Biffy Clyro, blast-beats and Brexit: how Simon Neil and Mike Vennart made one of the extreme metal albums of the year with Empire State Bastard

Empire State Bastard
(Image credit: John McMurtrie)

Simon Neil’s face has contorted into an expression of pure anger, verging on disgust. “I just can’t understand how people can be that fucking ignorant,” he spits. “That fucking lacking in empathy or decency. It makes me sick.” 

He’s just heard his friend, former Oceansize frontman and current Empire State Bastard bandmate Mike Vennart, recount a run-in he had with a notorious right-wing agitator and his legion of troll followers. It’s an event that could have had a depressing, negative impact, but the revulsion and venom Mike felt instead provided the seed that inspired this new extreme metal project. 

We’ll get to all that shortly, but first: Simon Neil. Yes, this is the same Simon Neil who fronts Biffy Clyro, one of the UK’s most successful, if idiosyncratic, modern rock bands. The Scottish trio have scored three No.1 albums in the UK, headlined Download and the Leeds and Reading festivals multiple times, and even had Simon Cowell take their 2009 song Many Of Horror and repurpose it as a No.1 single for long-forgotten X Factor winner Matt Cardle under the title When We Collide

Empire State Bastard are a completely different beast. The songs that make up their debut album, Rivers Of Heresy, sound like someone his zip-locked Converge, Amenra and early Hüsker Dü into a plastic bag and told them to murder each other. Jagged white noise, throat-shredding vocals and jackhammer rhythms – the latter provided by none other than ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, more on whom later – are the order of the day, putting even Biffy’s most wilfully awkward moments in the shade. 

It’s unlikely that Simon Cowell will be calling Empire State Bastard and asking to use one of their songs. It may look like an unusual prospect on paper, but it turns out that both Simon Neil and Mike Vennart have fantasised about making music like this for years. All it took in the end were death threats and a global pandemic to make 2023’s most unexpected musical left-turn a reality. 

The two men met for the first time more than two decades ago, when Oceansize were about to sign to Beggars Banquet. They were scheduled to play a label showcase alongside a strangely named group they’d never heard of. “They had this flagship band called Biffy Clyro,” says Mike. “I was expecting them to be some psychedelic Welsh folk band. But, no, it was this really weird rock band.” 

Simon remembers the show too. He says Biffy were impressed but a little intimated by Oceansize. “I don’t want to blow smoke up Mike’s arse,” he says, “but I immediately felt like I knew everything about him from the way he sang and played guitar. I remember after the gig we sort of nodded, ‘Right enough, we’ll see you again.’” 

That’s precisely what happened. The two bands crossed paths several times over the next two years, becoming friends in the process. Simon knew that he’d end up playing with Mike one day, and so it proved when the latter joined Biffy Clyro as a touring guitarist in 2010, a year before Oceansize split. It was on the road together that they realised they shared a love for heavy music. 

“We first got talking about Angel Dust by Faith No More, as we were both massive fans,” Simon says. “But Mike was into [another one of FNM singer Mike Patton’s bands] Fantômas. He introduced me to a lot of weird heavy music. I would say I was more into a different sort of heavy band at that point – [my tastes] were a bit more metal, and Mike was a bit more arty.” 

“I’d say so,” Mike responds. “I remember very early on sending Simon a VHS of [another Mike Patton band] Mr. Bungle and [cult British art-rock mavericks] Cardiacs. I was so evangelical about those bands. I still am – I can still clear a party real fucking fast by putting those bands I love on.” 

This swap shop continued, with each of them seeking out exciting heavy music to pass on to the other. Simon would give Mike a Will Haven CD; Mike would reciprocate with a Sunn O)))) album. One day, around a decade ago, they floated the idea of starting a band inspired by their love of extreme sounds. They even came up with a name for it: Empire State Bastard. 

The only hitch was that the workload involved in being a member of a band as successful as Biffy Clyro meant that neither could commit to it in the way they wanted. “The one thing we didn’t want to do was make it a throwaway thing,” says Simon. “You know: ‘Here are a bunch of heavy songs because we felt like making a few heavy songs.’ We wanted to make a dynamite heavy record. We’re steeped in the history of it, and we wanted to make something really special. That was why it took longer to gestate than we would have liked.” 

