“Some people think it’s my most optimistic record… I don’t hear that at all. I don’t feel like a comfortable person any more”: Mike Vennart’s latest album is all about his anger

Mike Vennart
(Image credit: Jessica Wild)

Former Oceansize frontman Mike Vennart has returned with fourth solo album Forgiveness & The Grain. It’s packed with mind-expanding grooves, angry licks and touches of psychedelia. But don’t be fooled by the title: he’s not in a forgiving mood.

Mike Vennart had a bit of a revelation recently: on releasing his new solo album, Forgiveness & The Grain, he realised it was his 10th record in 20 years. Those releases stretch across different bands and genres, from Oceansize – when he was in his 20s – to last year’s Empire State Bastard debut, his metal project with Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil and ex Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo

It’s a tally that’s bound to give pause for thought about the passing of time. Now in his late 40s, a fearful nostalgia runs through the new album, from the artwork to the deceptively beautiful music within. “As I’ve gotten older, the further back I look, it gives me a kind of vertigo,” he says.

“I feel like I’m standing at the top of a very, very tall building, and it’s so far away now. The artwork for the album has got a lot of really old photos at my mam and dad’s in the mid-70s. And it’s like another planet – how they looked, the quality of the photographs and the way they’ve become decayed over time and yellowed with mould.

“I don’t feel 47 years old. I’m still searching for the perfect Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt. I’m still listening to Black Sabbath. I’m still fucking obsessed with the same things I was when I was 16. So the idea that I’m actually pushing 50 is just fucking nonsense. Like, what does that mean? What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to feel now? Aren’t I supposed to have all my shit together? What does that mean any more, ‘Having your shit together’? I don’t know what the fuck is going on.”

There are clearly a lot of big subjects at play in Forgiveness & The Grain. Middle-aged angst is a whole different kettle of fish to teenage angst – just as overwhelming, but with the added daggers of bitter experience. Life experiences come at a cost, people get things wrong, and they’re not always given the chance to make things right. Which is where the title comes in. “Initially it was about how forgiveness is quite a powerful endeavour in this day and age,” Vennart explains.

“It feels like redemption is quite a rare thing. I’m not talking about cancel culture; I’m just talking about how it’s difficult to make a mistake and be allowed to heal from it. There’s always the whiff of accountability. And I think that in keeping with external forces refusing to be accountable – which we see every fucking day – what pushes back against that is a demand for punishment, for repayment. So in that respect, forgiveness is an almost impossible juncture to arrive at. And so to be forgiven, to receive forgiveness, is to go against the grain.”

Vennart’s head seems to be a busy place to live. Which is why, he says, he’s used the music “as a sort of sound bath” with abstract washes of distorted guitars, and a hypnotic drone that can become meditative and healing. “I found myself hiding from emotional music,” he explains. “I was just listening to neutral harmony, music that is either perfect fifths, perfect fourths, things that don’t have perfect thirds, minor thirds or major thirds in it. There’s no specific emotional quality to it, so I can just be in a neutral, meditative frame of mind to try and shut off the fucking noise of absolutely everything else.”

Who’s got any level of security any more? Your rent goes up, your bills go up, food’s more expensive. How secure is it possible to be?

Coming straight off the back of Empire State Bastard’s metal filth, there’s a real beauty and elegance to these songs. It’s eclectic stuff. He sites Swans as an influence on Seventy Six (“It’s this hypnotic, fucking black hole that just takes you somewhere else”). Casino, with shades of early Verve or Earth, was intended “to be opening up a big fucking starry, sparkly, smoky room.” At one end of the spectrum, Fractal amps up the distortion to crazed levels, while at the other, the pretty RU The Future?? was inspired by Lana Del Rey and Phoebe Bridgers. “3 Syllables is probably as prog as it gets, though,” Vennart adds. “That riff at the end is pretty fucking crazy. It’s my hemiola trick, which I’ve used countless times on various things.

“I don’t really want to make things that are too twee,” he continues. “But I’ve just always had a real love of psychedelia and what usually comes with that as a sort of mosaic, baroque fullness. It’s not meant to be showy; it’s meant to be psychedelic in that sort of dark way that The Cure have, where things are quite flowery and involved. It’s like ASMR.”

Joe Lazarus is back again on drums, and Richard ‘Gambler’ Ingram adds the odd flourish on piano – he and Vennart have been working together since the start of Oceansize 32 years ago. But mainly this is a very solitary record: just Vennart alone in his spare room, blasting out layers of noise on his guitar, tapping into the darkness and claustrophobia of the modern world. Musical beauty meets the beast of anxiety.

“Some people think it’s my most optimistic record,” he says, with surprise. “I don’t hear that at all. It’s a sombre, nostalgic record. The first two solo albums that I made had a much more substantial air of optimism and a comfort to them. This is not a comfortable album to me, because I don’t feel like a comfortable person any more.

