From a chance encounter to a seismic tribute: Empire State Bastard’s debut album ‘Rivers Of Heresy’ unleashes cathartic chaos in metal form.
Words: Alexander Bradley.
A few days before Christmas 2018, Mike Vennart, former Oceansize singer, touring Biffy Clyro guitarist, had a run in with a right-wing organisation and it was posted online. A deluge of vitriol followed in the coming days for Mike and his entire family. Death threats. Threats to burn down his house. They targeted his son. His wife. His Mum. Hate mail on Christmas Day. So much for Christmas cheer, right?
The match that was struck in that coincidental meeting didn’t just spark up for the far-right trolls, though. It ignited Vennart too. In his words, he was “mortally angry”. Pissed off to “a colossal degree”. He only had one outlet for that fury.
“It was in the middle of the night. I couldn’t sleep because I was so fucked off,” he relives. “Being terrorised by far-right trolls on the internet and various other places, and I just had this tune by this band called Siege going through my head. It’s a tune called ‘Cold War’, and I just had this “feel” in my head and there, and then I put down a voice memo of how a song should go, and I said, ‘Just write an entire fucking album that sounds like that’,” he explains.
“Every few years I need to embrace the chaos and the nihilism”Simon Neil
That voice memo was enough to finally kick-start Empire State Bastard. Simon Neil, his Biffy bandmate, had been floating the idea of “ESB” in interviews since as early as 2011, but it was a name and not much else. The music wasn’t quite right yet.
“It was a blessing and a curse, to be honest,” Simon smiles. “I wish Mike hadn’t gone through all that because of all the trauma his family went through, but, my God, he just had something on his chest,” he remembers.
“And I could hear the change in Mike’s songs and ideas from that moment on. He got a real bee in his bonnet and thought, ‘I don’t want to live in a world where I’m scared to say the wrong fucking thing’, and he is absolutely right.”
That voice recording eventually became ‘Tired, Aye’, which features on ‘Rivers Of Heresy’, the debut album from Empire State Bastard. It took right-wing extremists to get the sound of ESB and then the pandemic to make the album. Maybe two wrongs do make a right.
Five years on, and Empire State Bastard are poised and ready to welcome anyone brave enough to step into their world of twisted metal. They’re a supergroup of sorts, but these are more the anti-hero alter-egos complete with a villainous sound. Simon Neil and Mike Vennart lead the line together, with their moustaches perfected and their respective Scottish and Yorkshire inflexions in sync, while Bitch Falcon’s Naomi Macleod and legendary drummer Dave Lombardo back them as fully-fledged “Bastards” in their own right.
You might know these names, but you’ve never heard them sound like this.
“Heavy and vital” were the instructions from Simon to Mike on how Empire State Bastard should sound. Vennart tried making something electronically infused and then some warped pop-sounding music, too, but it didn’t stick. And then Christmas 2018 happened, and it became about channelling his rage, fear and aggression, and everything started to click. The ideas and riffs began to pour out.
His knowledge of metal bands like Napalm Death, Sleep, High On Fire, Rolo Tomassi and more psychedelic music like Cardiacs were an inspiration. Add to that his love of Faith No More and pretty much everything Mike Patton does, Mr. Bungle and the more avant-garde, slightly zany, Fantômas too. They were the jumping-off point for making riffs that are “vaguely ridiculous”, according to Vennart.
As for Simon, the instruction for “heavy and vital” music came from a completely different perspective. Biffy had been through a purple patch for many years. Chart-topping albums. World tours. Festival headlining. He had already done the whole side-project thing, too, with the indie-pop stylings of Marmaduke Duke, so Empire State Bastard needed to be drastically different.
“Biffy is my DNA. We’re quite an eclectic band, Biffy, and that kind of encapsulates everything about who I am as a person. When it came to Marmaduke Duke, that was about embracing the most eccentric parts – almost everything I don’t get to do with Biffy, and there is very little I don’t get to do with Biffy.
“I feel quite privileged that our band have somehow ended up in this place where we can make really heavy music and make something that’s as pop as fucking the charts.
“So, it is finding those things, things that I don’t get to do in Biffy, and that’s maybe why it took a little longer for Empire State Bastard to come to fruition. I didn’t want the circles to meet. I didn’t want any kind of cross-pollination.
