British Theatre: ‘I’d Had It With The Darkness’Interview
Alex Lynham sits down with ex-Oceansize vocalist Mike Vennart to discuss the new project.
At the end of 24 Hour Party People there's that famous scene where with the bailiffs at the door, Tony Wilson implores the revellers to loot The Hacienda and “start a thousand bands”. In their twelve years, four albums and five EPs Oceansize probably did inspire their fans to do just that – and the electicism of the bands that have toured with them, cited them as an influence and passed on their music via word-of-mouth speaks volumes as to their true quality.
In February 2011, with no warning, Oceansize called it a day; but lost in amongst the debate over why the band broke up was a small, interesting fact – guitarist/keyboardist Gamber and vocalist/guitarist Mike Vennart from the band had quietly formed a new project. A year later, and British Theatre are set to release their first material on the exact anniversary of the Oceansize split. DIY sat down with Mike to find out what they've been up to for the last year – and what people can expect from the next one.
How did the new project come about? Was it something that you and Gambler began working on while you were still in Oceansize, or did it come about as a consequence of the split?
It wasn't spoke of at all until the dust had settled on the Oceansize split. I think we knew we'd do something, but I didn't 'pop the question' until I got back from a Biffy Clyro tour that Christmas. We've been together in one form or another for... twenty years now... Wow. I just worked that out! Perhaps some sort of party is in order.
I'm sure the second most important question to most people will be this: when can we hear music, and how will we be able to get hold of it?
Maybe there's a little something there by the time this goes out. Keep an eye on our website [www.britishtheatremusic.com].
This one might be jumping the gun a bit, but do you have any song or release titles set in stone yet?
Very few serious titles yet. Consequently you have 'Big Cheese', 'Kill To The Power Of One Million', 'Moogatron', 'Spazmatron'... A definite one is 'Gold Bruise'. That was the first one we wrote that I thought would definitely work.
Will there be vocals in British Theatre, and if so, how do you see the lyrical themes developing? Does the subject matter differ from your past projects at all?
There are vocals. I'm not really into trying to pull apart what the lyrics all mean - I'm never really that sure myself. It's fairly safe to say they're about the things in my head. I can't really get away from that, much as I try. So yeah, no real change. They're pretty claustrophobic though.
From the videos you've posted online, it seems very different to what you've done before (at least, taking Gambler's solo record out of the picture for a moment) – do you think British Theatre will perform live, and how?
Initially live wasn't really an option - the nature of the music and the way it's designed hardly lends itself to being performed live. However as time's gone on I've come round to the idea. But there's a whole bunch of things I don't know how we'd present; I don't want us to go out with a laptop and just press play every night, it's got to be real. At the same time, the thought of spending weeks or months in a damp and dark practice room looping a drum fill for hours at a time makes my teeth itch.
How would you describe the new material? Was its sound a conscious reaction to what came before, or was it a more free, less structured writing process (compared to say, SPWTBFU, which at the time you said was very meticulously laboured over)?
So far it's undoubtedly darker. When Oceansize split up, I comforted myself with the attitude that now I could do anything - I could try and utilize all the influences that some members of Oceansize were never open to. That's not meant as a bitchy as it sounds - Oceansize thrived on musical differences. It's what made us as colourful as we were. Anyway, I slowly learned that having too many options is actually quite crippling. In the aftermath of the rather unpleasant Oceansize split, I started writing music that reflected my tastes at the time, which were actually quite safe, quite twee. It was a reflex, I was trying to inject a little optimism into my writing and into my life. It was a weird time. I presented Gambler with a whole bunch of these major key, primary colour ideas. He didn't really bite, thankfully. He just kept chipping away at me, sending me dark, jarring, textural pieces to work on. I didn't really get it at first - I'd had it with the darkness, I wanted to write something a little more hopeful. Then I realised that actually, I didn't feel terribly hopeful. I was very angry, albeit with a sense of massive relief. The music I was writing wasn't working because it didn't reflect how I actually felt. Then we wrote 'Gold Bruise' and everything he'd given me suddenly made sense.
You said last time when I asked what you loved about music that you heard it everywhere and couldn't conceive of not doing it – with that in mind, what are your plans for British Theatre? From where you are now, how can you see it evolving?
We're still learning our craft, or at least I am. I still have really exciting bursts of discovery. I wish they were every single day, they make me so giddy. It's safe to say that this doesn't really sound like a band, consequently few of the ideas stem from sitting around strumming a guitar (although I still do that for hours and hours every day). It's an interesting process for me personally. I'm finding that there's no formula for getting an idea started. It can be a cool drum pattern, a weird synth sound, a new effects pedal... I read this wicked interview with Trent Reznor where he said that whenever a new piece of gear came in he'd always press record as soon he plugged it in 'cos that's when you come up with the best stuff. That happened a lot. Composing with synthetic instruments is still a real novelty to me, so I'm still having fun. It's often initially very rewarding, followed by several months of painstaking pondering and self doubt. Finishing a song is possibly the greatest cure for the blues I've ever known.
What's the division of labour (and instruments) like? That is to say, who writes what and who plays what? You're both multi-instrumentalists as I understand it...
Someone will start an idea and we'll finish it together. We both play everything, but Gambler's speciality is piano/keys and totally fucked up samples of random noises and textures. Gambler's clocked up the most idea 'seeds' so far. We've composed the vocal melodies together, then I'll put the words to that. It's all been very natural and organic, yet at the same time not at all.
Do you see British Theatre as a clean slate, or do you think there's an element of continuity from Oceansize? Do you see that history as a help or a hindrance as you embark on this new adventure?
Personally, I don't think it's a million miles away from Oceansize; but it's not the aesthetic of a rock band, nor is it pretending to be. It's refreshing not writing for a band line up, or having to appease a drummer, a guitarist – or indeed a singer. That's not to say that the old fans won't be slightly shocked at what we've done. Put it like this, Gambler wrote a tune a few months ago. He played everything on it. It's almost entirely in 4/4. There were no guitars or real drums on it. Eventually I got around to singing on it and – hey presto – it suddenly sounded like Oceansize. It's who we are, it's how we sound and there's no point consciously trying to avoid it. I've learned that early on. As for whether the history is a help or a hinderance – I'd say it's both, I feel the love from the Oceansize fans. I know that they're willing this to work and they're waiting for this to be amazing. The flip side of that is that maybe what they really want is Oceansize MkII. There's expectation, but maybe it's totally misguided. I think it's fair to say that much of the Oceansize crowd were people in bands but there's no vulgar displays of virtuosity or chops in these tunes, so I think that's gonna piss a lot people off from the get go! I'm ok with that, to be honest. I was never interest in being a band that only musicians appreciate.
Finally, if you could say one thing to all the old Oceansize fans a year on, what would it be?
I'd say that I'm sorry, despite it not being my fault in the slightest.
British Theatre will unveil their first tracks today (25th February), via their website - you can check them out above. Their debut album is due later this year.