“I’m just using loads of the most horrible pedals imaginable”: Empire State Bastard on bringing a different kind of noise

Mike Vennart on how an altercation with the far right spawned his new grindcore-adjacent band with Biffy’s Simon Neil, and why listening to Cannibal Corpse is the most zen thing you can do.

Simon Neil and Mike Vennart of Empire State Bastard

Simon Neil (left) and Mike Vennart (right) of Empire State Bastard

When you purchase through affiliate links on Guitar.com, you may contribute to our site through commissions. Learn more

Mike Vennart is standing in the middle of what he terms a “sound bath”. At this present moment, he’s on stage in a cavernous tent early on Thursday evening at ArcTanGent – an experimental metal festival in the Mendip Hills, about half an hour south of Bristol.

In two weeks time, Vennart and his bandmate in Empire State Bastard, Simon Neil, will be unleashing their debut album, Rivers Of Heresy. Right now, however, Neil, is swaying uneasily, as if in a trance, as he howls razor-throated screams into the mic. His face is hidden by a curtain of long black hair, and paired with his schoolboy shorts and a white shirt that is quickly torn off as the tent’s humidity swells, he looks like some sort of deranged Jesus figure.

It’s fitting, really, for the music these men are making – an infernal, atonal kind of noise (grindcore-esque, if you must categorise it) where melody is minimal, and so is restraint. The combination of rattling riffs and flashing lights makes for an oftentimes disorienting experience. There’s one song, The Looming, that’s built around just one note and trudges on valiantly for six minutes. Another, Tired, Aye, uses no guitar whatsoever. Meanwhile, there’s a song yet to be released that’s exactly 60 seconds long. Sometimes, the scene on stage is even reminiscent of one from King Lear where the titular tyrant is fully in the depths of his madness. It’s a far cry from the stadium-filling singalongs that Neil belts out as the frontman of Biffy Clyro, but Mike absolutely loves it.

Guitar.com finds Vennart before Empire State Bastard’s set in a barn, of all places, at the far end of Fernhill Farm, where ArcTanGent is held. The dressing rooms are set up not far away from a pig pen – as festivals go, it’s about as far away from the beaten track as you can get, and ironically tranquil compared to the music he is set to play in just a couple of hours.

“I’m just using loads of the most horrible pedals imaginable,” the Oceansize man who also does touring duty as Biffy’s second guitarist says with a grin. “Big Muff, fucking HM2, that’s all feeding behind what the main amps are doing. Different levels of horrible. I can’t get enough of it.” To feel the ugliness of what Empire State Bastard are doing to its full extent, Mike sets his own gear up on stage, so he can be as absorbed in it as possible. “We’re probably going to make an album where we just send a delay to three or four different amps and just let it go and fucking zen out.”

Zen? Surely, that’s the last word that could adequately describe Empire State Bastard? “I was reading an article not too long ago that said there was some scientific evidence to suggest that people who love extreme metal are the most psychologically healthy,” Mike reasons. “I’m not very psychologically healthy; I’m on all kinds of medication. But yeah, the most zen thing you can do is listen to Cannibal Corpse.”

He has a point. Music of that ilk has a purifying power for catharsis about it, and it was cathartic for their creators too. After all, Mike pieced its first riffs together in 2018 – though the project itself dates back even further – in a moment of anger. “I had a bit of an altercation with the far-right. I can’t really go into it too much because I don’t want to give airtime to the involved. It wasn’t a distressing time [as such], but more an infuriating time,” he recalls. “I couldn’t really do very much about it other than channel my frustrations into making something fucking aggro. We’ve all worked on things that are quite heavy and pointed and menacing but I was like, ‘I need to go a cut above’, so I started reaching beyond what I’ve done before to make really fucking dark, heavy stuff with blastbeats without the harmonic colourations of anything I’d done before.”

Mike Vennart and Simon Neil of Empire State Bastard
Mike Vennart (left) and Simon Neil (right) of Empire State Bastard

Anger Management

It’s angry music for an angry climate, it seems. Beneath the layers of noise is a pointed politicism to what Empire State Bastard is doing, but Mike doesn’t wish to speak on behalf of Simon where his lyrics are concerned. He does, however, make clear he shares his sentiment. “There’s a huge frustration with the way things are being run at the moment, especially in this country.

