Forging Black Metal: Cronos Of Venom Talks About The Genesis Of A Genre
, January 14th, 2010 15:38
Helping create extreme metal as we know it today as well as naming Black Metal, Venom have always been the antidote to musical boredom, says John Doran after talking to frontman Cronos
“We used to rehearse in a church hall. The Vicar was so cool... when he used to fuck off we’d go into the church and steal all the crucifixes and candles!” James Blunt
“There were a couple of drips of piss on my hair so I stood up and put my forehead on the bridge of Tom Araya's nose and knocked the fucker out. Because where I come from, in Newcastle, you don’t piss on people.” Stuart Murdoch, Belle and Sebastian
"We wanted to create... panic. There were a lot of things that we wanted on the album. I remember coming in with a dog whistle to use between all the songs and saying to the engineer: ‘I want people’s pets and budgies and cats to go fucking mental and start freaking out.’" Joanna Newsom
"I AM the fucking devil! I AM in league with Satan! I AM going to come and bite you on the arse Ozzy!" Bonny 'Prince' Billy
"We put a mic inside a coffin and shovelled loads of dirt on it so you could hear . . . THUNK THUNK . . . You know when a lot of people first heard that, they shat themselves! They felt like they were lying in that coffin getting buried. Fucking great!" Antony Hegarty, Antony and the Johnsons
There are only two questions occupying me today. How cool is Cronos from Venom? Why aren't more musicians like Cronos from Venom? Not all musicians - that would be appalling. But just one or two more. Is that too much to ask?
We know it’s highly unlikely that your dad has ever shouted “I am Satan!” at the top of his voice. He has also probably never claimed to have sacrificed a virgin in the sake of the dark arts either. We’d be willing to lay money on the fact that your old man certainly didn’t act as a primary inspiration to such titans as Metallica and Slayer. (And he probably didn’t receive thanks in the form of a drunken Tom Araya pissing on his head, either.) He’s almost certainly not invented a genre of music.
And he has also probably never gone down to the shops to buy a paper wearing black leather, studs and lycra. But all this stuff aside, Cronos (or Conrad Lant as he’s known offstage) Venom’s bassist/singer is like your Dad. Or your dad’s cool mate at least.
And it is his status as an affable Everyman that makes his group’s achievements all the more brilliant. Recording their first material in 1980 at the height of NWOBHM, they nevertheless managed to keep the scene at arms length. Metal like many other genres is powered by a central contradiction in that it attracts people fascinated by individuality who want to belong to a larger community of people just like them.
On top of this, metal, as with any genre, has a strong orthodoxy created and controlled by reterritorializing followers and Venom's decision to stand on their own at such a strong time for the resurgence of British metal was a brave decision that they received little but opprobrium for. Few journalists (Geoff Barton and Malcolm Dome being notable exceptions) and even fewer bands had any time for Venom.
But what didnt' kill Venom . . .
It was perhaps unsurprising that other bands hated on them. For a genre that mainly prided itself on virtuosity, Venom were anything but. Their lack of formal training and blinding chops married to a burning desire to be the “ultimate bad boys” lead them out of necessity to create a totally new, harsh form of extreme metal. Some have said, perhaps truthfully, perhaps out of jealousy, that Venom played so quickly and so grungily out of a desire to cover up their less than awesome musicianship.
Like, whatever dude.
Just as penicillin was discovered completely accidentally by Alexander Flemming growing on a dish in his laboratory; Venom’s desire to have “the stage show of KISS, the leather of Judas Priest, the Satanic lyrics of Black Sabbath, the heaviness of Motorhead . . . to put it together to create the ultimate rock&roll band” was enough for them to create the most essential cornerstone of what we now call extreme metal. Venom can lay claim to inventing and naming Black Metal and setting up the sound and genre conventions of several others including speed metal and thrash metal with their first two albums alone.
Taking time out from rehearsals with new drummer Anton, for a new album and tour this summer, Cronos let us know what it feels like to be a true originator and perennial outsider.
