A RIGHTEOUS PAIR OF BASTARDS: SIMON NEIL AND MIKE VENNART DISSECT ‘RIVERS OF HERESY
The duo at the core of Biffy Clyro discuss how frustration, hostility and the pandemic gave rise to some of their most cathartic material to date.
Anger is an energy, but it’s an expensive fuel. Empire State Bastard, the new project started by Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil and guitarist Mike Vennart, is full of rage. But their debut album, the splenetic Rivers Of Heresy, is more than a flailing paroxysm.
When I speak to them together over Zoom, their eyes sparkle with enthusiasm discussing the band. They are great company – giving each other the time and space to answer questions in an egoless way. They laugh a lot, swear profusely, and have an uncluttered conviction about what they’re doing you’d usually find in bands half their age.
Neil posits that Biffy Clyro’s hugely successful music is made with the heart and soul, full of romance and mystery. By contrast, Rivers Of Heresy is ‘a head record’ – and it thrives on gut instinct. For this band, Neil has dispensed with the guitar. Vennart wrote all of the album’s riffs. The music is abrasive but also painstakingly constructed: jammed and refined before it was properly ‘composed’, almost unconsciously.
‘Not to kiss too much ass,’ says Vennart, ‘but I think it was when I started playing with Biffy, Simon just picks up a guitar and plays fucking anything. The other two join in with that. Then they sound like Biffy Clyro. And we’re off to the races. Having seen you [Neil] do that for a few years, I realised, fuck, actually I have to just be fearless and less fucking precious. Just pick the guitar up and record what you play.’
For years, Neil reciprocally witnessed Vennart shredding riffs backstage before Biffy shows (‘riffing away like fuck’). They had the name Empire State Bastard for a putative project long before there was any music. Then the pandemic happened, Biffy was stopped in its tracks, and Vennart started sending Neil files of music.
‘He was like, “What? Who is this? Is this you?”’ says Vennart. ‘And I was like, “Yeah. Is this what we should be doing?” And he said, “Fucking brilliant, give us some more of that.”’
For Neil and Vennart the frustration and anger had been piling up – Brexit, the pandemic and the Ukraine war all provided a backdrop to the writing, recording and release of this album. Something seemed to shift in the world around them. In a time of isolation, people didn’t reach out to comfort one another, but to (verbally, sometimes physically) punch one another and flip each other off. Some recent metal releases have chosen creativity as a means of escaping that ugly reality, but the pair instead channeled it to sculpt an urgent, scabrous sound.
‘When I made the record, doing my screaming, I wasn’t in a great headspace,’ says Neil. ‘It was pure rage, pure negativity, and just trying to find a healthy way to get through the darkest mindset that I think most people went through for years.’
Playing the songs live, as they’ve been doing at select dates and festivals this summer, he began to see the light – the optimism – in the music. When the project was originally announced Neil labelled it ‘grindcore extreme metal’. He somewhat regrets that now, describing Rivers Of Heresy as a ‘three-dimensional record, that is intense, but in many different ways.’
‘There’s some fast and furious moments of traditional thrash,’ says Vennart. ‘But we’ve tried to bend the riffs into shapes that are unusual. Elsewhere, there’s a meditative sort of tranquillity but it’s still brutally fucking heavy. Minimalist metal, where you are overtaken by the neutrality of a single chord that goes on perhaps a lot longer than you expected it to.’
As singer-guitarist of prog-alt-rockers Oceansize, Vennart emerged as a musical force in the early 2000s. Fronting Oceansize, for Vennart it was a question of ‘trying to fit into a band and trying to bring your own flavour to the soup.’
Twenty years ago, metal was in a weird place – nu metal was an apostasy to an already conservative tradition. Conversely, alternative rock and hardcore was flourishing – bands like Dillinger Escape Plan and Fantômas didn’t care for boundaries. There was no such thing as too extreme, or too outré. Effortless melody rubbed shoulders with technical, almost impossible-to-imagine, ferocity.