There was another reason for their hesitation. Mike admits that he was a little overwhelmed by the idea of what Empire State Bastard could or should be in those early days. “Simon is a songwriting genius,” he says. “I thought, ‘How am I going to make this interesting for him?’ I wanted it to be heavy, yes, but I wanted it to be weird, to freak people out. It’s easy to make metal by numbers – we’ve all heard the million and one Meshuggah and Linkin Park rip-offs.” 

“Any metal album can be made on a fucking laptop,” adds Simon. “But the best heavy music, the best extreme metal, has feel, it has soul. Life’s too short to listen to that fucking CGI metal shit.” 

Instead of rushing it out, the pair decided to take their time, sitting on their dream extreme metal project until they knew exactly what they wanted it to be, waiting for the spark of inspiration to materialise. They tried everything from “weird big beat, distorted bass” to “really spazzy, Dillinger [Escape Plan] stuff”, but none of it stuck. And then, in unexpected and not a little unpleasant circumstances, something changed. “I snapped,” says Mike, “and the dam burst.”

Empire State Bastard

(Image credit: John McMurtrie)

In late December 2018, a few days before Christmas, Mike Vennart was walking through Piccadilly Station in his native Manchester when he spotted a notorious far-right ‘activist’. Mike was so appalled by their past Islamophobic rhetoric that he felt compelled to approach them and explain just how damaging he believed their political stance was. It turned into a heated confrontation, which was ultimately live streamed on Facebook. 

Within minutes, pictures Mike had been tagged in on social media were bombarded with abusive comments from the figure's followers, including threats of violence and death. “My mother was called a whore, my wife was called a whore, there were threats made against my kids,” he sighs. “I had to get my house fireproofed, I had to call the cops. They tried to get me kicked off my management company, kicked out of Biffy…” 

He decided to try and diffuse the situation by staying well away from social media, but the damage had been done. One night, unable to sleep due to the cocktail of unease, fury and stress he was experiencing, he felt compelled to try and process his feelings through music. 

“It just happened one night,” he says. “I had this song Cold War by [US proto-grindcore band] Siege in my head, that’s just a punishing, fucking abrasive noise. I made a note on my phone that said, ‘Make an album. Make all the songs sound like Cold War by Siege. Don’t spend too much time over it. Don’t matter if it sounds shit. Just make a punishing, fast, horrible album.’” 

He couldn’t shake the seething anger he felt. Knowing he couldn’t reason with these people, he realised the only was he could deal with his feelings was to create music that reflected his mood. He awoke the next morning totally fired up. The depth of his anger and frustration at the situation was reflected in how quickly that music poured out of him. 

“I basically wrote the whole thing the next day and sent it to Simon,” Mike says. “I just said, ‘Isn’t this what Empire State Bastard was meant to sound like?’” 

Little did the right-wing troglodytes that had been making his life hell know what they’d unleashed. Simon was all in on the music Mike had sent him, describing hearing it as “liberation”. Two tracks from that creative rush, furious grindcore ragers Dick Privilege and Rat Catch, were release as a single by Mike’s band, Vennart, but Biffy’s commitments meant it would take the pandemicenforced pause on the world before they were able to give it their full focus. 

“It’s sad that it took that to happen, but we were never going to just shit it out,” says Simon. “Everything happens for a reason.”

The result of this decade of deliberation is Rivers Of Heresy, a record that they produced themselves wherever and whenever time and studio availability allowed, in what Mike calls “a totally fucking DIY, bedroom project, no-bullshit kinda way”. 

It covers a surprising amount of musical ground – grindcore, hardcore, drone metal, art metal, doomy post-punk and pretty much everything in between – packaging it all up in 10 short, savage songs. Mike’s riffs range from the brutal and distorted to the deceptively complex (fans of Oceansize will recognise traces of that band’s DNA here), while Simon’s banshee screech – used sparingly in his regular band – sounds utterly unhinged here. 

Despite his easygoing demeanour, he says he has “a lot of piss and bile” inside him, and Empire State Bastard has given him the chance to vent his frustrations at the world in a way that Biffy Clyro don’t. 

