British Theatre – Mastery: Album Stream

Former Oceansize men stream the debut album from their new electronic project on The Independent

British Theatre are Michael J. Vennart and Richard A. Ingram
British Theatre are Michael J. Vennart and Richard A. Ingram

Mike Vennart and Richard A. Ingram (AKA Gambler) will be familiar names to fans of Oceansize, the criminally under-rated alternative progressive rock outfit that took guitar music and twisted it into vast, intricately beautiful soundscapes, influencing an entire movement of underground DIY math bands in their wake. Combining an inventive blend of the avant-garde with a strong sense of melody, the band ploughed through 13 years of under-appreciated moderate success before calling time in February 2011.

Since Oceansize’s split, Vennart and Gambler have kept themselves busy, working on the material that would become Vennart’s solo album, (The Demon Joke, released in 2015), as well as providing touring back-up for angular alt-rock turned stadium-sized chorus-generating behemoths Biffy Clyro. But the duo have also been beavering away quietly over British Theatre, an experimental electronic endeavour that marks their most disparate musical collaboration yet. ‘The original idea for British Theatre was born before Oceansize split up’ says Gambler. ‘I started doing this weird solo stuff and I thought I could get Mike to sing over some of it. I came up with the name but not much else. Then when Oceansize split up, I started to concentrate on this.’

Considering their association and proximity to Manchester, one might assume that the seeds for this particular project were sown in the skanky ecstasy-fuelled dance emporiums of the 90’s, a time which saw the city desperately clinging on to the last vestiges of the Madchester scene and a bucket hat was considered an acceptable fashion accessory. Thankfully, the truth is somewhat more palatable. ‘When we started Oceansize (in 1998) we were trying to distance ourselves as far away as possible from all that kind of stuff’ says Gambler. ‘We didn't have to try very hard to be fair’ Mike interjects. ‘When we moved to Manchester in 1995 everybody was wearing their coats and shades on stage, everybody had the same haircut and there was no way we would fit into that. But dance music wasn't even on my radar, I was already old beyond my years and I certainly wasn't going to go out raving!’

Instead, British Theatre is an outlet for the two musicians to do something completely different to the acts they’re most associated with. ‘We didn’t want to do anything that screams 'rock band goes electro!'’ says Mike. ‘We made the decision that I wouldn't play guitar on this; sure there's a little bass guitar on a couple of tracks but there's no real drums, no guitar, even the singing’s pretty different to anything I’ve done before. Gambler wrote a lot of the vocal melodies and he doesn't sing, so he doesn't know how the voice f**king works, so I had to sing these weird lines that didn't really make much sense!’

British Theatre’s initial forays into the public eye were two Eps, both released in 2012, and whilst they’re not entirely dismissive of those early efforts, there is a sense that the duo feel that Mastery is a huge leap forward. When explaining how the first two Eps came together, Mike says ‘We got to the point where we'd been writing for about a year, just fiddling about with ideas but we'd finished f**king nothing! I was reading a book about Pavement at the time and how in their early days they’d put out 7" records themselves, which inspired us to kick things into gear. I said to Gambler, ‘F**k it, in two weeks’ time, let's put three songs out, just for the hell of it’, and that became the first EP. We felt ok about that, so we did another EP, which we decided would come out on vinyl as well. Those EPs were mainly us just spinning our wheels, getting back on the horse as it were.’

The original plan, to release Mastery around 2014, was scuppered when Mike was called up for his Biffy Clyro duties, a role he’s fulfilled on and off since 2010. ‘I was feeling pretty bad about my inability to get my s**t together and wondering how I was going to disappear for two years with Biffy Clyro, and leave Gambler in the lurch, but as it happens he got the job in Biffy as well. Once we knew we were going to have 2015 off, that gave us the time to concentrate on British Theatre. Coming back to it with a really fresh head gave me the confidence to re-work and finish off those ideas.’

Mike is keen to stress that Gambler is the brains behind British Theatre, (‘this is mainly his world,’ he says. ‘I'm just having a wee holiday’) with the majority of the musical ideas stemming from him. ‘I suppose I've had more of a relationship with electronic music than Mike has’ says Gambler, by way of explanation. ‘The first electronic music album I ever heard was Oxygène by Jean Michel Jarre which I picked out of my Dad's record collection, purely based on the artwork which caught my attention because it had a skull on it. So I listened to that and I didn't know what the hell was making those sounds but I knew I wanted to make sounds like that. So I bought an old Yamaha keyboard and started messing about with recording stuff, getting a tape machine and sticking the mic in front of an amp and stuff like that. But I didn't really listen to dance music when I was growing up, I only got into it in the last five years or so.’

It’s clear that with British Theatre, Vennart and Gambler are attempting to branch out and explore ideas that would have been impossible in their previous outfits, especially Oceansize, which Mike claims was ‘too much of a f**king democracy! I don't think we would have ever dreamt of going this far with the electronic elements in that band. If you listen to the second Oceansize album (2005’s Everyone Into Position), there's electronic stuff in there that was brought in by Jon Ellis (Oceansize’s original bass player). That was his department, so when he left, I remember saying to Gambler, 'Look, you're going to have to learn how to do all that s**t.' On the next album, (2007’s Frames) there's nothing like that at all, there's absolutely no programming, it's just a band playing live. I think for the last album (2010’s Self-Preserved While the Bodies Float Up), it started to creep in again, but it would never have been to the same degree as British Theatre. By that point, the band had split into factions and there was a certain faction who wanted it to be heavy all the time, whereas we were up for doing different things. I wanted the last record to sound like Zaireeka by The Flaming Lips, I was saying to the guys, 'let's not be a rock band, let's just make an absolute fucking cacophony'. But none of us knew how to do that!’

With Mastery finished after 4 years of on and off work, British Theatre can relax in the knowledge that they’ve achieved what they set out to do; create a richly rewarding album that vividly contrasts with anything they’ve worked on previously. ‘We wanted to make it as different as possible to anything that we've done before but I didn't realise quite how different it was going to be' says Mike. 'I was worried about that at first, to the point where it put me into some sort of paralysis. I couldn't get anything finished but in hindsight, that was a good thing. If we’d finished these songs and put them out as an album two years ago, it wouldn't be anywhere near as good as what we've got now.’

Mastery, the debut album from British Theatre, is available through Pledge Music now.

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