Empire State Bastard On The ‘Baptism Of Fire’ Behind Their Metal Path

5 September 2023 | 5:00 pm | Mary Varvaris
Originally Appeared In

The project of Empire State Bastard “got very real very quickly” once drumming legend Dave Lombardo joined the band. Biffy Clyro and Oceansize's Biffy Clyro and Mike Vennart reveal how he came on board.

Empire State Bastard

Empire State Bastard (Source: Supplied)

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Simon Neil and Mike Vennart are two of the nicest people you could have a conversation with. They’re not necessarily the pair you expect to be the masterminds behind the world’s hottest new metal band, Empire State Bastard, but their debut album, Rivers Of Heresy, is a dream that’s arrived decades in the making.

Vennart, the former vocalist, guitarist and bassist in the UK rock band Oceansize, has been involved with Neil and his full-time band, Biffy Clyro, as a live guitarist since 2011.

The duo are heavy metal tragics – “I can quite easily bring myself to tears imagining the course of my life if I hadn't actually discovered those bands [Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath] at that incredibly early age,” Vennart says over Zoom. “I don't know what the fuck it would have become” – who have always craved to get heavier. So, forming Empire State Bastard just made sense.

Last Friday (1 September), Empire State Bastard released their debut album. Accompanying Vennart and Neil is metal drumming legend Dave Lombardo (SlayerMisfitsMike Patton collaborator in Mr BungleDead Cross) – more on that later – and bassist Naomi MacLeod (Bitch Falcon).

In a recent interview with Kerrang, Neil revealed that his intentions behind the Empire State Bastard were “Just fucking mayhem. We wanted people to feel that they’d almost struggle to get to the end of the first song.” Vennart elaborated that he wanted his guitar work to resemble “the most fucking poisonous vile music I possibly could, just unabridged hatred in musical form.” Did they succeed in those lofty goals?

They sure did. Rivers Of Heresy is heavy as fuck. It’s as far from the anthemic call-to-arms of recent day Biffy Clyro and even further from Neil’s familiar vocals in his main band. Album opener Harvest tears open the gate with jagged, impossibly heavy guitar and bass work from Vennart and MacLeod, and then, of course, there’s Lombardo’s incredible prowess on the kit. Meanwhile, Neil is screaming his head off. This is hardcore. This is metal. This is heavy music at its finest.

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Other moments on Rivers Of Heresy recall doom metal icons Sleep (the entrancing Moi?), deadly hardcore punk (Tired, Aye?), some headbanging thrash metal (Sold!), while the longest track on the album, closer The Looming really does feel like an ominous threat is looming over Neil’s singing vocal “in a graveyard”.

If you ask Neil and Vennart about somehow scoring Lombardo on their debut album, they can’t believe it actually happened, either. It all started with Vennart programming the drum tracks on the album and labelling them all as “Lombardo one, two, three, etc”.

Neil explains, “That was like the essence of what he needed and what we needed the drums to be, so after discussing it for a little while, the pandemic happened, and we literally just thought, ‘Who should ask? Should we just fucking ask Lombardo?’”

The journey to recruit Lombardo began from humble places – Neil and Vennart didn’t personally know the former Slayer drummer, but they shared mutual friends and managed to find his email.

“It was very much a shot in the dark,” Neil says. “We emailed him, and within 24 hours, he got back and said, ‘I'm fucking going to drop everything and do this; when do you need this done by?’ That was probably the biggest shock of this whole band.”

Vennart adds, “When we first got together with Dave and Naomi, none of us had really met, you know, as a unit. We'd met on Zoom a couple of times, so it was just this matter of, you know, ‘Is this going to work? Are we all going to get along?’ But it was clear from the first five minutes that we were a band, like we were the real thing.

“Circling back on actually getting hold of Dave Lombardo – not that we had to look him up in the Yellow Pages or anything, but he's a surprisingly easy grind. He's like the Kevin Bacon of heavy metal – everybody knows him!”

Neil adds that with Lombardo on board, the entire project of Empire State Bastard “got very real very quickly”. It wasn’t just two friends shooting ideas off each other and naming demos after Dave Lombardo anymore.

“When you play music with Lombardo, someone who's influenced and been such a big part of our lives musically for so long,” Neil starts, acknowledging Vennart, whose older brother got him into metal music when he was eight years old, “He's just been omnipresent, whether it's Fantômas, Mr Bungle, anything he does works.