Empire State Bastard needed a drummer who could go hammer-and-tongs at their material, but had enough flair to explore its outer reaches. They needed a drummer on the edge, who played like Dave Lombardo when he was in Fantômas. Why not ask Lombardo himself, the pair wondered. Neil and Vennart had the credentials in Biffy Clyro and confidence in the material. They contacted him, he liked what he heard, and soon one of metal’s busiest drummer agreed to get involved. These days you might say Empire State Bastard ‘manifested’ Dave Lombardo into the band.
Not only can Lombardo swing for the fences and drive a song like an out-of-control train, he has an intuitive understanding of giving the music oxygen that Vennart was pursuing.
‘There’s a moment in the song “Stutter” where Lombardo is going fucking hell bent for leather with the double kicks – the fast, furious thing that Lombardo does,’ he says. ‘But the guitars over the top are playing incredibly slow, sliding power chords. If you put those two wrongs together, it can be fucking really unusual.’
The results are indeed unusual and often thrilling. There’s the hard-and-fast variety of songs on Rivers Of Heresy (see “Palms Of Hands” and “Dusty”) but also slow, spacious mantras. “Stutter” has tightly wound riff cycles in the vein of High On Fire. “Sons and Daughters”, the tripped-out malevolence of The Melvins. “The Looming” is a paean to a dying planet tuned as low as cowled masters of drone, Sunn O))).
‘Myself and Mike, we’ve had total life-changing moments watching Sunn O))),’ says Neil. ‘I mean, I’ve got my Sunn O))) tattoo here [pointing at his arm] from [2009 Sunn O))) album] Monoliths & Dimensions. The weight and intensity of that one chord, and very little else happening, is just as intense as watching fucking Converge.’
Empire State Bastard sounds like the id to Biffy Clyro and Oceansize’s ego. The potential for this kind of record has always been in Vennart and Neil as musicians. They needed the right degree of experience and circumstance to bring it out of themselves. To give it the purpose it deserved.
‘It’s always been there,’ says Vennart. ‘I just feel like if I had made a heavy metal album in 2003, it probably wouldn’t have been as ridiculous as this one. It would have placed perhaps too much emphasis on being clever.’
Rivers Of Heresy is not all po-faced rage. It can’t be – the genre they’re operating in is inherently ridiculous, as much as it’s authentic and truly felt. That energy you can’t mess with – ‘fucking slabs of power’ (Vennart’s words) – is also expressed in ‘guffaw-inducing what-the-fuckery’.
This is best encapsulated in the song “Tired, Aye?” It marries a truly blistering, almost freeform drum part (which wouldn’t be out of place on Lombardo’s recent solo album, Rites Of Percussion) with Neil screaming, gibbering and speak-singing over the top.
‘I’ve always had a dream to do a fucking song with just vocals and drums,’ says Neil. ‘I’ve been trying to do it for years and I’ve never been able to write the correct drum part that’s just the right level of complexity but also feels like a complete idea, not too throwaway.’
“Tired, Aye?” was actually the first Empire State Bastard instrumental that Vennart sent Neil. In what could have been seen as an affront, Neil’s first request was to mute the guitars. In creating the song, Neil admits he deprived the world of ‘a wonderful Vennart fucking riff fest.’
Live, this ‘spasm of rage’ has taken on a life of its own. Vennart and live bassist Naomi Macleod stand poised to play their guitars as Neil whirls around the stage in a perverse duet with Lombardo. They can sense the audience anticipating the whole band crashing in, but satisfaction never comes. The whole thing is highly obnoxious, but Neil howls with laughter describing it as his Elton John and Kiki Dee moment with Lombardo. A particularly crazed “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”. The Japanese edition of the album has the song with the guitars reinstated under the moniker “Tired? Nah”.
Trust is at the centre of Empire State Bastard. Vennart and Neil have known each other so long they couldn’t surprise themselves if they wanted to. They trusted Lombardo musically without knowing him very well – a metal legend is legend enough.
‘I don’t think we did surprise each other,’ says Vennart. ‘I think, if anything, we just really reaffirmed our belief in each other as musicians and reaffirmed our belief that this is not a one-statement band. We’re not doing this record and that’s it, out of our system…’
They started the project with a hardline attitude towards melody: there wasn’t going to be any. But Neil describes himself as a ‘slave to the song’. Sometimes, the songs didn’t care about the band’s self-imposed rules. He had to trust his instincts when they demanded he give something extra to the songwriting. The moments when he switches into clean melodies provide transcendent, near-psychedelic moments of release from the viscera of the raw material.
