Latest album: Avé (Nuclear Blast)Website: www.venom-inc.com
Black metal has always been an intentionally polarising musical force. Some see it as elitist but the dedication of the pioneers to exploring extreme musical expression has largely continued to influence numerous genre bands to this day. Venom unleashed themselves on an unsuspecting audience back in 1981 with their debut Welcome to Hell and pushed raw, extreme musical energy with a three piece that took no prisoners and did so with formidable presence. The history of the band since then has been colourful and splintered but along the way, in 1989, the Prime Evil album line-up is where the Venom Inc. band which formed in 2015, effectively originated. As such, two of the three founding members of Venom are present including guitarist Jeffrey ‘Mantas’ Dunn and drummer Anthony ‘Abaddon’ Bray. They have reunited with vocalist Tony ‘Demolition Man’ Dolan and the resulting debut album is the punishing Avé. It almost didn’t happen yet it generated huge interest in metal circles. The tour is now about to hit Australia, so Loud Online took the rare opportunity to chat with the legendary yet personable ‘Mantas’.
Avé is quite brutal. How did it all take shape?
Well because of the logistics of where we are, this album was done differently to how it things were done in the past as Venom or as Venom Inc., whatever you want to call us. I live in Portugal whereas the other two guys live at the opposite ends of England. Once we’d met up and the album contract was signed, we then had a deadline to deliver the album. I wrote all of the music and a good portion of the lyrics and then transferred the files across to the guys. Tony Dolan came over here to record bass and vocals at my studio. Abaddon recorded the drums in Newcastle at Blast Studios and the files were then transferred over here to be mixed and mastered by myself and good friend, Kalle Knecht from Germany, at my studio. Nothing was forced. We didn’t look at specific sounds. I had a conversation with Tony where he said, ‘Remember Welcome to Hell and Black Metal? That was you so just do what you do, play what you play at and keep going’ and that is what I did. In the end, I’m all about songs, hook lines and choruses. I try to imagine where the audience is going to be involved in this song if it is going to be a live track. That is why there are a lot of big choruses there such as in ‘I Kneel to No God’ and ‘Time to Die’ whilst ‘Metal We Bleed’ is purely about the fans. When Tony got into it, he added some different twists on themes. Avé is a good, solid, powerful album that captures who we are with a decent modern production with a classic sound because that’s what works for us. I didn’t force a sweat trying to get things to happen, it all just came naturally. Another thing that helped was that [at that point] Venom Inc. had played 200 to 250 shows since we’d got together. The tour has been relentless and we’d been out every might playing wall to wall Venom classics so we were well back into the groove of performance and just had to transfer that into the album. When we did the M:Pire Of Evil [Mantas and Dolan’s prior band] there was more creative freedom but that is not to say that there wasn’t any freedom in this project. You have to evolve and if you don’t evolve, you become extinct. People want you to sound a certain way but it is not 1981 anymore. Those things were moments captured in time and it was a young, inexperienced band. I am proud of the album and how it sounds.
Indeed, and whilst you’ve mentioned it is not 1981, there are definitely those influences of Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest within the material.
Yes, that is where I am from and whenever I get asked about metal I always say that my metal world begins with the word Judas and ends with the word Priest. I am a die hard, old school and will always listen to that. Judas Priest has always been my favourite and you can hear the influences in there. Even on a song as old as ‘Countess Bathory’ [from Black Metal] there is the centre section where you get that quieter part where everybody sings; that was my little tip of the hat to Judas Priest’s ‘The Ripper’. As long as it is not plagiarism then influences are always going to come out. I take what you just said as a compliment. Sabbath, Priest and Maiden are all there because that is who we are. That is the era that we are from and are all old school, older guys.
There’s even a sense of Motörhead in the song ‘Forged in Hell’, would you agree?
Oh yeah. The main Motörhead influence on the album is in ‘Black n’ Roll’ and that track there with the opening bass line is a tip of the hat to Lemmy. Lemmy was Tony Dolan’s biggest influence and a huge hero to him. The lyrics are homage to our heroes. You can hear it in the music and the words. All of it is homage to the music that we’ve listened to for years and years.
‘Metal We Bleed’ and ‘The Evil Dead’ have harmony guitar parts. That is a contrast to the early Venom material where it was raw speed and aggression. The sound has developed massively.
Like I said, you’ve got to evolve. When I’m writing and recording, I’ll always try anything that works. There are a lot of guitar parts in the songs which are barely audible, particularly on the rhythm parts but they are there and they enhance the song. There is a lot of not perfectly clean guitar but there is a lot of guitar with just a little bit of crunch on them. Even if you were to isolate the guitars to left, right and centre, they are not massively overdriven guitars. It has more of a classic sound to it rather than a saturated guitar sound which again is what we’re about and where we’re from. Adding the little harmony lines in are just chucked underneath the main melody line which is subtle but done to bring the notes out and enhance things. I am not one of those guitarists that sit down and play scales all day. I’ve got no interest in being a virtuoso. I have always said that if I had the chance to be given a gift where one was to be the greatest guitarist the world had ever seen or to be the greatest songwriter, I would choose to be the songwriter.
