A few weeks ago, I interviewed a personal idol of mine. He’s the former lead singer/guitarist of the rock band, Oceansize — which broke up in 2010 — who has since released a solo record and started an experimental electronic group. Prior to Biffy Clyro’s live show in Phoenix, in which he plays supporting live guitar, I emailed him and got a response, agreeing to an interview.
This dude is Mike Vennart and, though I want to avoid being overdramatic: his music renovated my life.
Oceansize came to me during a dark time. It was a transitional period: I moved back from Manila to Albuquerque for college, stomaching a poisonous break-up, left family and friends, dropping classes left and right and unemployed; the whole one-two. I was stuck in a vivid cacophony of compulsive overthinking, social anxiety and self-loathing.
If not for Oceansize, the experience would have been rampantly much worse. Their music is so dense that it took me four years to truly appreciate their entire discography. The perspective they offered was none like I had ever acknowledged before, and most of their material still holds up to this day. Songs I used to disregard now line my picks for a top-5 track list.
An Oceansize phase is a gargantuan experience that gyrates gently over a long period of time, and sinks deep with the power and audacity only a rich sonic paracosm can afflict. In trying to comprehend the band’s style and characteristic, I fell immersed in their wilderness.
Vennart (right) and bassist Ben Johnston performing "Living is a Problem Because Everything Dies" at the Crescent Ballroom, 3/4/17
They're well known for their line-up, the utilization of three guitarists: one for atmosphere and nuance, one for rhythm and consistency, one to go insane with. Moreover, Mark Heron’s drumming is out of this world.
Really, at times, it makes no physical sense how anyone can pull this stuff off in rhythm. Through it all however, it may just be the lyrics that defined the band’s artisanship. Vennart’s poetry tore through my darkest fits. At my lowest, I knew I could listen to the bars on, say, “The Charm Offensive” and, if nothing else, at least make myself some food or something.
Oceansize was unparalleled in conveying a plethora of emotions in unbelievably evocative ways. They have slow songs, fast songs, instrumental songs, catchy songs, angry songs, extremely angry songs, sad songs, happy songs, uplifting songs, and perhaps the two most important: the most beautiful and the most depressing tracks you may hear in a good while. I’m biased, I know I am, but I’m not trying to sell them — hell, the band doesn’t even exist anymore.
However, Mike Vennart does still exist and continues to produce/release quality material under various monikers. His 2015 solo record The Demon Joke is that unique perspective told through personal tales and a bright rock band production, proving he’s able to make easily digestible songs as well as grandiose soundscapes. Vennart and former Oceansize colleague Richard “Gambler” Ingram formed the IDM group British Theatre in 2012 and released their debut album Mastery in 2016. The record frolicked into trip-hop and glitch, previously unventured territory by the musicians but now I suppose they can scratch even those genres too, off the bucket list.
Before driving out to Phoenix, I told myself I would get the Oceansize bar-code sigil as a tattoo if Vennart was a kind interviewee. So now I’m faced with an important question: Does anyone know of a good tattoo artist?
DL: Your songwriting process is a lot denser than other artists of the same style; it’s often very deep and layered. Do you start with the lyrics first or the instruments?
MV: Never with the lyrics. Very rarely does an idea come from guitar, although that has changed a bit lately. Usually, I’ll start with drums and bass to get a groove going. More often than not my method now, in all likelihood, is that the music will stay written for about a year or two before I can even think about what I’m going to sing over it. I don’t like writing lyrics, it’s a real chore — when I finish a set of lyrics it feels like a big victory, because every time I sit down with a pen in my hand, it’s like the well has gone dry. And I remember specifically, there’s a song on the second Oceansize record called “A Homage to a Shame,” which is one of the first songs I ever wrote about writer’s block. Since then, I’ve written hundreds of songs about writer’s block, they’re nearly all about being scared about not being able to do it anymore, “it” being my only true sort of outlet.
DL: It’s funny you bring up Everyone Into Position, because it seems that’s when media outlets were like, “this dude knows how to write.” I feel like when people praise Oceansize, they point to the lyrics.
