Mike Vennart is a busy man. He's in two bands, and is planning to juggle them both for the rest of the year. Hopefully, by the time 2015 draws to a close, there will be a British Theatre album in the world, and he released the debut Vennart LP back in June as well. He's also got touring commitments to keep: British Theatre play their first ever live shows in a couple of weeks; he's at ArcTanGent twice, and then there's the small matter of a nationwide tour for 'The Demon Joke'. DiS got Gareth O'Malley to interview the former Oceansize frontman back in May, amidst preparations for the PledgeMusic release of the record, not to mention getting ready to go see resurgent Oxford shoegazers Swervedriver. He had words for us on everything from playing with the Vennart live band & providing Biffy Clyro with his guitar skills on stage, to his love of odd time signatures & why he decided to go down the crowdfunding route in the first place, as well as his thoughts on the current state of the music industry, and much more besides...
Gareth O'Malley: To start us off you’ve been out touring recently playing a few shows; how was that? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think you’ve played live with the full band for a while.
Mike Vennart: Yeah, well it went fantastically. I’ve not done a gig as a lead singer for five years. In all honesty, I’ve thought about it every single day for five years wondering what it’d be like. The longer it goes on, the more you think you won’t be able to do it when the opportunity comes. So jumping back in straight off the bat, it was sort of adrenalised, but the audience were supportive and I think that there was an awful lot of curiosity from them. Mostly they were only there because of the old band, they didn’t know what I was going to play and what it was going to be, and I think because we threw out an Oceansize tune really early in the set, they could sort of relax, but in all honesty I couldn’t have hoped for better. I get quite sentimental about these things, and Oceansize was a long time ago really, so I feel tremendously lucky that people came out mid-week and had a good time I couldn’t ask for better, it was fantastic.
GO'M: What was it like playing the older Oceansize songs? You played 3 or 4, right?
MV: That’s right, four. It felt stranger in rehearsal, just sort of closing my eyes and just letting it flow. Looking over and seeing Steve Durose on stage with me was a real spine-tingler because Steve and I have kept in touch all these years, and because we’re just so busy we don’t see as much of each other as we’d like, but we’re still very much in touch and to have him back on stage with me felt amazing. Gambler, [AKA Richard A Ingram, British Theatre cohort] obviously I’m on stage with him every night with Biffy, but Denzel is a drummer y’know! We’ve been in touch for about five years talking about getting together and doing something. It’s just that sort of sense of relief and release of it just actually coming together and all of the logistical bullshit that you’ve got to deal with to actually make it happen, all of that just feels insignificant when you actually get on stage and play the fucking songs. I can get emotional at the drop of a fucking hat, and for me it was great, I feel tremendously lucky.
GO'M: You have a couple of different projects going on at the moment; first of all, obviously, there's the solo project that you're doing under your own surname. What made you decide to go with Vennart as your moniker for the solo material, and not under a pseudonym or a different name?
MV: Well, although I may come across like a complete egomaniac, I'm actually not, and I'm still not comfortable with doing something under my own name. The simple truth is I already had a project under a band name, if you will, being British Theatre. Ultimately yeah, Steve Durose has helped me out with certain elements of writing the music, [but] they're still my songs, and y'know, I'm blessed with quite a fucking cool surname, what can I say! I didn't want to call it 'Mike Vennart,' because I think I'd struggle; it sounds like a more singer-songwriter sort of thing...
GO'M: Yeah, that's not really what this project is...
MV: It's certainly not heart-on-your-sleeve, acoustic, singer-songwriter kind of stuff. So I thought the surname on its own sounded suitable; y'know, it didn't sound like a guy’s name. So I thought: fuck it, I'll just do that. Simple as that really.
GO'M: You're at ArcTanGent in August with your solo project and with British Theatre as well. What's that going to be like? your first festival shows in a while, of course.
MV: I think the only sort of difference is going to be concerned with the logistics of it, which are quite frightening. Just the idea of just jumping on; the thing is, I speak to my friends about these things and festivals are almost the worst scenario for any given band. Nobody gets a sound check and the first half of the set is going to sound like shit while everyone gets their shit together; nobody on stage can hear anything, the band is too busy trying to give signals to the monitor engineer to actually perform... stuff like that.
