Sadistic Rituals: In Conversation with Venom Prison’s Ash Gray

This piece is taken from our fifth print issue, available here

For the hardened, dyed-in-the-wool death metal aficionado, the sort of sonic violence that would have the average music lover clutching their crucifix and dousing themselves in holy water has long since become easy listening, making those genuinely thrilling, genuinely terrifying “HOLY FUCK!” moments few and far between. Samsara, the second LP from UK firebrands Venom Prison, is the sort of stonkingly intense and deliciously twisted experience that can pin even the most hardy of underground death-heads to the wall. Espousing levels of pitiless brutality enough to compete with battle-scarred veterans or the gnarliest of their new-school peers, the band’s zeitgeist-capturing rage taps into the genre’s immortal, unearthly horror whilst embarking on a thoroughly modern, patriarchy-slaying journey beyond the generally inescapable underground circles reserved for extreme metal. Here, we talk to guitarist Ash Gray about the band’s crossover appeal, lyrical themes and much more.

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AN: Samsara has done incredibly well. Venom Prison have achieved some very impressive stuff with the release; lots of people are naming it their Album of the Year and you’ve garnered rave reviews and awards from major publications. Loads of people I know who don’t normally dig death metal are into it, and it seems you’ve cultivated a really strong crossover appeal. Since playing larger tours, have you noticed more hardcore fans turning up to death metal shows, or vice versa?

Ash: Yeah, we’ve always had that hardcore background because we were all playing in hardcore bands before VP, so it was a no-brainer that that was always going to be the case. With the way VP writes music as well; as much as we are a death metal band, realistically we were all hardcore kids before VP even existed, so that crossover is always something that we’ve had in mind while writing. We still have those elements we are used to, and we can captivate certain bits, such as the heavier parts and whatnot, but we also have the crossover like you mentioned which appeals to a lot more metal fans.

 

Wicked. I’ve seen you describe the sound of VP as “organic” in other interviews, which is definitely recognisable. A lot of the time when we listen to death metal, it can sound quite clinical and precise, but for me it’s those punky hardcore roots in VP with give it that edge. Wherever you play, you fit right in, and are equally comfortable fucking up a tiny room with Renounced as you are with huge festival crowds. With the growing success of crossover acts generating new fans and interest, would you like to see more mixed bill shows, and more cohesion between different extreme music communities?

Yeah, definitely. Even going back a little bit before VP, my father always listened to metal and stuff which was my gateway to music. A little later, when I was in school there was a guy who was a little older than me who saw I had a camo Route One backpack on, and he came up to me and was like “Yo, do you listen to hardcore?”, and I was like “Yo what the fuck is that?” I must have been eleven or twelve and said “Okay, meet me at the gate at the end of school tomorrow,” and I did and he handed me a Hellfest 2002 DVD and said “Make sure you listen to all of this”, so I wound up getting into bands like Bleeding Through and Buried Alive, Walls of Jericho, No Warning etc. That’s how it all really started for me, and then [I got] into powerviolence and then grindcore and brutal death metal, but I was still into hardcore all along. That crossover has always been there for me, so I’ve never known any better, but I’ve never understood the metal/hardcore divide. Like, I’m not too clued up on deathcore, but if you put a hardcore band and a deathcore band on the same bill, they’re both playing heavy shit. People are moshing regardless, because it’s heavy. I think that’s the way we need to start utilising mixed bills, because if people want energy, it doesn’t really matter who you stick on it as long as they’re heavy, you know?

 

Similarly to you, I had someone who told me to listen to very heavy music at quite a young age, which pointed me towards death metal. I didn’t wind up getting into hardcore until I was around sixteen, though. I got put off by death metal for a while because of some elements of the culture; there seemed to be at once a counter-cultural ideology, at the same time upholding a lot of elements of the social status quo. There is a lot of homophobia, misogyny and violent idealisation, and lots of men acting in toxic ways, spearheaded mainly by the lyrical content of (some of) the music. Something I like about VP is how this gets reclaimed; that wordy, visceral style of lyricism typical of death metal being used to explore issues of gendered violence is very refreshing. There is definitely something of a stigma surrounding challenging the toxic elements of the culture, particularly in death metal. Do you think that more acts engaging with progressive subject matter in this reclamatory manner could lead to more open dialogues regarding social and political issues within extreme music communities?

