I was lucky enough to sit down with the gentlemen from Venom, Inc. during their first visit to Vancouver, BC, last September. It came on the heels of two aborted attempts to visit our fair city the previous year that had both been hampered by a particularly virulent Pacific Northwest winter.
To say Vancouver was ecstatic to finally receive Venom, Inc. is an understatement. To say I was ecstatic to sit down with the guys who had invented an entire genre I hold dearly is also an understatement. I was overjoyed.
Venom Inc. welcomed me into their inner sanctum with open arms and yakked my ear off for over an hour – about their reformation, [at that time] brand-new album Avé, religion, politics, subculture, and the Demolition Man’s upcoming documentary. And once we were done chatting, they wouldn’t let me leave without getting an all-important selfie. My many thanks to Tony “Demolition Man” Dolan, Jeff “Mantas” Dunn, and Tony “Abaddon” Bray. Hails and avé to the mighty Venom, Inc.!
~ Kyle Harcott
THE HELLBOUND CONVERSATION WITH VENOM INC.
Hellbound: This being Venom Inc.’s 3rd attempt to get up to Vancouver in the last year, it is a pleasure to finally be sitting down with all of you! Welcome to Vancouver!
Dolan: We got here eventually! [laughs] We tried twice last year, January and then again in March. We had a bus, like this one we’re on now, and it got halfway up the Rockies, to the pass from Salt Lake City, and it’s just snowing nonstop the whole time. The radio was saying “There’s a big storm coming”, and then a truck pulled us over and the driver told us “You don’t have snow chains on. You’re never gonna make it. And there’s cops up ahead, and it’s a two hundred dollar fine if you’re caught with no chains on, so you better just go back.”
So we turned around, and went back, and were trying to figure out another way to get up here to Vancouver. I was trying to get us a flight out – just the three of us: no guitars, no gear; just get up here and we’ll hire some gear just to do the show. But we couldn’t get a direct flight from there, so we tried a plan to fly somewhere else, so we could still get to Vancouver, but we failed so then they had to reroute us to Portland, and we thought “Well, what if we just kept going?”, but there was no way we were gonna make it in time. And we hadn’t predicted for that. I mean, we figured up here it’d be a little colder, but then you get to the Rockies, and it’s like… [shakes head]
The formation of VENOM INC.
HB: So, Tony, you and Mantas were doing M:Pire Of Evil together, and that was going real well. How did this eventually translate to the re-formation of Venom, as Venom, Inc.?
Dolan: We were just toodling along doing M:Pire Of Evil, and in the process of recording the new album, we had some gig dates. The guitars and drums were done for the album, and that was our plan. So we’d been on tour, and we were gonna have a break to do the album. And then, just by chance opportunity, a promoter in Germany was at a show with the three of us all together, and Mantas got up onstage and the promoter thought, “Hang on, Abaddon, Mantas, Demolition Man… all together at the same show… why don’t you guys…” But the idea to us was kinda ehhhh, as none of us of us considered that anyway, we were just doing our stuff. And the promoter said “Look, if I book you in Germany as M:Pire Of Evil, and, say, Abaddon just happened to be there, well – what’s the chances…? “ And my answer was like, “Uhhh… I don’t know.”
But eventually we conceded, and there were two thousand fans there. And we played the set, and we only played five songs – but when we switched over to do a few Venom songs, and Abaddon came onstage… I dunno… something happened. And when we started playing, Mantas was real, real sick at the time, and he wasn’t playing at his best. We’d been to Russia and he picked up some kind of sickness there – so he doesn’t event remember half the show!
We didn’t have any rehearsal, we just picked the songs, and went out there, put the foot down – and just overnight it changed! After that show, people wanted us to play everywhere, and in fact, I was trying to stem the flow, saying “We’re not a band!” We just did this for some fun, you know, that’s it, but the response was overwhelming. So we sat down and thought, “What should we do?” And well, fuck it, let’s just say yes – and in the back of my head, I thought, well, this’ll last at best maybe a year, maybe eighteen months, or we’ll just tour until people are not interested anymore. But at least we’ll have a giggle with it, because we had no pressure, no record label, no album to promote, no reason to worry about anything.