I've thought about it an awful lot, and as it happened, people from ArcTanGent and [sister festival] 2000trees had been contacting me every single year since Oceansize broke up asking if I had something to present & if I'd like to do it there. I had to keep saying no: firstly, I didn't have anything; and secondly, more often than not I was out playing guitar for Biffy. It was just always in the back of my mind, that one day I would do it, but hat was the first booking and it was like, 'okay, this is it, you've got to fucking do it now.' I didn't sleep for a couple of nights after I said yes to that. The poster, the announcement, seeing it all being real... it was like suddenly everything came into focus, but as I said I get a little stressed out with the ideas and just silly logistics about how to actually make it happen.
What I forget is that what it comes down to is me holding a guitar, and singing some songs with people who I know can actually pull it off. Being in any kind of band environment is all about trust, and I've said this before, but it's not the kind of trust where you're concerned about, "oh, I hope the drummer doesn't nick the last bottle of beer" or "I hope the bass player doesn't commit adultery with my wife"; it's more about "oh I really hope every member of the band doesn't get absolutely shit-faced drunk to the point that they can't play the gig;" things like that - "I hope that every member of the band can actually play the songs tonight." If you've got that then you don't actually have to worry about anything else.
GO'M: What is going on with British Theatre at the moment? I've heard from unofficial sources that you're planning to finish the British Theatre album this year and put it out as well, but obviously your Vennart project is your main focus for the next while, so what's going on?
MV: Yeah, basically having done the tour with my own band, every day is British Theatre day now. Unless I'm talking to journalists such as yourself, or if I'm doing a couple of festivals with my own band, I'm absolutely flat out. I'm determined to get this album done by the end of the year. Obviously, I don't want to talk about it too much. because there is still a fuck load of work to do, but the back story is that we formed British Theatre in the immediate aftermath of Oceansize breaking up, purely because me and Gambler trusted each other, and we were inspired by each other. We found that we've been screwing with various ideas for about a year, and I said, 'let's just put something out to get over that initial hurdle.' So we released a couple of EPs [in 2012] and we had another twenty odd songs just ready to go, and Gambler obviously started playing for Biffy as well, so since then - that's about two years ago - we've just had all this material just sitting there waiting to be put out, and when we came back to it we realised it wasn't what we want to do. We decided to start again, take some of the ideas, rework it all, and I have to say it's coming together, and it's making me uncomfortable in a really healthy way because it's making me sing in way I'd never have done before. At this point it's certainly not a guitar album, it doesn't sound like a band. It's full of a lot of Gambler's wild electronic wig-outs; it's going to be fantastic. I don't want to make any promises, but I certainly want to have this record out by the end of the year. That's the plan.
GO'M: What has it been like playing with Biffy Clyro - how long have you been one of their additional guitarists on stage? I know you've been doing it since 'Opposites' came out... before then?
MV: I joined them in April 2010. In fact, I literally went from the last day of mixing the last Oceansize album and jumped on with them, so I've been doing it since then. It's been an absolute joy. They are a fucking incredible band and I absolutely adore them as people, and also the people that surround their immediate peer group and their crew are all fucking great people as well. I feel tremendously lucky, and that has recently been underlined, in that I ended up playing guitar with someone I didn't enjoy being with and whose music was dreadful so it really served to underline just what a fantastic situation I'm in. I'm also very aware that I'm the scourge of every bedroom guitarist in the UK. I'm sure that everyone thinks they can fucking do it better than me, but tough shit!
GO'M: How much would you say playing live with them has rubbed off on you? I listened to the new version of 'Operate', and I could hear some newer Biffy influences in there, especially that extended bridge after the second chorus when all of the synth comes in.
