Oceansize interview with Mike Vennart ‘I’m very proud of everything we did’

As Effloresce, Oceansize’s 2003 debut album gets a remastered vinyl reissue, we speak to frontman Mike Vennart to ask about the recording of a modern classic 

Remfry Dedman@remfrydedman
Wednesday 08 November 2017 11:06
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Oceansize as they were then; Mark Heron
Oceansize as they were then; Mark Heron

In 1998, five students studying music at the University of Salford, Manchester began to spend their Friday and Saturday nights boozed up on cheap beer, mellowed out on cheaper weed and jamming to their heart’s content. There was no rhyme or reason, nor no plan or indication that these five young adults would go on to form one of the most-beloved progressive rock acts of the 21st century, but across 12 years, 4 albums and several EPs, that’s exactly what these five stoners from Manchester did.

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Effloresce, the debut album from Oceansize, is a stunningly eclectic and varied album of lucid beauty and earth-shattering heaviness devised by five individualistic minds who were all set on making their mark on the record. With so many ideas vying for attention, it’s a miracle that it all hangs together at all, but at no point listening to Effloresce does one ever get the impression that the five musicians involved don’t know exactly what they’re doing. All the more surprising then, that so much of the record came from 5 self-confessed non-songwriters, a heap of mistakes and only a vague semblance of an idea of what exactly it was they were trying to achieve. ‘I'm very proud of it,’ says frontman Mike Vennart, looking back on the record today, ‘I'm very proud of everything we did. It's not necessarily easy to listen to although it is easier than it was. When the band first broke up, I couldn't bear to listen to anything to do with Oceansize. When it had gone, it was f**king tough, as I'm sure it was for all of us, it was really brutal. These days, dealing with reissues and God knows what else, I'm able to listen to it and enjoy it for what it was.’

It was Beggars Banquet, the record label that released both Effloresce and follow-up, Everyone Into Position, who contacted the band to tell them they would be re-issuing the debut on vinyl. Not one to do things by halves, Steve Durose, Richard ‘Gambler’ Ingram and Mike Vennart went down to Abbey Road studios to be involved in the session alongside remastering maestro Frank Arkwright (Mogwai, The Smiths, Arcade Fire, System of a Down, Biffy Clyro). ‘We sort of insisted on getting involved because originally, they were just going to remaster it from the CD, which would've sounded really s**t’ says Mike. ‘We opened up quite a can of worms when we insisted on attending the Abbey Road mastering session though; when they sent us the list of songs and the original analogue tapes, everything was labelled totally f**king wrong because we were so stoned in them days, we didn't realise the importance of putting actual titles on the tapes. So everything was just labelled as 'New Song' or 'Spacey Jam', only like three of the songs had proper titles. Plus there were several versions of each song so we had to determine which one it was which.’

Sorting through the reels of a debut album inevitably brings up old musical demons for bands and can often be a sobering process, but by all accounts, listening back to Effloresce was relatively painless for the band. ‘When I listened to it back at Abbey Road, I realised how fully formed we sounded on our first album’ says Mike. ‘Sonically, it's even better than I recall, the only short-coming that I regret on a personal note is that I think that the lyrics are a little green. In those days, I used to pick a subject before I would start writing and that subject always had to be a real, unimagined life event. But what I've learnt to do since is just start writing and let the subject present itself, which it eventually will do.’

A snap-shot of the 'Effloresce' cover art

The songs on Effloresce were written during a time of uncertainty and the inevitable disappointment that comes as part of leaving university and the discovery that the past three years of graft may have been all for nought. ‘We were living in Salford which is just on the very edge of Manchester City centre and it’s a pretty grisly, spicy place and at this point. We’d all just come out of university and it was a massive come down after we'd all been partying our tits off for three years and doing very little work, just playing music, watching gigs, writing music and having a really good laugh with like-minded people. And then suddenly, we were thrust into the real world and realising that this could be it, you know? You're going to work a 9-5 job and you're going to try and climb up the company ladder and that's it! I didn't necessarily do myself any favours because try as I might, I got fired from every job that I got because they could tell that my heart wasn't in it. So on most of the songs, there's an underlying theme of escapism or wanting things to change.’

Several of the songs came out of loose jams that the band would record on a cheap cocktail of Stella Artois, bad weed and mushrooms (famously, the band were tripping during their first practise, where they managed to piece together the basic structure of 3-4 songs.) It was a jovial, weekend ritual, a very social affair where the five members of the band would get pissed and make music. ‘I don't want to romanticise that lifestyle, but we did have an awful lot of fun, the kind of fun you can only have when you're in your early 20s. We did hang out and get together every weekend and just party and have fun with it but most of the time, our idea of having a party would involve playing together.’

