As the leading light behind cult prog heroes Oceansize and sideman for arena-rockers Biffy Clyro, Mike Vennart has plenty to smile about. Now, as he releases his debut solo album, The Demon Joke, he gives us the lowdown on his multiple roles...
Oceansize remain one of 21st century prog’s best-kept secrets, and frontman Mike Vennart’s playing as part of the band’s triple-horned guitar assault displayed a masterful command of tone, time signatures and filthy, filthy riffage.
Although the Manchester alt-rock outfit met its demise back in 2011, Mr Vennart has kept himself rather busy since then, providing live guitar and pedalboard muscle for old mates Biffy Clyro on tour the world over. It’s a pretty sweet gig, but Vennart hasn’t given up pursuing his own ideas - far from it.
This year sees him resume his formidable full-length songwriting mantle, with the debut album from electronic-leaning project British Theatre on the way, and his first solo album, The Demon Joke, now released via Pledge Music, which is available with an optional signature effects pedal, no less.
In his chat with TG, Mike tells us all about his current tonal pursuits, the perils of touring with Biffy and why he just can’t part with his trusty old Squier Strat...
Taking a solo
Where did the solo album come from?
“I’d wanted to do something for years, even before the old band broke up - I’d had a hankering to do something a little more egocentric, I suppose, because Oceansize was very much a collaborative, painfully fucking democratic collective.
“It was a lot of fun in that respect: a very, very creative environment, but there were some things that were absolutely out of the question and certain guitar sounds that I liked - really horrible, fuzzy, broken-up Velcro shitty-sounding things. The Demon Joke’s an optimistic-sounding record in places, and I wouldn’t have gotten away with that in miserable old Oceansize.
“I got a lot more confident, as well; it wasn’t really prudent to be as virtuosic in Oceansize. I’m from a real trained metal, prog-rock background, and I wanted to fling a bit of that in, so there’s quite a lot of shredding in it, but it’s in a very, very ridiculous, shitty-sounding way. The solo in Retaliate is just the fucking stupidest thing I’ve ever done. It took me about 10 minutes, and I was really happy with it.”
Did you have any particular influences when making The Demon Joke?
“I’m a big, big Pavement fan; I never quite got over listening to Pavement. I keep waiting to grow out of it, but I get so much out of their music, and the strange thing is, it’s actually incredibly simple, but Steve Malkmus’s guitar sounds are just incredible.
“When I went to see Pavement when they reformed on the 2010 tour, I saw them about four times, and every night I was like, ‘What is that fucking amp? It’s the best guitar sound I’ve ever heard!’
“It was an Orange Retro 50, and I got in touch with Orange, and I was like, ‘Look, I want that amp. Can I have it... for free?’ And they were like, ‘No, we can do you any other amp for free, but that one you have to pay for. If you want it, there’s only one in the country right now, and after that, we’re not making any more.’ And I was like, ‘Fucking take my money. Give me it now.’”
How did your signature Green Carrot Infatuator pedal come about?
“Andy [Green] from Green Carrot Pedals just hit me up with, ‘Hey, do you want to try some pedals?’ and he sent me over a Big Muff clone - two different Big Muffs in one pedal. It was called Pumpkin Pie, and it was an IC Muff and a Green Russian Muff.
“I said, ‘My Big Cheese is broken - can you build me one?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah! We could make it into your signature pedal.’ I went, ‘If you could put me the IC Muff and the Big Cheese on the other side, that would do everything. That’d be phenomenal.’ And he was like, ‘No problem.’
“When we put them on sale, we were like, ‘How many are we gonna put out?’ because I’m not a superstar, and they weren’t cheap to buy from the [Pledge Music] site, and literally five minutes before I pressed go and launched it, I shat myself and went, ‘We can’t do this! This is not gonna work!’ And they all sold out: we sold 30 of ’em in two hours. People want to sound like me! [laughs] How fucking ridiculous is that?”
What amps did you use for the recording?
“I used my Orange pretty much religiously, and a Mesa Mini Rectifier. That’s my Biffy amp: for Biffy, I use the Mesa as my main distortion, and the Orange takes the pedal and is clean the rest of the time.
