Ex-Oceansize man Mike Vennart on making laptop music with British Theatre

British Theatre's Vennart and Ingram laughing on a hotel bed
(Image credit: Will Ireland)

They do say opposites attract. As people, Mike Vennart and Richard ‘Gambler’ Ingram make chalk and cheese look like peas in a pod. The gregarious Vennart is a dyed in the wool chatterbox, a man for whom swearing is so central to conversation it’s almost used as punctuation, a rock guy who cut his teeth on Adam Ant (“The first record I ever bought was Antmusic. If you listen to that today it’s still barmy”), Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, a born frontman with a cheeky streak a mile wide. By contrast, Gambler is quiet, studious, happier to observe things around him than make idle conversation, a brilliant, classically-trained pianist who recently moved to the sleepy Peak District town, Hadfield, in which The League Of Gentlemen was filmed and who had his musical epiphany when he unearthed his dad’s copy of Oxygène by Jean-Michel Jarre as a child. And yet, as a unit, they share a creative chemistry that predates their celebrated old band Oceansize by seven years, and which has consistently proven itself a fertile ground for music that consistently manages to be challenging and instantly arresting all at the same time.

“It’s a weird one because me and Mike are just polar opposites,” says Gambler. “He’s the extrovert that won’t shut up and I’m the introvert that doesn’t really talk all that much. But that kind of thing works. I think gradually as we’ve known each other our musical tastes have kind of weaved in and out a bit.”

“I have a strange sort of, not fear of Gambler, but respect for him,” adds Vennart. “There’s a certain look that he gives me sometimes when I’ve said something fucking stupid. And he doesn’t even have to tell me, he’ll just raise his fucking eyebrows at me and I’m like, alright, I’d better shut my mouth for a minute. So in that respect he’s quite
a minimalist kind of guy in his personality, he doesn’t give very much away. But he just knows what he wants to do. It’s not that he’s uncompromising or set in his ways, there’s just absolutely no bullshit with him.”

While Oceansize threw a rocket into the heart of progressive, heavy alternative rock throughout the first decade of this century, and Vennart’s 2015 solo album The Demon Joke found the singer keeping the pedal to the floor and throwing in an amped up sense of fun, British Theatre’s debut full-length, Mastery, sees the duo delving deep into Gambler’s love of electronica and the avant-garde. It’s likely to come as a surprise to fans (although Gambler has been working on his own ambient projects for some time now), but it comes as a welcome one. It’s pacey, with an edge you could cut yourself on, and a wonderful sense of panicked claustrophobia to get the blood pumping.

“I think part of my fasciation with it is I can’t do it, I’m not a electronic artist,” says Vennart. “I can fart around in a recording application and make a half-arsed botched demo, so I have contributed in that respect. But Gambler is a fucking Jedi. And this is something quite different. It’s very avant-garde, very ambient experiments using field recordings and tape machines that don’t work properly. We haven’t really used any real instruments at all, to my knowledge. He barely plays the guitar on it. He was the guitar player in Oceansize, primarily, and he doesn’t really touch it any more. But when he does – fucking hell, he’s incredible. It’s his thing, and my party line on it is this this his world and I’m just taking a holiday there.”

“I had the idea for the project before Oceansize split up,” says Gambler. “All the kind of weird, droney ambient stuff I was doing. I had an idea to get Mike to sing on some of it, and that was where it was born. So we didn’t really know where it was going to go. I knew that I didn’t want it to sound like a band, having just come out of one. Then the first couple of EPs were just us trying to figure out what it was we were doing. Then we had a bit of a break because we went on tour with Biffy, and I think that really, really helped, because I think if we’d done an album a couple of years ago, it definitely wouldn’t have sounded like it does.”

Ah yes, the day job. As ways to earn a crust go, touring the world with one of the biggest rock bands in the UK isn’t a bad way to make a living. As on-the-road band members for Biffy Clyro, they’re gearing up for the whole circus to start again as the Scots release their new album Ellipsis, taking in Japan and South Korea as well as the European festival circuit.

“Going on tour with Biffy, for me, just coming from that background of independent labels where I come from, it’s just a bit of a total headfuck to be honest,” admits Gambler. “It’s like, ‘Is this real? Does this actually happen?’ I couldn’t quite get my head around it at first. It’s great fun. You’ve got so much time when you’re on tour, I was thinking ‘I’m going to get so much work done’. And I just ended up getting nothing done, because I couldn’t quite get my head into the writing thing when I was on tour. The whole thing was like a big holiday, so I was like, ‘Well I’m in Melbourne, I’m not going to sit in a hotel room working on a bass line.’ But I think this next time I’m definitely going to try and be more productive. Haha!”

But while the road beckons with Biffy, you’re less likely to see British Theatre on stage any time soon, something they put down to the fact that there aren’t any real instruments on the record.

