Introduction: enter the Theatre
Mike Vennart has never been an easy man to pin down. Where Oceansize dealt in progged-up riffs and krautrock-y hypnotic grooves, Vennart's recent solo material took a more accessible, hook-heavy path. Now, British Theatre - formed with fellow Oceansizer Richard 'Gambler' Ingram - sees his musical leanings veer off down another road entirely.
The project's electronic-heavy direction is one that the pair had been eager to take for some time, but was only realised following Oceansize's split in 2011.
“We got together straight off the back of Oceansize,” Mike recalls. “Often in Oceansize there were disagreements about direction: there was one camp that wanted the band to be strictly ‘heavy’ and another that was up for experimenting. We were both in the latter camp.
“It was obvious it was gonna happen 'cos we’ve been mates longer than we’ve been mates with anyone else.”
The pair are now readying debut album Mastery for release via Pledge Music, following the band's self-titled and Dyed In The Wool Ghost EPs. The LP, however, has been a long time coming.
“We started in January 2011 and had to bully ourselves into finishing three songs for an EP,” Mike explains.
“It’s been the same ever since: enforced deadlines make us get our shit together. As we both play for Biffy Clyro, we’re busy doing that most of the time, so for over two years during the Opposites tour we couldn’t really even think about British Theatre. That was fine with me 'cos I didn’t really have the confidence in myself or the music back then.
“When we reconvened in 2015, we found that we didn’t like much of the material so started all over again, but this time with a clear and terrifying deadline: the ArcTanGent Festival that August. I’m delighted to say it worked!”
Indeed it did. Yet, even for fans of the band's initial output, BT's new effort is a bold step. Mastery is an arresting listen, with guitar taking a backseat to angular electronic drums and flittering synth textures. Fortunately, the album is as triumphant as it is disquieting, and accordingly, recording the record's 11 tracks was a new experience for Mike.
“Vocally, yes, it was quite challenging,” he admits. “I can sometimes be a little set in my ways; I’ve got a couple of tricks I’m quite good at in terms of singing. But Gambler wrote some of the melodies, and with him not being a singer (hell, he seldom speaks!), he didn’t really know about what range I can pull off… So, stuff like Cross The Swords and The Cull were a little uneasy, but came off great.
“In terms of guitar, I tried to use only sounds which sounded nothing like guitar. So there’s some stuff buried in Dinosaur thanks to this spluttering, glitchy Dwarfcraft fuzz. Really horrible. There’s a lot of POG/synth-y guitar in Gold Bruise. Actually, Gambler plays quite a bit in Favour The Brave and some lapsteel in Mastery. There’s actually very little guitar on the whole record!”
Don't get any ideas about hearing the new material live any time soon, though; Mike and Gambler have other engagements…
“There are no plans at this point,” Mike confirms, “primarily due to the fact that we’re gearing up for a busy summer with Biffy… which is nice!”
As Mike gears up for a summer of massive festival shows with Biffy across Europe – including a headline slot at Reading and Leeds, no less – he found time to let us in on the 10 albums that shaped him as a musician and music fan.
Mastery is set for release in April and available to preorder from Pledge Music.
10. Pavement - Wowee Zowee (1995)
“I actually fell in love with Brighten The Corners first, and WZ was kind of a freakish curiosity, renowned for being the ‘difficult’ album of the catalogue. I listened to it a lot, but didn’t really appreciate its genius for many years.
“It’s a total scattergun approach. It sounds like much of it was written in the studio, everything being like an enforced first take. It has the curious quality of being at once sonically rich and yet totally shitty-sounding. The guitars are often shrill and brittle, not to mention quite out-of-tune.
“Nevertheless, the easy gems in there would be Grounded, which has had me in bits for 20 years now. Rattled By The Rush has similarly huge guitars which, in the pre-internet age, had me guessing exactly how they were achieved. Pavement really were one of America’s most interesting bands of all time.”
9. Faith No More - Angel Dust (1992)
“I think it’s fair to say that it’s the album that hits you at age 16 that will more than likely be there for you your whole life. For me, Angel Dust is that album. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Faith No More were a hip band, but still swamped in the horrifically dated funk-metal thing that was huge in the early 90s. Angel Dust wiped the slate clean, shredded their popularity and left everyone wondering what the big joke was.
“I love that this album resolutely does not give a fuck. It’s progressive, schizophrenic, dark, melodic, and occasionally hilarious (RV, for one, is so brave that one struggles to imagine any other rock band on Earth trying something so daring.) It’s still very much the perfect album in my eyes.”
8. Black Sabbath - Paranoid (1970)
“I heard this when I was seven years old. I already enjoyed Ozzy’s solo stuff vicariously through my older brother, as anyone who appeared to be a werewolf who ate bats was of immediate interest of course… Anyway, it turned out he was in this other band. And holy fuck, it turns they were the best fucking band there has ever been.
“The chemistry between these four men has never been matched, in my opinion. The interplay between them in War Pigs, Iron Man, Fairies Wear Boots. Sheesh. Every song is an absolute classic, stripped of all pretension, effects and tricks. The album is bone dry.