MV: Well that’s nice. Personally, I find with Oceansize the interest perhaps lies in more virtuosic elements of the band, which is never anything that I was particularly proud of. It kind of put us in the same bracket as the “Dream Theaters” types, using aspects that are only appreciated by other dudes in other bands. But I should make it clear that I didn’t write the Oceansize songs alone by any stretch of the imagination. We all put the music together, and then I had to push it into a direction of making it a song, which is quite tricky, because some sections you don’t feel like singing over. Some parts just speak for themselves. More often than not, I’d really struggle to make it into a coherent song.
In those days, I didn’t have the confidence as a singer or a lyricist to make these great tunes and not fuck them up with shit words, and I think, to be quite honest, I did (mess) quite a few songs up that could have been really, really good. But they got relegated to B-sides because of my ineptitude. And that happened quite a lot, there’s a lot of stuff that didn’t get finished from the last Oceansize album sessions, because I (messed) them up by not writing good lyrics, or just by not having anything to say at all.
DL: I remember reading a Facebook post you had for the album's 10th anniversary, you insisted the mix of your vocals on "Music for a Nurse" to be lower than usual. Which is funny because that song, the lyrics, it really is poetry. Do you still feel the same way?
MV: Specifically, for that song, we had the tune and debuted it at a gig we were doing. And I basically wrote the words, I knew what it was about, but I wrote them and thought “this will have to do for now. I’ll fix this later, but I haven’t got the time to go into it.” And then, just ending up singing that on the record, and realizing ten years later: Why did I ever want to change that? What bit of it wasn’t right? I’m not one for self-pitying, you know? I try not to write words that are moany, because I don’t pity me-self, especially not at the age of 40. But I’m quite proud of that one. It’s not just about the words, the music to that is brilliant.
I’m proud of it. When we were putting together the Vennart [live] band we knew we had to play some Oceansize stuff, obviously, so what was it going to be? And Gambler quite rightly said we have to play “Nurse,” there’s no way around it. And Oceansize stuff, it’s kind of looking at baby photos you know? I feel much better now about what I do now. But that’s a song, looking back, I don’t get embarrassed about.
DL: And you can hear it in Target: ’15 when you guys start playing "Nurse," the crowd goes insane.
MV: That was a good night man. The Arctanget show, it felt like there might as well have been 100,000 people there. It’s a great festival, they have a lot of those weird bands that don’t have anywhere else to go. I think it’s lucky that in the UK somebody’s going to book a gig with bunch of weird groups like that. I don’t necessarily get off on, like, instrumental math rock stuff, again it’s that virtuosic thing we were talking about before. But bands like Rolo Tomassi, with artists like that playing, it’s phenomenal.
DL: I want to go back to that point, but first: the Vennart live band has three-fifths the members of Oceansize. Now, this is going to sound crass, but why not find a drummer and a bassist and then, perhaps, go on tour or something like that?
MV: And call it Oceansize?
DL: I suppose it’s more fantastic in my head. But you do have 60 percent of the instrumentalists. If the potential is there, possibly reform Oceansize?
MV: Look, there’s an awful lot of hows and whys and wheres, and what not. But the fundamental point is that the music that I’m making now, under my name, it’s not entirely appropriate and relevant to the backstory or style of Oceansize. Songs like “255,” “Doubt” even maybe “Amends.” “Rebirthmark,” that shit would never fly. And “Operate”? No way would certain members of that band be willing — it’s too poppy. I mean, I’m happy with it. I also recognize that, you know, you can also have so many facelifts.
It’s no secret there’s personal animosity between certain factions of Oceansize. A much bigger deal is made of it than is perhaps necessary. We just don’t talk. Half the band just doesn’t talk to the other half. That’s fine. Being in a band is like a marriage, and when you break up you still don’t go out to dinner, you know what I mean? We’re all adults, but there’s a part of me that could’ve made it easier on myself. We had a record deal, we had a studio — maybe I should’ve just fired him, got another drummer in and kept the name. But ultimately it comes back down to: the music is different. End of story.
DL: Fair enough. For what it’s worth, your work now with British Theatre and Vennart is on par with Oceansize. Without a doubt. I don’t want to convey that it’s not.