But the fans keep driving it and driving it and driving it, so we just keep going. And now, we’ve done an album again – because the fans wanted us to put out some new music. That’s why Avé has been done. Even the title of the album is meant as a hail and thank you to the fans. We’re here because of you. We’re touring because of you. The new album is because of you. It’s yours. The feeling is amazing.
HB: So the album’s out on Nuclear Blast. Tell me how that deal came about, and your management deal with Jon Zazula.
Dolan: Well, we didn’t plan any of it, but Jon Zazula was responsible for a lot of it. I mean, he’d been so instrumental in bringing Venom over to the US the first time in the ‘80s, and I’ve had a long relationship with Jon – just as a friend – for the things he’d done. He’d kinda retired, moved from New Jersey down to Florida – just, kinda, that’s it, he’s done. He made all his money, done all his stuff. But he’s always been kinda like a sounding board for me, so whenever I’d get in a state where I was like “Fuckin’ hell, not sure what to do…” I’d call him up and go “Jon, what do you think? What would you do?” And of course, he’d always have some good advice, so I always kinda use Jon’s advice as a guiding post.
After a year, or rather, OVER a year of us doing this, I was like “Fuckin’ hell, we’re not stopping, and I don’t know what to do now.” So I called Jon when we played Orlando, where he lives, and that time he was too sick to come to the show. But he sent one of his lieutenants down to see the show, and he reported back to Jon, saying, “Pal, the guys are fuckin killing it!” So Jon said to me, “Okay, Dolan, I’m on board. What do you want me to do?” And I said, just help, that was it, just help.
This was right before Christmas 2016, so he was like, “Alright, I need some demos first.” And I was like, “No! No! No! I don’t want to do an album, and deal with all the critics, and fighting for labels, and all the politics!” Like, we’d been offered deals: To do albums, live albums… I think literally two days after we did the first tour, we got offered a live album deal, and it was like hang on… But Jon was like, “I want it. Fans want it. Labels want it. So you gotta do it.”
So we conceded, did up a four-track demo, and Zazula sent it off to Nuclear Blast, which was our preferred label. And three days later, we got a letter from them, saying: get in the studio. And, it was like: Fuck. Now it’s real. So the real doing it took about two months because the label had a schedule.
It’s all quite as-it-happened, which is kinda the beauty of Venom. I mean, Welcome To Hell was very much as-it-happened. And the shows are as-they-happen; no two shows are ever the same, the energy’s different. We press go until we stop, and that’s it, and whatever it is, it is. And that’s kinda what came out on the album. We didn’t have time to sit back and be rock stars, and polish it and overproduce it. And Mantas handled our production when they tried to give us producers – I mean, who knows how we should sound better than us? Mantas knows better than anyone, and he’s got the patience to do it too, I don’t. And, he’ll get the result at the end of the day – and he has! I’m not saying another producer wouldn’t have done a fine job on the album, but because it’s us producing, it’s us! And that’s the beauty of it!
HB: Venom has nothing to prove to anyone at this point. It sounds like the three of you are just having a lot of fun writing together.
Dolan: The thing is, at this point, we don’t have to “be” anybody. We’ve done all that, we are who we are, and that’s what people wanna see – YOU! You don’t have anything to prove, you don’t have to be anybody, everything you had to prove, you proved. Your character is already there – all we need to do is just play and that was what people wanted – just play, just be yourselves. So we kept it as honest, and simple, and spontaneous as we could, and that translates onto the album. You listen to that, and it’s us. We have fun onstage and recording, and that’s part of what it is. That’s one of the things I found with early Venom: The area where we come from, Newcastle, is a working-class area, and when you come from a poor, working-class area, the things that gets people through difficult situations are booze, cigarettes, and humour, you know? And that’s where we all come from, so that’s what we rely on – our humour.
HB: Is that a Newcastle “thing”?
Dolan: Yes, very much so, I think. I mean there’s humour in other places, of course, but that’s definitely a Newcastle thing.