MV: Yeah! I know what you mean. The thing is, I've always been a fan of pop tunes, and to me 'Operate' is one of those things. I was trying to write something like that ten years ago and I realised it wasn't something I was good at. I didn't sit down and... in fact, I'll tell you what happened when I wrote that song, I wrote it on the bass guitar and I had a bunch of ideas and I felt like the album needed a long floaty jam, like something that sounded a bit like Can or something like that, I wanted to do some kind of extended psychedelic fucking wig out and I ended up with the absolute antithesis of that, I ended up with a three minute pop song. Now, it's one of those things where you're just sort of following the trail of clues, and just a real subconscious thing and when that happens you don't question it, you just go with it. When I got to writing the chorus of that, the melody came into my head before I put any guitars on it or anything; it was just me and the bass guitar, and then it was done, and that was it. I was walking round [Manchester], and I just got to a dark sort of alleyway near Piccadilly station, and that middle riff just came to me, so I sang that in to my phone and put it together and that was it, bang. It was never contrived; I would never just go, 'now I'm going to write a pop song.' These things come out, y'know... the influences aren't all that hard to spot in all honesty, and when I got to writing the chorus for 'Operate' I thought, 'fucking great, I've written a song which sounds like Chvrches,' which of course it doesn't!
GO'M: I wanted to discuss a particular lyric on the album - I've had it less than a week so I haven't gotten to grips with it completely, but there is a line on 'Duke Fame' that I thought said a lot about your music making philosophy. It's, "I'd make a killing beating what's already dead,” so my point is, generally speaking, you wouldn't be the sort of person to put on a sort of cynical, instant-grat poppy sort of record...
MV: Yeah, no, I'm not capable of doing that...
GO'M: Like, the album definitely sounds like you’re still very much doing your own thing. People who haven't seen your live shows will probably expect it to sound like a continuation of Oceansize's stuff, and obviously there is a bit of that there, but generally speaking it's a whole new thing...
MV: Okay, well in all honesty... It depends who you ask. A lot of people thought, when I put 'Infatuate' out, 'fucking great, this sounds just like Oceansize!,' and I was like, 'well...' You've got to understand I sang for Oceansize and contributed to at least one-fifth of the song writing of Oceansize - sometimes a bit more - so it's going to sound like that. If it's got me singing, it's going to sound like that; but, that line in 'Duke Fame'... everything that I write, I just fling it down because it works in a phonetic sense, and it might come to me an hour later, or six months later, or ten fucking years later, what I realise the song is about. I know that line that you're talking about and I know what it sort of hints at, but when I look at [it], I think, 'okay, maybe I'm just consciously thinking I could reform the band and make a load of money, but we all know that's not fucking true. Oceansize could never reform and make money, we didn't make money then so we'd never make money now.
GO'M: A lot of people I know, and a lot of people I associate with, they're all big Oceansize fans but I'd say a good 80/90% of them would say. 'yeah, Oceansize had a good run, but Mike is off doing solo stuff now, so if they ever try to pull off that reunion tour thing that everyone is doing these days, it probably wouldn't work out.” So basically you’re saying you could never go back to that because you guys were a loss making band back then...
MV: Oh yeah! In the touring past, we were a loss making band. I think everybody is, but without going on and on about why that band doesn't exist anymore-
GO'M: You've explained all of that before and-
MV: Yeah, it's not something that needs to be gone over. 'The truth is out there,' as it were, but there's a lot more to it than going out there and getting money. Let's face it: bands are only fucking getting back together for the money, and there ain't any money in it! That's okay, I'm fine with that, y'know! This last tour that we just did [in early May], we didn't make any money, but it was a tour that needed to be played. I wasn't just going to glibly release a record and then not have anyone know about it. It's a selfish endeavour and it's a labour of love; I do it because I want to do it and if it costs me a little bit of money, then fuck it that's fine.
GO'M: You said something about going back out in October/November or something-
MV: Yeah, maybe, yeah... [This is actually happening in late November!]
GO'M: So what do you think would be the differences between that tour you just did and that hypothetical end of year tour?
MV: Well the idea would be that the record will have been out for six months or so, and maybe people will come along with less of a curious, 'what's this going to be like?' sort of attitude, and maybe they can enjoy the new material as much as they can enjoy the older stuff? I don't know; maybe that's being a little optimistic but let’s say that I was being... with regards to the gigs we just did I went into it with the attitude [that] if people walk away from these gigs having only enjoyed the fucking old material then that's okay. I'm pretty arrogant, but I'm not so arrogant to expect that people are fucking there to see me play anything but songs that they like.
GO'M: Plus, I suppose 'Operate', either in demo or in single form, is the only Vennart song that has been released to the public yet so far. So people will have basically no idea what to expect.