“It’s hard to know whether it’s something of my personality or just something that every few years I need to embrace the chaos and the nihilism.”
So for Simon, these extra projects have become the place to home the ideas that don’t fit under the banner of Biffy. “I don’t know if it’s different personalities or every couple of years I need to clear my soul of everything I feel is rotting it away,” he adds.
“I could just throw a lot of shit at the wall or rather, throw a lot of shit at Simon, and see what sticks”mike vennart
As the voice memos flowed from one inbox to another, as the pandemic forced us into our homes, as Empire State Bastard came to life, the Vennart-Neil marriage found them both adapting quickly to their new roles. Since the disintegration of Oceansize in 2011, Mike Vennart has spent a lot of time playing someone else’s music or on his solo project. His challenge in ESB was to write riffs and come up with ideas, all without the pressure to turn them into complete songs. In his words, “I could just throw a lot of shit at the wall or rather, throw a lot of shit at Simon, and see what sticks,” he laughs.
So, he flourished. “There have been a lot of good riffs over the years, and the gatekeepers of metal, God bless them, they’ll be the first people to tell you your riffs are tired, but there is no fucking way these riffs are tired,” he boasts. “There’s no way! Nobody is writing riffs in 13/8 with blast beats like that. No way, man!”
On the receiving end, Simon found himself in new territory too. His inbox was blowing up with hundreds of different riffs that didn’t repeat. Two-minute soundbites with 100 riffs. Six-minute epics with only one chord. It presented a much different challenge from the other band, where he is the sole creative force.
“Everything that we have [in Biffy] comes from me. So I always know the foundations and the inspirations of it all. Sometimes, I can be too close,” he concedes.
“I don’t know if Mike would agree, but it was quite nice to go, ‘That’s a great idea, but I don’t think it’s right for this’. The curator is a nice way to put it. Mike had so many great ideas, and he said, ‘Do whatever the fuck you want’.”
“I was doing the “Lars Ulrich” arranging. I feel like I’m the Lars Ulrich to Vennart’s Hetfield!”
“But it was a different way for me to create. I felt like I was moving different parts of a puzzle to see how they would fit and make sense with what I was trying to say, whereas, normally, I’ve created the actual puzzle pieces, and you know the destination. I found it liberating to not know the destination, and we ended up somewhere with each song, and each song spoke to one another, so there wasn’t a mad plan about the flow of the record. Once the ideas started coming together, it made perfect sense to me.”
‘Rivers Of Heresy’ quickly took form. It’s a gargantuan record. From the moment ‘Harvest’ erupts with a pulsating, chugging riff, it doesn’t look back.
“It is brutal all the time, but we do it in different ways,” Vennart explains. “Some of it really fucking grindy and fast, some of it is pure old-school thrash, and some of it is pure fucking New Orleans sludge. But, to me, it all sounds to me like the same band and not some shit Spotify playlist.”
Before the dust settles on the opener, ‘Blusher’ ramps up further and tackles those right-wing ideologies that were brought about at the time of the band’s inception. Then the unrelenting sound of the first two tracks gives way to ‘Moi?’ and the slower, more ominous approach takes over, and it is evident that there are many shifting dimensions at work in this album. There are many ways to skin a cat, so they say.
The first voice memos, cooked up in the dead of night, delirious with rage, made it into ‘Tired, Aye’, but Simon pulled out the guitars and bass from it (there is an original version still floating about somewhere). ‘Palms of Hands’ has these punky guitars as Simon envisions a post-pandemic sex party gone wrong. “Keys in the bowl kind of thing where it all goes drastically wrong because everyone has forgotten how to interact,” he explains. ‘Sold!’ wryly analyses our lockdown spending habits, but its chaotic energy brought Simon back to his teenage years when he first heard the music. “It made me want to be in a pit at a metal show,” he enthusiastically comments. And, before you know it, the closer, ‘The Looming’ marches into view with a foreboding tale of climate change.
‘Rivers Of Heresy’ has the feeling of a bull in a china shop musically, while Simon has written an album that takes a long look at the ways isolation has affected us over the last few years.
He explains, “I like to think of myself as a bit of an optimist, but the last few years have knocked me sideways. For the first time ever, I have a fear that things are going to get way worse before they get better. I don’t want to be a cynic, but that’s what I’m singing about.