You’d probably find that even Edward Van Halen would agree with you there.
Well, there you go, you’ve got a guitarist like Eddie who is undeniably incredible but man, the cat has got some fucking songs as well. The other thing I will say is that you would never consider someone like say Paul Stanley to be a virtuoso guitarist in the realms of Steve Vai, Satriani or Malmsteen. He is not in that calibre of technician but think about how many of his songs that you know. I can remember one night myself and my girlfriend were sitting watching TV late one night, channel hopping and AC/DC playing live in Rio was on. Angus walks in front of the stage and hits the opening three chords to ‘Highway to Hell’ and the place went crazy. So there is a lot to be said for writing good songs. Guitar solos can be forgotten in an instant. Actually, for a radio edit of a rock song, one of the first things that is going to go is the guitar solo. I’ll always stand by what Gary Moore, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, said and that is, ‘if there is going to be a guitar solo in a song it has to do something for the song’. The solo has to take it to another level, be part of the song and not be there as a texture or as an excuse for the lead guitarist to show off. The thing about Moore’s solos or again with Priest’s solos is that you can sing those solos; they are part of the song. That is what I like and that is what I try to do. I construct every solo I do and hopefully I’ll then play it note for note every night so it is always the same. Weirdly enough, after thirty odd years of playing it, we played a couple of shows in Europe and we were playing ‘Buried Alive’ [from Black Metal] and when it came to playing the guitar solo, the whole audience were singing the guitar solo. I just thought, ‘Fucking hell’, you know. I suppose I must be doing something right somewhere down the line.
For rhythm guitars, there is a rhythmic interlude in ‘I Kneel to No God’ which was also pretty cool.
Yeah, I can say that when I write songs, I always look at where the audience can join in. So yeah, there was a lot of that and it is obviously intentional. Maiden does it, Priest does it, everybody does it. You want your audience to identify with the song and to sing along. It is pretty difficult to sing along to a technical death metal song. Look, all power to those guys and there’s some very clever musicians but I think audience participation is essential. On stage, playing live, I see myself more of an entertainer than, let’s say a shredder. So I see myself as more interacting with the audience all the time and that is what I try to get through with the songs as well.
Tony Dolan is a good front man. Have e you had to direct him on approaching the really old material or do you just let him do his thing?
Not at all, never once have we had a conversation about that. He does what he does and he delivers it with every ounce of passion that he’s got. He is a superb front man and I think that the vocal performance on this album is the best he has ever done. His bass playing is great, he is a great performer and he engages the audience really well. I’ve never had to tell him to sing this song like that or sing this song like that. I mean, when he came over to my studio here to do the vocals I obviously had a lot of lyrical phrasing but he is the vocalist and he can change parts. When you’re writing lyrics for a song, it is fair enough if you’ve got a dedicated vocalist but to have them playing the bass at the same time means you need to give them time to work through bits and discuss phrasing. The lyrics might be the same but the phrasing could be different and that is all fine because he is the man who is going to deliver it live. Vocal wise, I think that for ‘Dein Fleisch’ and ‘Metal We Bleed’ on the album, are actually demo vocals. The vocal performances that he delivered on both of those tracks were his demos but I kept them. I thought, ‘that is brilliant’. ‘Metal We Bleed’ was the one that set the template for the vocal sound of the album. That was a really good vocal sound so we stuck to that as the template for the rest of the songs. He has done a sterling job on this album. The vocals are very good.
Given the history of Venom, it is curious that you got back into contact with Abaddon. I guess that surprised you as much as anyone else?
