Operate is that rare song that makes you want to do things — punch a wall, kick a cop, maybe just jump up and down — once the anthemic chorus or that ridiculously beastly fuzz bridge sets in. It released as a one-off a while ago, but it’s also part of The Demon Joke, the new solo debut by Mike Vennart, and it’s beautiful. For those not quite in the know — and there will be plenty of you (for shame) — Vennart used to be the vocalist and singer of British psychedelic/experimental/progressive/alternative/something band Oceansize, which disbanded in 2011 bitterly after 12 years and four stunning full-lengths. Why? “An explanation for this occurrence is neither forthcoming or indeed necessary,” were the defining words from their splitting up announcement. For some FYI, they’re the band that wrote the song Music For A Nurse, arguably the most beautiful piece of music ever written. It’s in the past.
As with any music these guys have written, The Demon Joke takes a while to register and settle in. Even after the first listen, though, the album makes something of an impact. So I wrote to him through his Bandcamp page, assuming he wouldn’t reply. Without gushing, Mike Vennart is the epitome of cool — at one Oceansize gig, he asked the people to ration their breathing because it was too crowded; on the Feed to Feed DVD, the crowd starts clapping out of time to the deceptively complex polyrhythmic structure of Music For A Nurse, so he shakes his head and commands the audience to stop. For whatever reason, he responds, and we set up a Skype interview. He’s a little bit under the weather, and his son wakes up in between, but Vennart is tentatively enthusiastic about discussing the album. “The making of the album was very slow and arduous,” he tells me. In the five years since Oceansize ceased to exist, Vennart has found a home (or day job) performing live with Scottish powerhouse Biffy Clyro, who were supposed to play the ill-fated Metallica gig in New Delhi that got cancelled, preceding a very angry destruction of the gear on stage by the disappointed crowd. (“Those were pretty scary times; we didn’t know what was going to happen. Thankfully, they didn’t get hold of my guitar,” he laughs.) He’s also one half of British Theatre, along with Gambler (aka Richard Ingram, who also plays live with Biffy now) from Oceansize — they’ve already put out two gorgeous EPs. “I wrote it on breaks,” he continues, about The Demon Joke. “Obviously, now, my main job is playing guitar for Biffy Clyro. So I composed it whenever I was at home. Sometimes I would write music in my hotel room whenever I got the chance. It was done in tiny bursts of activity. It’s been five years of trying to get it together. The fact that it’s now been released makes me very, very relieved.”
It’s as much a guitar album as any that’s ever existed in time. He remains clear about wanting to “come back” with a guitar album, really. While Oceansize had a distinct jam aesthetic to their writing process — “We were on mushrooms and just jammed for ages, and then we listened back to the tapes,” their guitarist Steve Durose has mentioned in the past — and British Theatre, which Vennart terms as “Gambler’s baby”, had relatively well-defined roles for the two, The Demon Joke sees Vennart venturing out all on his own, facing all (if any) his insecurities as a songwriter. “It was very difficult initially,” he says. “I was quite concerned that I didn’t have the ability. That’s why I got Steve Durose involved. I was just sort of stumbling in the dark. I didn’t know if it was going to work. I had this collection of unfinished pieces sitting around all abandoned. I was really worried about it. When I started doing the proper demos and singing — the vocals are always the last thing that gets recorded — I knew the songs were finished. Just to have the demos was the most exciting bit. That’s half the battle. I would sit alone on the computer to make arrangements from scratch. It’s pretty hard. Completing the demos is the most challenging and rewarding part. You feel like you’re sort of chipping away at something; you don’t really know what you’re doing. You usually hit a turning point where you know it’s going to work. That’s the most enlightening and exciting part of it. It’s kind of lonely sometimes when you don’t have the instant feedback or feeling of unity. But f**k it, it’s OK. It gives me the freedom to do what I want.”
Durose has written plenty of the vocal melodies, in fact, with Vennart calling him a “very natural composer when it comes to melody”.Vennart sent him a bunch of the instrumental songs, to which Durose sent back vocal melodies, bringing “the stuff to life”. They’re great friends and they “drive each other pretty f**king crazy from time to time”. In addition, Gambler also contributed to the album, making it a mini Oceansize reunion of sorts, which was “fantastic”, he says. Quote On
Dropcap OnThe album was released on PledgeMusic, a sort of crowdfunding/pre-order model, since Vennart wanted to recover the money he spent on the recording/production. It took all of five minutes to reach that target, so he’s naturally chuffed, with the label Superball Music handling the release. “The nature of generic record contracts is laughably weighted on the side of the record company. I pointed out how ridiculous it was and they made me a deal I couldn’t refuse. That basically means I get the best of both worlds. I release it on Pledge and I make all the goddamn money. Then I hand the record over to them and then they put it out as well.” One thing he’s really pleased about is the reach of it: “Something you make in your bedroom can reach someone in India or Australia or Brazil or Malaysia. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly a big deal in, say, Cambodia, but there’s always a couple of people who want the records. It’s just great sending parcels to the other side of the world.”
Lyrically, there’s an underlying tone of dark humour running through the record. Spontaneous words wrangle with deliberated lyrics, but there’s an essential sense of colour— almost synaesthetic — that defines the record, right from the opener, Two Five Five, where the music takes on practically an amorphous form before a passage of grimey noise transitions into Doubt. Often, the complexity of the music seems to blend into the background — there’s technically unreasonable sections that dictate the structure of the songs, as on the flickering guitar line and drum push-pull dynamic on Don’t Forget The Joker. But the quality of music is such that it all seems ludicrously simple — “I think I’m making music I’ve always wanted to make. I don’t know, man, some of this stuff is just as complicated as it always has been, but it’s a lot more tuneful. I think it’s quite deceptive. People will initially think, ‘Ah, this is far too generic.'” It’s only with time that a listener will realise the intricacy and how unusual it all is. That’s quite possibly the best part of The Demon Joke — the rewarding intricacy masked behind this visionary sense of songwriting craft that allows for an effortlessness in the experience.
As for playing live, there are a few gigs and slots at festivals lined up, but Vennart has no intentions of taking this Show on the Road. “I’m nearly 40 now,” he concedes, “I can’t really be arsed going and f**king living in a van for weeks and weeks; I can’t be bothered.” He’s already done a small tour in England, with Gambler and Durose naturally in tow, and while Vennart has been playing with Biffy all this while, this was something he admits he’d been waiting for for five years. “I like going on stage and playing my music. I’d been thinking about it for five years; I didn’t know what it was going to be like. The thing is, when it comes down to it, you have a curiosity and you wonder what it’s going to be like to walk on stage and play your music again. What’s everybody going to think? Ultimately, I wrote these songs and I think they’re f**king good. I had the confidence in the music and I knew that if I walk on stage and nobody likes it then f**k all of them. As it happens, I walked on the stage and all the curiosity disappeared. I got on stage, played the guitar and sang the songs. It was exactly the same as it ever was.”