Empire State Bastard: “We’re going for extremity at all costs”
Empire State Bastard. That’s one hell of a name. What else would fit? The Eiffel Dickhead? The Great Wall Of Twats? No. Nothing else captures their monolithic sense of doom and dread. “About 12 years ago I think I was talking about the Empire State Building and it just came out wrong,” frontman Simon Neil tells NME. “I was like, ‘That’s the greatest name in the history of the world!’ It just made perfect sense. It’s all arse-backwards the way we did this. We needed to make music that fit the name, and we weren’t in a rush to do it.”
The Biffy Clyro frontman first let word slip of the “extreme” metal side-project slip in an interview with NME back in 2020, but little did we know that he and Biffy live guitarist and former Oceansize member Mike Vernart had been plotting this madcap idea on the back of tour buses for over a decade.
Now, when we meet them at Camden’s iconic sweatbox The Black Heart, our ears are still ringing from their brutal debut London show at Underworld around the corner the night before – featuring Bitch Falcon’s Naomi Macleod on bass and Slayer legend Dave Lombardo on drums, no less. Not only that, but there’s a bewildering album of art-metal adventure coming up. Good things truly come to those who wait.
“No one was expecting this,” Neil continues. “We didn’t have to do this, we could have rushed it out eight years ago or spent a month just making some noisy shit. If you’re going to do something, do it properly. Put your head in it.”
Watch our full In Conversation video with the band above and read the interview below, as Neil and Vernart talk us through how this came to be, what it’s like to take Dave Lombardo to Greggs, and how the horror of the world can only be reflected in the most extreme terms.
Hello Empire State Bastard. Congratulations on a mega London show.
Neil: “It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been playing music together for over two decades, so play our first shows as a new band is so fucking weird.”
Vernart: “We’re in a heavy metal afterglow right now. I’m picking through the rubbish trying to work out what just happened. When you’re in it, it’s just hard to fathom – but it definitely feel like it went well. This has been an imaginary band for over a decade now, so we’ve been talking about it since long before we had any songs.”
Neil: “The crowd were so receptive, and it was interesting to be at a gig where no one has any expectations. It just felt like people gave us their trust and let us take them on this hideously horrific musical journey.”
It was pretty horrible, in the best way…
Neil: “‘Extreme’ is the word. We’re going for extremity at all costs, even if it’s not brutality – it’s got to be extremely weird. Because we play together in Biffy, there’s no point in us doing another project that doesn’t feel miles apart. That’s a pet hate of mine, when people leave their full-time band to do another thing and it’s just a slightly different version of what they’re doing anyway. What’s the fucking point?”
Vernart: “Do you remember when Jon Bon Jovi did ‘Blades Of Glory’ as a solo artist? It just sounded like a Bon Jovi song! He’s really sold himself short there.”
Neil: “It could have sounded like Napalm Death!”
What a lazy man Bon Jovi is…
Neil: “If he didn’t have as much money they’d be looking for some extreme metal.”
Vernart: “We’re setting a trend now. Everyone’s gonna come out with a mad metal album.”
Even Matt Cardle, again?
Neil: “I don’t think he’ll be covering any of these.”
Vernart: “We can’t even play them, never mind any bugger else!”
Neil: “The way Mike writes the music is so complex. Getting to know the music is a real different headspace to any way we’ve worked before. When I’m writing songs, they’re a bit more logical. There’s always an endpoint of always wanting to reach a certain emotion or feeling. Whereas this is just about scraping through dirt. We’re only three shows in, but we’re finding how to represent that. Last night felt like the one show out of the three where it completely clicked.”
So why do this now?
Neil: “We couldn’t have made this music, this album or this band even 10 years ago when we started talking about it. Our experiences in the meantime have given us the knowledge and the expertise to do it. It’s got the heart and soul of a younger project in that we’re just diving headfirst into it and not asking many questions, but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do this vocally. I’m learning to scream with a bit of stamina for a change.
