All screaming and no scheming, says Mike Vennart of Empire State Bastard. His feral side project’s gone wild, as ESB debuts Rivers of Heresy to external adulation and internal admiration. Looking for Lombardo, the parlor game played by the Oceansize veteran Vennart and his Biffy Crylo compatriot Simon Neil, landed the definitive Dave and his legions of Slayer faithful. Friend of a friend Naomi Macleod, of Bitch Falcon fame, completes the cadre of cacophony. Working backwards, they’ve come fully forward. Dreaming by doing, the ten tracks they laid down carry a cargo of carnage through a lyrical landscape, and the destination is yet to be determined.
mxdwn: Hi, I’m Ric Leczel. I’m a feature writer with mxdwn.com and I’m here with Empire State Bastard’s (ESB) Mike Vennart. We’re going to talk about their latest album, Rivers of Heresy. This is their debut album and it’s coming off of their success on their individual projects. So I’m going to start by just saying I read the quote about the back of the tour bus and you guys starting backwards. I just want to know where Empire State Bastard was that just to throw out the name, and then suddenly it stuck? Where did that go?
Mike Vennart: We had the name. Simon just had the name in his back pocket right around 2009, he misspoke at the Empire State Building. But you know, we’ve been talking about forming our own crazy bands. You know? It’s like you get a couple of guys in a band drunk enough and for long enough they’ll soon start hatching some kind of stupid plan. And that was all it was really, you know, myself and Simon, we’ve been friends for a good few years by that point. And yeah, that was 2009. We had the name and it’s taken us until now to realize this freaky fantasy and you know the mad thing was Ric, across that whole period, it’s something we were kind of talking about in public as if Empire State Bastard was this constant concern that we were, like working away or like little workers working on, getting the material together… and we were doing nothing of the sort. We were just dreaming about it. But we didn’t have any songs until you know, like three or four years ago.
mxdwn: I call that dream shopping. That’s a great story.
MV: Yeah, yeah, that’s cool. Most of this entire enterprise has been just manifesting. It’s like what you know. What? What is there left to do, and that’s this entire band.
mxdwn: Well, I’ll read a quote because when I read it, I literally fell off the chair laughing my ass off. Vennart stated that his approach was “to make the most fucking poisonous, vile music it could, just unabridged hatred in musical form.” Actually, I love that. That is so awesome and just that’s bitchin’.
MV: Well, you know, there’s a lot to be angry about in this country at the moment. So it’s, you know…if you’re looking to get pissed off and to make sort of aggressive, angry, subversive art; then you don’t have to look very far for inspiration in this country.
mxdwn: Well, let me ask you then: I’ve listened to the album a few different ways. I first listened to it in the car while driving because I had a road trip. I’m going to say it’s not road trip music man.
MV: No, it’s not. It’s not a good time, windows down, I’m out the window. Nah.
mxdwn: Those people who cut me off heard about it. But I really got into it when I put my headphones on and took a couple of edibles, and just turned the candle on, and holy shit man, I understood every single word.
MV: (Laughing) There’s a lot to be said for, you know, altered states, and certainly some of the record is quite psychedelic, really. You know, both Simon and I are fans of not only metal and hardcore and stuff like that, but we’re both… I’m very much from a psychedelic sort of background, so just bringing in some of that kind of textural mosaic kind of stuff to recordings without it getting too soft punk. That’s quite… that’s kind of the fine line. But yeah, sure, man, it’s, you know… texturally there’s a certain grain and grunt to the guitars that we kind of call it like, tantric metal, where you just… you have the opportunity to be sort of engulfed in it. You know it’s not trying to blow your mind with technology or ability. That said, the stuff is quite complicated, but I don’t think it’s complicated in an unlistenable boring, bookish kind of way you know it just…
mxdwn: It goes into the ears, if it’s complicated, it’s on your end. It’s not on the listener’s end. You can really feel that.
MV: Oh, good, great.
mxdwn: Along with that, you know, there’s another thing that said, it’s that you’re too hard for most Biffy fans and not pure enough for many Slayer faithful, but it’s a wonderfully weird wee beast and I thought that was kind of descriptive. I let some friends listen to it, and they’re like holy crap, man, you listen to this and I’m like, yeah.