‘Originally we were saying no melody, that was the chat. I just want to scream and I just want to growl,’ says Neil. ‘But I didn’t want to do the songs a disservice by sticking to this limitation. Without contrast, it’s really hard to magnify the feelings. Give the listener a little deceleration, and then we can step back on the pedal.’
Put simply, Empire State Bastard cares too much to let an emotion slide: ‘If we’d been more flippant about it earlier than then it wouldn’t have had this kind of pathos to it,’ confirms Neil.
The pathos of album and gig closer, “The Looming”, is heartbreaking. ‘When I get older/I won’t see you around,’ Neil sings like he’s etching the sentiment onto the statue of Coleridge’s Ozymandias, uncovered in a post-apocalyptic desert. The song is about losing the ones you love – about losing everything – to a world aflame from climatic devastation. Hearing the vocalist of Biffy Clyro classics such as “Mountains” cresting the swell of Vennart’s doom makes for an awe-inspiring listen. Vennart and Neil describe the song as ‘Tantric metal’.
‘One of my strengths is my instinct on music and what I trust myself to do,’ says Neil. ‘So even at moments in some of the songs where it’s the heaviest part – “The Looming” at the end, those stabs – originally there was no melody in those stabs. It was just gonna be this overwhelming, almost like a monolithic fucking structure just moving through the fucking landscape. But the melody of that just kept peeking into my mind.’
For all its transcendent moments, Rivers Of Heresy is unavoidably rooted in its creators’ seething anger from the last few years. The song “Moi”, in particular, has one line that resonates – a coolly sardonic ‘I like what you’ve done with that guilty grin’. According to Neil, it’s a song about ‘people who are arrogant enough not to take accountability’.
‘The whole album is wishing that we’d fucking grow up a little bit,’ says Neil. ‘The point of taking ownership of things is that’s how we learn and grow as people. See, if we refuse even that first step, then there’s absolutely no chance of moving forward. And it’s like everything that’s fucking shifted has moved us into this weird no man’s land where actually we can all mirror any responsibility outwards. “Oh that’s nothing to do with us, that’s so-and-so.” It starts from the fucking government, where they have zero accountability for decisions they’re making. Why are we so closed-fucking-minded?’
As a British band, Brexit felt like ‘a grenade that blew up our fucking lives’. In 2016, the Anglo-American west stepped through the looking-glass, where Donald Trump, Brexiteers, and later Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister, were trampling on notions of truth, and in turn, reality itself.
‘It starts from the top down,’ adds Vennart. ‘It’s like the example that we’re all set is absolutely abysmal. The way that the people who rule us actually behave is just fucking shocking. So at this point, you can’t justifiably expect any degree of decent fucking human decency when the people who are in power don’t give a fuck about anybody. Why should anyone fucking try even raising your voice above the crowd to try and make your fucking point? Somebody will shout you down no matter how right you are anymore. Being right is fucking dangerous. It’s not worth the effort to be fucking right. You might as well shut up, it’s not worth the hassle.’
If it’s anything, Rivers Of Heresy is a cry of anguish in a post-truth world.
‘If you don’t stand for anything, then you fall for fucking nothing,’ says Neil. ‘This was the healthiest way to express that. I mean, to be fair, during the pandemic, it was the only way, otherwise there would have been an awful lot of DIY in the house!’
With that, the pair breathe out, laughter ensues, and the raging river of righteousness is becalmed. Laughing in the face of adversity is one of the core reasons Empire State Bastard exists. And encoded in this album’s very existence is another message, embodied by Neil and Vennart’s passion and empathy. One of defiance and hope: Never let the bastards grind you down.
Rivers of Heresy features the artwork of Daniel P. Carter. The album arrives September 1st.
Order it – HERE
Empire State Bastard is set to make their US debut this September. The band is confirmed to perform at Riot Fest in Chicago on September 17th. The trio will then team with Chat Pile at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC on September 20th for a sold out set. ESB will then headline an intimate set at Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus Bar on September 23rd. Get tickets – HERE