V: Yeah, that's okay. Ideally maybe in January I'll be going back out and playing with Biffy... I certainly hope so, but I can't be sure... I just need to make sure that I do everything I can to make it feel like I've acheived something. Like I say, it's a selfish endeavour, and if nobody buys a record then I'll be upset, but everybody has already bought the record, so it's fine! I don't need to worry about that, it's fucking done!
GO'M: What was that like going down the PledgeMusic route? I know that Oceansize worked with Superball [Music] for the last album.
MV: Yeah, they did 'Frames' as well.
GO'M: Oh yeah, and they released that on vinyl last year. So what was it like going the Pledge Music route first instead of just going straight to a label?
MV: That was basically what happened. I wasn't happy with the ordinary contract that every fucking label out there uses, y'know? To be quite frank, I don't like the idea of re-couping or not re-couping to a record deal. It's a fucking scam, the whole thing, and what nobody lets you in on is that even when you're un-recouped and you still owe the record company, they will have made their money back and they will be earning, but you'll still be fucked. It's the old business model, it's the way it's always been, and one day it's going to fucking change but at this point I was like... I can't do a deal like that, so I came to an arrangement with Superball whereby I could do the pledge campaign, have my way with it and then they could take the record and release it a month or so later. It's a little bit too good to be true, but it certainly fucking works for me.
This pledge thing... The whole concept of it was custom designed for someone like me. If I was being a little cocky I'd say that it's gone significantly better than I expected it to. I didn't expect it to be half as successful as it's been, again because I've not put out a record in nearly five years. Y'know, it's satisfying: yesterday I came home from tour and I signed 1500 fucking items to send out... all these CDs and stuff for people. It's incredibly satisfying and humbling, the house is a fucking state and it's driving us a bit crazy, but my wife and I feel absolutely fantastic that we do this from our home; the moment that the pledge campaign was launched, every iPad, the phone, the computer, just everything [was] going fucking crazy with notifications, and it just didn't stop, and it still hasn't stopped. It doesn't get any more exciting than that really.
GO'M: I wanted to talk about the idea that you think old business model is fucked and how pledging and various platforms are kind of the way forward. Every so often I get emails from PledgeMusic highlighting campaigns from bands that used to be on majors and I'm like, 'wait, hang on... this band are doing a pledge campaign, and they were on Universal or Atlantic a few years ago?!" It's a really eye opening thing. I don't know even 10% of what goes on there, because I don't really contribute on there too often, but it can be really surprising sometimes to find out that a certain band have gone down the crowd funding route.
MV: Yeah, I think that its custom designed for people like that. Pledge isn't really going to work for someone that doesn't have an audience yet, but the trouble is the only way to build up an audience in all likelihood is via the generosity of the wealthy patron. You need some kind of marketing muscle behind you really, but having said that, fucking hell... Beggars Banquet and Superball didn't exactly splash out. We went out on tour and they helped fund some of that, but in terms of marketing, every label I've ever been with simply puts the record out and waits for somebody to talk about it, and those first three Oceansize albums... Nobody fucking talked about them, so you just got to the point where it was like, if you were on a major label, a double edged sword... You either have that route where you just fling the record out and hope for the best or you have the other route where you go to the major label and somebody does pay a fortune in marketing and in all likelihood you won't pay that money back and you'll get dropped!
GO'M: Was that one of the reasons behind the... Well, I know we said we wouldn't talk about this but was that one of the reasons why you guys decided to put Oceansize to bed in 2010? Was there more of a business side to it?
MV: No, there wasn't. It was nothing to do with business; it was nothing to do with money; it was nothing to do with our ages; it was personal - personal and professional. Like I say, it comes down to trust... It was nothing to do with business.
GO'M: I hear stories about bands I have been aware of or actively liked breaking up every other month, and it's usually to do with the fact that there's some business snafu that happened. In one way it's really disheartening to see, but in another sense it's more that bands need to be aware of the different ways they can get themselves heard these days. If you want to go by the old process, playing gigs, getting noticed by people, signing a contract, putting out singles leading up to a record, publicity out the wazoo etc... That generally doesn't really work anymore...