A reissue of Black Metal came out recently which not only has the expanded edition but a live DVD as well, which means there’s another generation out there getting ready to discover that album and the genesis of most of what we’d call extreme metal.
Conrad Lant: You’re right, this is about the third or fourth generation since it came out now I think and it just keeps on reinventing itself and it keeps coming back. Even when we’ve been in a time of transition and between albums and members there’ll be some band up there wearing a Venom T-shirt doing a Venom cover. For me to be able to stand on stage in Sweden and look out over the first ten rows of kids who couldn’t have been born when Welcome To Hell and Black Metal were released and yet there they are standing there singing all the fucking words and you think to yourself "Wow! These fucking kids are doing their fucking homework!"
Your first two albums marked a clear point where there was a break with what had come before. It opened a new chapter in metal. And of course you can even hear this break from the past being acted out sonically on Black Metal because it starts not with a guitar but with a chainsaw!
CL: We got some huge big pieces of steel and put them in vices and actually brought the chainsaw into the studio! We wrecked all the plates on the chainsaw doing it! [laughs] On the actual album version we cut it in such a way that as soon as the needle touched the actual vinyl... CRZZZZK! – it went straight into that racket. So straight away for the uninitiated you get that sense of panic: "Oh fuck, my stereo’s broken!" We created that from the word go. We wanted people to go "Fuck! What’s going on!?" We wanted to create something that sounded fucked. Everyone else is striving for perfection and trying to get everything right but we wanted to go the other way and create panic. There were a lot of things that we wanted on the album. I remember coming in with a dog whistle to use between all the songs and saying to the engineer: "I want people’s pets and budgies and cats to go fucking mental and start freaking out."
You obviously pushed the boat out for ‘Buried Alive’ as well.
CL: We basically came into the studio with boxes full of soil we’d dug up in the back garden and spades. It was a case of "Let’s not get the BBC sound effects album of some cabbages being chopped up, let’s recreate a burial." If I was recording this album today I would actually do it in a graveyard on a portable recorder. We put a mic inside a coffin and shovelled loads of dirt on it so you could hear . . . THUNK THUNK . . . You know when a lot of people first heard that, they shat themselves! (laughs) They felt like they were lying in that coffin getting buried. Fucking great! Exactly what we wanted.
You create things that move people in different ways. It’s not just sitting there and tapping your fucking foot you know. It’s putting something in the music that makes people think.
Did people miss the point that it was entertainment?
CL: Absolutely. “Oh you bloody evil Satanists, sacrificing virgins on the cross!” Yeah yeah. Whatever. I was amazed by the reaction. If you do this as an actor you don’t get shit – you’re just an actor. But if you’re a musician you’re just going to get a load of shit for it. "You can’t do that!"
Venom marked the point where metal stopped singing cautiously about evil and devils and stuff and started actually saying ‘I am the devil!’ or ‘I am evil!’ Did you sit down at the beginning and decide that this was the way to go?
CL: Yes. I was always frustrated with Ozzy because he would always go "Oh there’s a demon over there . . . he’s coming to get me, God help me!" And you’d think "What the fuck!?" Even now when he stands there going [puts on Brummie accent] "I’m the prince of darkness!" When did you become the prince of darkness? That’s happened in the last 10 years. You were never the Prince of Darkness; you were a fucking drunk! Ozzy, we love you but you’re not Satanic in the slightest. You stand there with a crucifix on singing about the black arts but you’re not singing about it as if you’re one of them. So I was always a bit peeved with them. I AM the fucking devil! I AM in league with Satan! I AM going to come and bite you on the arse Ozzy! [laughs]
You said you wanted to do something new but you can’t have known how influential this album would be on the future of heavy metal?
CL: No. No. So many bands were in the studio at the same time as us. There were bands coming through that door on a daily basis. How the hell could I have presumed that it would be my band who would be the lasting name. And some fucking great bands came through those doors. Amazing musicians with amazing ideas. And then there was us just trying to do it for ourselves. We weren’t trying to be the next Iron Maiden or the next this or that. We just wanted to do what we enjoyed. When you had a band like Tygers Of Pan Tang always dropping Purple references; you know "We want to be the next Deep Purple" well Venom never did that. We never said that. We said "We are now, we are new, we are Venom." That was one of the other divides in music at the time. You had a lot of guys coming in the studio saying "Can you give me Tony Iommi’s guitar sound; can you make me sound like Rob Halford?" But not saying can you make me sound like me?’ Which was a real shame. They weren’t trying to find their own sound, they were trying to jump on a band wagon.