MV: That’s kind of you. What can I say? I was in that band a long time, man. It means a lot to me. But it was seven years ago we broke up now. I think quite frequently I give people the wrong impression that “I hate my past” or that I resent people being such fans of that band. That’s not the case at all.
What does bother me is that, with the advent of social media, I’m really easy to reach out to and contact. There I’ll be, writing a song and in the middle of it, and I’ll get a notification from a complete stranger on Facebook, who doesn’t even say hello. It’s just “Hey when’s Oceansize reforming?” and you’re left like…"Really?" I find that crass. Really crass. It’s not just about what other people want. It’s about what I want.
At the end of the day, let’s say Oceansize reforms — what for? For the money? As a touring entity, we never made a penny. You’ve got to understand, there isn’t a reason for us to reform. If we were all good pals and there was a romantic notion of “I want to play with you boys again,” then I’d do it, and we wouldn’t have broken up. But whatever you do as a band there are pros and cons, and for a long time we had to ignore the cons. There came a point we couldn’t ignore it anymore. That was it.
DL: It’s worth mentioning that, regardless of money or relationships, the fanbase you made from Oceansize is one of the most passionate, compassionate and understanding communities in music out there. It’s hard to find people that appreciate music like that.
MV: That’s really kind of you. The thing is, I’m still a fan of music. The bands I fell in love with in my teenage years and in my 20s, I still worship those bands. Cardiacs, that’s my band you know. If we got even ten people in the whole world to feel that same way, then we did a great thing. As much as anything, we weren’t a very big band. But we were a lot bigger than our favorite bands. That’s not so bad. That’s pretty successful all things considered.
DL: Going back to that previous point – the environment you were in, making music in Britain around the mid-2000s. You had Reuben, Future of the Left, Pure Reason Revolution, Rolo Tomassi. What was it like working in such a creatively fertile environment?
MV: Didn’t really think about it. I mean like, Future of the Left are a band, previously Mclusky, that I took a lot of inspiration from. Falkous is a very good friend of mine, he’s an inspiring guy. Even Biffy back then, we were very close with and I took huge inspiration from them. Just the way Simon plays guitar, the archaic turn of phrase and surrealist lyrics — that was a real inspiration.
DL: Out of curiosity...Porcupine Tree? Have you ever said, "Hello," to Steven Wilson?
MV: Yeah, know him really well. We toured with Porcupine Tree on the second Oceansize album. He’s great, played with him loads of times. He just works really really hard. Again, it gives you hope, someone like him making really weird music has built up a name for himself, and can play anywhere and pull a few people. That’s the dream.
DL: Question on Biffy: you’ve been touring with them ten years now. I knew you involved on the Opposites album, so the question is for you and Gambler: Would you ever contribute in help writing a Biffy song?
MV: It’s a hard question to answer because, of course, if they ask me — really, I’d do anything for this band. They’re the best people I’ve ever met. We spend an awful lot of time together; I see more of these guys than I do my wife and kid. And if they weren’t, you know, I wouldn’t just do this for the money. They’re good guys. I’ve spent a lot of time on the road with people who aren’t good guys, and I’ve no desire to do that again. I’d do something else with my time. I just love the band, the people, the crew, everyone we have involved here is great.
DL: It conveys. It shows when you guys play on stage, there’s heart in it.
MV: They’ve been doing this since ’98, when they were 14. And they still have the same drive and ambition, and they still mean it. As much now, if not more than when they were kids in their dad’s garage. This band, you know, when I started playing with them properly, on tours, I realized how much more seriously they were taking in than Oceansize. That’s what didn’t help when I went back to Oceansize — it really underlined what a mess we were, and how we didn’t have respect for the audience. So I was like, we need a change.
DL: I want to ask about "Capra," as it may be the most gorgeous song you've had since "Nurse." How did it come about?
MV: Gambler wrote all the music and presented it to me like that, right off the bat it was like, “Oh, I got a melody for that.” It’s one of the quickest songs I’ve had anything to do with. We played it live last year, and it’s the one song that didn’t work live. It was at a warmup gig that wasn’t filmed so we didn’t put on the DVD — it’s just kind of… plodded. Kind of goes on a bit. But I like it.