MV: No, no, I mean... I think that when we were going, let's say fifteen years ago, we were all real Bill Hicks fans and we believed in not being in the pictures not doing adverts and all that, and what do you know ten years ago we got offered a sync with [mobile phone company] Orange [for 'Music For A Nurse' off Oceansize's 2005 album 'Everyone Into Position'.] It was a real conundrum for us because it was everything that we didn't want, and in the end we were like, 'well, you know, let's look at how else we could conceivably make money! We were just about to put out our third album ('Frames'), [but] our budget had been slashed by Beggars Banquet, so we were able to leave and join another label and we thought, just... 'Fuck it, for the greater good of the band, we've got to do this.' If that's what selling out is , 'd do it again in a fucking hot second, because the times have changed. Whilst no, I'm not in it for the money - I'm in it because I have to be in it - as an artist, you just create, but if you want to keep on creating and not have to work in a fucking bank, or for an insurance company, or [in] some soul sapping gig that you have to do, then you've got to be smart about it, and I'm not very smart in all honesty. That's why you pay management - but yeah, the game has changed and, to my mind, that's the only money that's in there... selling stuff to video games and adverts and all that kind of stuff... why not?
GO'M: There was never any question of you taking time out from music after Oceansize broke up, was there?
MV: No. Basically, the band broke up and I was really keen and sort of consoled myself with the idea of, 'fucking great! I can do anything I want now. I don't have to pander to the tastes of anybody else other than what I want to do.' So I dillied and dallied, and wrote loads and loads and loads of stuff that I never got around to finishing... and then I promptly became a dad after a year or so, and that absolutely took up every single spare second of time that I had. For a couple of years there we were just flat out; my wife don't have any kind of support network... There's no extended family around us, not in the immediate vicinity. So for a couple of years there, I realised how lucky I was to have had any time at all because I couldn't do anything at all, but it was okay because I was being a dad, and that felt absolutely incredible.
Then, slowly but surely, when the heat was taken off a little bit and my little boy started going to nursery and whatnot, I started getting a little bit of time off, five hours here, five hours there and I just fucking went at it. If there's one thing to fuel your creativity, it's being given a limitation... particularly with time. So that's it, I was finishing a song a day, going through this backlog of songs I had and finishing them. They'd been sat on the computer or hard drive, and I'd written all these instrumentals but I couldn't finish them so I gave them to Steve Durose, and he wrote vocal melodies on some of them so I dug some of those out... I just found this piece of software which I find unbelievably inspiring and I wrote a bunch of songs like that too! So that would include 'Infatuate', 'Operate' and 'Retaliate' which were all written on bass guitar, which I'd never done before. So yeah, for a while there I thought the game was up!
I thought, 'I've just not got the time anymore,' but y'know, I've said this before: the process of creating and stumbling around in the dark not knowing what you're doing, that uncertainty when it just tips and it hits the tipping point and it gets in the mind-set of "I know exactly what I'm fucking doing, this is going to work,” when you follow that through and you get to the end and you've fucking done it - that is just worth its fucking weight in gold; it's better than fucking anything! It's just the ultimate. I read this interview with Larry David's wife - not to compare myself with Larry David, because he's a fucking genius - but when he's writing Curb Your Enthusiasm, he just freaks out because he's got all these different ideas for each episode, and he'll just be like a bear with a sore head, and it's only when he ties it all together and at the end of each episode when he has that 'eureka!' moment that it makes it all come together. His wife said that he's just dancing round the house and is happier than you can possibly imagine. That's what it's like. I had all the stuff and I kept threatening, "I'm going to finish this record and have it out fucking next week"... I was like that for five years: "Next week I'm going to put out an EP, bang! Like that." I never did, because I didn't get round to it. With the very best of intentions, I just couldn't... It's basic writer's block. Everybody has it...
GO'M: Believe me, I know exactly what you're talking about.
MV: It's tough isn't it...? It's terrifying! But you know what, I was thinking about this as well. How many songs have I written over the last 15-odd years that are about writer's block?! There's at least one on every fucking album I've ever done; that fear of the empty page. I've written fucking loads of them! There's at least one on this record, so I think that every time you go in to it, you're sort of crossing your fingers thinking, 'fuck, I hope I can still do this!...,' but that's the thrill.