It did surprise me, yes, very much so. When I was still living in England, Tony Dolan came up to Newcastle to play a festival called BroFest and I had been asked to do an Atomkraft set. when he came up, I went down to rehearsals and I ended up jamming a couple of the songs and got up on stage and played with them and with this Canadian band called Cauldron who do ‘Diehard’ as part of their set as well. They came backstage and asked me if I would guest and I did but unknown to us, Oliver Weinsheimer who runs the Keep It True Festival [in Germany] was in the audience. We knew he was around but we hadn’t spoken to him since years ago. Then when Tony returned home he got a call from Oliver hoping that M:Pire Of Evil would play the Keep It True Festival which is great because it is an old school festival so that was no problem. Then he mentioned that Abaddon was at BroFest and that it would have been nice to see him on stage with us to do a Venom song or two at Keep It True Festival. So Tony called me and my first reaction was that I didn’t want to do it as we had spent so much time doing M:Pire Of Evil. Tony had two more conversations with me where he said, ‘look, it is only going to be five or six songs and it is a one off thing, we do the songs just for the fans and that is it’. So we’ll see the Prime Evil line-up onstage but we all know it is M:Pire Of Evil then play a few more songs. The reaction was incredible and far exceeded our expectations. We walked offstage and thought, ‘well that’s it, thank you, goodbye, see you in another lifetime’, but then Tony Dolan’s phone started ringing off the hook with agents and promoters. We ended up going to China, Japan, called into the Heavy Montréal Festival in Canada, and then there was a European tour, America and South America. So at some point we sat down and said, ‘let’s not make any plans, let’s roll with it and see what happens’ and that is honestly what we have been doing. It is only since Jon Zazula [management] came into place that this new album has materialised. Jon had asked, ‘had we thought about the new album?’ and so I started writing at that point. Lo and behold, I was absolutely gobsmacked when I got the new CD. None of this was planned. The whole thing has been fan driven and promoters wanted to see us. We never planned anything, inquired about doing a show or being part of a festival. It has just all sort of dropped into our pockets really and so that is basically what we are continuing to do – whoever wants us, we go.
You’re touring Australia too soon and for the first time, which is great.
Absolutely, yes. I’ve never been down to Australia as a visitor or to play. It is one place that is still on the list of places that I want to visit and tour. Since we’re going to Japan, we’re going to tie in Australia with all of those dates.
In the very early days of Venom, I believe that you refused to take support act slots and had so much pyrotechnics that meant you couldn’t play clubs but had to play larger venues.
Yeah, that’s true. Ha ha. Look, whether or not that was youthful arrogance or whatever, it was our premise. We built ourselves up to be perceived as being much bigger than we were and the whole thing worked. We had our first official show in England at Hammersmith Odeon. That had hydraulics and pyro all over the place. It is out-dated now but at the time, that was our thing. ‘Do you want to play this venue? No, we’ll never get our stage show in there.’ That was the way that we did it. It would probably never work these days. They’d be like, ‘shut the fuck up and get in the club. That is basically what we’ve done with Venom Inc. in that we’ve gone right back to our roots. We’ve played some tiny little places but we’ve had some great shows in there and it doesn’t matter if there are ten people, a hundred people, a thousand people or ten thousand, you’re going to get the same show from us. As I said, we’ve done what 200 to 250 Venom Inc. shows and I can count on one hand the amount of times we’ve had a backdrop. We just went on with whatever amplifier and drum kit has been there, plugged in and played. It’s been us, the music and the fans. Another thing that has attracted our audience is being accessible in that respect so we’re not always on a massive stadium stage or a festival stage where you’re never getting near us. That sort of thing has endeared us to fans, where you’re almost nose to nose. That’s the way we’ve done it; went back to the roots, just got out there and toured as a basic rock and roll band. Turn up with the guitars and let’s go.
Do capacity club shows take you back to the days of playing with Metallica around the time of Ride the Lightning as well as playing with Slayer and Exodus, back in the day?
When we were doing those shows, we were headlining. It is amazing to think that back then we had Metallica, Slayer and Exodus supporting us. When we did the last American tour we played in San Francisco, James Hetfield was in the balcony, head banging all night, singing every song and then came backstage to see us. We are still getting the recognition from our peers, so to speak. All these other bands who are out there like Slayer and Metallica have worked so hard for what they’ve gotten so I have massive respect for them and I’ve said that to James. People ask why we didn’t get as big as some of those bands but it was down to the individual personalities in the band. There were always a lot of problems there which contributed to a lot of decisions that were made. But hey, we can’t complain, it’s done; been there, done it, got the t-shirt and we’re still here today which is an absolute privilege after thirty, God knows how long, years. To still be able to walk onstage and play is amazing so we can’t complain.
In the same way that Eddie Van Halen had to contend with a stack of guitarists imitating him and sounding like a typewriter, what are your thoughts on the slew of black metal bands that appeared in the wake of Venom’s success?
The one thing I will say is that I am proud that black metal is still around although it is radically different to what we started. But, you have to evolve so to think that all these years later, black metal is still the big scene that it is, yeah, I’m proud to think that. We had a song called ‘Black Metal’, had an album called Black Metal and said, ‘we are black metal’. There are too many genres these days though. I think it is time to get back into the drive of heavy metal. Whilst I am proud to think that the black metal scene is still around, I will admit that I have never been a massive follower of it. I am still a Judas Priest man. I am old school and that is the way I am. But I do really like Immortal and I like Dimmu Borgir as well. I do like those two bands. But for me, it is always Priest.