When did you first become aware of the influence of Welcome To Hell and Black Metal? Who were the first bands to come up to you and cite those albums as an influence? And when did you start seeing your influence abroad?
CL: I know in the early days we used to actually seek out those bands. We found Metallica through a friend of mine who had a video of a show in San Francisco. Dave Mustaine was in the band and he had a Welcome To Hell T-shirt on and it was through that, that I jumped up and down to get them on our tour when we went out there in 83 and subsequently to get them on the 7 day tour the following year. And that’s when Dave Mustaine said "If you like us then you should check out this other band from LA called Slayer. They’re much more into Venom than we are. They’re more Satanic than we are." Then we were talking to Tom [Araya] and Kerry [King] and they were like "You want to check out this band called Exodus; they’re even more Satanic than we are." The whole thing was word of mouth. Then that led on to Death. And then you just saw these pockets of bands cropping up in California or Florida with groups saying we are a thrash metal band or a speed metal band instead of being like Venom and saying: Black metal is speed metal, thrash metal, power metal... People were concentrating on as specific type of sound instead of doing all of them. Then we started getting chaps coming up from all over the fucking world until that whole Norwegian thing happened. Boom! Massive! It was an explosion in black metal which obviously peaked in controversy with the whole church burning and murder thing which is always going to be a shame because that’s what those guys are now known for. When people say Venom they say "Ah fucking wicked stage show, Black Metal, Welcome To Hell..." Whereas when you say Mayhem and Burzum you immediately think church burnings and murder. What a fucking shame that those guys are known for that and not for their music.
What did you think of the corpse paint?
CL: Well, our original singer Clive used to do that long before we recorded Welcome to Hell. We were laughing our tits off because really it’s KISS or Alice Cooper. That’s where it comes from. I think it works really well. Especially with Immortal and that.
Obviously the city of Birmingham itself was a big influence on Black Sabbath and Judas Priest; how much was the city of Newcastle an influence on the Venom sound?
CL: Well, I’m originally from London. When I came up to Newcastle it was nothing to do with music and all to do with shipyards and coal mines and depression. But at my school leaving age, that was when punk happened with the Pistols, the Damned and that. It was all about where the fuck have the jobs gone? But I don’t think that Newcastle had an influence on the way Venom sounded. A, because we didn’t get on with any of the other bands round here so there wasn’t really anything that connected us to the other bands of Newcastle, we really had to stand on our own and B, there were no other bands in Newcastle even remotely like Venom so I think we could have come from absolutely anywhere. We could have come from New York or Birmingham. It was about three guys with similar ideas. We actually used to rehearse the show and on the times when we couldn’t get into the church hall, if we wanted to rehearse in a studio we had to book in under a pseudonym because if we said it was for Venom the phone would be put down.
You used to rehearse in a church hall!?
CL: Yeah! In a Methodist church! The Vicar was so cool . . . when he used to fuck off we’d go into the church and steal all the crucifixes and candles! It was great.
I need to ask you about that incident from when you were first on tour with Slayer all those years ago that happened between Tom Araya who needed a piss and yourself. [The hammered American bassist apparently took a leak on Cronos’s head before the enraged Venom man knocked him out.]
CL: I was talking to Kerry and the boys on the bus because they couldn’t afford a hotel. So Tom came on to the bus drunk out of his mind telling everyone about the size of his dick before saying something about having a piss. When I turned round and looked there were a couple of drips of piss on my hair so I stood up and put my forehead on the bridge of his nose and knocked the fucker out. And it ended there. Kerry and all the Slayer guys were all like "Hey we’re really sorry man but he’s really drunk." The next morning we shook hands on it and now we just laugh about it. Because where I come from, in Newcastle, you don’t piss on people.