Yeah, I think bringing up these problems is important. You’ve always had bands, for example, Napalm Death, having a strong stance on a number of subjects, and I think it is about raising awareness. However, I do feel that no matter how much you try to do that, there will always been someone who’s like “Fuck these guys”. For me, that is okay. We’re not here to preach, we’re here to educate. If they say, “Fuck this, I can’t be bothered” then there is no point wasting more time on those people, they don’t want change and they’re not going to accept change. I was speaking to someone about it not long ago, who was asking “Do you think this is mainly in metal/death metal?” The more I stand back and look at it, it feels more like a global problem than a music problem. Look at all the shit with Harvey Weinstien and Brock Turner over the last few years. I think music creates a platform to stand on, which makes individuals more susceptible to being targeted for being outspoken on certain issues, and I don’t think that is likely to change, unfortunately. However, it doesn’t hurt to try to influence and educate along the way. When VP gets into writing songs, Larissa [Stupar, vocalist] will send me lyrics and I’ll key into what the topic is, and we’ll brainstorm the subject. A lot of the time, they are very much centred around social and humanitarian issues. ‘Uterine Industrialisation’, for example, grew from a podcast we listened to on tour about forced surrogacies. It was eye opening to hear the degree to which female bodily autonomy is manipulated and abused worldwide. To me, it definitely feels more like a global issue, rather than one which is specific to smaller, closed-circle communities.

 

I first saw you play in Brutality Will Prevail (BWP) years ago. One of the things which sticks in my mind about that era of UK hardcore is how big Purgatory Records was. You couldn’t go to a show without seeing a Purgz hoodie. You’ve mentioned in other interviews an interest in cultivating an image alongside your music. This is clear insofar as choosing the same artist for thematic album artwork, and while it’s quite different from Purgatory, the collusion of themes in your merch and artwork makes it seem like a “brand”, if you will. Do you feel this thematic consistency in VP’s image has had a positive impact on how you have been received?

Definitely. I’m really glad you picked up on that, actually. I think a lot of things people forget in bands, the mistake a lot of new bands make, is they do not find their image. When a band is starting up, writing a demo and finding their feet, they don’t think about everything around what they’ve written, and that imagery and aesthetic is something people really pick up on and connect with a lot more. Once that is missed, that branding never really catches its image. Just because you play in a band, you are still an artist. A lot of people play this down and think “Oh, I’m just playing guitar in a band.” You are still creating something, no matter how much you undermine yourself. I feel a lot of the time the fact that branding works with imagery and aesthetics gets overlooked. BWP followed the same thing. I learned a lot from that band, I was still in school when I was asked to join them. A lot of lessons of being in a band, I learned from BWP; what people were into and what they latched onto, etc. I think BWP was a prime example of how important it can be for people to connect to that branding.

 

VP has embraced more accessible styles of merch than most death metal acts. You’ve collaborated with sports brands, streetwear, tattoo artists etc. to create merch designs. Even just printing on something other than black shirts. In particular I’m interested in the collaboration you guys did with The Hundreds. How did this come about, and is it something you’d look to do again?

It was a weird one. Bobby Hundreds put a shout out saying he’d checked us out and said he was into us. I took a shot in the dark and replied saying “Yo let’s collab”, and he came back and said “Yes” straight off the bat. I honestly thought he was joking, and then a week later he was like “You’ve used [illustrator] Mark Riddick before. So have I, so there’s a common connection there.” And before I knew it, the ball was already rolling. When I was younger I was very into skating. I’d go to the local skate shop and Hundreds merch would be in there; I still have a Hundreds snapback kicking around, so it’s very surreal to know something I knew of back then is now in collaboration with something I’m doing now. That kind of “What the hell is going on here” factor of a death metal band collaborating with a skate brand is absolutely what we do. Bringing awareness to people who are more classic metal fans who get into VP that there is this kind of collaborative, thematically driven aspect to the culture we all come from. It’s nice to drag it into an area where that conversation isn’t typically happening.