“I was sure that post-Brexit, post-Boris, post-pandemic, things would get better and we’d come together,” he says, sighing. “We have to come together because the world is dying and all we have is each other. There were things I needed to express that I just cannot understand, and I saw it all over that year. Usually, we’re on tour, we pop in and out again and live in our little bubble, but this was the first time I felt I was immersed in this shit our leaders have brought to this country.” 

Empire State Bastard’s line-up is completed by bassist Naomi Macleod of Dublin post-punk-influenced trio Bitch Falcon and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, a man Mike calls “the greatest metal drummer ever”.

“I wrote these songs with Dave Lombardo in mind,” says the guitarist. “I kept saying when we were demoing it, ‘It should have a Dave Lombardo fill here.’” 

“He mentioned it so much that we just thought, ‘Fuck it, if we want someone like Dave Lombardo, why not just try and get the actual Dave Lombardo?” says Simon with a laugh. “We sent the songs to Lombardo and he came back straight away and said, ‘This is fucking awesome, I haven’t heard a metal record like this in a while, I have to be a part of this. I’m so busy, but I’ll make time.’ We wondered if we just loved it because we love weird, heavy music. When you get that back from Dave fucking Lombardo! My god!” 

Speaking to Metal Hammer, Dave Lombardo explains that he knew Biffy Clyro from sharing various festival bills with them over the years. “You naturally go and check the bands out, so I’d been listening to their stuff,” says the drummer, “but I’d never have thought anyone from that band would reach out to me. I got into a Zoom meeting with Simon and Mike – we had a hell of a great time just chatting about what we were gonna do. I’m very honoured they reached out to me to work with them.” 

Mike sent his rough guide tracks to Dave. He describes getting the finished versions back as “just one of the greatest moments of my life… I didn’t need to do anything to them at all – they were perfect.” 

Even that paled next to playing with Dave in the flesh when the four of them convened in a rehearsal room in Yorkshire ahead of their debut three-date mini-tour in March 2023. “As soon as he hit that first cymbal, I was like, ‘Oh my god! Dave Lombardo is playing drums in this room!” says Simon excitedly. “Me and Mike have been lucky to play with some incredible drummers, but that was something else.”

Empire State Bastard

(Image credit: Press)

Empire State Bastard played their first ever show on March 26, 2023 at the Glasgow Cathouse, the first of three UK dates. Mike says that even though no one there had heard anything other than their 170-second-long debut single, Harvest, the show felt special. 

“There was a palpable sense of celebration, anticipation, trepidation, because this was essentially an imaginary band for a decade,” he says. “It was weird, because everyone was there, and they had only heard one song, so you could tell they were a bit like, ‘What are they going to sound like?’ and similarly we were walking on going, ‘What do we sound like? We’ve hardly met each other!’ I actually wasn’t nervous; this band just feels like the answer to a lot of questions for me.” 

For Simon, being back in such small venues and able to play with such looseness after years of huge festival and arena stages was a breath of fresh air. “The whole thing is that this music is on the cusp of falling apart at any given moment,” he says. “It has to feel like it’s bursting out of our fucking chest. I don’t want to do a 30-date tour and halfway through we’re tired and we’re ‘performing’. It has to be real.” 

Both men are aware that there will be cynics who look at their respective CVs – and especially the fact that Simon is a member of Biffy Clyro – and pigeonhole them as musical tourists. Mike Vennart has a message for metal’s gatekeepers. “I am a fucking gatekeeper of metal, mate!” he splutters. “I’ll tell you what is heavy and what isn’t.” 

“Most people in our position would make an acoustic record, because it’s easy,” says Simon with a snort. “This is something that has been in Mike and I’s bones for decades. This music is in our DNA. If some cunt isn’t going to listen to it because I wrote a few ballads [in Biffy], then I don’t want their fucking ears. We made this because it was screaming to get out of us. If you want to listen to it, I think you’ll enjoy it… if you don’t, go fuck yourself.” 

Quite. No compromising, no backing down, no playing it safe. Empire State Bastard are everything heavy music should be. Right wing trolls be damned.

Rivers of Heresy is out now via Roadrunner

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Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.