Interview: Jeff “Mantas” Dunn (Venom Inc)
I can count on one hand the number of guitarists who have had a bigger impact on metal as a genre than Jeff “Mantas” Dunn. As the primary songwriter in Venom, he kick started the genre’s obsessions with speed and blasphemy on albums like Welcome to Hell and Black Metal.
Up until recently, the version of Venom most people have been able to see still features original singer/bassist Cronos, but not Dunn. Last year, Dunn, alongside original drummer Anthony “Abbadon” Bray and Tony “Demolition Man” Dolan (also a Venom vet) toured the world twice as Venom Inc.. The trio prepared to release a new album, Ave, with the intention of maintaining the Venom legacy and, by extension, the legacy of all extreme metal.
We spoke with Dunn for insight into his return, what he did between Venom and Venom Inc., and some thoughts on where metal will go next.
I usually don’t start with contentious statements, but I've gotta tell you, you're the real Venom to me.
Thanks, man. We're getting that more and more. You know, it's nothing that we've said. It's totally fan-driven and promoters and everybody else is saying that. So it's flattering, but we just do what we do. We'll continue doing it that way, and if that seems to be the stamp that we're getting, then so be it.
I hesitate to call it a comeback because your discography is so legendary. But it seems like you've really jump-started this part of your career. Venom Inc. seems to have happened very quickly.
Oh, it has. The original thing was myself and Tony Dolan, The Demolition Man, we had a project called M-pire of Evil. We toured everywhere with absolutely no support, no record label, nothing. We just went out there and we did it by ourselves. Then we got a call from Oliver Weinsheimer saying that he would like to book M-pire for the Keep It True Festival. Tony called me and I was like, "Great, excellent," Tony says, "Oliver wants to do something special." I was like, "Okay, cool, what's this?" He mentioned if "If Abaddon was there, would you get up and play four or five, maybe six Venom songs just for the fans?" I've spoke to everybody about this and my initial reaction was no, I didn't want to do that. But over the course of time, we spoke even more and we agreed to do it. So there was no rehearsals because, I mean, Abaddon still lives in northeastern England, Tony lives in London, I live in Portugal. So we just decided we'd swap a few songs and come up with a set list, we'll meet everybody in Germany and we'll get on stage and do it.
We did it and far exceeded the expectations. I mean, the place went crazy. As we were walking off stage, Tony's phone was going with messages. Obviously, with social media and YouTube the performance had went straight up. We were getting calls from the agent that we had at that time saying, "What the hell is going on? What have you guys just done?" I think the first show that we did after that was China, and then we went to Japan, and then a European tour, then we did two American tours. We did 60 shows in America in total. There was nothing that was planned, you know? It was going to be a one-off thing, "There you go. Thanks very much. Bye. See you later." And it's just gone and gone and gone. So to quote an old cliche, we just strapped ourselves into the roller coaster, and we're on it. It's been difficult to turn down shows.
Then with Jon Zazula coming on board, he was asking about a new album. Finding time to do the album was difficult because there were still more shows coming in. Did another tour of Europe, then we've done festivals and it's just been crazy! It's nothing that we've actually instigated or planned. It's just happened. It's been totally promoted by fans who've wanted to see it. So we've just rode it. And here we are today in the Nuclear Blast offices and a new album's ready to go, and another major American tour is in September. It's just non-stop, it's absolutely non-stop at the moment. But that's good because if nobody wants you, you feel a bit dejected. But it's just going and going and going, so you know, we're just riding it. It's incredible.
Are you guys concerned that there's going to be some sort of legal back and forth between you and the other Venom? That happened with Queensryche, it just got finished with Entombed.
No. I mean, to be brutally honest with you, it did in the early stages. You know, we got a couple of lawyers' things and whatnot like, "You're not allowed to do this, you're not allowed to do that." But we haven't heard anything since. We replied very eloquently and stated our point, and we've now coexisted together. You know, the two versions have coexisted alongside each other for the last couple of years, and we haven't heard anymore. So, no, I don't foresee any more problems with that, not at all.
I'm gonna knock on wood there for you.
So will I. There you go.
Until I got the new record and started doing research, I hadn’t listened to Prime Evil or your other records with Dolan. But considering how historical Venom was, I'm a little surprised that Prime Evil wasn't more of a big to-do. Why do you think that is?
Honestly, I don't know. It's one of the albums I've got to admit I'm really proud of. When it came out, it was very well received, critics, fans, everything. Obviously, there were a few fans who were like, "Well it isn't the real band or this kind of stuff." But that soon subsided once we started playing shows. Now it's revered as another classic album. I mean, it's Abaddon's favorite Venom album of all time. For me, if you took Welcome to Hell, Black Metal, Prime Evil, and then Resurrection, I think that's a great progression of a band. That album it's got some great stuff on it.