HB: Avé, in a lot of ways, comes off as a successor to 1989’s Prime Evil, which was an incredibly underrated record. Was there any intent to capture that same kind of vibe this time out, or was the songwriting process more spontaneous?
Mantas: During Venom Inc.’s first tours of Europe and America, I was constantly recording riffs, and a lot of those riffs made it onto the album. At the end of the tour, I downloaded eighty-four guitar riffs off my mobile phone, and a lot of those riffs have made it onto the album. At one time, there were an excess of twenty-five songs, all at various stages of completion – because some of them come right away, and some I continued to work away at.
One of the first demos I wrote – I think it was the very first demo Tony sent me back lyrics and vocals for – was “Black N’ Roll”. Tony came up with the lyrics and the great line “Permeates your soul, it’s black n’ roll.” I kind of had a tentative chorus to go along with it: “Black and death and thrash and gore, hey it’s only rock and roll”. Tony, being the Motörhead fan he is, had to put a little bass line on at the beginning. But it turned into a completely different song than the one I started writing. It turned out to be a much better song, so as a songwriter, you can’t let your ego dictate – the song is going to tell you where it wants to go, and what it’s going to do.
“Time To Die” is another one where I had this idea of, I want this to be the beginning of the song, with this in the middle, and I want this at the end – so I set up the BPM, and I jammed, and I think within about thirty or forty-five minutes I had all the basic riffs for it when I sat down, and that song was done in under a day – literally written on the fly. Some of the best songs just happen that way – you can go in and labor over a song for ages, and then you get the eventual product, and you think that’s a great song – and then just some song you’ve just thrown out becomes a classic.
I’ve told the tale so many times, and people always ask how I wrote “Black Metal”. People say to me, it’s such an iconic song and it spawned a genre, and all that bollocks – so how did you write that song? Right? So I’m going to tell you the absolute truth: You know how when you get up in the morning – you have your first cup of coffee, and your cigarette, and you go for a shit? Some people take a magazine in with them. Well, one day I took the guitar in with me and the riff just came to me. That was it. That’s the honest truth. I mean sometimes it happens – look at Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”: Noddy Holder wrote that song on the bus on the way to rehearsal – and look, it’s his pension fund now!
HB: I love that story. I was talking to Bill Ward from Black Sabbath a while back, and he explained to me that a lot of the drum riffs he comes up with come from practicing air drums in the bath. I love hearing about how inspiration can strike from the most random places.
Dolan: There’s loads of times me and my girlfriend will be out shopping or something, or we’ll sit down for a coffee and be talking, and all of a sudden I’ll be like “Sorry, two seconds, babe” and I’ll have to grab my phone to make sure I get some lyrics down that have just popped into my head. I’ve still got lyrics on the phone now that made it onto the album! She’ll be like, “What are you doing ?”, and I’ll be like “Sorry, I just have to get this down!”
Mantas: For the song “War Against Christ” [off 2000’s Resurrection], I can remember coming up with the riff, and then I forgot it – so I came as close as I could to recreate it, went back the next day and tried to do the riff again – and all of the riffs I did for it since were just variations on that original riff.
Lyrics: audience participation and social commentary
HB: Regarding the lyrics on Avé, a lot of them take on a very Luciferian slant: thinking for oneself, being true to oneself, and seem more mature in comparison to a lot of the lyrics from the old days. Was there a general theme in mind, or a concept for the scope of the record as you guys were writing lyrics?
Dolan: There were a couple things. When Jeff proposes a song usually, firstly, he’s thinking of the audience – their participation. Because to us that’s quite important, so there are moments for the audience to participate in the song, so that they’re a part of the music – so he’s always thinking that way: What’s the audience doing in the song? Other songs, like “Forged In Hell” and “Metal We Bleed”, those songs are about us and our music – but, the influence of it, and how it inspires us, and how we feel about the music.
