patton, as it goes – Dave had just been announced as the the drummer for the Misfits’ upcoming dates in the United States this summer. Oh, and he seemed to be playing with John Zorn every other week, too. So, you know, probably best to not get your hopes up.

But guess what happened next?

“He got back straight away saying, ‘I’ve not heard a heavy record like this in a long time,’” Simon says. “And it was that that really made me and Mike take this record, and this band, much more seriously. Until that point we were, like, ‘We think this is good’ But no-one else had heard it… And then when Dave Lombardo says [he’s] gonna drop everything and play on this fucking record, we were, like, r-r-r-r-right. Because we did need that kind of kick up the arse. My self-esteem isn’t always the best. Sometimes you need someone from the outside to go, ‘You know this is fucking excellent, right?’ So Dave gave us permission, and off we went.”

“Ultimately, we’ve been doing this music thing for quite some time,” says Mike. “There’s very few dreams left to dream. The idea that we would make a record one day is exciting enough as it is. But the fact that we got the best drummer on the planet to play on it is even better.”

“This is a living breathing thing… this is about when inspiration strikes”

Simon Neil

All this, of course, is still to come. But as audiences with an appetite for red meat, served rare, await the arrival of a startlingly original album, Empire State Bastard themselves prepare for a good old-fashioned summertime bruise. With the open-air season all but upon us, over the coming weeks and months the group will take to the stage at Download, Glastonbury and Hellfest; by the start of autumn, they hope to have embarked on a series of European and British headline happenings. Inevitably, when talk turns to dates in the diary, the two music-makers speak with the kind of effervescence one associates with summer romance. And that’s fine. But while Simon admits that it’s refreshing not to be wondering whether or not he’ll be singing – scrap that, screaming – ESB’s songs in 20 years’ time, he’s quick add that he hopes this new monster is a creation built to last.

“This is a living breathing thing,” he says. “This is about when inspiration strikes. On the shows we played last month, we already played three songs that are beyond the first album. I don’t like questioning things too much [because] feel and instinct is everything. But Dave Lombardo has committed to this band. Naomi [MacLeod], our bass player, is buzzing. We’re going to maybe start making music with the four of us in the room and see what happens. The possibilities are endless. As long as Mike [a southpaw guitarist] has got that left hand flying, we’re good. I guess I’ve just got to say to him, ‘Mike, I need another 17 riffs!’”

For the first time in an hour, there is silence on the line.

“By lunchtime,” says the guitarist, summoning laughter back to the room.

Rivers Of Heresy is released September 1 via Roadrunner

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