“So much metal is gridded and sterile. We call it ‘CGI metal’. It isn’t real, and it just doesn’t sound heavy”: Simon Neil and Mike Vennart are making metal heavy again with Empire State Bastard

Empire State Bastard's Mike Vennart and Simon Neil
(Image credit: Gavin Smart)

You probably didn’t have Biffy Clyro’s frontman Simon Neil and live guitarist Mike Vennart down as the guys most likely to produce 2023’s scuzziest metal album, but with the heavyweight additions of ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and ex-Bitch Falcon bassist Naomi Macleod, they have produced a serious contender. 

Empire State Bastard began years ago as a pipe dream that Simon and Mike discussed on tour. “It was always going to be extreme,” says Simon. “We didn’t want to just make a noisy record flippantly. We needed a valid reason to express that rage.” 

With his frustrations at boiling point following Brexit and the pandemic, and Mike recovering from “a horrendous experience with the far right,” they found their reason. “I was just mortally raging,” fumes Mike. 

That fury is etched in the grooves of Rivers of Heresy, Empire State Bastard’s snarling debut. The pair speak to Total Guitar together via Zoom about the making of the album – and they begin by explaining why Simon barely plays any guitar on it…

How do you form a band with the guitar player from one of the UK’s biggest bands and then not have him play much guitar in it? 

Simon: “When you put it like that, it sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? My main worry was that when I pick up a guitar, it sounds like Biffy. I didn’t want to pick up guitar to begin with – so that it would have no resemblance to Biffy songs. 

“I played a little bit of noisy guitar and some more kind of effect stuff. I think that was so important to let Mike do what he’s doing. There are a few people I play guitar around that make me feel like an amateur, and unfortunately, Mike is one of those people!”

I’m ordinarily more of a sort of single coil player, you know, like clean, really nice, spidery guitar sounds, wiry stuff. This tuning made me just want to make f**king riffs

Mike Vennert

Mike: “When we first talked about it, I just assumed that he would play guitar. But when it came to the writing, I just went at it and did my own thing. I was experimenting with a new tuning, C standard, which you would think wouldn’t make such a drastic difference, but the feel of the guitar in that tuning was so inspiring.

“I’m ordinarily more of a sort of single coil player, you know, like clean, really nice, spidery guitar sounds, wiry stuff. This tuning made me just want to make f*cking riffs. It’s never been a forte of mine, but it came together this time.”

How did you get Dave Lombardo of Slayer fame involved?

Mike: “When I was writing, I’d have a double espresso and a shot of tequila, and I’d set up the recording session. The bass track would say Shane Embury [Napalm Death], and the drum programming track that I was making always just said ‘Lombardo’ on it. Little did I know that we’d have that guy playing the real drums on it.” 

Simon: “Because there was a pandemic, we just thought, ‘Should we email him? We know he’s at home!’ Within 24 hours, he said, ‘I am going to make time to make this record right now. What’s your deadline?’ His positivity is what cemented the band. When Dave Lombardo, the primo modern metal drummer, says that they’re going to drop everything to work on it, that was when we started to take it seriously.”

Empire State Bastard

(Image credit: Gavin Smart)

What gear did you use? 

Mike: “When I was writing it, I used a Hagström Super Swede, kind of a cheap thing. It just would not stay in tune at all, but it had P-90s in it. There’s just something about playing metal on single coils. It’s really fat, plenty of mids. There was something about the weight of the strings, using a higher gauge. I used 13-56. 

“A wound G is absolutely imperative, otherwise nothing will work. There is something about the resonance of it in that tuning. It’s like you’re playing a fucking tree or something.

“On the record, I used a Gibson Explorer with a DiMarzio Tone Zone in it. When I was learning in the ’80s, I was big on Superstrat shredder dudes, so the Tone Zone is something I’ve always been a big fan of because it’s so loud and there’s so much mids. 

When Dave Lombardo, the primo modern metal drummer, says that they’re going to drop everything to work on it, that was when we started to take it seriously

Simon Neil

“The amp was entirely a Green Matamp GT1. I didn’t use any pedals on the record, except a Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal on one section, dimed for that chainsaw sound. Other than that, it is just the amp distortion on the GT1, completely dimed. If you turn up the gain and then turn up the master volume, you’ve just got this incredible grainy distortion. 