MV: Yeah, it’s quite the tightrope to walk really because you know it was always going to be quite a tall order to expect my fan base and Simon’s Biffy fan base to all jump on board with this. There’s always gonna be an air of suspicion from the metal community as well. I understand that. You know, I’m a metal gatekeeper too, but I think the record stands up. I think it speaks for itself. I think once you hear it, I don’t think there’s any question. It’s not some kind of game that we’re playing here. It’s the real shit.
mxdwn: Yeah, and it’s gotten really good reviews critically and I haven’t checked the sales lately, but I’m assuming that they’re good.
MV: I don’t know, man. I try not to look at sales. It’s like you know when it’s getting towards the last week of the month, and you never look at your bank balance because you’re better off just not knowing.
mxdwn: Well, I’m in sales. Yeah, and every day is a zero man. So speaking of your fan base, did you, have you pulled some crossovers? Have there been some followers from your different camps that have kind of come to or is this a totally new camp?
MV: I’d say, yeah, yeah. For real. I think. Dave, Dave Lombardo is in the band, obviously and he certainly brings his own disciples, and rightfully so. I’d fucking pay a 50-quid to go and watch Dave Lombardo on his own, you know? So, I love that. I love that he has such a devoted and faithful following because not only is he an absolutely incredible player – He’s a fucking good, dude. So, I think the goodwill that he’s exuded and spread around the world for the last, what, forty years?
mxdwn: Yeah, yeah.
MV: I think that has just cultivated a really loyal and warm fan base. Yeah, they are just good people – like good people, so that’s cool. But yeah, definitely. There’s a lot of Dave fans, a lot of Biffy fans and I guess a smattering of Oceansize fans. Oceansize were never a big deal. Well, we were a big deal to a very small amount of people.
mxdwn: Big fish in a small pond.
MV: Yeah, exactly.
mxdwn: I’ll take that all the time. Well, so Dave, he brings some fans, and do you hear his influence in the finished product? I mean is he contributing his influence, his style, or is he kind of just playing what you want?
MV: Well, first of all, Ric, I mean, as you probably read in all the other interviews when I was writing this stuff, I set myself certain parameters so when I was programmed, I made little demos and I was programming the drums. When I was programming everything the guitar track said Tony Iommi. The bass track said Shane Embury from Napalm Death and the drums always said Lombardo. And so, when it came to it, we were struggling to find someone who could pull this off. You know, when we were sending the demos out and we know some great drummers and they’re all like, I just can’t do that double kick shit. It’s too fast. I can’t play like that. So, we were literally stumped and going well, who the fuck do we know who plays like Dave Lombardo, man, we need somebody who does that shit. And of course, the answer was staring us right in the face. When he came on board, I couldn’t believe it then. I can’t believe it now. But without a doubt, you know, we ordered Dave Lombardo. We fucking got Dave Lombardo. He is a unique and thrilling voice in metal. It’s not enough to say that he’s iconic because a lot of people are iconic who are absolutely unworthy, but he has a soul and power and swing about his playing that it’s… you can’t program that shit, you can’t teach that shit. He’s just amazing.
mxdwn: Yeah, you can feel that in the music, you can feel that. That’s so great to hear. So, something I’m interested in is working backwards, being in the food industry, an event is always planned from the finished product backwards. Is that how you typically create a project? Is that your norm or was this completely backwards from start to finish for you?
MV: It was totally backwards. We had the name first, then we wrote the songs, then we formed a band. (Belly Laughter) So we now have Dave on drums and Simon on vocals and on bass, so we pulled in a new friend of ours, she was in our friends group in Manchester, and she was a friend of a friend. I just checked her out and listened to the bands that she was in and decided that she was the one for us. She’s called Naomi McLeod and she fucking brings it. She’s so important, you know, just a fucking absolute ruthless bass player. So to me, I feel I just couldn’t be happier. Also, an important thing is Ric, I’ve kind of mentioned this already in a way, over the years I’m nearly 50, we’ve all played with enough arseholes in bands, every one of us. There’s a lot of toxic people in this business, but we, I feel like we’ve really, really found each other. It’s like I can’t believe that we have this opportunity to, be with such fucking cool people. Everybody’s really responsible, you know. There are no wreck heads. There are no fucking junkies. Everybody’s on their A-game and it’s just fucking good fun.
mxdwn: You know, in corporate America they call that the culture, right? The culture of the workplace or whatever. You don’t think one often thinks about that in a band, in a rock band, that there might be a culture that’s supportive and creative. Even tender, probably at moments and that you guys pick each other up and you cry. I mean, there’s all those emotions, right?