The British Theatre album, it’s something I’m so happy with in how it worked out. When we started straight off the back of Oceansize, we just had to do something. We didn’t know what it was going to be and at first, it just didn’t work. I was really angry with myself because I wanted it to be so special. I wanted to make it work for Gambler, and it didn’t. So, when he joined Biffy it was a weight off my mind and we didn’t have to worry about it, it was just kind of a “let’s come back to that.” And when we did, we realized that everything we written was probably a bit shit, so we started all over again. And it fucking happened. It came together. There’s a lot of old songs on it. “Mastery” is really old, “The Cull” is really old. Other bits and pieces too.
DL: Very glad "Gold Bruise" survived the first British Theatre phase too.
MV: That’s the kind of thing we knew we had to keep. We’ll get another album eventually, there’s no mad rush. But the deadline for this next Vennart album, I want to get to the studio in December, which sounds ridiculous cause it’s only March, but I got to get Denzel back on the drums.
DL: That was all the formal questions really. How’s the family?
MV: Haha they’re good. The other day, my kid wrote his first lyric for me. He came up with the best line, he said, “You know. The bad guys, they don’t know they’re bad.” He’s a big Star Wars fan, and I’m definitely writing that down. Got a new tune called “Immortal Soldiers,” and I'm going to put that lyric in there,
DL: So there’s more Vennart material on the way?
MV: Yeah, I’ve got big plans, don’t want to talk about it too much but and I’m looking to do something more expansive. There’s some orchestral stuff on it, a brass band on one song — it’s still a guitar-oriented rock band though. I think some of the heavy rock fans are going to be pretty pissed off.
DL: Finally, a few questions off Reddit — theMethod asks, how the is Effloresce reissue coming?
MV: All I know about that is that Oceansize management told me last year that in 2017 Beggar’s are going to reissue Effloresce on Vinyl. Literally three years ago, we were trying to get them to do this, and they weren’t interested at all. So, it’s great that now they are.
DL: Hstapes asks, what chance of future tours for Vennart/Future records with BT? Which you kind of just answered.
MV: More of everything.
DL: Cementedshoes asks, any chance of getting "Voorhees" on Spotify?
MV: I hate Spotify, and I hate that song. It’s one of those I ruined with words. The music is great, the words didn’t happen the way they should’ve. My fault, I kind of wrote them in the studio.
DL: Iamposeidon asks, I’m really curious what gear mike used to get that filtered vocal sound on some of the old ‘Size stuff?
MV: That was (producer) Chris Sheldon used; it was a mic that was used from a tank, like an armored tank, and we recorded it at the same time as the main vocal and used alternate takes so it sounded like it was doubled. If you press it a lot you get this sweet punky kind of thing, it was all his thing.
DL: And of course, this last dude wants to know your personal favorite Oceansize song.
MV: Hmmm..."Ornament" or "Nurse." Couldn’t tell ya.
I knew I was eating into his time for soundcheck, so before parting ways I laid down everything I started this article with. A monsoon of post-teenage angst and gloom, and how my puzzles were pieced together, in part, by his work as a musician. Luckily, he didn't figure I was off the deep end and reciprocated his gratitude. He understood where I was coming from, being infatuated with the music and all, and seemed humbled that it was a sentimental moment for me. God knows, Vennart has probably had this same song and dance with other fans before.
But to thank him for his music, in person, was more than I could ever ask for. I didn’t think I’d be able to do this as a music journalist, at least not this soon. The waves of it happening still wash over me a month later.
In addition to a signed issue of Target: ’15 and a bro hug, I received one of the craziest rock shows on this side of the Mason-Dixon. Biffy Clyro threw down a ferocious two-hour set at Phoenix’s Crescent Ballroom. The energy was radiant; they were beyond passionate in performing and the crowd mirrored this liveliness tenfold. I’ll be following this article up with a concert review, but if you get the chance, it’s very much worth the gas money to see them live.
If that happens, give a hearty hello to the man that helps make everything run so smoothly.
Audrin Baghaie is the music editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org