A second theme is the commentary from the cover itself: the cover depicts Lucifer, and Adam and Eve eating fruit from the Tree Of Knowledge, and Lucifer’s got his panpipe, and he’s passionately walking towards you, there’s scorched earth, and an arid, dry landscape, a treeless vista, a foreboding sky. You see two sheep, but one of them is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – if you look closely you can see the eyes torn open in the wool. It’s all symbolic of knowledge and light. And of course without light we don’t exist. Lucifer is there to guide man, to give man knowledge – and for asking the wrong questions of God, he was cast to Earth. Well then, I don’t mind if he’s looking out for me – that’s pretty cool to have him looking after me, if he’s guarding me and giving me knowledge. But the cover’s quite passive: Is it Armageddon? Is it the beginning? Or is it the end? The interpretation is open for you to guess.
To say the lyrics are more mature? I guess? Maybe in the old days, the lyrics were a little more cabaret. Now it’s more… I mean, we’re fifty-year-old guys, we’ve been around the planet a long time, we’ve been all over this planet, and we’ve seen all kinds of things. We’re inundated with constant information these days, and so that influences you, and it’s a commentary really. Take “Preacher Man”, for example – it’s a commentary: don’t just be told, have your own voice. It’s kind of indicative of what the music does to you – it breeds individuality. Not everybody has the same tattoo, or has the same piercings, wears the same battle jackets, go to see the same bands – but it’s empowering, it gives you that voice. Every generation needs their own voice, so that’s another theme of the album: it’s enlightenment. Think for yourself! Even the song “War”: “There’s war in the heavens, war in the world, war on the streets of your city”, it’s not just about tanks, and guns, and nuclear weapons – but fighting against society! It’s still a war of attrition.
There was a guy in the street, right outside this bus [parked near Vancouver’s notorious Hastings & Main skid row intersection], lying on the pavement – he could have been dead. I watched twelve people step over him to go into the building. The only guy who stopped to help him was a guy who couldn’t even walk straight down the street himself, who was also out of his head on drugs, but he stopped to help this guy up when everybody else stepped over him. What does that say about the culture? Are people saying well, he deserves it? Or what does it say about us, you know? When you’re observing those things all the time, it’s just a case to go, you know, have a look around you. Maybe if we took that in a bit more we would be more sympathetic to each other, to what’s happening.
I relate it back to Lucifer as being, he’s light, he’s knowledge, he’s guidance, you know – and he was cast out for being that, so brilliant, what does that say?
Punk + Metal
HB: Dolan, you were a punker well before your days in Atomkraft as a metalhead. What was the crossover moment for you, where you saw that punk and metal were meant to go together?
Dolan: Seeing Motörhead. Going to a show where I was expecting punks, and hearing that bass sound that sounded like someone was driving a tractor up the garden path, or a lawnmower outside. I didn’t even know it was, and then, damn! All of a sudden there they were, and it was like oh my God! And I didn’t go, oh, there’s a punk band with long hair, none of that bollocks. People try to make that out now like it was something – but it absolutely wasn’t. It was just the fact that their music was so aggressive!
Coming from the punk scene in England then, like… [pauses] Hardcore in a lot of other places, like America, with Agnostic Front or whatever it was, was a different kind of hardcore. Like, if you put a band like Stiff Little Fingers or the UK Subs next to the Ramones, The Ramones were like surf commercial pop rock! But Motörhead – this this was brutal! I used to go to gigs with 23-year-olds when I was, like, fourteen, and they would beat the shit out of you! They would be slamming the fuck out of you, and you’d come out covered in blood, but you’d come out elated from the energy release. So that’s what got me.
And with Motörhead, from the minute I heard that bass, I was like, I didn’t know what a bass even was, but I had to go straight out and look for that! I had to get that instrument! And I remember trolling around Newcastle with my mother, and telling her I need to get this bass and she was going to get one for me. I’m just licking my chops going, I need a bass. I don’t know what it is, and it’s weird, and I don’t know what it is – but eventually we found one. So I got it home, and I loved it! I didn’t have any strings that I could replace, I didn’t have a strap, I didn’t know how to tune it – I didn’t have nothing. All I did was I got a copy of the original Chiswick release of Motörhead, and I learned every fucking song off there. I just kept turning the strings until it sounded like that, and I got it. I sat there endlessly paying it, every single day, and it was the only fucking thing I could play, but there was something about that; that was my crossover moment.
