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Empire State Bastard: ‘it’s been so long since someone with a brain was in charge’

Last weekend saw Empire State Bastard – the new project from Oceansize's Mike Vennart and Biffy Clyro's Simon Neil – unleash hell on Glastonbury's Truth Stage. They tell us why it's high time for a group like theirs to confront all the world's ills.

By Sophie Porter

Empire State Bastard's Mike Vennart (left) and Simon Neil (right) (Picture: Press)

“I’m struggling to like summon the words to talk about the rage because we’re in the most fucking beautiful, peaceful, magical place on the planet” jokes Empire State Bastard’s Mike Vennart. “Everyone’s going to be coming over to see the night out after the Arctics then we’re just going to ruin their fucking weekend” continues frontman Simon Neil. It’s the first night of Glastonbury and the group are sitting backstage at Worthy Farm’s Shangri-La district, waiting for their Worthy Farm debut on the Truth Stage.

For the uninitiated, EBS is the abrasive, riff-laden lovechild of Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil and the band’s live guitarist and former Oceansize member, Mike Vennart. After years of playing music together and sending files back and forth, the band pinpoint the pandemic as the real stimulation to turn the project into a reality: “we were able to devote time to our rage and frustration at the way things were going.”

In the post-Brexit, post-pandemic landscape, millions of us have felt feelings of anger, confusion, and helplessness. Through Empire State Bastard, Simon and Mike have found music as something more than sound – more like feeling. Not one that can fix the world of its ills but one which can, at the very least, provide catharsis in navigating the bleakness of the times we live in. “At that period melodic music and everything almost felt too emotional. We all felt too vulnerable for it,” Neil says. “We were just immersing ourselves in the most extreme and intense music going and it just kind of led into the perfect three month period where we could just focus all our efforts on it.” Having now enlisted Dave Lombardo (Slayer, Testament) on drums and Naomi Macleod (Bitch Falcon) on bass, the band’s debut album Rivers of Heresy is set to land on 1st September.

At only their seventh live show since the band’s inception, we sat down for a chat with Simon and Mike to talk more about rage and Brexit, the band’s outlook and writing, and the importance and vitality of heavy music today.

I think it’s important to talk about rage and anger right now – what should people be angry about?

Simon: I think for me the worst thing is just the lack of accountability people seem to have from the highest levels. You know, and it’s not a great lesson to teach people, to have no regrets, or no kind of honesty or admission if you’ve done something wrong, because that’s how we grow as humans is to realise, ‘oh, I wasn’t fully informed about that and now I am and I feel you know, well, more intelligent for it’. You’ve got to be willing to hear what other people have to say. And that’s what’s really been tough the last few years post-Trump, then post-borders, then post-pandemic. And I hope that we’re still optimistic that we’re going to have a whole new consciousness, that everyone is on a different level. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. Well, obviously we’re not there yet.

Mike: I’m waiting for us to wake up from this collective nightmare, this sort of dream state, where everybody’s just kind of pretending everything’s okay. But, you know, it’s with the people who are in control here, it’s terrifying. And then things just get progressively worse. You can only think that surely we’re all going to unite soon, right?

Simon: But the first thing is to be honest about Brexit from the top down, you know that that has had a terrible impact in this country and even people that voted for us to leave are realising that now. But there’s no honesty from mainstream media and the news, and they quite often don’t talk about that. And the government refuse to engage in that. And yet we are the slowest growing economy in the first world.

Mike: It seems, for the vast amount of people, as if that shit doesn’t really matter. It’s like, well, no, you’ve got to zoom out a bit and look at what that means on the world stage. Everything’s just a fucking state.

Simon: The worry is that our country in five, ten years could be worse off than it is now. And that’s a horrible thought, you know. We just need someone sensible to be in charge. It just feels like it’s so long since we’ve had someone with a rational brain to be in charge. So there’s still lots of ammunition for the next record already.

Mike: We’re not stuck for inspiration in that respect, you know. There’s a lot to be pissed off about.

In the spirit of accountability, open communication and honesty, what’s the writing process like between you both?

Simon: I hold Mike very accountable for how good the riffs are, that’s what it is.

Mike: Yeah, I’ve got a lot to live up to ‘cause, you know, it’s Simon and I hold his opinion in great esteem. So you know, it means a lot to me if I can get him excited and horny about something really horrible then that’s job done, and you know, it’s inspiring to him and vice versa. He’s into fucking every kind of music, he keeps his ear to the ground very much, I don’t necessarily do that for the most part, so to be able to get something that translates and inspires Simon is gold.

Simon: We bring the best out in each other and that’s been really nice. And just with it not specifically being a band that existed when we were making the music, I think that was liberating. And just because it literally was he would send me a file and then I would send back my vocals and some keys and we’d be like ‘yeah!’ you know, and that’s what music should be. It should be as simple as that. You’ve got to feel it without anyone else involved and then you can invite people in.