 

One thing which sticks in my mind from the days I was getting into hardcore is the scope of medium-sized UK festivals, like Ghostfest and Hevy Fest, which were around at the time. Interest from a brand like The Hundreds in a death metal act feels fucking huge, and it got me thinking about the large scale, multiple-stage fests, with financial backing, specifically directed at underground music in the UK. You’d wind up with Viatrophy, Sylosis, BWP all on the same stage on the same day. Clothing brands had a huge presence at these fests, either just running stalls, or as financial backers. These days there doesn’t seem to be so many of these fests happening. We have some amazing DIY groups like Outbreak, Ready Eye and Moral Decay who are doing bits across the UK, but it does feel like the financial backing which allows larger scale fests to happen has receded a little bit in recent years. Do you feel the success of crossover acts such as VP, and more cross-genre interest happening, could see a return of these UK-based heavy fests?

If there is one thing I’ve noticed from observing how things within the UK scene have been going for years and years, there doesn’t really seem to be a “middle ground” anymore. At the time of those fests, if you’d asked me where BWP sat, I’d have said we occupied that middle ground. We weren’t going on tour with massive bands, we’d do the odd bigger tour but it wasn’t that regular. It was more packages of similar sized bands going on tour, and I think that market is where fests like Ghostfest and Hevy opened up, because you were able to put on a fest with all of the bands which occupied that middle ground in the UK on one stage and draw the numbers. I think one of the most inspiring things for me at the moment is that you have bands who are happy just staying the local band, playing one fest per year, but a lot more bands are becoming motivated to push their way into that top tier and do the work required. A band I really admire in this light is Higher Power, and they’ve dodged that middle ground completely. It’s almost as if people, having been in bands already, are saying to themselves, “Right, we don’t want to be doing the same thing year in, year out. We’re going to go straight past that and try to hit that high tier straight away.” That was always a goal with VP. We’ve all spent most of our lives playing in bands which occupied that middle ground, and we all wanted to see what we can actually do. I don’t think it’s just us thinking like that either, a lot more bands seem to be saying, “Right, let’s take that leap and see what it’s like on the other side.” I think this leads into why that whole circle of fests and clothing brands has collapsed inwards, because there are not that many bands who occupy that space which allows for these fests to put on lots of bands and draw the same level of attention. Looking back on it, the fact that we were able to pull so many kids into university rooms with just UK acts is very fucking impressive. It would be nice to see that return, but not at the expense of bands who have crawled through that era pushing for the recognition they deserve.

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You started Raw Ether Productions for recording and producing bands. I’ve just started writing music myself, and I’m just now seeing how daunting recording and producing can be, so knowing people who are involved in the same culture as me are offering their expertise is really encouraging. This is another thing I like a lot about the hardcore community, there are loads of people offering services like photography, videography, flyer and merch design, owning pressing materials, running labels, etc. How important is it for the future of underground music communities that new bands have access to these services, and that the people offering them understand and care for the culture as well?

Really, really, really important. It is one of the reasons I do it; I’ve already got a main source of income doing freelance audio/visual stuff for commercial companies. For me, it’s not an income thing. It’s the fact that I know how it is when you start a band and you’re like, “I just want to do a demo, and I don’t want to play a studio £3-4000”, which is completely unnecessary. The whole principal of Raw Ether was directed towards bands starting out being like, “We want a quick demo that we can blast out in a day and not get charged through the arse for it.” I noticed especially in the area I live in in Cardiff, a lot of new bands were popping up and playing shows, but didn’t have any music online, didn’t have any tapes or CDs for sale. That was something I’d always find myself pointing out at shows; going to see a new local band and being like, “You guys are fucking sick, where can I pick up some music or listen to you?” and they’d say, “We haven’t got any music, we can’t afford it.” The more interactions like this I had, I began to think, “Yeah, I can set this up for people, I’m not going to break their bank balance over it.” Bands who need demos – don’t spend thousands on going to studios with big names who think, “Yeah I can wipe £4k off these guys, no problem.” You don’t need to go to those people.

 

Any shout outs? Bands or records you’re rating lately?

That Cruelty band. I really like their first release, and their new stuff is sick too. It really reminded me of a metallic Foundation, and their new stuff has more of a Converge feel. So they are definitely one to shout out. I’ve noticed a lot of people starting up independent record labels and show-reels and stuff. To all the people doing that – even if it feels pointless and you’re getting nothing out of it, you are actually doing something good, regardless if it’s running podcasts or doing interviews, reviews, it is hugely important and gives a push to people who have dedicated lots of time to creating their art, so shout out to all of you.

Intro: Tony Bliss

Interview: Alex Rover

Photo: Jake Owens

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