The Dickies were another favorite band of mine, as well. I think The Incredible Shrinking Dickies came out in 1978, and on the album was their version of “Paranoid”, which I really liked. I can remember going to a party, and “Paranoid” was playing on the stereo, but it was really fucking slow, and I said “You’ve got that on the wrong speed, it’s too slow.” So I went to the record player and put the speed up, but then it was all wrong and way too fast. So I was confused, and asked “What is this?”, and someone told me, it’s Black Sabbath, and I said “You’re kidding! They did a cover of The Dickies?”, and the guy went “No, ‘Paranoid” is a Black Sabbath song.” So I went out and got that album and oh, the heaviness of it! And I thought, well, fuck, what if you took that speed of the Dickies – Karlos Kaballero, I’d never heard another drummer quite like that, nobody was playing like that, that rapid – and then you add Motörhead? What the fuck is going to happen if you do that? And then add the heaviness of Black Sabbath!
And then Venom came out, and that first cacophonic album was all of those things – bitchslapping ugly moments, like, no rules, right there. And that’s what the punk thing was – no rules. If you could pick an instrument up, you could play – and that’s what happened, that’s what people did. And it also spawned an independent record industry: London Records, and Music For Nations, and Megaforce, and Metal Blade – they all came out of that. The punk revolution happened, and again, from that point, D-I-Y; do-it-yourself. Kids were doing fanzines, and tape trading, and all that – and it was like “Hey! We could actually be our own industry!”
And that’s the underground – but it’s only called The Underground by the corporates, because they have no control over it. It’s kind of like the government going “This is bad for you. It’s all satanic, and evil, and we shouldn’t like it, ‘cos now kids are all going to be individuals, and we don’t want individuals, we want homogenized shit.” So the corporates do the same thing, and say It’s Underground, trying to demean it – but it’s the bloodline. And as soon as you tell a kid do not do something, that’s the first fucking thing they’re going to run to: “Right, I’m going to draw on me face, and paint me hair blue!” [laughs]
HB: So, what then, was your first exposure to Venom?
Dolan: [points to Mantas] Well, he exposed himself to me! I think it was the drinking – but, it was nice. I’m not saying it wasn’t! I wasn’t expecting it, but it wasn’t bad! [room brays laughter]
We come from kind of a close-knit community. Neat Records was in that town, and we all were kind of linked in to that area. Newcastle isn’t close to any other city. Most cities in England, the closest city away takes like an hour, hour-and-a-half, and you’re there. But Newcastle is right on the border, it’s the furthest isolated city – so it really has its own culture, and its own community in the area we came from.
Cronos’ girlfriend was a friend of my girlfriend as well, and she brought home the first Venom single, “Welcome to Hell”. And Jeff’s girlfriend lives across the road from my mom’s house, where I lived – and her brother would come over and play guitar. And me and my friends would all go drinking in the same places where Tony would go, and I knew his from Roadies. So everybody kind of knew each other.
I heard a test pressing of the first single, and it was a big deal when they made their first album. Someone brought it over to my house, and it was like – Holy fuck! How can WE make our own albums?! So I guess from that moment on, that was it, I became a fan of what Venom were doing because it was what I wanted to do – and how they did it, because it’s how I saw it should be. The carefree-ness, the anger, the scariness, the fuck-you-ness – just saying I don’t care. It was like, “Oh, that’s brilliant, because I don’t care either!”
At that time, I remember I had one of the first Venom t-shirts, and my drummer painted the Black Metal demon on the back of his jacket when it came out – and we’d walk into bars and people would move away and not want to talk to us. That was the thinking in Newcastle at that time. When any Venom- connected people would walk, in people would walk away and not want to have anything to do with you: “I think there’s something wrong with those guys.”
HB: I remember me and my friends’ own exposure to Venom here in Canada was seeing them on the Pepsi Power Hour, from a young age, like ten or so. And we liked the music, but we were spooked by the band too. To us, bands like KISS played with a creepy image – but as weird as they looked, they weren’t blatantly, real-deal satanic like we thought Venom were. And yet, even then, spooked as we were – we were drawn to it.