Myself and Tony, Demolition Man, we re-recorded a lot of the stuff for "M-pire." We used to play tracks like "Blackened Are the Priests," "Carnivorous”. We still put those in the set now. For the new tour, there'll probably be even more stuff from that era. There's some great material on there.
I don't necessarily think it was overlooked at the time because there was a lot of promotion went into it. I think it was just that that was the first time I was in another version of Venom, but this time it was obviously without the vocalist. Everybody knows that the vocalist makes a difference. But even now playing "Blackened Are the Priests" and "Carnivorous" alongside, say, "Live Like An Angel" and "Countess Bathory," it all sits perfectly with us now. I think there's gonna be more songs from that era, and maybe from Temples and Ice and The Wastelands, as well. Obviously, we'll have to focus on the new album for the new tour, but there'll still be the classics in there. I mean, there are songs we'll never, ever be able to avoid playing. We'll never get away without playing "Countess Bathory" or "Black Metal" or "Witching Hour". You know, fans will always want that. It's a great position to be in, but it's a difficult position to be in as well, because you think, "What are we gonna take out of the set? What are we going to put in?" If you take something out, then a fan will say at the end of the show, "Oh, you didn't play this song" or whatever. So I think we're lucky that we've got such a rich catalog to choose from as well, you know? We're one of those bands who are very lucky in that respect.
When I went back and I listened to that material with fresh ears, I got a sense for your improving as a guitarist and a songwriter. I'll always love Black Metal, but that's mostly a couple chords here and there and a couple sixteenth note rests. Then there's your soloing and your bridges become more and more and more complex, and it works. I almost thought Ave was a little stripped down, actually. It seemed a little reigned in to me.
Compared to the later Prime Evil-era stuff, yes.
Ah, that's interesting. I think everybody's gonna have a different perception of stuff. I'm very proud of the new album. I'm not just saying that because I'm involved with it. I am actually very proud of the new album. I think it's got elements of everything that we do in that one album. But I just tend to write the way I write, simple as that. I went through a lot of questioning myself during the course of writing this new album. Tony said to me "You just gotta be who you are. You just gotta do what you do."
I've said this a couple of times now, that on the hard drive there were folders from being 01 to being 20. So there were actually 20 songs in various stages of completion. Obviously the ones that we deemed to be the best, they made it onto the album. But some of the songs that got onto the album which have been picked out were maybe not my favorites, but everybody's perception is different. I'm looking forward to seeing reviews of this album to see what people actually say about it. That's the next step. But the ultimate step really is how the fans receive it. They're the people that really count at the end of the day. So we shall see, we shall see.
It was very easy for me to find the moments that really said something to me. But what are your favorite moments on it?
Oh, honestly, there are so many. I love "Forged in Hell." That's a track about a band playing live. I love "Blood Stained" because it's a commentary on the state of the planet at the moment, how we're just fucking it up and fucking each other up, and it's like when are we gonna realize what we're doing to each other? "Dein Fleisch" is a favorite as well. "Metal We Bleed." I think "Time to Die," that's all about the fucking gladiators and the Roman coliseum. "I Kneel To No God." There's a lot of the stuff that I really like on there. Let's put it this way, I couldn't pick a least favorite at the moment.
You and I definitely have some overlap.
All right, well okay. So come on, you tell me, now, you tell me.
I heard "Metal We Bleed" the first time and I said, "Now, this is a goddamn classic Venom song!"
Maybe it's just a nostalgia thing for me, but I really like "Black and Roll," because it reminds me so much of Lemmy.
Yeah, I'm gonna interrupt you there, and say that's exactly how that song was written. You've hit the nail right on the head with that.
There's been a few bands that have sort of tried to pay tribute to him. Even Metallica did, but they didn't do it right. But you guys did it right, you captured it, and that's hard to do.
Well, I'm pleased about that, because that was the absolute intention with that song. It totally was. It was basically a homage to heavy metal. But obviously, musically it's unashamedly Motorhead-esque. Let's put it that way.
The other thing that stood out to me from the record is, you see this on "Metal We Bleed", there's a lot of confidence in it. Where did that confidence come from?
When we got into the studio in Portugal and we sat down and we went through all the lyrics and we ran a few things, just was warm-ups. During that, we had done "Metal We Bleed" as one of the demos to submit to Nuclear Blast, and the performance on that track was so good that we didn't replace anything when we came to do it on the album. We thought, "We're not gonna do it. We're not gonna do it better than that. We're not even gonna try." So that performance stayed from the demos. Then we focused on that for the overall album. We found the vocal sound and then we just ran with it. A lot of the stuff on the album was one take. Vocal-wise, one take, straight through and that was it. Maybe we'd do all the verses first, then all the bridges, all the choruses or whatever. But even doing it that way, there was a lot of just single takes and that's it, fucking leave it. That's great. When you're recording, you have a lot of what we call 'happy accidents' as well. We hit a few of those which were just perfect.
It's amazing that those are one take.
