“Even when Oceansize was going, I always knew I was going to do a solo record,” admits Mike Vennart. “I remember saying to Simon years ago ‘I’m going to make a fucking guitar album and it’s going to be me just playing the guitar’ and Simon asked, ‘is that not what Oceansize is?’”
The answer was a resounding no and with the release of ‘The Demon Joke’ finally looming, it’s painfully clear how mistaken Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil was.
It’s a non-descript Sunday afternoon in Kingston upon Thames and Mike Vennart is sitting in the back room of The Fighting Cocks. Tonight, the former Oceansize frontman and Biffy’s touring guitarist since 2010 is playing the second date of a short tour to promote the release of his debut solo record. In a few hours time Mike, alongside former band mates Steve Durose, Richard ‘Gambler’ Ingram and Young Legionnaire’s drummer Denzel Pearson, will perform a majority of the as-of-yet unheard album to the die-hard and the curious alike. But for now there’s an arcade version of Guitar Hero standing an arm’s length away, waiting for someone to make a joke.
“This is the first tour I’ve done with my own music in five years,” starts Mike. “Not a day has gone by where I haven’t thought about doing it or imagining what it might be like though.” With a couple of songs already released he “couldn’t really be happier with the response” but he’s not expecting that to continue. “There’s going to be some stuff on the record that’s going to rub the older audience up the wrong way. Some of it’s a little more playful, but I don’t fucking care.
“The thing is, you can’t worry about that,” he explains. “There are things that I would never have got away with in the old band. I get to do guitar solos now, albeit in a stupid way, and that’s great fun. Oceansize’ realm of virtuosity was reserved strictly for the drum department and I wanted to have a go. It’s my turn.”
After thirteen years, four albums and the slow-burning influence that still sees them used as the benchmark for winding, off-kilter rock music, Oceansize called it quits in 2011. “When the band broke up, we were all in a bit of a state,” Mike admits. He knew he still wanted to make music but “didn’t quite know what I wanted it to be. I thought I wanted to make something silly like a Fantômas or Dillinger Escape Plan style metal album but that didn’t quite pan out.” Undecided but always writing, he ended up with “a backlog of unfinished songs.” Steve, gifted with a real ear for it, put melodies to the songs, ready for Mike to add vocals to. “They sat in my back pocket for about a year before I could hear any sort of words to them,” he says. Balancing a hectic tour schedule with fatherhood meant Mike “didn’t have time to do anything. So when my little boy started going to nursery, I was afforded five hours a day, a couple of times a week and I went at it. I’m going to finish a song every day, I told myself, and that’s what happened.”
“When you’re in the thick of it, you’re just chipping away at what you think is a good idea. When you finish a song and it works, there’s nothing like it. That’s better than playing to a million people, it really is. Even if no one ever hears the song, it’s still the best thing I’ve ever done.” However, come June 22nd, that confidence will be shared with the world.
“This whole thing is a very selfish endeavor,” starts Mike. “It’s that Venn diagram, with chronic narcissism on one side and chronic self-hatred on the other. In the middles there’s art and that’s what this is.”
A brief pause is broken by the admission “I do act like a cocky asshole and I do know what my strengths are, I’m pretty good on the guitar, but at the same time there’s people astronomically better than I am. I’m constantly trying to get to that level in the full knowledge I never will, but that keeps me humble and slightly disorganised. You’ve got to have something to strive for, even when you’ve made it and you’re sitting on a huge pile of cash you’ll still be ‘yeah, but I’m not as good as Slash.” he says, breaking into laughter before composing himself briefly.
“It’s feeling like you are capable of doing it but then also being terrified. There’s been a lot of fear over the past few years, fear about what it’s going to be like without my band behind me.”
And whether it’s Mike laughing at his guitarist goals, as a distraction from the fear or a member of the crowd laughing at the ridiculous brilliance of this evenings show, it’s all fitting since The Demon Joke is about comedy. “My sense of humour is pretty dark at the best of times and after I’d got to a certain point I realized comedy was the crux of the album. When I wrote ‘Infatuate’ my old man was in hospital dying of cancer. We knew it was coming but I spent every night for about three months going over to see him and naturally assumed the role of this fucking juvenile dickhead clown, just trying to distract him from the reality of the situation. I don’t know why but it just felt natural to do that, to take the piss out of him,” Mike explains. “Rik Mayall died right after my dad and there’s a strange but small connection between them. For a few months my dad was Rik Mayall’s driver while he was in Leeds filming. I’d get these messages from Rik, via my dad. So when he died it all felt a bit too much. There’s a very explicit mention of him in one of the songs.”
The album, personal and commanding, is “an itch I had to scratch. I hope that I’ll do more but given how long it’s taken me to do this one, we’ll see,” Mike reasons.
He’s playing it coy but there are another two projects on the horizon. British Theatre, an electronic project with Gambler that’s “unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” which released a pair of EPs back in 2012, but will return soon, and a collaboration with Simon Neil. “I’ve written loads of stuff for it and he always talks about it but he hasn’t got his arse in gear yet. Empire State Bastard is just a horrible headfuck. It’s nasty,” he explains with a devilish grin.
“For a long time I thought this was never going to happen, I’m never going to get it together,” he confides. Did you hear the one about the former Oceansize frontman? It’s brilliant.
Vennart’s debut solo album ‘The Demon Joke’ is released on 22nd June 2015 via Superball Records.