Dolan: I liked Venom because you never knew what was going to happen with them, and with their shows – you just didn’t know. It’s what kept everyone excited. Nothing was predictable, and I think even more than the aggressive nature of the music, that’s what influenced everybody – the attitude. From Venom, everybody tried to degrade their music and record it as lo-fi as possible. Or making logos as extreme as they could. Creating their image as dark as they could. Like, you mention KISS – how many bands were named after KISS songs? But then, how many bands were named after Venom songs?! Nearly fuckin’ every song you can think of from Venom, there’s a band called that – and that’s the great thing about their legacy. Every band wanted to do what they were doing originally.
HB: It’s true. Whenever I hear a band list Venom or Motörhead as their prime influences, I know those are going to be bands I’ll automatically like.
Dolan: You see? That’s a high-five moment right there! [high-fives all around]
Subculture as art
HB: Tony, in your off-time from Venom, Inc., I understand you’re currently working on a documentary. Can you tell me what it’s all about?
Dolan: It’s about the culture… what we’ve been talking about, with symbolism. You go to the Sistine Chapel, and see the paintings there, everybody goes “Incredible!” Everybody sees the statue of Venus de Milo or the statue of David, and the remarkable pieces of artwork, and the opera in Italy… There’s a big push from the Italian government right now, to sort of incline the youth culture towards opera, and the arts, in that way, but for the subcultures – things like tattooing, and piercing, and rock music – to be pushed away.
A lot of rock venues are being closed on purpose in Italy, and people are trying to open new venues as fast as old ones are being closed. The last time we played in Rome, we basically had to go and play in a squat. The venue was an old ministry building that had been left there, and basically people squatted in there, and there was a pirate radio station, and they basically developed these two rooms and turned them into live venues. And there’s no money from the government – I mean Europe’s struggling for money anyway, but there’s no money for those arts, but there’s still money for the other approved arts – things like opera and ballet.
My documentary’s kind of about that: I go to a tattooist in Rome who’s incredible, and in Northern Italy there’s all this incredible art going on, all around Italy – but it’s all classed as subculture. And the gist of my documentary is that these artists are the new Michelangelos, these musicians are the new Pavarottis, Domingos. These voices in this youth culture in Italy are vibrant. I mean, in medieval times, da Vinci was a genius – but he was also a dissident.
I want to answer the question: When does art become vogue? When does art become “okay”? Like, Andy Warhol – at first, it’s like, well he’s just wacky, but then, all of a sudden, he’s a genius! I think there’s a transition of culture, and so maybe in a hundred years the skin art, or the body piercing, or the music will be celebrated like classic art is today. It’s the journey of traditional art into modern culture. The whole thing started in Italy, but now I’m doing it across the planet, because in every nook and cranny, it’s happening.
I just want to expose this kind of art, for the happiness that gives people. With things like tattooing, or with playing dark music, I mean, you come out of that smiling – and if it’s so bad for people, why does it make them so happy, why are they smiling about it? Take that Bataclan concert, the Eagles of Death Metal show – it wasn’t a nutcase who went in there and shot a bunch of people. They were religious people who went in there and shot people to death. Where they’re having a good time. So the question is: who are the bad ones, then? Religion? You can say, this is extreme religion, but let’s just say: THIS is religion, and THIS is not religion. THIS is a music concert, THIS is religion. Who’s responsible?
Regardless of how extreme a religion is, everybody reads the Bible differently. Every preacher on the planet reads the Bible differently. None of the scriptures were written at the time of Christ; they were written by somebody afterwards. Try rewriting the history of George Washington crossing the Potomac or Delaware, you’ll be rewriting a lot of that stuff from someone’s memory of it. SOME of it will be close to what actually happened, some of it’ll be fucking made up, you just don’t know.
When someone’s trying to translate something that was written by man, it’s easy to make a mistake. And yet these powers are in control of money, in control of culture – parties like the Vatican that are responsible. Yet it’s the subculture that gets the blame and gets told that it’s bad But this is the new classic art, and it’s the lifeblood of the planet. From here you’ll get the great artists. This is our art. This is our culture, and it’s just as relevant as any of the classics. And that’s what my documentary wants to celebrate.