“With the bass maxed, it’s absolutely incendiary. I’m obsessed with it. I absolutely wanted to avoid that tight modern metal sound. It’s quite flubby, quite a woolly kind of sound. It’s got more in common with a Big Muff or something like that, but it’s an actual amp distortion.”

Simon: “When I’d finished all my vocals, I put a few guitars on just to make things noisier. I played my Strat most of the time, and I’ve always got the [Boss] Metal Zone in there. I had a couple of Death By Audio pedals that you can loop your effects back through. 

“There’s one called Total Sonic Annihilation, and if you don’t want to play a pedal called Total Sonic Annihilation then you need to put down your guitar right now. I was also putting keyboards through guitar pedals and amps. 

“So mainly using my Marshall stack and a lot of my regular guitar pedals, but really fucking around with it, putting three pedals through one pedal. A lot of it ended up in a dead end because when you’re dealing with so much saturation, it can kind of swallow a mix.”

What kind of guitar parts are you playing? 

Simon: “I was trying to play in a way that I have never played my guitar. At points, I was trying to play left-handed, so there was no delicacy or subtlety. I’d be playing a couple of notes and manipulating them using octave effects. 

“A couple of things that sound like keyboards are actually guitars – the way bands like My Bloody Valentine would approach their songs. You know, it’s about texture and scope and trying to make it a bit more cinematic. Mike’s riffs were very to the point. I felt that my job was to fuck up songs that were already completely fucked up.”

Mike Vennart and Simon Neil

(Image credit: Gavin Smart)

A lot of your influences are really lo-fi compared to Biffy. How did you get the right sound?

Mike: “The most important thing was to make sure that Lombardo’s drums sounded real. Another reason he’s stood out as such a singular voice in metal is because he’s never succumbed to drum samples or quantization. 

“His kit sounds incredibly natural and woody. He’s always sounded like he’s about to derail any minute. Whereas, there’s so much metal that for years now has just been so gridded and sterile. We call it CGI metal. It isn’t real, and it just doesn’t sound heavy.

Simon: “I think Mike referenced the Melvins a couple of times when we were mixing it. We referenced some Steve Albini drum sounds just for their size and honesty. It almost would have been easier to make it shiny, and we wanted it to sound real. 

“We tried to get that balance of the power of a well-produced album, but still with that grottiness and grime of some of those early ’90s black metal records. I wanted to make sure that when you press play on this album, that it had the muscle it needed, without being overproduced.”

What’s it been like playing this stuff live?

Mike: “When we were getting together, I had an inkling, quite rightly, that Dave was gonna play everything a lot faster. That guy is so sensitive to caffeine, he’s a maniac! You feel like a wild animal, looking this guy in the face while he’s grinning evilly at you, like, ‘Oh yeah, can you keep up with that? Let’s go!’

“It’s the most exciting thing that you can do on stage because he knows that he’s bringing it, and he’s really challenging you to step up. I still feel like a 15-year-old boy listening to Slayer in my room.”

Simon: “When we were playing Glastonbury, one of my friends bumped into Dave Grohl and he was like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry I can’t make the Empire State Bastard gig.’ And I’m like, ‘How the fuck does Dave Grohl know about Empire State Bastard already?’ It blew my mind!”

Is this album a one-off, or will there be more?

Simon: “I’ve unlocked this part of my mind and body now. I know I’m gonna need to open this tap every couple of years and get the vitriol out. It also makes me fall back in love with Biffy again, because it’s so different.”

Mike: “I think it would be a damn shame not to do more. I don’t really care if anybody likes it one way or the other. I’m very lucky that anybody does, but we’re all having such a good time that it’d be ridiculous not to do more of it.”

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Jenna Scaramanga

Jenna writes for Total Guitar and Guitar World, and is the former classic rock columnist for Guitar Techniques. She studied with Guthrie Govan at BIMM, and has taught guitar for 15 years. She's toured in 10 countries and played on a Top 10 album (in Sweden).