Mike: We didn’t have anybody to answer for the whole time. We still don’t really. It’s not like the record company are going to say, ‘these are the singles, write some more songs like that,’ because there’s not a fucking tune to be had anywhere in the whole record, but that’s the idea. And it’s like we’re not, harmonically and musically speaking, we’re not trying to make any friends in that respect. It’s just the more extreme and uncompromising it is, the better, you know, that’s the idea.

Yeah, like the music is more of a feeling.

Simon: Yeah, yeah. And not overthinking it too much. I mean, a lot of that music is very complex. That maybe seems like a strange thing to say, but it is. It’s not about overthinking. It’s really some of the most organic music we’ve ever worked on. And it is, it’s just a feeling, you know, it’s strange because when we’re performing as well, it’s different than what we normally do, you know, it is, it’s a more specific thing, isn’t it?

Mike: To me it’s authenticism. I’ve grown a tash, but that’s not making fucking riffs. To me I couldn’t fake it. I could make something like ‘oh, it’s just got to be heavy’. So that’s what every music is, you know, it’s from a place, it’s listening to psychedelic music and listening to heavy music and listening to techno and putting all these things together. So it doesn’t sound like any of those things. It just has a particular aggression that is informed from all those different genres, you know? But make no mistake, it’s in every metal record.

In regards to the feeling and the catharsis of turning aggression and rage into a sound, how does that then translate on stage. Particularly for you, Simon, not having a guitar strapped to you.

Simon: I guess I definitely feel a little more naked. It makes me inhabit a different part of my brain which is liberating and the main reason I didn’t want to play guitar, apart from the fact that I couldn’t play these riffs if I tried, if I spent six months learning. It needed to feel different from Biffy, you know. Me and Mike play music together a lot and this really needed to be its own thing. We’re only on our seventh show tonight, so, you know, so we’re still learning, every moment feels totally vital. There’s no moment to say that we can kind of just go on autopilot. And that’s kind of where we want to keep this band. We don’t want to overplay or play too many shows. So it becomes just rote and routine. You know, for us, it needs to feel like ‘fuck, this is happening, I’m on the edge,’ you know. The whole time it needs to feel on the edge.

Mike: And we want to be a luxury item. You don’t just get us at every festival like a fucking Nirvana tribute band or something. You’re lucky, if you get to catch us this year, you’re lucky.

Simon: I love that. A luxury item. That is just classic. We need a series of merch with that on it.

You both have your ear to the ground, are there any new heavy bands that you’re excited by?

Mike: We’ve been playing with a band called Grub Nap, they’re a two piece from Leeds. Doomy, horrible, great, screamy band.

Simon: Ithaca are a fantastic hardcore band, absolutely stunning. We love The Armed. They’re not brand new. They’ve got a few of records out but they’re one of our joint favourites.

Mike: I like Portrayal of Guilt and Full of Hell.

Simon: Full of Hell are one of our favourites. They do a lot of collaborations, but each one of their records, they just become artier and artier. I only got turned on to them and ‘Wheeping Choir’, and it’s just obnoxiously abrasive. But they just have these moments in the way they can manipulate their sound. At points it’s like dance music the way they would just have things flying across the mix. A really, really inspiring band.

Mike: Yeah, really abstract for a metal band, you know, it’s got a real fucking freakish edge to it.

Simon: The heavy and hardcore scenes and extreme music scenes they’re as vital as they’ve ever been. I think because there’s such a separation with the most streamed music in the world, which is so kind of middle of the road, there’s now this massive divide in the middle of people that live their lives listening to that and then people that live their lives believing in music and caring deeply about music. So it perhaps doesn’t cross-pollinate the way it used to, but I feel that everyone that’s making music in the heavy scene or whatever, for want of a better phrase, is doing it because they really fucking want to. Not because it’s a career path. And I think that kind of cynicism is important. You know, it’s like it shouldn’t be a career option, making heavy music. You know, the last thing we wanted our record in this band to be was, Mike describes it beautifully as CGI metal, where it’s kind of like it doesn’t sound human. I love industrial music. I love music that doesn’t sound human. But the specific types of heavy bands that you’re like ‘that could be made in an app’ and for this type of music, there needs to be air moving. That’s where the anger and the energy comes.

Mike: It threatens to derail every other bar. I like that Dave Lombardo who plays on the record is just always on the edge. You know, every single note he plays is with such fucking urgency and intent. So we couldn’t have wished for anybody better.

Simon: It was actually Lombardo that kind of validated the band for us because we didn’t have a bass player or a drummer. Mike programmed these incredible drums and was like ‘who do we know that could play like Lombardo?’ and about two weeks later it was like, ‘should we just email Lombardo?’ And he got back within 24 hours saying, ‘I want to play on this record’. You know, ‘what do you need? What’s your timeframe?’ And it was that moment where me and Mike were like, right, this now feels special. Because up until that point it was just our little secret. So, thanks to Dave Lombardo for helping us come through.

Empire State Bastard’s debut album Rivers of Heresy is set to land on 1st September.