“I’m just questioning absolutely everything. At no point do I feel that there’s a future that’s worth looking forward to. I feel fucking incredibly scared and fearful of whatever might come next in my life and on the global stage. There’s a lot of references in this record about just crying at the feet of passers-by and recognising that at any point any one of us is minutes away from being made homeless.

”Who’s got any level of security any more? Your rent goes up, your bills go up, food’s more expensive. How secure is it possible to be? None of this is going to change anytime soon, because the government are absolute fucking psychopaths, and the primary candidates in the opposition are about as effective as a cat flap in an elephant house. The Labour Party are an absolute disgrace – they’re an alternative to absolutely fuck all. They’ve got four years to sort this out when they get in power. And when they fuck it up, the Tories will be back as Tory-plus, Tory fucking cubed. It’ll be Nigel Farage in, and Suella Braverman. It’s not going to fucking go away.”

Ah, yes. Politics. Social justice. Standing up for what’s right. These aren’t subjects Vennart has ever shied away from. Keeping his opinions to himself is the coward’s way out, and he’s admirably forthright in his beliefs and morals. Which is why he ended up the subject of an ugly right-wing pile-on when he was videoed calling convicted criminal and far-right activist Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) a Nazi when he spotted him in the street five years ago. Since then Vennart has been the target of online threats of physical violence and a campaign of intimidation from nameless, faceless keyboard warriors who took umbrage with his comments.

“I will never back down,” he says. “If somebody wants me to apologise to that guy for shouting ‘Nazi’ at him on the street, OK, but I know why I did it. And I meant it. That guy is a shit- stirrer. He showed up to Manchester days after the fucking Manchester bomb, which killed 22, and he starts talking about how the people on this street are enemy combatants who want to maim and kill you.

“I used to live on that fucking street. It was the most peaceful place I’ve ever lived in my life. I’ve been calling that shit out for years. It’s OK to sit behind your fucking computer keyboard and talk shit all day, but he was right in front of me. Fuck him.”

Spotify would be great if you’re craving a live profile… I just don’t want to be in that kind of company. And I don’t have to be

Vennart’s morals extend to the way he runs his creative endeavours. He won’t, for example, entertain the idea of making any of his music available on Spotify. “I disagree with their funding of AI weapons; I disagree with their platforming of the likes of Alex Jones [far-right radio show host and conspiracy theorist],” he says. “I disagree with the streaming culture at large, but I understand it and I respect it.

“Spotify would be great if you’re craving a live profile; maybe you want to sell some concert tickets. I’m not playing any gigs. I have no plans to play any gigs. So I just don’t want to be in that kind of company, man. And I don’t have to be.”

He has, however, found a sense of freedom in Patreon. Not only does the crowdfunding platform give him a direct line to the people who love his music, it also means there’s no time limit on when he can send them new songs. Had a flurry of inspiration that day? He can have new music in their inbox within the hour. So while the new album may feel as though it appeared from nowhere to the outside world, with very little fanfare, he’d been drip-feeding the songs to his followers for the past couple of years, making them part of the process. It is a taste of true independence.

“I really love it,” he says. “Apart from the obvious financial implications, I write a lot of stuff; and as soon as I finish something, I can let people hear it and get immediate feedback. And I really enjoy that because there’s nothing more frustrating than only taking a big dump every four years and going, ‘There, I’ve done the record.’ It’s like micro-dosing – every couple of days I get to release something and people generally like it.

“Don’t get me wrong: being signed to a major label is great; everything gets done on your behalf. And I’ve certainly never been in the position where I’ve had to sign to a label where there’s some prick telling me to write more choruses. But now I just make the stuff and then put it out.”

I feel like within the three bands – my band, British Theatre and Empire State Bastard – I can get a lot done; I can do virtually anything I want

For all the weighty subject matter on Forgiveness & The Grain, Vennart remains good company. Thoughtful, bullish, blunt, funny and Olympic-level sweary, he has a very northern sense of humour. There’s also a lot to be positive about. The recent ESB tour was “fucking incredible, really life-affirming stuff. There were certain points where we hit a certain gear where I really just felt like I was levitating and really felt that I was truly in the greatest band of all time.”

That band are about to hit the road in the US supporting Sleep Token. And, never one to let things slide, he’s already writing new material for ESB, British Theatre (his electronic rock project with Gambler) and the next Vennart record. Life may be uncertain and scary, but it’s also inspiring, and Vennart is wringing every creative drop out of it: “I feel like within the three bands – my band, British Theatre and ESB – I can get a lot done; I can do virtually anything I want.”

And you can bet he’ll be doing it all on his own terms.

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.