Former Oceansize guitarist Mike Vennart comes in for a chat about his new band, British Theatre.
On February 25th 2011, social media surprised fans with news that an underground band from Manchester, UK, was dissolving. After 13 years, 4 albums, 5 EPs and a host of shows in Europe, the United States and Australia, Oceansize issued a blunt yet cryptic statement, saying “Dear Friends, we regret to inform you that Oceansize have split up. An explanation for this occurrence is neither forthcoming or indeed necessary. All that remains is to say THANK YOU for being there for us. It’s been a very eventful and life-affirming 12 years. We’ll miss you.” The former members have so far refused to get too far into specifics, although some comments on social media and a few minutes on Google and you could probably put the pieces together.
While all good things must come to an end, Oceansize alumni Mike Vennart and Richard ‘Gambler’ Ingram are collaborating on a new project they’ve titled British Theatre. A year after the dissolution of their former band, Vennart and Ingram have finally issued a début EP, showcasing a new musical direction while keeping true to some of the elements that made Oceansize such a likeable band. The new material is dark, and more resemblant of the works of Faunts or Radiohead than their alma mata, but it is still incredibly enjoyable music and will be sure to impress their league of followers and secure a new fan base while they are at it.
With a new EP released and the band finally beginning to make some headway, we caught up with Monsieur Vennart to discuss the new band, what the future holds, and what it is like to finally be in control of his music. Despite coming off an ugly break-up with ‘Size, Vennat seems excited as ever and eager to chat about what is happening in his world. I first decided to ask him that given what had happened with Oceansize, why did he decide to continue working with Gambler, as opposed to moving in a new direction altogether?
“We’ve always worked together. Our relationship actually pre-dates Oceansize. We met at Wakefield College after we’d just left school and hit it off. That was the early 90s. We’ve always shared an interest in similar kinds of tunes, so it was obvious really.”
While Ingram and Vennart have shared a long and fruitful relationship, moving from a five-piece to a duo has no doubt changed the dynamic between them, and offered its own challenges. And this can also be heard in the music; it is dark, experimental and has an interesting blend of atmospheric and electronic textures over and behind post-rock guitars and Vennart’s signature vocals. While Oceansize were noted for writing many of their songs while jamming, British Theatre has allowed Vennart and Ingram a chance to develop their ideas differently and even look at involving themselves in projects that they would not have considered before.
“Oceansize was a jam band, although by the final album there had been a welcome shift in the approach. We had all but exhausted the ‘jam’ method by that point. There’s probably an album full of abandoned tunes from that period that just weren’t interesting enough. So we began working in little factions. Groups of 2 or 3, or just bringing in ‘solo’ ideas for the band to work up. It’s this method that British Theatre has carried on. We begin alone and nurture an idea that can be anything from a 2 minute loop or mood to a basic demo, and we’ll just play pass the parcel with it until it’s right. We have had a couple of jams – just programming a groove and playing over it. We’re currently involved in a remote project with a whole bunch of other artists who we’ll never meet. We worked on this project with absolutely no idea of what to do and literally as soon as we started doing something we got inspired.Sometimes just throwing yourself into it is the only way otherwise you’ll think too hard and get bugger all done. In terms of challenges, I suppose on the one hand it’s harder as there’s only 2 writers rather than 5. Other the other hand, it’s fucking waaaaaaaay easier.”
Doing a bit of research for my interview, I was interested to see that Vennart had described Oceansize as “a band only musicians appreciated.” I was intrigued by this, and asked if he could elaborate a bit more on what he is hoping for in an audience; so just who should listen to British Theatre?
“Anyone. I’m not elitist in anyway, my point was that it was seemingly only musicians who appreciated Oceansize and, without naming names, I’ve always hated bands that give out nothing but that…you know…. ‘check out my chops’ kind of mentality. It’s a mindset borne of ego and the desire to show off. Often Oceansize wasn’t allowed to play certain things if it didn’t show off a certain individual’s technical prowess. Don’t get me wrong, I can fucking bang out a fair approximation of Allan Holdsworth, but who the fuck wants to hear me do that?”
Originally, Vennart was hoping to release a solo record immediately after the split of Oceansize, but was instead convinced by Ingram to record something darker and less ‘hopeful’ with British Theatre. But he has promised himself that the record will one day see daylight.
“Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of stuff I’m trying to finish which will be on my own record. It’s more guitar based, more settled and just more optimistic. I’ve always been a guitar player first and foremost. I think of playing guitar like smoking – It’s something that I HAVE to do every day. I can’t stop and I seldom get sick of it. When I play I tend to play in a major key and I’ve got a few things for the dreaded solo album which no-one but me will like. I can’t say when that will get finished as it’s very much in demo form and I’m about to become a dad for the first time. So I’m quite prepared to expect the unexpected. It’ll come out one day though.”
So while the solo album is sitting around and waiting for opportunity, the foot is still firmly on the pedal when it comes to British Threatre.
“We’re just tying up the second EP. We’ve recorded some drums with our friend Joe Lazarus (The Worldonfire, Voodoo Six) at a wonderful studio down south. The new EP is quite different. The lead tracks are longer and sound more like a band, although of course it’s almost entirely programmed. It’s heartening to think that we’re still so new that people still don’t have a full picture of what we’re about or what we can do. Neither do we, so that’s even more exciting!”
And while the band have a heavy electronic and atmospheric element, they are determined to try and take their show on the road soon.
“There will be gigs. Where, when or how I virtually have no idea.”
And despite the demise of Oceansize, Vennart is still making money out of the industry and avoiding the dreaded ‘day job’ tag, somewhat.
“We do other shit within the industry, yeah. I’m now qualified to squirt your earholes full of silicone, should you be looking to buy moulded earplugs/in-ear monitors.”
Vennart also plans to continue playing guitar for British rock superstars Biffy Clyro in his spare time. There was some debate about whether his commitments to Biffy were a reason Oceansize split up, a claim Vennart has strenuously denied. But, now that Oceansize are over, Biffy has become more of a priority.
“I’ll still be doing Biffy while ever they want me. They have to be the priority in so much as they’re actually a fully realised, functioning concern. They tour pretty constantly and they need me for that. Plus, I’m a big fan, they’re top blokes and the gigs are great fun. British Theatre is equally precious to me but neither Gambler or myself are too keen to get back on the treadmill of the toilet circuit. We did it solidly for 12 years and whilst it was mainly wonderful, eventually you get sick of the squalor.”
A fresh direction has also given the chance for Vennart and Ingram to try out some new techniques, equipment and instruments, with their social media pages regularly revealing new experiments.
“There’s always some new toy to play with. Chris Sheldon just sold us a WEM Copicat, which is an old analogue tape echo. Now, I’m a bit of a luddit at the best of times, but I’m fairly sure this thing is broke. I think the erase head is fucked so consequently all you can do is record, and the racket you can create is incredible. This fucking mad, cacophonous, pulsating, abstract loop machine. We kinda like it when things start malfunctioning.”
The band are also keeping things relatively in-house, remaining independent and doing their own promotion and plugs. But it is not to stay it will stay that way forever.
“We’re independent. There’s been interest, but none of it would be more financially accommodating that going it alone. That might sound a little pragmatic, but at this age there’s no point mugging yourself. That said, if Warners wanna give me a call we’ll talk.”
And while were’ in the subject of ‘the industry,’ I thought I might ask a man with years of solid industry involvement just how he sees things. I put it to him that I personally feel that the band managed to survive reasonably well for 12 years in a stratified music market and that it appeared to me that the music industry was finally starting to ‘reset’ itself. That being said, I asked him if he agreed and what it meant for the future.
“I agree that it feels like the tide is starting to turn. There’ll always be the younger generation who have come into a world where music is free, but I think now that the smoke is clearing we’re all realising that MP3s have little or no romanticism about them. Sure, it’s all about the music (maaaan) but you can’t beat kicking back with a glass of red and sticking the vinyl on. Look at the sleeve, read the words, roll a joint on the cover. I might sound like a boring old fart (and I’ve owned about 4 ipods over the years), and I love the convenience of MP3s, butthey’re not something I get excited about buying in the slightest. My primary gripe is Spotify. I’d sooner people stole my work than stream it from them. They pay the artists virtually nothing. Literally pennies per month. Yet they make a killing. They’ve forced the sales way down in certain territories, which wouldn’t be so bad if the bands actually got paid.
“…..None of which affects a single note I/we compose. Truth be told, using Bandcamp for our releases has been the most exciting/rewarding experience we’ve had. We can see every single download as it happens. We see the buzz, the interest, the sales and we see the fucking money right away. Previously we’ve relied on record companies or management to filter down this information to us, which can become distorted. Now we’re in the driving seat. We’ll be sending the records out ourselves. We’re running the whole show. It’s gonna get hard, but it’s very rewarding. It’s good for the soul.”