“Bill Ward (my favourite drummer) is playing on the very edge of his capabilities. He sounds like he’s about to derail any minute. Geezer Butler doesn’t just double the monumental riffs, he plays around them. Just the other day, I was listening to this record for the 2,000th time, and I finally realised there are two bass solos underneath the two guitar solos in War Pigs. But it works.
“Iommi's sound is amazing, too. Not the saturated Mesa-style chug that so many nu-metal pansies insist on lazily and uniformly relying on, but just a Gibson SG into a cranked amp. It sounds HUGE.”
“Special mention goes also to Ozzy Osbourne who, whilst being the most famous singer in metal, is easily the most underrated. His voice on those first eight Sabbath albums is unique. Both terrifying and terrified. Evil and vulnerable. If you still think he’s shit, just try singing along with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and get back to me. He was incredible.”
7. St. Vincent - Actor (2009)
“I’d never heard of Annie Clark until I saw her playing a solo show supporting Grizzly Bear. This record is almost like baroque pop, all flowery woodwind but with jittery funk and absolutely filthy guitar. She totally changed my mind about how pop really could be bent into any freaky shape you wanted it to be.
“Her autograph adorns the back of my Jazzmaster because she’s my favourite guitar player. Like a weird mash up of Fripp, Malkmus and Prince. She’s just the best.”
Annie Clark's signature adorns the back of Mike's Jazzmaster (Future/Joby Sessions)
6. Iron Maiden - Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988)
“This isn’t necessarily Maiden’s finest hour, but it was The One that got me. It’s their prog-rock album, and it came out when I was 12 years old. I learned the whole thing front to back, and had a religious experience seeing them, with my ma, at Donington in 1988. To this day, one of the greatest experiences of my life.
“In 2009, Steve Harris happened to attend an Oceansize show in Paris. He was actually there for the support, but stuck around for us. After the show, he came up to me and asked if I liked prog-rock. Being a snotty, snobby little tyke, I scoffed and said absolutely not. It only took me a couple of years to realise that Maiden were my hugest influence as a kid, and their proggy leanings had informed my taste ever since. So, Steve Harris, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU for everything and I’m sorry I was such a dismissive little dick.
“By the way, the year after that Paris show, Iron Maiden released the Final Frontier album, which included a lyric using the word ‘Oceansize’. Bearing in mind that ‘Oceansize’ isn’t actually a fucking word. Whenever I think about that, I get a little shiver down my spine.”
5. Mogwai - Mogwai Young Team (1997)
“To be fair, it wasn’t really the record, more the experience of seeing Mogwai around the time this record came out. Young Team was the only thing we had to remind us of what was an absolutely breathtaking show. I think that was the last time I ever did acid. What a way to go out.
“So, yeah, Mogwai came onstage at Sankey’s Soap in Manchester, a four-pack of Stella each, all in matching Scotland football strips. They opened with Mogwai Fear Satan, which is basically two chords for about 20 minutes. It was the most brave, passionate and devastating thing I’d ever seen. It absolutely changed my mentality of what music was. It was minimalism, maximalism, texture, simplicity and pure SOUL.”
4. Mr. Bungle - Disco Volante (1995)
“Yes, another Patton album. I was already a fan of the debut - which I can no longer listen to - when this came out in 1995. Honestly, I just did not understand this record when I first heard it.
“They toured it, I saw them twice, and it was THE most subversive act I’ve ever witnessed. They didn’t play a single song from their first album. Most of the set was covers. They didn’t speak a word to the audience. At one point Mike Patton clucked into the microphone while Trey Spruance played a lazy rockabilly lick. For about 15 minutes. It was the most patience-testing and deliberately indulgent thing I’ve ever seen.
“This album is brutally uncompromising. Genre-hopping was always their thing, but this record is still up there with the most ‘far-out’ records I own.”
3. Biffy Clyro - The Vertigo Of Bliss (2003)
“We got handed a pre-release version of this while we were recording the first Oceansize album. We played it four times in a row. We thought we were absolutely fucked.
“This is pretty much the perfect album. It’s long and sprawling. It’s got all those fanciful, silly ticks and twitches which make Biffy so strange. This record gave me a new love for spidery, wiry clean guitar. Simon’s clean playing reminds me of Slint sometimes, all weird clusters and dissonant voicings. He’s a classic example of an entirely unschooled guitarist bringing something fresh to the table.
“Learning some of those old Biffy tunes is pretty hard, as they often don’t adhere to traditional chord structures or patterns. There’s some freaky shit in there, for sure.”
2. Silo - Alloy (2001)
“Who the fuck are these guys? They’re a German band. I don’t know anything else about them. This record was pretty much the start of Oceansize’s love of freaky, repetitive grooves, and I still get a lot out of it to this day.
“It’s a minimalist approach, very loop-based, but it’s got a real sinister, pulsing, driving edge. Incredible stuff.”
1. Cardiacs - Sing To God (1996)
“The greatest. Cardiacs are my favourite band, and this is their masterpiece. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but this is the work of a true compositional genius. You can hear the commitment, the self-amusement and the utter fucking belief in every note of this double album.
“It can be tender and sweet (Foundling) or it can sound like the end of the world (Dirty Boy). To me, this is Cardiacs at their most extreme, most agitated, more psychedelic, most pop, most thrash. It’s their most extreme album. I’ll never stop marvelling at how the fuck it was ever even dreamt up, never mind physically recorded.”