The solo career of Charlie Barnes runs alongside his slightly higher profile role in the Bastille live band. He’s a musician whose work is highly regarded by the folks at InsideOut Music who are set to release his latest album Last Night’s Glitter – our review here.
Charlie has taken some time to write for us about a fantastic band, as he wears his heart on the sleeve in his love for the much-missed Manchester outfit, Oceansize
Well, here we are again, folks. It’s time for me to deliver another long-form piece of writing on my favourite band, about which I have refused to stop blathering on, for over a decade and a half now (Isn’t that one of mine…?).
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you already know that the next few hundred words that will be taking up your time are going to be about the (formerly) Manchester-based five piece progressive death indie magicians Oceansize. They’ve been the subject of a great many articles of this variety by bands and artists ten years or so their junior, a couple of which were written by me, and also of a recent(ish) singly-worded Tweet by the ever hilarious ‘Boring Furloughed Roadie’ account. Suffice to say, their influence is still, several years after their demise, palpable.
It’s tough to pin down exactly what it is about them that secured their untopplable position as my all time favourite music makers, immortalised (although that word makes absolutely no sense given that I, like all things, will eventually snuff it and either be reduced to ashes or rot away in a box underground) in lyric-on-arm tattoo, but I can hazard a few guesses for the sake of journalism.
There are very, very few bands for which the creative process is as wholly collaborative as it was for Oceansize. From what I gather as a long-time ultra obsessive superfan, up until their final, and slightly more disparately penned album (the spectacularly monikered ‘Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up’), the band’s songwriting was wholly diplomatic, with creativity flowing in all directions, often whittled into being from long-form jamming sessions, captured onto tape for memory’s sake.
Although frontman Mike Vennart was the sole lyrical contributor, the melodies upon which those words would soar were not always originated by the owner of the throat from which they would take off. This was a band that, across four as-close-to-perfect-as-you-could-possibly-hope-to-get full length albums, two major extended players (one of which I could be convinced to make argument for being their definitive work) and a number of other bits and pieces, displayed absolute mastery when it came to taking one band member’s fragmentary idea (take for example Steven Hodson’s phrases around which the uproarious anthem ‘Unfamiliar’ was, I believe, penned) and building outwards in every conscionable direction. A challenging process to be a part of I’m sure, but the rewards speak for themselves.
In spite of what could potentially be misconstrued as a process fraught with overthink, the band’s work never came across as such. Theirs is a back-catalogue entirely free of cleverness and complexity for the sake of it. Free of the ‘look Mum, no hands’ boastful tendencies of many other bands of their ilk, the music leaps from the speakers with spectacular confidence, without ever descending into arrogant showmanship or entirely-for-the-sake-of-it unfathomable barely-rhythmic number-crunching. Theirs is music that reaches out and ‘gets’ you, you don’t have to take the time to sift through layers of waffle to ‘get’ it.
That’s not to say that this is music without depth. Anybody who has listened to (and, I can only assume, therefore adores) this band will know that their recorded output is a seemingly never-ending treasure trove of minute details to uncover, it’s just that, rather than being an obtuse cluster of minutiae to carve your way through and likely find little of truly soul-enriching substance, their beautiful, brilliantly complex and varied music has a fundamental immediacy that would likely arouse the delicate hairs on the back of the neck of any listener worth their salt.
I first heard the band by way of utterly illegal file sharing through the I can only assume long-defunct MSN messenger platform. The friend was a slightly older bandmate, the song was ‘Women Who Love Men Who Love Drugs’, the last piece the band would ever play together at their final ever show. I can’t remember another moment in my life where a piece of music spoke so clearly to my particular sensibilities, simply because there has never been one.