“After the pandemic, the first thing that happened was Russia invaded Ukraine. Like, ‘Really?!?’ Just things that shouldn’t have happened after the trauma that the world went through happened.
“It’s about this lack of enlightenment, I guess. That’s the general essence of the album. We should all be more enlightened by now about every aspect of our lives, and it seems a lot of us are becoming more close-minded.”
It’s not always serious, though. “There should be moments of fun,” according to Simon, looking back at the writing of ‘Sold!’ and his own impulsive consumerism during the lockdowns. “There are bits of this record that are oppressive, deliberately so. And some of them should be that lightweight, ‘Let’s fucking mosh ‘til our heads fall off’.”
“I like to think of myself as a bit of an optimist, but the last few years have knocked me sideways”Simon neil
Simon can take a lot of credit for those lighter moments on the album. In its raw, rage-filled voice memo stage, it was unforgiving, and that isn’t lost on the final recording, but, in his role as a curator of ‘Rivers Of Heresy’, the singer was able to sprinkle some magic throughout the album. Vennart, however, was a little apprehensive about what that would mean for his vision.
“When he said that he wanted to add synths on it, I was a bit like, I don’t want this to sound like Nine Inch Nails. I don’t want it to sound like ‘metal band goes techno’ because I fucking hate all that bullshit,” he admits.
But, he put his trust in Simon, who took up the challenge to build upon Vennart’s considerable foundations.
“The wrong thing has always appealed to me. I loved doing the wrong thing,” he says, looking back at the synths and backing vocals which pop up across the record.
“If a song is the most brutal thing I’ve ever heard, then I want to put something that makes it sound like a fairytale or a wee lullaby. And that kind of runs through all my Biffy songs as well. Sometimes the most pretty songs will be about the darkest things. I like that juxtaposition.”
His aim, it seems, was to only add to the chaos while slightly sanding down the edges of some tracks. “I do love fucking with genres,” he considers. He fully leaned into his own eccentricity to run riot over the album. His track record for trusting those bold decisions has paid well in the past, though. It’s that eccentricity that took Biffy Clyro from quirky, math-rock newcomers to an epic rock band to then making small pop records or even a conceptual double album.
When it comes to those extra touches he brought to the Empire State Bastard record, he definitely comes across as proud of the extra dimension those flourishes have brought to the album. “I think it helps to give the record surprises and mystery, just that little bit of glitter on top that catches your eye on maybe the second time you’re listening,” he adds.
It makes for a reverently rich metal album, drenched in bruising moments while constantly shifting and evolving. Vennart hopes the album is the gateway for armchair Biffy fans to listen to Napalm Death, and that’s quite the ambition, but Empire State Bastard has a sound that demands attention and further exploration.
So what happened to the right-wing trolls that abused and threatened Mike Vennart, then? The ones who ultimately inspired the brutal sound of Empire State Bastard? Well, they moved on and found something else to be angry about, but for the duo making ‘Rivers Of Heresy’, their fascist presence only grew and added more fuel to sustain the fire beneath this album.
“At the moment, we are governed by the far right,” Vennart states, not mincing his words. “So many countries in the world are governed by the far right. You don’t have to look very hard to be inspired and to be appalled. I just feel very blessed that I do have an outlet, and that I am driven to do something about it rather than just shouting and bawling at people on Twitter who don’t fucking listen anyway. It’s a fool’s errand. All you can do is just get creative with it.”
For a person so friendly, so genuine and humble, with the warming embrace of his Yorkshire twang, it’s almost impossible to believe him when he says, “I lose my temper very, very easily” when it comes to engaging in conversation with right-leaning individuals down his local.
Regardless of all that got the band going, Empire State Bastard are not a political band. Despite virtually every song having a political point to make, the duo do not consider this to be a political project. It’s an interesting distinction to make, but it is indicative of where we are in society.
Simon’s views on the matter are very similar to Vennart’s, albeit even more intricate with the added pressures of being Scottish too. As for not being a “political band”, it’s in his view that the “omnipresent” nature of politics has made it impossible to escape when it comes to his lyricism. “Sadly, it’s just the era we are in where everything becomes politicised,” he reasons, describing this album as a “spasm of rage and frustration” in response to that reality.