Speaking to German or French press, everyone’s like ‘What the fuck’s going on?’” he fumes. “The Brexit vote was the biggest scam ever pulled on the British public in generations. Nobody can pay their gas bill, the NHS is on its ass, they fucking partied their tits off while we couldn’t visit our loved ones and I just hate it. We were lucky we could channel our frustrations into art, but most people can’t do that. We’re really blessed in that respect.”

At the same time, Empire State Bastard is as freeing for its creators as it is angry and cathartic. Firstly, they’re dancing on the shreds of music’s rulebook, disposing of any tools musicians standardly use to make their art sound listenable. Secondly, they’ve divorced themselves from the standard major label band operation – “You don’t have to adhere to what people expect from you, what record companies or management might expect from you, [when they all] want you to write a hit.” Thirdly, by starting from the bottom with a clean slate, they can assume new identities, separate from the ones that they built in Biffy Clyro and Oceansize.

Indeed, it was decided early on that Simon wasn’t going to play guitar for the project at all to prevent it from sounding even remotely close to his day job. “Simon has got such a unique style – he’ll tend to throw in a load of mad chord extensions, and that brings certain colours to the music,” Mike elaborates. “He didn’t want to look like ‘the guy from Biffy’ – he looks more like fucking Henry Rollins at the moment. I think he’s enjoying the freedom of not having a guitar on him.”

The man who is holding a guitar in this band, meanwhile, is starting with a clean slate too. Despite professing to be a Fender acolyte – “I couldn’t tell you which is my favourite Fender guitar, I just fucking love them all so much,” – Mike gravitated towards Gibson, feeling a heavier guitar with thicker strings would be better suited to Empire State Bastard’s vision.

“The [Les Paul] resonated a lot more so lends itself a lot more to heaviness. It just felt like, for this, I needed that break angle on a Tune-O-Matic bridge. I needed the thickness of a Les Paul, and I also used an Explorer with a DiMarzio ToneZone on it. There’s a certain attack you get in that mid-range [that I needed].”

It was maybe appropriate, then, that Mike says the process by which Empire State Bastard was brought to life was “completely fucking ass backwards”. The name came first, as far back as 2010, then there came the music. The world heard Rivers Of Heresy live, over an intimate three date run in Glasgow, Manchester and London, a whole six months before the studio recordings were set to drop, if only for the “boring” reason of vinyl plant delays preventing the band from putting it out as quickly as they’d like. Life was imitating art – convention was at the bottom of their list of priorities musically, after all.

Empire State Bastard press shot
Empire State Bastard. Image: Press

Partners In Crime

When asked to describe the roles he and his bandmate assumed as creative partners, the impression is that it’s possible to imagine the two men standing side by side next to a conveyer belt. Mike would start the process – he’d throw a double espresso down the hatch, maybe even a shot of tequila after for an extra dose of nastiness, set a metronome as fast as it would go and churn out riffs. Simon’s task, then, was to refine them. “At least half of every song on the album was cut, because I just fucking wrote loads and loads of riffs,” says Mike. “[Simon] turned it into some kind of reasonably clear and cohesive piece with some kind of linear quality to it.

“We came to this realisation recently that most of the songs, if not all of them, don’t really make sense till the end. Because there’s no structure to it, you don’t hear the intro and go ‘Oh, now here’s the first verse’, it just starts going crazy and then it stops, and it’s only then you’re left with the choice of ‘Did I enjoy the art?’”

Empire State Bastard won’t be a flash-in-the-pan moment in time. The pair have already debuted three songs live that aren’t on Rivers Of Heresy, which Simon insisted be written to pad out their live set. Mike swiftly came back at him with a song a day – “I was just so proud of myself; made to order, there you fucking go,” – and those songs mark the beginnings of a second album. If they’re not busy enough, the cogs on the Biffy Clyro machine are set to start whirring again soon, but that hardly means Empire State Bastard will get put on ice. “We’re going to hopefully have the second album written by the end of the year, if not recorded. We’ll see how we go.”

So… Mon The Biff? Mon The Bastard? Why not both?

Empire State Bastard’s Rivers of Heresy is out now.


The world’s leading authority and resource for all things guitar.

© 2024 Guitar.com is part of NME Networks.