In the leagues of unfairly overlooked bands, Oceansize must surely rank near the top. Perhaps amongst the world’s best live outfits, and certainly amongst its most innovative guitar bands, the Manchester quintet spent almost a decade and a half wrenching apart people’s conceptions of rock music.
I remember seeing the video for ‘Catalyst’ for the first time, as an impressionable 15 year old trying to find some guitar music that consisted of more than three chords and one time signature. It felt like telepathy; like a band had reached inside my head, worked out exactly what I wanted from music, and arranged those thoughts into something that people would lose their shit to in small venues with big PAs. It was just so satisfying; intelligent, yes, but teeming with melodies that I still find myself humming almost ten years later.
But it wasn’t until 2007 that the band produced their masterpiece. Frames is as good as almost anything released in the last decade. It’s the distillation of everything to which guitar music should aspire; inventive but entertaining, it demonstrates that their can be an avant-garde of a genre habitually stymied by inertia.
In February 2011, though, with a curt announcement that screamed of some acute interpersonal unpleasantness, The ‘Size split. Several of the members already had other projects; Mark Heron and Steve Hodson were in Kong, while Richard Ingram had been releasing very beautiful abstract pieces under his own name. There was vague talk of something called British Theatre, a new project involving Ingram and vocalist Mike Vennart, but then everything went quiet – until last month.
At the end of February, British Theatre released their debut EP. The three-song collection has all of the hallmarks that the select few had always loved about Oceansize: effortless, instantly familiar melodicism; melancholy offset by riffs; and Vennart’s unique voice, sometimes pushed to the point of breaking.
And yet British Theatre isn’t Oceansize Mark II. The tracks here are beautiful and assured, but there is no bombast; instead, there is fragility. The EP is uniquely claustrophobic, as if Vennart and Ingram have ensconced themselves in a windowless room for a long, blurred night of the soul, and just hit record.
Today the duo are working on their debut full-length, and piecing together plans for a live show. We spoke to Vennart about the end of Oceansize, and the beginning of British Theatre.
Hi Mike. What are you up to right now?
Chilling out, plotting our next move. The first EP ‘dropped’ (ewww) three days ago and was surprisingly well received. In all honesty, some of this stuff has been ready a while but I was maybe getting a bit too precious about it, holding it back. I mean, I’m not famous by any stretch of the imagination, but I didn’t wanna bung out any old shit and then regret it ten minutes later. Anyway, Iwas itching to get something out and so we….. bunged out some old shit and it went great, thankfully!
First of all (and I’m sorry to ask), the question on everyone’s lips: what happened to Oceansize?
It’s tricky. I’d kind of like to tell the story but it’s pretty dramatic. It would alter the sound of the records that we spent ages dreaming up, and to some people it might sound all a little petty. But it was so fucking ugly. Suffice to say it was a recurring problem that grew and grew and it couldn’t be ignored or tolerated anymore. One story I would like to refute is that I left Oceansize to join Biffy Clyro. Put simply, and entirely factually, I didn’t leave Oceansize and I didn’t join Biffy Clyro.
Has all of British Theatre’s material been written since the end of Oceansize?
Yeah, all except for one tiny keyboard riff I tried to crowbar into the last Oceansize record. Gambler finally found a home for it. No-one else in Oceansize really dug it. ‘Keyboard riff’. Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron doesn’t it?
Do you have a conscious set of reference points for this project, or an idea of what British Theatre should sound like?
For me, none at all. That was kind of a problem initially, for me at least. It’s all very well sitting around talking about what you want to do, but art, to me, isn’t really like that. It’ll be what it’ll be. I can’t change the path my creativity leads me down more than I can teach my cat not bite me all the fucking time. I still try though, on both counts. Gambler might have something to say here though… I mean he’s much more attuned to total freak out, avant garde, experimental droney minimalism. He’s got a few solo records out that are pretty out there. They’re out under the name Richard A Ingram and they totally send me south. The ‘Happy Hour’ record in particular nearly gave me a heart attack. Bad vibrations. His jarring textures and details are all over our stuff.
You’ve said that you were initially reticent about playing live, but that you are coming round to the idea. Would that involve putting a band together? I was struck by how ‘live’ the recordings sound, despite the programming.
Yeah i think we’re subconsciously tailoring the music to sound a little more like a band here and there… We’re hatching plans for a live band, but it’ll be after the album ‘drops’ (bleeeurrrrghhhhh).
‘Gold Bruise’ feels very much like the centrepiece of the record. Would you like to talk a bit about the genesis of the song?
In all honesty, it’s one of the only occasions I can honestly say it felt like a song wrote itself. It happened very quickly and very early on. If I could establish some kind of payment scheme to ensure that that could happen at least once a month, I’d be absolutely fucking delighted. Ninety-nine percent of the time, for me, composing is like solving a puzzle. I read this interview with, i think, Larry David’s wife. She was saying that Larry’s just a fucking nightmare when he’s writing because he has loads of ideas and gets really depressed until the moment he finally works out how to tie up the end of each episode, and then he’s absolutely ecstatic. Bouncing off the walls. I really relate to that. I guess it’s a different kind of pressure now, not being part of an ensemble and having to conjure things more laboriously. I do miss the process of being part of a composing ensemble. Me and Gamb do ‘jam’ a fair bit though. It’s still great fun.
How much do you have written? Are there plans for a full-length?
There’s about 20 songs floating about in differing levels of completion. We’ll hopefully do another EP before the album.
How have you adjusted to the realities of no longer being in your own band as a ‘day job’? Do you intend for British Theatre to become a full-time concern?
British Theatre is very much full time. All day every day is spent writing for it. I’m writing with Steve Durose too, that’ll be much more guitar based thing. But yeah, British Theatre is a different kind of ‘job’. I mean I’m no longer venturing across town every day to rehearse/argue in a freezing shit hole of a practice space. I’m sitting in my studio with my mate drinking loads of tea and stroking a cat. In terms of day jobs, I’m lucky enough to be Biffy’s live guitarist but that doesn’t require a whole lot of homework. I feel kinda like a cheerleader, or like Bez, or like I’m at a rock disco and it’s Biffy night every night. It’s ace. I’m totally cool with being the hired gun – they’re fucking telepathic, god love ‘em.
This is slightly tangential, but I understand you’ve been involved in the Tim Smith benefit albums. Do you have any news on his condition?
In all honesty I haven’t seen him yet. I’m angry with myself about that and I’ll be rectifying it in the coming months. I send him music and messages from time to time. He’s in my thoughts several times a day because, well, anyone who knows him will tell you what a wonderful man he is. I can only go on what my friends who have seen him tell me – “He is still so beautiful”. An amazing man. I’m so lucky to know him and to have even HEARD his music. Not even nearly enough people have.
Finally, can you recommend something we might not have heard before?
I heard this record in a pub in Didsbury and really liked it – Mare by Julian Lynch. Not heard that before. My friend Ben pointed me towards this lovely record by Happy Particles called Under Sleeping Waves that’s quite twee and tinkly but I love it, especially after a heavy day. The new O’Brother record is good if you like the heavier stuff. Oh and i saw a.P.A.t.T supporting Secret Chiefs 3 and they absolutely bent me. I love it when sometimes you go see a band and walk out going, ‘What kind of band WAS that?!’.