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British Theatre: “Everything about it was outside my comfort zone”

In the six months between Oceansize breaking up and announcing it to the public, Mike Vennart and Richard A. Ingram (Gambler to his friends) decided they wanted to do something together. The only remit was that it had to be “completely different.” The pair’s friendship predated the band that had just fallen apart and talk had already taken place about a Vennart solo album so the pair “started fucking around. Establishing what kind of music we wanted to make wasn’t easy,” admits Mike. Ideas were fired back and forth as the band searched for a balance and British Theatre came about by “the process of elimination.”

Two EPs were released in 2012 and all talk suggested a full-length would swiftly follow. However ‘Mastery’, British Theatre’s debut album, was only announced last week. In the meantime the pair have worked together on Vennart’s ‘The Demon Joke‘ and been an integral part of Biffy Clyro‘s live show but British Theatre was always a clear and present concern. It’s been a long time coming but the best things…

“If we had put out an album three years ago when we had all this material sitting around, it wouldn’t be anything like this,” Mike begins. “I’m glad we didn’t just take the first twelve songs that we wrote and put them out because we knew then, it wasn’t right. It wasn’t good enough. We virtually threw everything away and started all over again last May, completely from scratch.“

“It’s been years of trying to work out what this thing is trying to be. We put out a couple of EPs in 2012 and you can hear the conflict of interest. You can hear that I’m trying to make it sound like a band ‘cos that’s all I know. That’s my vocabulary and Gambler’s clearly much more immersed in this electronic approach. The long and short of it is that he’s won the fucking battle.”

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“Everything I was handing to Gambler was just these scraps of ideas,” Mike reflects on those early musical conversations. “He’d give me things that were completely accomplished, refined and sophisticated and I just needed to sing on them. I felt a little intimidated and not really worthy. As time’s gone on, we’ve established a better way of working where I can give him these half-baked sketches and he can bring them to life. Similarly he can give me something that I can work with. We basically finish each other’s ideas off,” the mark of a married musical couple. “The tip of the balance is that this is definitely Gambler’s record. It’s his world and I’m just living in it. There’s no guitar on it, there’s no live drums, and it’s fucking crazy.”

Despite British Theatre lurking in studios, the turning point came on tour. “Gambler had to stand in for me at a Biffy show while I was on paternity leave. He stepped in, played guitar for them and to this day, I can’t believe I fucking let that happen. I must have been out of my mind. It’ll never happen again,” he laughs. As the Opposites tour rolled around a few months later, Biffy needed a keyboardist and so Gambler was called up. “With Gambler then jumping onto Biffy, it made me feel less guilty about British Theatre not working. At that time, it just wasn’t working; I didn’t know what to do with it. I found it intimidating that I couldn’t get it together and do anything that Gambler really liked.”

Annoyed with himself, Mike hoped that “one day I’ll come back to this and maybe it’ll fall into place. Throughout the Opposites Tour though, I had to admit to myself that I had to do a guitar album first. Establishing what my ‘The Demon Joke’ album was going to be, really informed that it was ok to fucking go crazy on the British Theatre album. It was ok to make this electronic headfuck and run with whatever Gambler wanted to do. It’s very much his record so I just freed myself of the worry and let him have his way.”

“I didn’t get involved in any of this again until ‘The Demon Joke’ was sent out and released.” As soon as that was done, it was a case of right, let’s do this. “We deliberately booked ArcTanGent festival with absolutely no songs. By the middle of August we needed to have a set of songs and that was the only way we were ever going to get our arses in gear. It was the same with the Vennart set,” he adds. “I work best under pressure.”

Despite working together for a bloody long time and being comfortable with one another, British Theatre challenges that idea.“I can’t say it’s comfortable. In fact there are a lot of things on this record that when I was singing them (they felt uncomfortable.)” With Gambler writing some of the vocal melodies even though “he’s not a singer at all,” Mike found himself sending back recordings with notes saying, “You’re not going to fucking like this but this is what it sounds like when I sing these notes.” Mike was wrong because Gambler absolutely loved it. “Everything about it was outside my comfort zone. Singing these weird intervals, these weird scales and whatnot. That’s the one thing I’ll really take from this. If you don’t feel right doing something, sometimes that’s a really good thing.”

The title of the album is lifted from a song of the same name. “It’s been kicking around since 2011, it’s called ‘Mastery’ and when Gambler gave it to me, I thought it was so fucking incredible and different.” Sampling a televised orchestral number and adding beats and lap steel guitar, Mike heard it and couldn’t want to get started. “What am I going to sing on it,” he asked himself. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do with it because I was so afraid of fucking it up and ruining it. I ended up just letting it sit there. Luckily, when we came back to it last year, it was one of the ones that made the grade. It didn’t sound old or stale, it still works and it was still freaky.” As much as British Theatre sees Gambler taking the lead, it’s an entirely collaborative effort. Every song based in conflict, resolution and exploring a new world.

“Lyrically it’s quite a mixed bag. The title track has a more political edge. To me it sounded almost like a war footage montage soundtrack from the future. Like most right-minded people, I’m in just total fucking despair at this government and what they inflict on the poor, the disabled, the NHS and the education system, whilst distracting us with racist propaganda, they’re willing us to turn on each other, to create a class war where everyone hates everyone else. I don’t think there’s been a day in the last year or so where I haven’t had my head in my hands asking, how is this being allowed to happen. How are these people allowed to walk around? The line ‘applaud the mastery’ is kind of a slow clap at the blatant, incredible injustice of it all.’

As Mike and Gambler grow British Theatre into the different beast that they set out to find, they’re not letting their celebrated past cloud their future. “You can’t concern yourself with what people are expecting, or what people actually want from you. Obviously being known as a guitar guy, it’s going to piss a lot of people off.” You can almost hear Mike smirk over the phone. “I’m not going to compare it to any bands. There is a reason why we didn’t want it to sound like ‘Rock Band Goes Electro’ because I personally have no interest in being compared to Nine Inch Nails or industrial indie rock. British Theatre is not like that. It’s just a fucking weird record.“

“I think some of these songs have this presence of being guitar music without a guitar in sight. There’s still a lot of texture, it has a certain weight to it and some of it’s quite abrasive. It stands alone as a great freaky record but, in context, it really works. I’m blown away,” Mike adds. With the record “only just falling into place these past few weeks,” there’s still a wide-eyed excitement to the whole project. “I’d done the final song, the last piece of the puzzle, and sent it Gambler months ago. When it came to realising the tracklisting, he declared he didn’t like this particular song. He thought it was too much like a Vennart song, it was too much of a rock song so he’s taken it and absolutely mangled it. He’s completely turned it on its arse. It’s the absolute icing on the cake for me now. It’s putting that final brick in plce and oh my god, it’s amazing. I’m really proud of it,” he beams. “But if I’d have put this record out first, before ‘The Demon Joke’, everyone would have thought I’d fucking lost my mind.”

Preorder ‘Mastery’, the debut album from British Theatre via Pledgemusic.