The album contains three instrumental interludes, or ‘palette cleansers’ as Mike refers to them, which illuminated the jamming, improvisational nature of the band’s rehearsals; ‘I Am The Morning’, ‘Unravel’ and ‘Rinsed’. ‘That's one of my favourite Oceansize memories of all, because it happened completely by accident’ Mike explains ‘We were so prepared when we went in to the studio, we had all these songs ready to go which we'd rehearsed endlessly. But we went in with the idea of making something off the cuff, for some reason and it was called 'Evil Riff'. We had this great riff that had just been lying around for f**king months and we were like, 'we'll do something with that!' As soon as we attempted it, it fell apart, we didn't know what the f**k we were doing with it. So Jon (Ellis, bass) had this three note bassline that he’d been messing around with so we just pressed record and played around it and that's the take of ‘Rinsed’ you hear on the record. It's so simple but it breaks up the complexity of the record; I love it, it's got such warmth to it.’

Oceansize just prior to the 2005 release of sophomore album Everyone Into Position, from left to right, Richard 'Gambler' Ingram, Jon Ellis, Mark Heron, Mike Vennart and Steve Durose

Many of the songs that appeared on Effloresce had already made their way on to early EPs, usually in a looser arrangement with rough-around-the-edges production jobs compared to the versions most familiar from the album. One such song, ‘Women Who Love Men Who Love Drugs’ ended up being the first part of a trilogy of almost 10-minute epics that usher in the album’s close. ‘’Women Who Love Men Who Love Drugs’ was literally a vague instrumental that we started opening the set with, having barely rehearsed it or barely even written it’ says Mike. ‘It was originally called 'Can Jam'; we had a lot of songs over the years that were called 'Can Jam' because we all loved Can and we wanted to pretend that we could so things like they did; of course, it never ever ended up sounding at all like Can! The title came from our bass player Jon who saw it on the front of Cosmopolitan magazine but the lyrics are just gibberish. I think Sigur Rós had just come out so I listened to them and thought 'f**k it, I don't need to worry about writing lyrics anymore, I'll just sing phonetic waffle!’ It's just odd words here and there, I can barely remember what they are.’

‘Long Forgotten’, the album’s languid, chilled out closer, was a song that the band had in their arsenal for several years before they were brave enough to commit it to tape. ‘That song had been sat on the shelf for three years, it had been a jam that the boys came up with whilst I was getting ditched by me girlfriend; I didn't make it to rehearsal that night because she was chucking me. So they wrote this song and I heard the tape afterwards and I was like, 'that's f**king incredible! We've got to do something with that!' But at the time, we would have been too scared to play a 10 minute song that didn't go really heavy, do you know what I mean? We were still playing 30 minute sets at that point so it sat on the shelf and also Mark lost the cassette that had the beat on it. He was almost too scared to re-visit that song, until he knew exactly how to play the beat. He never found the tape so we had to really bully him into just doing something similar.’

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The jamming approach allowed the songs to take on freeform elongated structures, although it did lead to one problem for Mike; even he was having trouble identifying exactly what Oceansize were trying to do or become. ‘I was confused by the band because I felt like we weren't writing songs’ he confesses. ‘I was interested in the Mogwai-esque, rotational, jam aspects of the band but I was struggling to see how we could turn those ideas into actual songs. That felt like a dilemma for me for the majority of writing on that first album. It wasn’t until we got signed and quit our jobs that we suddenly had the time to commit to writing every day and that’s when I began to get an idea of exactly what it was we were trying to do. We were able to rehearse for 5-6 hours every day and out of that came songs like ‘You Wish’ and ‘Remember Who You Are’, which were the last two songs written for the record. That felt like a particularly pivotal point in terms of me understanding exactly what the band was.’

Despite getting signed and the enthusiasm with which each member of the band quit their respective day jobs, Oceansize were still short on cash. Piracy was beginning to hit the music industry and recording contracts no longer propelled bands from rags to riches. A story around the song ‘Amputee’, potentially the closest Oceansize ever got to any sort of mainstream success after it was played on Radio 1, highlights the band’s situation whilst recording Effloresce. ‘’Amputee’ got played on Mark & Lard at the exact point that I was signing on the dole’ Mike recalls laughing. ‘Beggars Banquet told us ‘when you sign this deal, you're all going to have to keep on working, this isn't going to change your life' and we were all like, 'Yes it f**kin is!’ So we quit our jobs and just carried on signing on; we were still skint but we had to pay the rent somehow. Sure enough there was a knock on the door just after we'd done the second album and there was a guy saying 'Right ok, you guys have just been touring America, you've just made two albums, why are you all claiming housing benefit?' And he had a full file on us man but it was all legit, we just didn't have any money! Anything that came into the band we used to pay for recording and rehearsal studios. We weren't earning but we were ok with that at the time. We could barely afford to pay our rent when we were working 9-5 jobs, let alone when we were in the band.’