“It’s really hard because when you’re in the moment, that’s the only thing that matters. That’s why this band means so much to us already, because every second feels so fucking important. We don’t have this huge run of gigs or years planned ahead. It’s got this kind of liberation to it. There’s no grand plan, and that’s what we’re finding the most exciting.”
Vernart: “I remember when Simon first told me that this band was happening, because he’d mentioned it in an interview after it had previously just been a drunken chat at the back of a bus. I said, ‘What does it sound like?’ and he replied, ‘Heavy and vital’. It’s taken us this long to have this in the back of our minds, to work out what that actually means.”
Simon, did you have to think differently about the lyrics on this record to match the darkness of Mike’s music?
Neil: “Absolutely. I’ve put all of my nihilism and misanthropy into this record. The anger needs to be real. When the pandemic happened, there was so much to be angry about over that period. Even since then, I keep having this optimistic point of view that there’s going to be a right sharp turn of goodness and growth and everyone’s going to see the light. I just needed to unleash something. This isn’t a political band, but there’s so much to be fucking angry about. You see the people running the country who just don’t give a shit, you see local neighbourhoods falling apart, and maybe I’ve connected to my hometown since I stopped touring so intensely after the pandemic. Maybe I feel more of a responsibility to my community.
“When Mike sent the music, we discussed a lot of our frustration at everything, the decisions that were being made to take us down this really horrific path that, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any way out of. Mike puts it quite eloquently, where the thought of making any kind of emotional music with that kind of mindset would actually break us inside. We needed to give ourselves this piss and bile to let us deal with it and discuss these things in ways that don’t make us fall apart. We needed strength from the music rather than vulnerability because we get to do that with other things we do.”
Vernart: “It’s primarily the idea that in this day and age you don’t have to look very far to look for inspiration, if you’re looking to vent your frustration and anger. We’re blessed that we’ve got the gift to do that, but it’s just fucking mortifying what the UK citizens are put through. There’s just some weird collective dream state where everybody is just pretending that it’s fine, and it’s really, really not.”
It’s a diverse album – from the speedball desert rock of ‘Palms Of Hands’ to the doom sludge epic of ‘Sons & Daughters’ and nightmare prog of ‘The Looming’. What conversations did you have to land on this sound?
Neil: “Most of it is trust. Mike would send me something and I’d want to make something in return that would make him laugh and smile, and vice versa. Because the music wasn’t created with four of us in a room, it was very much just us trying to mirror and challenge each other.
“We’ve been so close for so long, but with the fact that this is our first interaction creatively meant we had to push each other and take this somewhere that it wasn’t meant to go. Original conversations were a bit more Dillinger [Escape Plan], then it ended up a bit more Fantômas, then it got a bit quirkier like Cardiacs, but things just didn’t settle until this batch of songs came along.”
Vernart: “It’s just that thing of trying to get your mate a bit excited. It’s just about blowing each other’s minds. If we don’t like it, then nobody else will. It’s just really fun to make it, but that’s not to say it’s just some t-shirt we’re wearing this week – we really like music like this. The concern for me is that people will just think we’re having a laugh, but fucking hell…”
Neil: “There’s no doubt when you see us or hear us that is a part of who we are. Metal was my first great love, where I found the group of people who liked the same things as me where no one else did.”
Vernart: “It’s my absolute centre of gravity. When in doubt, put Black Sabbath on, put Slayer on, put Iron Maiden on. Let’s sort the heads from the fucking haircuts.”
And what could do that more than recruiting Dave Lombardo? Was that nerve-wracking, like asking Gordan Ramsay to make you a sandwich?
Neil: “I know! I’m going to make dinner tonight but I might as well just check with Marco Pierre White! But it was exactly that. Mike said, ‘We need someone who can play like Dave Lombardo’. We spoke for about two weeks and then just one day during the pandemic we were like, ‘Shall we just fucking get Dave Lombardo’s address and email him?’ Within 24 hours he got back and was like, ‘This is fucking great – what are you thinking?’ We’d never even met him, but ended up with this on-the-phone relationship for about a year or so.