Don’t get me wrong, I have been utterly bowled over by a reasonable handful of life-defining compositions by artists who would come to serve as some of my biggest influences, but there has just never been another moment where I have heard something for the first time and it has felt to be written for me alone. From the glassy introductory guitar pattern, dressed in a luscious overcoat of phase, to the song’s blisteringly heavy sections, to the absolute definition of a tasteful guitar solo, to the long, meditative end section, backed by a choral part that evokes Eno’s Music for Airports, it’s a song that encapsulates so much of what makes me tick.
For whatever reason, on hearing this song for the first time, I assumed that the band must have no longer been together. Perhaps that speaks of my already world-wearied view of the state of modern music as a fourteen year old, but nevertheless, I was entirely wrong, and my newfound interest in a band yet to reach the peak of their powers and popularity, would come to play a fairly fundamental role in much of the rest of my life.
Some of my closest friendships have come into being as a result of obsessively following this band around the country as a teenager, and my introduction to a music scene whose numbers included like-minded bands such as Amplifier, led not only to yet more life-affirmingly spectacular, boundary pushing music brimming with humanity on which to spend my supermarket wages, but also to several years of touring work, providing the backdrop to which Steve Durose (the Oceansize guitar player and backing vocalist, now expanding Amplifier’s classic lineup of three to four in the wake of his former band’s demise) and I could cement not only a wonderful friendship riddled with squawking laughter and Everly Brothers singalongs, but also a fruitful creative partnership through which my first two studio albums on Superball Music (his band’s former label) would be made. How better to channel one’s biggest musical influences than to sit them at the helm of your own recording sessions?
That I make the bulk of my living in a not-dissimilar way to two of the band’s other former members (the aforementioned frontman Mike Vennart, and multi-instrumentalist Gambler) has become a source of bizarre pride for me too; not only do I get to work on my own music with one of the guys from my all-time favourite band, but I can also (at least when my chronic self-loathing will abate for long enough to allow it) genuinely count myself as a peer of my biggest heroes as a hired-hand for an Enormodome-filling band.
Rewatching Biffy Clyro’s Pyramid Stage performance from 2017 over the weekend just gone, I must admit to some embarrassing levels of smugness when, upon seeing flashes of Mike and Gambler on the screen, rather than hearing the Jungle Book refrain of ‘ooh-be-doo, I wanna be like you’, so to speak, I could simply scan through my phone for photos from last year’s festival, at which I got to follow in their musically-assisting footsteps as part of Bastille’s lineup. (Not only that, but any BBC viewers around the time of last year’s festival coverage were, with alarming regularity, treated to a somewhat gratuitous shot of my rear-end in the Glastonbury iPlayer channel trailer…y’did good, kid.)
Oceansize are the band by which I will likely always measure myself. My day-job feels like a bigger achievement because it’s something my heroes do, signing my first record contract six years ago was all the more sweet for being with the band’s former label, playing a half-empty Castle (the pub, I mean…) in Manchester to an attentive audience that included drummer Mark Heron and then Amplifier bassist Neil Mahony made me feel like I’d sold out a huge theatre, and any of the times the band’s members have praised any aspect of my work ( I so very fondly recollect their response to my YouTube cover of their song ‘Ransoms’) have been lodged firmly in my memory for the times when I need to remind myself that I might not be, as I so often believe, a complete and utter hack.
My greatest Oceansize moment, however, will always be a one-off support slot with the post-breakup project ‘Vennart’ (featuring three of the band’s former members) at the sold out Soup Kitchen in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Getting to perform a set of songs, produced and recorded by one of the headline act, to a room full of people who adored them (almost) as much as I do, before necking a load of cheap lager and watching them power through songs old and new, felt like a thick line of permanent marker drawn under a long-standing teenage dream.
Anyway, here ends another embarrassingly gushy account of my unparalleled adoration of a band who can, if they so choose, rib me relentlessly for it the next time we meet up for a curry.
Many thanks to Charlie for this wonderful piece inspired by Oceansize.
Check out the video for the title track from Last Night’s Glitter (out on 3rd July on InsideOutMusic) below.