MV: Indeed, yeah. It’s very, very familial and there’s a real, a real human trust. That shit is important because, as the old cliche goes, it’s like… well, you know. People make the work, so it’s like we’ve all been in jobs with people we can’t stand and it can ruin a good job? For me, this is supposed to be fun making music. It’s supposed to be fun playing music and touring. It shouldn’t suck. It shouldn’t be work. And I feel like, I finally found my own band. I’ve been playing Biffy Clyro for like 15 years and that is an absolute joy, but this is my band now, you know. I haven’t really had that kind of harmony on such an important project, really.
mxdwn: That’s really cool to hear. OK, so you know, just hearing you talk about that and it, it sounds like there’s some vulnerability in there and a lot of musicians I talk to really do you know… find vulnerability to be a motivation and with your listeners, your audience, what’s the impact you want? What do you want us to take away from that? Yeah, it’s pissed off. But is there a solution here or is just being mad enough?
MV: Well, that’s a good point. I mean when the Brexit vote happened in the UK, it was an absolute, I mean, it is an ongoing disaster. But when that happened in 2016, literally the only possible light at the end of the tunnel was that there will be some fucking good music made because of this. You know, in the ’80s you had The Smiths and punk rock and all these things were a backlash against the political and economic environment. And I like to think that we’re the band, that we are certainly the band that I was looking forward to hearing in 2016. There are other bands like that, such as Benefits who have been out with us on tour. These were the bands that were fucking foretold on that fateful day in 2016. Is there hope in the record? I don’t know. I’m not sure, you’d have to ask Simon. Simon writes the words, but yeah, there’s certainly no romance in it.
mxdwn: Yeah. I mean, sometimes being pissed off is just a good place to start, because then at least it gets the juices flowing.
MV: Well, this is why we’re fortunate in some way, because we do have this ability to funnel our frustrations into art you know. Everybody else is just fucking climbing the walls, and the rents getting higher. The food’s getting more expensive, the bills are fucking out of the window, and you know, nobody’s getting paid any more wages. Everybody’s feeling the fucking pinch over here. But no, they should be rioting in the fucking streets every day. Well, they get away with it because we’re a fucking (long heavy sigh) I don’t know. We’re just. We’re too busy fucking moaning about it on Twitter. There’s gotta be some fucking solution to this shit you know.
mxdwn: Yeah. Yeah. Well, in America, it’s not much different. You know, the bad orange came the same time the Brexit came, and it’s been in turmoil. I find that, I think music like yours is almost a salve in a way. You know people want that… where it’s just like God, I’m just sick of the world. Let me tune out.
MV: Well, this is also… up until when the Brexit thing happened my tastes just changed really. I got where I could often console myself with, sad Indie boy music, you know? Or perhaps saccharin, indie music. But when the world started going to shit in 2016, none of that worked. None of it was helping. None of it was consoling in any way. The only thing that felt right was to get energized and get mobilized. And the only way to do that was to make this record and listen to music like this. I was so fucking outraged that I just made a note on my phone that just said make an album where every song sounds like “Cold War” by Siege. Don’t spend too long on it. Just fucking do it and that song became “Tired, Naw?” which is like… it’s just come out.
mxdwn: Oh yeah.
MV: And so that that was the blueprint. Just to do that, just get it done.
mxdwn: So, then that leads me into this, where does that evolve to? Where’s the next album, is it what you guys are working on for that sound?
MV: I’m planning on doing a Heavy Metal Advent Calendar for the band where they get at least a new riff every single day. So that’s what I was working on.
mxdwn: I gotta write that down “Heavy Metal Advent Calendar.” You know, I’ve had this name in my brain forever for a heavy metal band and I always thought a band would be great called Leather Wedding.
MV: That’s pretty good, man. It’s pretty good.
mxdwn: Too bad I can’t play anything but the radio. I mean, that’s literally the only thing I can play. That’s why I write about music.
MV: Yeah, (Leather Wedding under his breath) that would be a good kind of Spinal Tap song or something like that.
mxdwn: Is the band set? I know what we’ve talked about your love for the band now. Are there some players you want to bring in? Are you looking for other collaborators? Have other people asked you?
MV: No, nothing along those lines yet. Sometimes, because Dave Lombardo is in about 100 bands at the moment, we have to get a fella in to stand in for Dave sometimes. He’s called Tom Rice and you know, it’s no fucking easy task standing in for the greatest drummer of all time. But Tom does an admirable fucking job. He’s a good dude. But no, this is the band, we love each other. We love and we believe in the music, and we’re just yeah, we’re gonna get another record out as soon as possible. Hopefully record before the summer.
mxdwn: OK. So then that just touches on some of those challenges in juggling these different projects, right? I suppose during the pandemic, I mean, you guys were begging for things to do and now it’s kind of back to “the juggling,” right?