Whilst all members of the band were contributing songwriting ideas, Oceansize would often have a surfeit of ideas come from one individual, and in the early days, it was their idiosyncratic drummer who was planting the seeds for many of the bands best tunes. ‘For the first couple of years at least, Mark Heron was the leader of the band’ Mike reveals. ‘He was certainly the organiser and the tastemaker. It’s fair to say that for a number of years, he had a new drum beat to present every day and those ideas were frequently excellent, but it was often hard to respond musically in a way that he would necessarily enjoy or appreciate. I remember looking out the window at 5 or 6am and you'd see Mark stood outside with a spliff in one hand and a dictaphone in the other recording the birdsong in the trees because he could hear rhythm in what the birds were tweeting. Then he would sit with Jon in front of the computer and cut up all these birdsongs and loop them into rhythms which he’d then learn to play on drums. It was a madly creative time; a friend of ours referred to us as a farm that grows music and that's all we did all the time. I think that my job was to play guitar and try to sculpt all these mad ideas into songs, because that's an important thing to remember; none of us were songwriters by any stretch of the imagination. We could all bring in ideas but ultimately, it was my job to try and imagine what section was going to be what, and that's the position that I began to take as the band went on.’

The song-writing process usually dictates that there be a designated leader, or at the very least, one member of the band who is steering the ship. By contrast, Oceansize adopted a push-and-pull democratic approach to writing music, an attribute that is evident by the sheer depth of instrumentation and intricate layering that makes up much of their material. It was also one of the attributes that ended up being a big factor in the dissolution of the band 8 years after Effloresce was released. ‘We were certainly unwilling to compromise with each other back then and that's not something that we ever really grew out of’ Mike agrees. ‘Most of the songs that ended up being released were created by process of elimination, because if there was a single note that someone in the band didn't like, then it wouldn't get through the net. By the last album we were just exhausted because we couldn't work out where else we could go that would suit everybody. It had become really tough and no real fun at all by that point.’

Effloresce was released 29th September 2003 to largely favourable reviews. The Drowned in Sound review sums up the general consensus by saying ‘there is a delicateness of restraint that has allowed them to stretch the sound over the entirety of the disc. I daresay there is not a spare second of space left on this record.’ The band were quick to move on however, and it is Oceansize’s 2005 sophomore full-length Everyone Into Position which Mike rates as the best record in their impressive canon. ‘As soon as we made the second album, I thought that it wiped the floor with Effloresce’ Mike reveals. ‘I thought it was a lot more accomplished and experimental and just more eclectic and interesting. Initially, I felt like Effloresce was just some kind of half arsed post rock album, I thought it was too confused but it makes more sense to me now. Frames and Effloresce I think are very much of a similar ilk, so they’d both sit in second. They’re both more cinematic and more hypnotic. In hindsight, I think I’d put Self-Preserved Whilst the Bodies Float Up in last. At that point we were basically writing songs individually because the jamming thing that we'd always done was beginning to run dry. We couldn't get any more ideas, it got boring and it got tedious.’

Maybe such a fragile, democratic approach to making art was never meant to last, but Oceansize’s legacy ensures that they will continue to inspire fans of the obtuse and unconventional for years to come. Effloresce captures a very special time for the band, one where inter-relationship dynamics had yet to curb the band’s enthusiasm and the possibilities seemed endless. ‘I’ve been quoted as saying I don't have any good memories of Oceansize but that’s not true’ says Mike. ‘The really special moments for me would be when we’d finally make a big eureka breakthrough with a song that we’d been batting around the room for a couple of years which then would suddenly explode and you’re grappling to take control of it. Songs like ‘Music For a Nurse’ or ‘Ornament/The Last Wrongs’, anything like that; those were magical times and I miss those spontaneous moments of being in an ensemble, there’s no doubt about it. I’m sure we all miss the band. It really hit me around the time of doing the Frames album how obsessed I had become with the band and how I always had been. I derived so much pleasure from even thinking about it that it started to drive me f**king nuts. It was like a Golem scenario where it was so precious to me that it f**king hurt. I put every waking moment into some element of that band, even when I went on holiday, I was expected to write lyrics. We demanded a lot of each other, and we didn’t want to let each other down. But it was like a drug that had been making me sick for 10 years. You love it and it tastes so sweet but you're just absolutely saturated or overloaded with it. It's a weird relationship that I have with that band now.’

The re-issue of Oceansize's debut album 'Effloresce' is released on Friday 10th November and is available to pre-order now

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