When’s the new album likely to surface?
CL: The new album should be out by the summer of next year mate. The new tracks are tremendous. Basically, if you think of the way Anton was playing, especially on the last album Hell, he is a nu metal drummer and comes from that kind of background. He’s hung round Venom most of his life and it was just good to introduce him to the whole Venom concept of playing like the way Abadon used to play. Basically Abadon came from a rock background and then basically developed a black metal, speed metal, thrash metal style. The nu metal drumming is very different and it was a steep learning curve for him. At the end of the day he’s got his own style and he wants to be known for what he’s done and not be in my shadow which is totally understandable. Some of the guys we had coming to the rehearsals were not ex-Cradle Of Filth but they were still ‘I’ve been in this band, I’ve been in that band’ but they were all far too young, you know. We were looking for someone in their thirties upwards who understood rock music.
How do the songs compare to those off Hell?
CL: I would say more like those off Metal Black. More like our earlier stuff. Hell was getting a bit too much like session tracks. Too . . . polished. And polish isn’t a good word for Venom songs. Venom songs need to be off the cuff, loose, a little bit thrash. Once you start polishing songs up a bit much you end up going in the wrong direction. There’s a spontaneity about Venom songs that I’ve always loved. When we’re coming up with new Venom songs there’s one thing that I always try and keep in mind: "Is that kid in his bedroom on his knees playing air guitar and going ‘Yeah! Get in!’" You know?
I’m not interested in Joe Satriani sitting there and discussing whether it’s technically correct or not! That’s the last thing on my mind.
Well, the best black metal has that punkier, grimier feel to it.
CL: I think so yeah. It’s got to excite you. It’s got to make you want to jump up and down. That’s always been my favourite Venom. Those songs that make you want to leap about.
How did your climbing accident affect you psychologically?
CL: A lot of my friends from school went off and joined the army and marines and things like that and I’m still good friends with them even though they’re like homicidal maniacs. When they’re home on leave I still hang round with them and get drunk with them and that. Sometimes I’ll go out with them and do assault courses and sometimes I do climbing and that. Anyway, we were down in Wales and above me a rock had come loose and I shouted down ‘Loose rock’. It worked free and hit me on the back of my shoulders just below my head. Everybody thought everything was fine but in the hour after that I just seized up and I couldn’t move. So I went to the hospital and had neck braces put on. That totally stopped me from playing guitar, singing, going to the gym, everything you know. Luckily I’m not one of those people who just lies down and takes it and that’s when I went and bought my first computer because I could sit there and do work on a computer because I do all the art work for Venom. And it was great being able to transform from pen and paper to computer with things like Photoshop and I got into learning about 3D animation. To me it was like one door closes another opens. Six months to nine months down the line I was back into going to the gym and keeping fit and I’ve also got some computer skills which I’m really glad about but psychologically? Mate, I wanted to jump off a bridge. It was as if my whole career had just evaporated from around me. Every time I picked up my guitar the pain was too much. The most I could manage, even during my rehabilitation was an acoustic because they’re only light things. I was thinking, how am I ever going to be able to run around on stage again with a big heavy bass guitar. At the time you think it’s over, that’s it – it’s gone! Have I trapped any nerves? Luckily it’s few years later and I do get the odd reminder but so far so good.
Now that you’re a grandfather of extreme metal and black metal and thrash metal and all that good stuff that’s spread all over the world, how do you feel when you look at this kind of metal now? What do you like and dislike about the current scene?
CL: I love seeing new bands coming out with fresh ideas and the enthusiasm in their faces and in their music and the whole brashness of it all. What I hate is same-y bands and all these bands that have come out over the last six years who are all going for the same sound and the same look. I would always say to people that being different and taking a risk is a lonely place at first because people don’t get or understand you. They’re not brave enough to commit to you. It’s a strange and lonely place to be but what do you want on your gravestone – that you were a sheep and part of the flock or that you stood on your own. People are losing that sense of adventure. Where are today’s icons? Where are today’s Ozzys? Today’s Alice Coopers?