MV: Yeah, I think the pandemic just wrong-footed everyone, just put us all off our stride. But it was whilst… for the most part, I’ve written all the songs in the pandemic. It was certainly by the time the pandemic came around, it gave Simon the opportunity to really work on the stuff and he not only sort of wrote the words and the melodies, but he curated the record. So, I’ve just been sending him fucking tons and tons of shit over the years. Just riffs and riffs and riffs. He basically, suddenly had the time and the inclination to chop it up and make it into songs, you know, just trim the fat, and just curate it.
mxdwn: Well, I thought he did a great job because I always like to listen to an album in the order that it comes out because I think that’s kind of a tribute to the creator. That’s really what they put down and then you can kind of shuffle it a little bit and see how things hit and miss, but I really liked “Moi?” and then it came into that “Tired, Naw?” that it just… it had something soft and then it knocked your brain out. Then “Sons and Daughters” kind of comes out of everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and you’re crying. Then it, like, puts an arm around you and says it’s gonna be OK and that’s really… that’s pretty good.
MV: (Laughing) Well, you know both Biffy Clyro and my old band Oceansize and the things that I sort of tend to do have all been quite eclectic things. It’s not like we just listened to one kind of music, you know, and so even though this was always going to be a metal record, there’s a lot of different sorts of styles within that. There’s a lot of different gears you can play. So yeah, there’s, you know, sludgy, heavy stuff like the Melvins or Sleep or something like that. And then there’s Turbo thrash, Slayer stuff, you know? There’s just… there’s a lot of scope. I’m just looking forward to seeing where else I can take it after this you know.
mxdwn: Yeah. I think that’s the promise in the album as you kind of left it, it feels like you’ve left something on the table where, you know, you kind of want to see what’s coming next.
MV: Well, you tell me, Ric. Come on. What do you want to do? What do you think we should do next?
mxdwn: Well, I think you should probably…
MV: We’re not going Techno; I’m telling you that now.
mxdwn: I really like the eclectic. I think that is tapping into a vein right now where, like you said, in America, the pandemic, there’s two kinds of people. It seemed like there were people that kept saying just make the world stop. Then the world stopped. Some people progressed in their own thing and came out of the pandemic for the better, and some other people just screwed around and now they’re in the same job and going I hate this again. You’re like, why don’t you do something, and it seems like you’ve done something. That, I think is tapping into a vein. You’re productive.
MV: Well, thank you. I mean that’s really, that’s one way of putting it for sure. I feel like I certainly needed a change. I needed to do something. I just… I don’t want to say that life was becoming stale, but I felt that I was sort of treading water, and so it’s quite the midlife pivot. To perform a fucking thrash metal band with Dave Lombardo when you’re nearly 50, but here we are.
mxdwn: I’m really glad we had some time together. We’re close to the end of our time. Is there anything you want to leave us with? Is there anything you want to say that I missed?
MV: No, I mean this has been quite a thorough chat Ric, I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you. But no, just thanks so much for having us.
mxdwn: Mike, let me ask you two more questions. I just had to because I’m looking at your album cover which I love. I love it. I mean, it’s a cross between medieval – looks like there’s a castle burning in the background. There’s some World War I soldier. There’s a Wizard of Oz. There’s the Monopoly Man. It’s…
MV: It’s kind of like Hieronymus Bosch does Slayer.
mxdwn: Really cool. I really like it, yeah.
MV: I think the main character there, the guy with the thing over his eyes is Lee Harvey Oswald?
mxdwn: That’s pretty cool. So last question: Are you guys into AI or using any? Have you messed around with any of that or are you streaming anything of that?
MV: Should maybe, that’s going to give me some ideas. I don’t know. I’ve never played with it to be honest, no.
mxdwn: It’s unbelievable.
MV: Is it good? Yeah.
mxdwn: They’re really amazing. Some bands are using them, and some are shying away and…
MV: How do you get it to make music? How the fuck does that work?
mxdwn: I’ll have you know that they did that John Lennon song or was it Paul McCartney.
MV: How does that shit work? I need to get that, man.
mxdwn: So, well, listen, I really enjoyed our time. This is a great conversation. You’re a very talented artist. I appreciate my time with you.
MV: That’s kind of you to say Ric, thanks so much for having us and yeah, good luck with everything. Good luck with that.
mxdwn: And you guys have a great day, OK.