It’s a surreal scene. To my right, dominating the bar area in one of Canberra’s plusher hotels is a group of frankly fearsome looking old-age pensioners who don’t look too pleased at the entry into their well-ordered world of what can only be described as a trio of shady-looking middle-aged men.
Obtaining our drinks we take a seat out of their line of sight, only to realise that we now risk being drowned out as we try to hold a symposium about all things metal by some of the most aggressively loud lift music I’ve ever heard, belting out of the hotel PA system; But we’re professionals, The Demolition Man (Tony), Mantas (Jeff) and I, so we soldier on. In a couple of hours time the band – Venom Inc, in case you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, and let’s face it, it wouldn’t be the first time- are going to be taking to the stage for the first time ever in Australia, but first we’ve got a lot of fat to chew over…
Turning to Mantas I mention it’s touring now that puts the food on a band’s table. “We tour more now than we ever did in the band’s ‘heyday’. You have no choice. Without it we’d be dead in the water”.
I haven’t seen Venom in any iteration live for over twenty years, and in those days in England we were lucky if we saw the band once every couple of years. “It was weird because back in those days England hadn’t really taken to us. Venom’s first ever gig, as a four piece, was at my girlfriend’s birthday in a social club in Wallsend. We did a few shows in local Community Centres and Church Halls. I remember rehearsing in a Church Hall in the West End of Newcastle – rough as fuck – on one Saturday afternoon. And the next Saturday we were playing in a sports hall in Belgium in front of 3000 kids. BOOM! Just like that… then our first London show was at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1984, as one of the Seven Dates of Hell tour”.
I had that poster on my wall for a long time. What about what got you to that point as a guitarist, influence-wise? “If I’m doing stuff around the house now I’ll still put on some Judas Priest, or early Kiss. I love Frank Marino, Gary Moore, Zakk Wylde… but if somebody said you can only listen to one guitarist for the rest of your life it would be Gary Moore”.
Tony is keen to get involved on this point. “I think you can hear that in Jeff’s work. When I’m composing I can’t get rid of the Lemmy influence. I just feel that rhythm because that’s what I love. And I think the same goes for Jeff. Sometimes he doesn’t hear it, but I hear it. Take Forged in Hell off of the new album… people are saying ‘oh, that’s like Welcome to Hell’ and I don’t hear that. But then you listen back to it and think well, yes! And people say ‘how does he do it, get that sound, because it sounds like ‘back then’? And I say ‘well, he puts his guitar on, turns his amp up and he plays’. That’s Mantas. And when he questioned himself when we were writing the album, ‘is it going in the right direction?’ I said ‘You were Mantas, you are Mantas, you will be Mantas that’s all you have to do. When you try and regurgitate something, or plagiarise yourself, you fail. When you hear him play you know it’s him, even if you don’t know the song. In the same way you can hear Gary Moore and know it’s him. So when we were writing I said ‘love the genre, but don’t copy the genre you’re in. Do something with it, take your inspirations, let them enrich you, let them inspire you, but don’t just try and be like some other black metal guy. He’s already there!”
He’s on a roll now, expounding about the art of guitar. “I never could understand guitarists… they’d go ‘who’s your favourite guitarist?’ and I’d say ‘I don’t fucking know! I’ve got favourite solos… they don’t even need to have a lot of notes in I’d just think they were really good… but I’d no idea who my favourite guitarist was. They all seemed pretty good! It’s the solo that speaks to you. When I started liking specific guitar players, I could distinguish them by watching them play, and realising that they were lost in it… you know when a guitarist holds a note and closes their eyes and their mouth opens, like they are singing it. It’s almost become a part of them!”
To me you’re describing Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest there. He’s a great soloist. As much as KK Downing is more metal than Glenn, for me the way Tipton frames his soloing is one of the best things in metal. Mantas is nodding. “As much as I love KK I would totally agree with that. Glenn is the soloist in the band. I love KK’s playing – he’s more bluesy and mayhemic – and his solo on Victim of Changes underlines that”.
And Sinner. “Yes, Sinner!”
I mention Downing’s improvised and lengthy version of the solo of Sinner on the live video that was put out by the band from the Screaming For Vengeance tour in 1982/3. There’s a lot of wang bar and feedback involved. The Demolition man starts laughing. “Ah, wang bar and feedback! I’ve seen someone else do that!”
But for all that there’s still melody in those songs, isn’t there. If you listen to the solo from Freewheel Burning, which was a very heavy song for it’s time, you can still whistle the solo. Demolition man agrees. “And that’s what you take away from the song, and how you remember it!”.
And it’s why what is now termed classic metal is so enduring. There’s an inherent melodicism in much of it, even in Venom’s early work, that has been lost by bands that may have been influenced by you as they seem happy to sacrifice melody fore heaviness. It’s Mantas’ turn to agree. “Totally. Whenever I’m writing I’m thinking, I’ve got to get to the chorus… and also ‘how can the audience join in?”
“He does that in the studio” says Tony, “he’s plays something, stops and then says ‘and then they audience go wild!’ and we’re imagining how the song will go live! And people can criticise that and say it’s a bit old school, but when we were in LA on the last American tour, there was an incredibly young audience, guys and girls, and they sang along to every song. Every fucking song! Now, I love lots of newer death metal and black metal bands, but I cant go to their gigs and sing along with the choruses! And that’s what I used to love when I’d go and see Priest or Motörhead; (A) I couldn’t hear for the next three weeks, and (b) I couldn’t talk because I’d sung along at the top of my fuckin’ voice! It was a liberating experience. These days it’s more bludgeoning, which is fine, but where’s the participation? When we play it’s not ‘stand at the back, listen and then fuck off when we’ve finished’ it’s ‘get your arse down here!’ we draw the audience in, in the way that we used to love as youngsters going to shows”.
And that’s why you keep doing it? Jeff thinks so. “I’ve said this tons of times – I’m not particularly interested in being a Rockstar or a virtuoso guitarist; but if somebody gave me the choice of being a virtuoso guitarist or the greatest songwriter I’d pick songwriter every time. I’m not one to practice scales for eight hours a day. All power to the guitarists that do, and there’s some great technicians out there… ten and twelve year olds who can play Eruption or Malmsteen solos, but the world’s already got an Eddie and it’s already got an Yngwie! If I’m going to be in a studio fro eight hours I’ll be writing songs, because that’s how you touch people”.
Venom Inc continue their Australasian trek tonight (Saturday) in Brisbane at the Crowbar before making their way through shows in Auckland and Wellington, Hobart, Melbourne Adelaide and Perth.