“To be in a band with him is a proper head fuck,” Neil laughs. “Having him and Naomi really solidified what we wanted this band to be. To find Dave and Naomi – the first people we've found and worked with and connected with feels real; it feels solid. And you can't take that for granted, especially when we're all from different parts of the world.”

The best thing about Rivers Of Heresy, though, is its flow. Despite each song having its distinctive elements separating it from the last one, the record flies by, and there’s a memorable moment in each track (the chant in Sons And Daughters, anyone? How about those keys on Stutter?)

While recording the album, Empire State Bastard were swept up in “such a fountain of creativity” that they needed for so many songs and ideas. Neil explains that he took the lead on the tracklist, arranging the flow of the album as “Mike was so close to the music, I felt like that slight distance from the music could give me a stronger position to get it right.

“To be honest, that maybe only took two attempts to get the tracklisting right,” Neil says. “Not to sound like a dick, but I feel as though that's one of my superpowers as well, right? [Laughs] I really appreciate you mentioning that because, honestly, there's so many killer records that have been ruined by their fucking tracklisting, and, you know, certain songs could really shine if they were just put later in the record or something.

“So, yeah, I do think that's an art form in itself. Probably the most important part of the album was the tracklist.” Vennart concurs: “Simon really curated everything because I just threw so much shit at him [laughs]. So many riffs, so many collections of ideas and flavours. It was nice to just have somebody make sense of it.”

To Vennart, Neil’s ability to sort through the “curated sort of man ideas” was amazing. After listening back to the album, the guitarist couldn’t help thinking, “Wow, this does sound like a record, but it's really eclectic – everything we've done in our other bands has been eclectic because that's just how we are in our tastes.

“We like a lot of different stuff, especially with Biffy. I think this is the sort of heavier, more extreme version of that,” Vennart explains. “I think it's confounded some blogs and critics out there who will be baffled that we keep taking a left turn with every song we put out. But that's the fun part – all my favourite bands did that as well. I like to keep people on their toes.”

As well as having the album out and a duo of musicians as talented as Dave Lombardo and Naomi MacLeod on their album and live on stage, Neil and Vennart found performing on stage – including at Germany’s Wacken Festival and Download at Donington Park – validating to the music they’ve made.

Those performances showed how backward this entire process has been – they arrived before Rivers Of Heresy was even released.

Those massive festival shows helped solidify the magic behind Empire State Bastard, Neil says, especially as they didn’t expect to play many shows. “We knew we were making a record. And so everything happened backwards [laughs].

“We got the band's name, we discussed what kind of band we're going to be, then we made some music, then the record, and then we formed the band,” Neil chuckles. “So, everything's happened backwards. We’ll know whether we were any good or not if we get invited to any festivals next summer.”

“Every show has incrementally helped us bring this myth to life because we had the idea for the band over a decade ago,” Vennart shares. “Every show from the very first one has been a matter of, ‘What the fuck are we going to do? Who are we? How’s this gonna sound?’

“By the time we got to Donington, I think that was only our fourth show. It was a real sort of baptism of fire. We went on with no soundcheck, no underwear, just terrified [laughs]. And we pulled it off. It was magic; it was great.”

Neil adds, “When you're playing these shows at the festivals amongst so many other great bands, it definitely contextualises what you're doing. So, as Mike says, it really forced us to step up and properly engage. We enjoyed the moment. We had a mission to accomplish, rather than just an introduction because the first few shows just felt like a ‘Hi, how you doing? We're ESB.’”

Will Australian fans be introduced to Empire State Bastard any time soon? Neil is “desperate” to return to his fans down under. “Hopefully, in the new year, we’ll be over for a couple of shows at least, and we can't fucking wait,” Neil says. “We love playing to you guys. You’ve got such a special vibe. You really do; if only we lived fucking closer, we would be there.”

Vennart adds, “I think one of the only good memories I've actually got of Oceansize was touring in Australia. We all fucking felt how lucky we were because it was such a unique thing for a band of our size to go and do, and it was a fucking great time.

“Even the radio, I remember – we're going back a good few years – we just had triple j on all day in the car and heard fucking Mastodon at lunchtime on the radio. I was going, ‘What the fuck was that?’ It was amazing.”

Empire State Bastard’s debut album, Rivers Of Heresy, is out now via Roadrunner Records. You can check it out below.