I've got to admit when I sat there in the chair as engineer and sort of put my producer's hat on, I was a bit of taskmaster, let's put it that way. But at the end of the day, I didn't really have to be because he really fucking delivered. I've said this to a few people, I've said this to him, privately, that I think this album is his best vocal performance. It's really good. He's hit it, he's nailed it, absolutely nailed it.
I wonder where the genre can go from here, because so much stuff has already been tried. But you are one of the only people who's managed, even if it was by accident, to remake part of the sound in your own image. You're a true innovator, somehow.
That's very kind of you.
Well, I didn't originate these ideas. These were ideas that were passed down to me by people older than I am, and I am going to pass them down to people younger than I am, because black metal doesn't sound like Venom anymore, but you point at Venom and you can say, "This is where it starts, and we know that." So how do you remake something and make it new again, the way that you did then? Is it still possible to do that?
You know, the first time around with Welcome to Hell, a lot of those songs if you want to be one of these people who really analyze them, it's blues and rock and roll riffs. That's all I had at that point. I had literally just started to learn how to play guitar and I was armed with a movable power cord, the first position of the pentatonic scale and a bit of knowledge of 12 bar and progressions. That was it, and I just wrote songs.
I've just done an interview with ‘Guitar Player’ magazine, and I've always said I'm not one of these guitarists whose interested in being a virtuoso who can play at 3 million miles an hour, knows every chord progression and fucking scale on the planet to the point of inventing your own. I'm just not one of those people. If you give me another 10 lifetimes, I would still not be one. I've got no interest in being that.
If I'm gonna sit down with a guitar, I'm not gonna sit down for eight hours and practice scales. I'm gonna sit down and I'm gonna be creative, I'm gonna write songs. That's what the guitar is for me. It's a tool to write songs. I'm not dissing anybody who's got these technical chops. There are some incredible players out there. There's some people who will never make it onto a world stage who will sit in their bedroom for years and years and years and play like demons. That's great. Anybody who's out there playing guitar, you have my respect.
But at the end of the day, it's all about the songs. Whatever we did to those blues licks and progressions and stuff like that, as a band, whatever we did to them, I really can't tell you. It is just who we are and what we do and the desire to be, I suppose, individual and not follow the pack. That's what we did. Like I say, when I was questioning myself on the new album, when I spoke to Tony I was, like, "Fuck, you know I'm going through it here. I'm really going through the mill, asking 'Is this good enough? Is that good enough?' I'm changing this. I'm changing that." He's like, "Be who you are." I think that that rings true. Just stick to who you are and something's gonna happen at the end of the day. Now, like I say, whatever we did, whatever I did as a songwriter, I really don't know. I don't have a magic formula for you, you know?
Can we take it much further? I don't know. You can certainly reinvent yourself, but will people accept it? There's plenty artists out there who come back year after year with a different look and a different style of music and it works for them. Then other people try it and it doesn't. When Metallica did Load and Reload and country western tinged songs, everybody was like, "What the fuck?" Then you get people who love those albums. You can never tell. And then you get the Metallica fans who say, "Oh yeah, Metallica sold out after Ride the Lightning." It's like, "Well, I think I'd rather be in their position than going to my daily 9 to 5 everyday.” That's no disrespect to the people who do the 9 to 5, because I've done it, and we all have. I know how hard it is, and we're lucky enough to be able to do what we do for a living and just love, and that's a blessed position to be in.
But with the black metal thing, I mean, sure we started it all, we coined the phrase, we have the song "Black Metal," the album Black Metal, and then people took that and ran with it. Then it was this metal, that metal, death metal, oh god, so many different fucking genres. I just think it's time to get back under the flag of heavy metal again. We're all making music at the end of the day, and that's what it is. When you spoke about that track, "Black and Roll," that's where it all is: black and death and thrash. And go, "Hey, it's only rock and roll." At the end of the day, that's it.
You've got to remember that some guy way back in the 1920s or even earlier was sitting on a porch with a beaten up, old acoustic in the Delta, singing about the Devil way before we ever did it. The other thing I always hit on is with black metal, with music, it's evolution, at the end of the day. If you don't evolve, you become extinct. So I'm quite proud of the fact that black metal is still around today, albeit in a vastly different form than we first started. Should it have been called something else? I don't know, maybe. I'm not saying it should be, I'm not saying it shouldn't have been. It's whatever it is. But whoever's out there flying the flag, they have my respect.
I don't know if there's gonna be some amazing new genre that all of a sudden appears from someone's garage somewhere. We can never tell. We didn't even know it was gonna happen to us. We had no plans of that whatsoever. We just stayed true to who we are, did what we did, and it happened. I think the stars aligned at that point and it was the right time. People were ready for something different. Would Black Metal shock people now? Absolutely not. No, not at all. I think you can turn on CNN and you can be far more shocked at the news channels because that's real and it's happening right now on your doorstep. So I think it's gonna be very difficult for someone to come up with something completely new, but reinventing yourself is always possible.