The physical distance between the tiny, grungy Fighting Cocks venue in Kingston-Upon-Thames and the main stage of the Reading Festival is only around 40 miles, but in terms of psychological distance, they might as well be in different galaxies. And yet, on a warm May evening, a man who headlined the Reading and Leeds festivals in 2013 in his role as touring guitarist for rock superstars Biffy Clyro, and who has criss-crossed the world and played in front of tens of thousands of people with them, returns to the pub circuit to unveil his solo project.
And for fans of Mike Vennart’s old band, the brilliant, much-missed Oceansize, his tentative return to centre stage hasn’t come a moment too soon. In fact, it seems to have taken ages. Between Biffy duties and the demands of bringing up a young family, time has been a scarce commodity. But finally he’s back with The Demon Joke, a madly inventive album that hints at Vennart’s arty, noisy American influences (think Faith No More, Slint and the like) while having a distinct personality of its own.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” Vennart admits as he sits at a table in the pub’s games room, already suited up in a purple number for the evening’s show. “When you’re in the thick of it and you’re fumbling about in the dark, you worry that you don’t know what you’re doing, and when it started to click and you get to the end, you’re just dancing round the house, feeling like a million dollars. It doesn’t matter if nobody ever hears the song or if it never sells a single copy, the fact that you’ve done it is fucking glorious. But it sucks trying to get there.”
I bought the issue of Prog the other day because Marillion were in it, and I knew how to play the whole of Misplaced Childhood when I was 12.
This lack of confidence in his own ability seems strange from someone who has been making music professionally for years and fronted such a respected band. And yet this is the first time he’s been forced to trust his own instincts. The album, he says, was very improvisational, often using the first vocal take recorded, leaving a seat-of-the-pants, spontaneous feel to the whole thing.
“All the Oceansize stuff was written between us,” he says. “So while I might have brought in ideas, they would get twisted and morphed and fucked about with by everyone. All those songs were written in a very collaborative process where we were all standing in the same room having each other’s ideas fuckin’ ripped apart. So I just didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t know how I’d do it. But I was lucky.”
The record – and tonight’s gig – also marks a partial Oceansize reunion. Guitarist Steve Durose added ideas to the record, and he’s beside his old bandmate onstage tonight. Keyboard player Richard ‘Gambler’ Ingram, who also tours with Biffy, is in the live band too, alongside a man called Denzel, an incredible drummer Vennart has borrowed from Ginger Wildheart’s band.
Despite the influence Oceansize have had on younger bands coming through, though – and a couple of old tracks aired tonight are met with howls of recognition – the straight-talking Yorkshireman rejects the idea that they were ahead of their time, and that they could, had they arrived five years later, have joined the likes of Steven Wilson in taking more complex music to larger audiences. But then, it seems, he doesn’t romanticise his time with his old band.
“I don’t have very good memories of it,” he says with a shrug. “It was a troublesome, difficult time. But last night, the first gig playing this stuff, we played a couple of the old Oceansize songs, and just to look over and see Steve Durose onstage next to me, it was like, ‘Fuck, it’s been so long.’ And it just felt right. It felt strange, but I don’t have any hankerings to bring back that band.”
He’s probably right not to look back. But with this new flurry of activity – boosted by a hugely successful PledgeMusic campaign that got the solo album off the ground – it does leave the question of British Theatre hanging in the air. The project, another Vennart and Gambler team-up that saw them explore more electronic territory, released two EPs in 2012, and then we’ve heard nothing since. But it seems that British Theatre aren’t dead and discarded, merely sleeping.
“British Theatre is still happening,” Vennart says. “When we did return to it, we realised that we didn’t like much of the material any more, so we’ve started all over again and it’s turned into something else again. It’s fucking brilliant! I’ve never done anything like it. It’s very electronic, the singing on it is ridiculous. Some of it’s just completely wrong and it shouldn’t work. I think it’s brilliant.”
Clearly, the creative cogs are turning, even if things take a little longer thanks to the day job. But what a day job it is. The Oceansize and Biffy Clyro guys go way back, to the days when they were both signed to Beggars Banquet and rising up through the ranks of the rock scene. But what does Vennart get artistically out of touring with them, playing someone else’s songs night after night?
“Well, the last couple of weeks I’ve been playing guitar for someone else,” he says. “They’re very much in the pop star realm. I realised that I didn’t get much out of the music, and it was very much a job, albeit one which involved me playing the guitar. It really served to underline how tremendously lucky I am with Biffy. I love all the people involved – the band are great, genuine guys. The crew are fucking ace fun, and most importantly, I enjoy playing the music every single night.
“We did three nights at the [Glasgow] Barrowlands a few months back and we got to play a lot of stuff from Vertigo Of Bliss, a lot of stuff from Blackened Sky, and the second night of that felt like the best gig I’ve played in my life. It was just a culmination of looking at this band playing those songs that I used to go and see them play 10 years ago, and I’m playing with them now as well. It was too much to comprehend. It was very emotional, really, really weird.”
Vennart’s own show later on in the evening is a triumph of its own. The vocals are warm and inviting, the music unpredictable, lush and, yes, that bit progressive. “Some of it’s just a bit daft and I’m happy with that,” says Vennart with a dimply grin. And it seems that he’s mellowing in his response to being saddled with the prog tag, something he’s swatted away in the past.
I don’t have very good memories of Oceansize. It was a troublesome, difficult time.
“I’m okay with it now,” he concedes. “I’ve grown up. I’m trying to be less of a punk rocker now. I accept that there’s a few tricksy, complicated, mathematical bits; maybe some of the more silly things on the record could be construed as prog. I bought the issue of Prog the other day because Marillion were in it, and I knew how to play the whole of Misplaced Childhood when I was 12. It’s a record I can’t bear to listen to now because it reminds me of being a miserable 12-year-old. So I do have that background. I love Pink Floyd, some of the 70s stuff – I think you have to like that. You’re just empty if you can’t appreciate that.”
How about people like Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Bruce Soord and Steven Wilson, who are taking this kind of experimental but modern music to a wider audience? Do you feel any kinship with them?
“I don’t know what those bands sound like!” he laughs. “I recognise that you can read any sort of degree of prog influence into a lot of pop music, so the fact that Annie Clark from St Vincent is highly influenced by Robert Fripp, you can hear that from time to time. To a much narrower degree, that’s me. But I’ve never got over the Cardiacs. I think the problem with being a Cardiacs obsessive is you can’t really be bothered with anything else because you’ve got your fix – that band just does everything I need. So anything I’m going to listen to that tries to get into that sphere, I’m already sorted.”
The initial nerves seem to be wearing off. As Vennart has proved with The Demon Joke, his ability to work on his own material has outstripped his own expectations, the audience he feared had forgotten him were waiting with open arms, and there’s a busy year ahead knuckling down on the British Theatre album. It took a while for him to return to the fray, but now the floodgates are open, and not a moment too soon.
“If I go back to Biffy in the knowledge that I’ve released two albums this year, I’ll be fucking made up,” he says. “You’ve got to have your own targets – I’ve spent too long putting things off. All I want out of this is a record with my name on it.
“Maybe when you have kids, your aspirations return to what they were when you were a young boy, and you want to leave behind something they could appreciate,” he adds. “So I did it, and I didn’t give a fuck what anybody thought it would be like. That’s the only way you can do it – to not give a fuck.”
The Demon Joke is out now on Superball Music. For more information, see http://www.facebook.com/vennartvennart.