GO'M: I wanted to talk a bit about the creative process of writing music itself. I've been listening to the new record and some of the older Oceansize material over the last week, and you have some very interesting ideas about melody. Generally, is writing in all of these weird time signatures something you decided to pursue for the new record because it's more what you're you used to?
MV: It's just what sounds exciting to me. First of all, Oceansize was pretty much religously a collaborative effort; it was only on the last album where everybody came in going, 'right, fuck it, I've got this song it goes like this.' [On the] last Oceansize album ['Self Preserved While The Bodies Float Up'], we tried to do what we did for the previous three albums and just jam and get all of these ideas going, but none of it happened, so we came in and everybody had a demo, and bang, there it was. So when it came to writing on my own, I just sort of fell apart a little bit. I thought that I didn't really know how to do [it.] I got over that hump [by] just forcing myself to make it come together.
I don't necessarily have the ability to construct really, really strange harmonic chord changes. As you may already know, I'm a massive Cardiacs fan, I love that basically every chord is in a different key to the previous one, it's a real magic trick. Similarly, I'm very aware that anyone that is trying to do that is swinging from Tim Smith's bollocks! I fucking hate anyone who tries to rip off Cardiacs, it's just not on! I've given up trying to get close to that sort of thing, so I really do get my kicks from the time signature thing, but at the same time it isn't conscious. If you listen to 'Amends' (the last song on the album), that is an improvisation, the whole thing. I'd just got a new guitar (a Gibson SG) and I just found a tiny little figure and a couple of little things to surround it, and before I'd even worked out how to play it or how I wanted it to go, I just pressed record and just played it in linear. About two minutes of music on the guitar, programmed drums behind that and put bass over the top and I thought, that's it, that's the song.
GO'M: I got the sense that was a little bit less concrete than some of the other songs on the record.
MV: Yeah, you can tell! Obviously then I have to give it to Denzel to drum on and he's just like, 'there's no pattern to it' and there just isn't; none of the repeats are exact. It's just a total stream of consciousness - there's no verse, bridge, chorus, it just does what it does, and it changes time signature every bar, but it feels natural to me. I'm automatically interested if there is a little quirk like that. My friend Kavus [Torabi] from Knifeworld said, "You can fucking guarantee if you read a review and it says that the band are all fucking really ace musicians, that the band sucks!" It's one of those things [where] you're into the realms of tech metal or... I don't know... I like music that's interesting but not showy. That said, I'm doing an awful lot of guitar solos on this record, especially with the live shows, but it's in such a bizarre way. They're guitar solos in inverted commas. Totally off the wall, stupid guitar solos...
GO'M: Lastly, and I know this must be really difficult, but, favourite song on the new record?
MV: Hmmmm... Probably 'Don't Forget the Joker' - there's something in that song. Again, I had a few hours on my own and I had to do the lyrics; Steve had written the vocal melody on that one, and I knew I had to do it, and something came out of my subconscious. I think that's about the comedy, the bad choices, cause and effect. There's a mention of my old man dying in there, and there's a few references to Rik Mayall throughout the record so he's in there as well. I was really proud of it. It was produced a bit differently to the rest of the songs and as I was writing the words I sang it directly into the demo, and then when it came to doing the vocals for real I couldn't do it as well so I just kept the demo vocals. When I gave the album to Gambler - and Gambler doesn't give much away; I don't know if you realise but he's a quiet guy, - he told me it's the best song I've ever written. I think that's because Gambler knows me inside out, so for him to give me the nod on that tune makes me think that I've done well, so I'm happy with that one.
Vennart's The Demon Joke is out now on Superball Music. British Theatre's album is due before the end of the year. Mike, Vennart and British Theatre are touring soon, preceding Vennart's album tour in November, dates as follows:
19th – Firebug, Leicester (w/ British Theatre and support)
20th – Arts Centre, Colchester (w/ Christie Isaac)
21st – ArcTanGent Festival, Compton Martin (also playing in British
23rd – The Bodega, Nottingham
24th – Bush Hall, London
25th – Deaf Institute, Manchester
26th – King Tut's Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow
27th – The Hop, Wakefield
*All dates w/ Knifeworld and Cleft