It’s not often that artists go from playing the cavernous rooms of arenas to the sweaty confines of Glasgow’s Cathouse in the space of six months - unless, of course, something has gone terribly awry - and yet that’s exactly where Simon Neil and Mike Vennart find themselves right now. Emerging on stage for their first ever show, the pair - accompanied by legendary metal drummer Dave Lombardo and Bitch Falcon’s Naomi Macleod - stand steely-eyed and bathed in the kind of red light that signals something ominous is about to go down; Empire State Bastard are finally ready to introduce themselves.
Rewind to just a few days earlier, and the two men - whose day jobs are perhaps better known as Biffy Clyro’s frontman and touring guitarist - are sat in their Yorkshire rehearsal space on a short break from prepping frantically for their new outfit’s first run of shows. “Look at these eye bags!” laughs Mike, pulling at his cheeks. “I’ve just got numbers and riffs and loops of the most frantic fucking stuff I’ve ever written just going round and round my head!” “Poor Mike’s not slept a wink,” Simon picks up with a grin. “He’s got so much music in his mind right now…”
While dabbling in side projects isn’t exactly new territory for musicians who’ve been in the game as long as these two (Simon already has Marmaduke Duke and his solo moniker ZZC, while Mike also releases solo material), you get the sense that Empire State Bastard really is the purest definition of a passion project.
“That’s the exciting part,” nods Simon. “Mike’s been playing around with this record for probably close to five years, but it was only in the last couple that it really came together. We didn’t really know if we were ever going to play these shows live, but actually, the music just demanded that. We really feel like the music is too important and too special to us, and didn’t just feel like this passing wee addiction we had; it felt like we wanted to dwell in this for a while and really inhabit it.”
“This is our love letter to metal.”
— Mike Vennart
Admittedly, after its lengthy gestation period, it’s not too surprising that Empire State Bastard want to showcase the fruits of their labours. While the pair have spent years in the back of tour buses diving into all corners of metal, it was from 2011 that Mike began “throwing things at Simon. Once I realised he just wanted to scream his fucking head off, it was like, ‘OK, how do I dress that?’ I tried throwing a few different vibes over the years, all markedly different, but none of it quite stuck.” It wasn’t until 2018 that things clicked into place. “I just hit upon [a moment where] I was fucking out of my mind with rage at the current political climate, and something that had happened to me,” Mike explains. “So I just decided that I was going to write some fast, angry, blastbeat stuff. And then when I’d written a couple of songs, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, maybe this isn’t for me’. I sent it to Simon asking ‘Is this what Empire State Bastard was meant to sound like?’ and he replied with ‘What the fuck is this?!’” “Which was the right response!” Simon quips.
By the time the pandemic struck in 2020 and all of Biffy’s upcoming live commitments were indefinitely on hold, Simon finally had the chance to dig into the songs Mike had written. “It’s nice to talk about the pandemic with a little bit of distance now,” nods Simon, confirming that this project likely wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day without it. “To say that [without it] I probably wouldn’t have had time to devote to this fruitful and enjoyable project, and Mike wouldn’t have. You know, we’re always touring and Mike’s always working on his own music: we’re full time. So it’s really nice in 2023 to be starting the project in earnest, practically and logistically, but knowing that it is a little rainbow that struck in the middle of a really shit time.
“This project was just essential,” he continues. “It helped get me through the pandemic - [as did] all the music I worked on - but this was how I could get that frustration and proper anger, and just not knowing what the fuck was happening in the world, how I could get that out.” After almost a decade of tinkering away, Simon wrote his vocal parts in around a week.
“It’s really nice knowing that this is a little rainbow that struck in the middle of a really shit time.”
— Simon Neil
As it might be easy to guess by this point, Empire State Bastard dwell in the more extreme ends of the musical spectrum. Inspired by their shared love of all sub-genres of metal - from thrash to grindcore and just about everything in-between - the project takes the jagged rhythms of Biffy’s very early material and wraps them in barbed wire. It is, as Mike puts it, “our love letter to metal”.
“I always feel like this kind of music is the centre of gravity for me and Simon,” Mike explains. “Whatever I’ve done has been from this school base. Have I fucking learned to play because of this music? Yeah. And obviously I’ve gone on to get interested in all kinds of different stuff, but my centre of gravity is metal, so the most important thing is to exude an air of authenticity. It’s not like some fucking t-shirt we want to wear this week.”
“You know, a few people have said that normally it should be a Nick Drake-type singer songwriter record at this point,” Simon picks up, referencing the kind of side project the duo might’ve been expected to make right now. “But what’s the point? What’s the point in doing something where you’re taking your foot off the fucking gas, off the accelerator? I need to fucking want to need to do this, and I know that Mike’s the same. We’ve toured for 20 years now. We’re not desperate to sit in a dressing room for four hours anymore. So we know that our love affair with music is still here and it’s a connection in the right way, and that’s what this project has reaffirmed to me.
“Playing with Biffy, nothing beats that for me,” he continues, “but things sometimes get so big and [you’re] playing places like the O2, it’s kind of unnatural. I think we still feel a little more safe in the smaller and more extreme corners of the universe. I feel that when Biffy flirt with the mainstream, it’s kind of like we’re doing it in a kind of perverse way, whereas this is,” he gestures to the two of them, “where I feel that we belong. I quite often say that about Biffy and people look at me and think I’m stupid, but that’s the truth. That’s why this has hypnotised us and pulled us into fucking doing it.”
Despite holding the keys to a Pandora’s box of extreme delights, the band are still keeping their cards fairly close to their chest for now. Along with these three tiny shows they’ve released just one track so far; the incendiary ‘Harvest’, which bursts into life chugging riffs reminiscent of the likes of Converge and Entombed. But, with a full set being previewed and a handful of festival appearances on the horizon, this certainly isn’t the last you’ll hear from these two…
As featured in the April 2023 issue of DIY, out now.