“Seeing two guys on a stage with a laptop doesn’t sound very exciting, even though people would probably want to see it,” says Gambler. “I think you need something a bit more to put on a show. I’m not averse to playing this live, but I think we’d have to put a bit of thought into it. We definitely wouldn’t just get in a splitter van and go and play Tunbridge Wells Forum or anything like that.”

(Image credit: Photo by Will Ireland)

But it was a panic over a live show that lead to Mastery in the first place. The duo had a slot at the ArcTanGent festival in Somerset last year, and, having dusted off their previous two EPs, 2012’s EP and Dyed In The Wool Ghost in order to prepare, they realised they were no longer particularly in love with their own material. Cue them dumping the whole lot and frantically writing the album from scratch.

“We did three gigs, two of which were a warm-up for the festival,” says Vennart. “The only reason that gig was booked was to force both of us to finish the album. I confirmed the show and it was announced, and then we finally got together to go through all the stuff that we’d written, and then we realised that it all sucked. So we had the ArcTanGent show booked with no fucking songs at all. We knew that all the songs that had been released, we weren’t going to play them. So we wrote everything for that show.”

“We didn’t really know which direction it was going to take, and then some other things started making more sense and it ended up being a bit more electronic than even I thought,” adds Gambler. “Mike had just released his album, he wanted to get that out of the way, which was all guitar based. I think he was up for doing something different as well, something outside of his comfort zone. So I’m glad the way it turned out. It was all a bit of an experiment, I was experimenting with production techniques that I was learning as I went along. A lot of the songs are me finding my feet and experimenting with sounds and different production techniques.”

Long-time fans will welcome Vennart back, but, even though he was a crucial part of Oceansize (when the band came to a messy end, it was his decision to leave that made carrying on inconceivable), Gambler has always managed to deflect attention. British Theatre is his chance to shine. But, if his mother had had her way, his musical destiny would have taken a different path.

It’s very avant-garde, using field recordings and tape machines that don’t work properly. We haven’t used any real instruments at all…

“My sister was in a brass band,” he explains. “She’d played cornet since she was five or something absurd like that. My mum was always trying to get me into this brass band, and they needed a trombone player. I was like, ‘You’ve got no chance, there’s no chance I’m playing the trombone.’ And she said, ‘Well you can either do that or you’re having piano lessons.’ So I took the piano lessons. And it was fun for a while, a bit of a novelty. And then once you start doing it you realise it’s actually quite difficult. Now I’ve got to practise. I’m still not very good at practising,
I hate practising! I’m going through all the new Biffy stuff at the moment. But I’ve kind of got the snooker on in the background.”

The classical training (listen to the synth string-drenched title track that closes the album to get a measure of how much influence that has had) that followed has instilled a deep respect for musical technique, and a constant search for new ways to create. You can hear that experimental tendency all over Mastery, an album that’s difficult to categorise or to place neatly alongside other bands.

(Image credit: Photo by Will Ireland)

“I’m always learning,” Gambler continues. “If I listen to a piece of music I’m always thinking, ‘how did they do that?’ I’m more interested in the production techniques than what the singer’s singing about. Singers just get in the way don’t they? You can skip all that vocals nonsense! Haha!”

“I wanted Gambler to be happy,” says Vennart, revealing everything about his affectionate and respectful relationship with his old friend. “I wanted him to believe in what we were doing and I didn’t want him to give me a piece of music and then for me to sing on it and it to be rubbish. I just wanted him to think that we’d made the right decision to not be in Oceansize any more.”

Most of all, Mastery is the work of two men with nothing to prove, no one to impress but themselves. There’s no chasing fame and fortune, just the desire to push themselves and surprise themselves with their music. Like Vennart’s solo album, they’re doing it independently, without outside help or record company manipulation. The freedom of it all, and the purity of intention, suits them.

“It was out of necessity at first, and I certainly didn’t want to have anything to do with a record company,” says Gambler. “I don’t think I still do to be honest. Obviously they’ve got a bit of clout and there are plus points. But it’s very satisfying taking care of everything yourself, even though it is quite stressful, and there is that satisfaction that you are in control and you are the artist selling stuff directly to someone who wants it. The whole DIY thing, I’m really into those kind of little small homegrown labels. Tape labels and all the experimental scene, it’s still doing all that DIY stuff, selling CDRs and tapes and what have you. I really like all that.”

“We’re just two guys who want to put out a record,” adds Vennart, in a typically no-nonsense manner. “We’re not going to go on tour, we’re not trying to climb the ladder, we’re just trying to make a record and let people enjoy it. That’s literally all it was. I’m just fucking delighted that we’ve managed to get this record done.”

Mastery is out now and is self-released. Visit the British Theatre website for more info.

Emma has been writing about music for 25 years, and is a regular contributor to Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog and Louder. During that time her words have also appeared in publications including Kerrang!, Melody Maker, Select, The Blues Magazine and many more. She is also a professional pedant and grammar nerd and has worked as a copy editor on everything from film titles through to high-end property magazines. In her spare time, when not at gigs, you’ll find her at her local stables hanging out with a bunch of extremely characterful horses.