“He really understood what we were trying to do with this album and band. He’s so busy and gets approached for a lot of things, but as soon as he came back and said, ‘This is special, I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna play with you and make this record’ – that’s when we went, ‘Right, this is fucking happening’. We had to shift into gear, because if Dave Lombardo says it’s a good bunch of songs then you know you’re onto something! We’ve been doing this for two decades, but he makes us want to do it for another two decades. We’re still not quite used to it though, are we?
Vernart: “No, not at all. It’s one thing being on stage, that’s hard enough in itself, but you wanna try going to Greggs with him. He’s like, ‘What is this stuff?’”
Neil: “Mike had him in every fucking supermarket in Todmorden where we were rehearsing – Lidl, Aldi, Morrissons – looking for fucking Brylcreem!”
Did you take him down the middle aisle at Lidl?
Vernart: “Yeah, he was like, ‘Wow, this place has everything!’ He came out with an organ-grinder.”
Neil: “You can buy a bridal gown and some haggis. Welcome to Britain. He did wonder why there wasn’t much fresh fruit and vegetables and we had to explain: ‘Those days are gone, Dave’.”
You’ve also got Naomi Macleod from Bitch Falcon on bass, and she’s awesome.
Vernart: “She’s the glue in this organisation. She’s absolutely marvellous. She carries herself so well and she’s such a bad-ass player, man: so heavy, so loud, so brutal.”
Neil: “Mike’s known Naomi for a while and knew that she was just the perfect person to play these songs. We can be a bit flappy, but she has this stoicism that brought us down when we were getting nervous and adrenalised. Turns out that after the show she was shitting herself as well! She also brings soul to the music, which is why I think this music is special. If you don’t listen to much extreme music then you might struggle to find the soul in it, but this record and the music we play is jam-packed with it. We’re very lucky.”
So, what’s next?
Neil: “This is not a one statement band. We feel like we’ve just started to express ourselves. We’re doing a bunch of festivals, we’ll hopefully do a longer run later in the year, but you’ll be seeing a lot more of us. This is going to be a living, breathing organism that will exist for a while. The last we want to do is squeeze it too hard because it takes a lot out of us. We want it to always matter. This shouldn’t be an ‘on-the-treadmill’ sort of band. It now feels like part of our vernacular.”
Vernart: “We’re already getting on with the second album.”
Neil: “We played three new songs last night! When the floodgates are open, you’ve gotta go with it. You don’t wanna try and damn that up because there are plenty of times when it does run dry. Not to blow smoke on Mike’s balls, but he’s a really incredible guitar player. I’m really aware that when Mike plays with Biffy, he’s playing very within his skillset. To see him fly free, that’s a privilege to be a part of. I cannot write music or guitar riffs the way that Mike does. That’s really exciting after 20 odd years – to find a new way to write songs.”
Speaking of bursts of creativity – you promised us new albums from dance-rock outfit Marmaduke Duke and your new drone project Tippie Toes a while ago. Where are they?
Neil: “Well believe it or not, I did just spend two weeks working on Tippie Toes. We do have an album’s worth of material, we just need to edit it. I don’t want to be flippant with music and would never put it out because it’s almost ready. Tippie Toes is going to have a purpose and be special. Marmaduke Duke is already special and will complete that, which John and I are a bit scared of. Once that’s done, it’s over and the Duke is dead. But, I don’t want to distract from this. This has got a bit of momentum for us, emotionally, spiritually and physically. Biffy is also always at the top of my list, that’s who I am. I need to make time for my four wives.”
News of Empire State Bastard’s debut album is expected shortly. Check out their upcoming tour dates below and visit here for tickets and more information.
9 – UK, Download Festival
15 – UK, Leeds Brudenell Social Club
16 – UK, Cambridge Mash
18 – France, Hellfest
21-25 – UK, Glastonbury, Earache Takeover
7 – UK, 2000trees Festival
21 – Norway, Malakoff Rockfestival
2-5 – Germany, Wacken Open Air
17 – UK, ArcTanGent