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Mortal Rage: How Members of Biffy Clyro and Oceansize Made Empire State Bastard A Brutal Reality

Wednesday, 06 September 2023 Written by Jack Terry

“We've done the whole thing arse-backwards,” Mike Vennart says, his head bobbing with laughter in a Zoom window as he discusses his new band Empire State Bastard. “We had the name 10 or 11 years ago, then we wrote the songs, and then we formed the band. I don’t know if anyone has ever done it this way, except for maybe Nine Inch Nails.”

To fully understand the long and winding road to their debut album ‘Rivers Of Heresy’, we need to go back to one of Vennart’s darkest times: the troubling and traumatic end to his old band, space-rock heavyweights Oceansize. Their split sent him into a lonely place. Eventually, he dusted himself off and reached out to some old friends, and soon found himself as the touring guitarist for Scottish alt-rock powerhouses Biffy Clyro. 

It was there, in the back of their tour bus almost 15 years ago, where the idea for Empire State Bastard first came up, as he and Biffy frontman Simon Neil traded gnarly tunes with each other. “Mine and Simon’s relationship is based on turning each other onto really extreme music,” Vennart says. “Whether it’s The Armed or Sugar Horse or Body Void or a weird Japanese noise band that we’d never heard of, it’s very much been part of our fabric to just blow each other's minds.”

The pair always knew they’d start a new band together and it soon became clear that the project would be far heavier than anything they’d created before. “When we started really thinking about our sound, I was sending Simon industrial records and The Cardiacs,” Vennart observes. “But when I realised that he just wanted to scream, I started to make things that were particularly saturated and heavy."

It wasn't until the end of 2018 that the project really started gathering pace. After an intense altercation with “a prominent figure in the far right, a weaselly little bastard”, Vennart needed an outlet. “The police didn't give a fuck, so I channelled it into the most poisonous and vile music I ever made,” he observes.

Combined with the worsening political state of the UK, the fury and need for vengeance spewed forth, and Neil was able to easily match the intensity. “Lyrically, Simon is a lot more outward looking,” Vennart says. “There's very little on this record to do with emotion or dwelling. This is just fucking mortal rage from all concerned.”

With demos in hand and a clear sense that this project would finally see the light of day, they set about hiring a band, starting with a drummer. At least, that was the plan. "Suddenly, it was the pandemic,” Vennart says. “Whoever our drummer was going to be, they were going to be remote.” 

With a shortlist in mind, Vennart did all he could to find the right person, sending emails and making calls from his home. High on the list was one Dave Lombardo: extreme music royalty thanks to his work with Slayer, and arguably the best metal drummer in the world. “I can be quite persuasive,” Mike says knowingly. 

“I sent a couple of demos to his management and he came back saying 'yes' within 24 hours. He was busy at the time, but I think someone on his team said, ‘you need to check this shit out’. It brought real authority to my little riffs. Being with Biffy Clyro for 15 years, there are very few dreams left to dream but to make a record that sounds like this and have Dave Lombardo on it, that's a dream.”

The final member of this dream team is Bitch Falcon bassist Naomi Macleod. “She was a friend of a friend and I knew she loved extreme music as I'd seen her at some gigs I'd been to, so I sounded her out about Empire State Bastard,” Vennart recalls. “She sent me some of her old bands and it was just like, 'holy shit!' There's so much intent behind her playing, she's solid as fuck and a really calming influence. Often it's her teaching me and Dave how the songs go.”

With their members dotted all over the globe, they knew that recording ‘Rivers Of Heresy’ was going to be an experience unlike any other they’d had before. But rather than remain relative strangers and record it piecemeal, they went the complete opposite way and all moved in together. “It was one of the most incredible and life affirming experiences I’ve ever had,” Vennart says. 

You can hear the joy in his voice as he recounts days spent playing their music and nights filled with drinking. “I’ve tried to start bands with artists I admire before, but it doesn’t always mean you get on,” he says. “It was such a relief that we all do get on and we feel truly blessed to know each other.”

While that warm, fuzzy feeling doesn’t inform the record, ‘Rivers Of Heresy’ does sound like it was made by a group of people who all want the same thing. “We said there’s no nu-metal, no guitar harmonies — even though I love that shit — we just want to bend metal into shapes we haven’t seen before.” 

From the grindcore fury of Blusher to the doomscape of The Looming, this is the sound of a band out for themselves and doing things their own way. With the record in the bag and the news out to the world that Mike Vennart and Simon Neil had started a band with the greatest drummer on the planet, fans were wondering what this would actually sound like. 

Biffy Clyro, plus Oceansize, plus Slayer was not a formula that had been worked out in the past, after all. But through a series of small club shows, they made their intentions clear. “Truth be told, we were terrible,” Vennart says. “We actually had to abandon a couple of songs because they kept falling apart.” 

But with the attendant air of celebration (“We finally get to see this fucking band!” Vennart enthuses) none of that mattered. “The four of us are hoping to have a new album in the bag sooner rather than later and we’re already playing three new songs live,” he says. “There’s one called Corpse In The Chateau, which has my favourite riff I’ve ever written.”

It may have taken a decade for Empire State Bastard to become a band, but now it seems like a matter of months until we get more from them. Call them a supergroup, call them a collective, call them what you will. Just do it with respect.

‘Rivers Of Heresy’ is out now via Roadrunner Records.

Empire State Bastard Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu November 09 2023 - CARDIFF Cardiff Students' Union - Y Plas
Fri November 10 2023 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Academy2 Birmingham
Sat November 11 2023 - LONDON Electric Brixton
Mon November 13 2023 - MANCHESTER New Century Hall
Tue November 14 2023 - GLASGOW SWG3 TV Studio

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