“I actually did it all through a Mesa CabClone; I didn’t mic anything up at all. It sounds fucking all right. I was quite happy with it! On a couple of tiny bits, I used a Kemper Profiler, as well. They gave me one of them, and I actually got the guys who produced Biffy’s stuff - they had the notes of every single sound that Simon had used on the last three albums, so they recreated all those sounds, took profiles of them, and gave them to me!
“So, I used them on quite a few things, just here and there. I have to say it sounded better than the real amp. I mean, you wouldn’t go, ‘Oh, that sounds like Simon Neil!’ but it’s like, ‘Fucking hell, that’s actually really good!’”
Was your Squier Strat the mainstay again?
“It was the Squier Strat pretty much all the way. On two songs, I used the Jazzmaster, because clean-wise, it’s just the fucking greatest. And then I got an SG - I used that on Amends. What happens is if I write a song on a particular guitar, then that song is the sound of that guitar, and Amends is that kind of thing.
“I’ve had the Squier Strat since I was 11, and the only original thing is the wood. Everything else has been changed: the frets, the tuners, the pickups - fucking everything.
“And I keep retiring it, because something devastatingly scary will happen, where that guitar is going to perish. It’s happened a few times: we played in India, or rather, we didn’t play in India because Metallica cancelled the fucking show at the last minute - just as we were about to go on stage, the show got cancelled, literally - and fucking 50,000 people that were there just went absolutely apeshit and burned the place to the fucking ground. And I was being driven out, just petrified that my guitar was gonna get burned.
“Biffy were like, ‘Well, you know, we’ve got insurance. We’ll buy more gear.’ I was like, ‘That guitar - I don’t have any other bit of gear where I’m like, ‘Without that, I’m nothing.’’
What's next, Venn?
“As soon as I get off tour, every day is British Theatre [Mike’s project with Oceansize bandmate Richard Ingram] day; I really want to get that record out. If I can get two records out in a year, I’ll be a very happy man, because the Pledge Music thing has been a joy.
“I feel tremendously lucky that it’s been a fucking screaming success. I can’t tell you how much fun it’s been just getting a lot of love. I’ve been in the shadows for five years, so having people who remember who you are and are still interested means an awful lot.
“The thing is, I feel really grateful that I’ve been welded to the guitar for 30 years now, and I’m still consumed by it. When I’m on tour with Biffy, if I’ve got a night in a hotel room, and I’ve not got a guitar, it’s like going through fucking smack withdrawal or something. I just start climbing the walls!
“It’s like a comfort blanket to me, and I’ve always felt really lucky that I can get this thing out of a guitar. I know there are people in my life who don’t have anything like that - they just haven’t got that direction, they don’t have that security. I feel tremendously lucky.”
Mike shows you round his dirt-heavy touring pedalboard...
“This is set up for backwards delay. Everything is mainly backwards delay, but it’s subtly done so you can’t tell. Infatuate has that sort of delay.”
“Just a standard digital delay.”
Death By Audio Echo Dream 2
“That’s my main delay; it’s an analogue delay that’s got loads of weird modulation in it as well.
“You get a lot of crazy oscillation and distortion out of it. It’s really, really ugly and beautiful at the same time.”
Electro-Harmonix POG 2
“That’s just to fill the space. It’s not even doing anything!”
Danelectro Fab Tone
“For when I just want to kill everyone.”
Dwarfcraft Shiva Fuzz
“This is real volatile, horrible; it’s not nice.
“It’s just for really sick, My Bloody Valentine atonal nonsense - it’s really good fun.”
Green Carrot Pedals Infatuator
“You’ve got the Big Cheese on one side with four different settings of fuzz. I use that a lot for broken-up, Velcro-y shitty- sounding stuff.
“And then the other side is the IC Big Muff; it’s got a switch on it that takes the tone control out so it just gets more woolly but really, really fat.”
Green Carrot Pedals Cornstar
“It’s just fucking deadly. That’s a really clear, amp-style distortion.”
Green Carrot Pedals Dirty Radish
“That’s a really nice boost, so I use that for a bit of overdrive.”
Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork
“I’m using it in place of a Whammy; the Whammy was taking up too much space. That’s the main sound on Infatuate.”