Continuing, he adds, “It’s hard not to be angry at our government. It’s hard when you see everything that has unfolded. All the warnings they had for years and years and the decisions they made regardless. Austerity. Every decision our government has made has been wrong. You see other countries that have made better decisions and have grown.”
But when it comes to putting that in a song, it’s not about picking a political side for him; it’s about being compassionate and picking to be on the side of decency and people. It’s about the “human” response to him.
That clears that up.
And what about the future, then? Well, Empire State Bastard are not a flash in the pan by any means. They may have done everything wrong up to this point – started with just a name and no music, toured with two songs released, and made an album without a band – but they’re here for the long haul now they’ve got that figured out.
Dave Lombardo, the pioneering thrash metal drummer, Slayer’s backbone, is onboard and has never done anything like this before. “I nearly tried to get a selfie with him once in HMV in Manchester, and I chickened out!” Vennart admits. Dave’s work on Slayer had been the reference for how they dreamed the drums would sound on Empire State Bastard, so getting the man himself to sign up felt like a moment in which this passion project felt like it needed to be taken seriously. Recalling approaching the drummer, Vennart reveals, “I’m so fucking naive I tried to hit him up on Facebook first. What a fucking clown! As if that’s going to work? Imagine how many offers Dave Lombardo gets per day from people asking him to play on shit demos!?”
Thankfully, “the final part of the puzzle”, Naomi Macleod, was easier to sign up for and, in turn, secured a technically incredible rhythm section. And so, when Empire State Bastard first played live back in the Spring, they did it as a full four-piece.
Moving forward, they move together. Having spent years getting to the point where ‘Rivers Of Heresy’ is ready, they’ve already got firm plans for what the next album will look like.
“We are working on a second album. We are just taking it a day at a time,” Vennart reveals. “There are three new songs in the set already. One of them has the best fucking riff I’ve written in my life. I’m so happy with it. It’s like if Dimebag went fucking stoner. I’m so happy. And that’s a song called ‘Corpse in the Château’. We’re making plans. The next album will be a proper band rather than just being me and Simon with Dave on remote control.”
As for Simon and his other commitments, his eyes are set firmly on ESB for now.
“I love Biffy, and I miss Biffy so much, but the vibe in this feels so right just now. I think this is something myself and Mike need to do. I know it’s going to make the next Biffy record better for me. I know I’m going to come back and have all these melodies swimming in my brain.
“But no, we really want this to keep moving. It’s breathing. It’s stomping, and I don’t want to put it in the garage just yet because it’s a lot harder to start it back up, so hopefully, you’ll hear newer tunes and a new record sooner rather than later.”
“You don’t have to look very hard to be inspired and to be appalled”mike vennart
That’s the story of Empire State Bastard, a band that took seven years and a right-wing mob to decide what they sound like. A band that took 12 years to release their debut album and will take 12 weeks before they’re back in the studio to make the follow-up record. If you’ve been lucky enough to see one of their live shows or festival appearances in the last few months, you’ll know they’re chaos incarnate. As for their recordings, they’ve managed to bottle that pandemonium and dust it with these little extra touches of magic.
It’s catharsis; it’s relief in metal form. The best example of that is in Simon’s howling mad live performance. He is conscious of the consequences of screaming like a banshee for 30-something minutes, but in the moment, that’s the last thing on his mind.” I love screaming, but I know I will want to come back and sing. I don’t want to kill my voice forever with this,” he admits. He goes into every performance thinking of the damage limitation he could do for his voice, but then something else takes over. “But the excitement is so pure and true, and that’s what music should fucking be. I should be carried away. I don’t want to think about what we’re doing next. That moment is all that matters,” he surmises.
There are no such worries for Vennart, however, who is revelling in the catharsis, playing his riffs and channelling his anger. “Everything is just a lot of fun,” he smiles. “I feel like, for a good few years now, I’ve been looking for the answer, and this is the fucking answer. This is what I needed to do for sure.”
Together they’ve taken a horrible situation and made something monumental. A seismic tribute to metal music in all its varying guises. A monolithic middle finger to the right-wing thugs who tried to silence Mike Vennart only for him to find his voice. An Empire State Bastard, so to speak. ■
Taken from the August 2023 edition of Upset. Empire State Bastard’s debut album ‘Rivers Of Heresy’ is out 1st September.