Interview: Ash Gray of Venom Prison

To most, he’s known as “that sick shredder with the V” from up and coming Welsh death metal outfit Venom Prison. To others, I found out, he’s a third year student at Cardiff University studying a production course who “Always gets his assignments in three weeks early due to the constraints of touring”. He has two cats, Anton and Lisa, though he’d much rather a more certified metal name for them. Even with Ash telling me all about his life as a student as we prepare to formalise the interview, the most interesting stuff still came later, including the ins and outs of Animus and its successor, the scene it comes from and current climate in extreme metal and messages from Matt Heafy…

So this past year has been quite hectic for Venom Prison. You’ve won a Golden God from Metal Hammer, “Breakthrough Band” from Heavy Music Awards, there’s been tours with Aversion’s Crown, Gorguts and Deez Nuts and shows at Download and Bloodstock too. How has it been?

It’s gone really quickly. We’ve been a band for two years and we’ve been in bands before this but once we started Venom Prison we thought “Well we know how this works now”. We’ve learnt from the mistakes in our previous bands so we know what we’re doing and we have an explanation for why we do things too. It’s been hectic but it’s been that way for all the right reasons.

What have the highlights been?

It’s weird, someone asked a similar question some time ago and I’m not really someone to sit and admire an achievement as such. I’m very proactive and always onto the next thing. For example, as soon as we did Download this year, I just wanted to go and do Bloodstock. Once you’ve played it, you’ve played it. Move on, keep going.

When I look back though, I realise we have done a lot. It’s quite overwhelming at times because we’ve been going for two years now and it’s not stopped. We’ve managed to keep our real lives in-tact with university, jobs and houses – all that stuff. We’ve all got our lives at home and we’re really lucky that we’re surrounded by people at home who are so supportive and helpful. I’ve got two cats for example and when I go away, my neighbours who I’m really close with feed my cats. I’ll knock on the window and say “Hey, I’m going on tour in November, could you take the house keys and feed the cats?”. You’ve gotta be grateful for that stuff as well as people who support the band.

What are your cats called?

Anton and Lisa. I didn’t name them!

I was expecting something a little more along the lines of “Corpsegrinder”…

I would’ve called them that if I could but Larrisa comes from a Russian family so I think Anton is supposed to be Antoshka. Lisa’s just named after Lisa Simpson though!

So the Trivium tour got announced the other day. What was your initial reaction to be sharing the bill with Power Trip, Code Orange and Trivium?

Really surreal for me especially because I would listen to Ascendancy on the walk to school. Matt tweeted us saying “How does a tour sound” and initially I thought “If I had a pound for every time someone asked us on tour, I’d be a millionaire” so I thought he was just being nice. Then we got an email through and he messaged us asking for a shirt and that’s when I thought “Woah, this is really happening, this is so surreal!” I used to watch videos of him playing guitar all the time and now we’ve found out we’re going on tour with that band. It’s great.

With the bill being as focused on younger, modern bands as it is and with them all being on new albums, what are your thoughts on those bands and their respective albums? Would you add anyone to the bill?

Would I add anyone to the tour myself? I mean the package is pretty concrete. I don’t think I’ve seen a package like that in a long time. I’ve got a lot of respect for Trivium. I remember watching the Roadrunner DVD where they get all the Roadrunner artists to write an album and you see Matt writing songs with Glen from Deicide and the guys from Soulfly and so on. You can see how this has always been a thing. There’s guys from Obituary and Deicide who are writing songs with this guy called Matt in this band called Trivium who were still up and coming at the time. They were pushing him and now he’s doing the same thing for us, Power Trip and Code Orange, so I have a lot of time and respect for that. Just to have someone on a higher ground helping us as they were helped when they were in our position is really great. So, if I were to add a band, I don’t know who that would be. Like I said, I haven’t seen a package like that in a while so it’s quite tough. I’m not sure, maybe God Complex or Corrupt Moral Altar who’re playing tonight!

How are you feeling about your own new album Animus a year on from it’s release?

When we wrote that album, we were still starting out. We never knew how Venom Prison was going to go as such so when people were praising it highly and the tour offers and the festival offers started coming in, it was all off the back of something we wrote because we wanted to. There was no direction in that album other than the fact that it was something we wanted to do. We’re currently writing the second record and we’re about six songs in so we’ve been working really hard on that. The whole aspect of writing always gets me really excited and to see someone then praise it is really great.

Is there anything you’d change in hindsight or that you’re doing differently now on the second record?

We’re just learning to do stuff better all the time. That’s the only thing you can do. If someone likes your album that you’ve just released, there’s not much point saying “I would improve this, I would improve that” because you’ve always got a chance on your next album. You’ve always got to be growing. With this new album I’ve just taken everything I liked from Animus and we’re progressing it and building it to a new level, adding a few different bits that we haven’t done before. I hope people like it because it’s progressed a lot. There’s no singing at the moment though.

It’s not going to be an instrumental album is it?!

No. It’s taking inspiration from bands I like such as Dying Fetus and Cattle Decapitation while maintaining our own roots.

When can we expect to see new material?

Funny you should ask because I’ve been thinking about it earlier today. We’ve got it planned for when we want to record it but it’s still very much in the works and I want to make sure these songs are solid before we put them out. It’s coming along though. I’m not sure whether it’s expected for late next year or the start of the following year but it’s being done and it’ll probably be in that time realm.

The whole lyrical narrative of Animus showed that morals are an integral part of Venom Prison and that was also shown in how you dealt with the whole Decapitated situation. How important and how useful do you think music is as a vehicle for social and political issues?

Very. I was always inspired by music when I was younger that had a meaning behind it and if you look back to old Metallica, there’s some serious messages in there. That’s also the case with NWA and look at what that started. So I’d say it’s important for everyone to have a voice and the right to use it. I also feel music is the best way to get your message across because if you’re running around the street screaming “I believe this”, people will think you’re mad. Music is a great platform to get that across and me and Larissa are already talking about lyrical themes for the next record and how important it is to us because otherwise, to me, it’ll just be a song.

Like you’re ignoring the elephant in the room…

Exactly, yeah.

The messages are quite front and centre on the album, do you think people who don’t necessarily agree with what you’re saying can still enjoy the album? Is the message interchangeable at all? 

Well you can’t exclude people from this just because they think differently. Obviously there are certain beliefs that won’t take too kindly to what we’re saying but then again, the lyrical messages are not there to preach. They’re there as our opinion and as our voice. There’s no point shouting at someone who has a different belief system, you’ve got to try and educate them. It’s not about screaming at those who don’t think like you. A lot of the people who’ll disagree with what you’re saying, simply do that because they’ve not been educated in that way, they might not have been brought up like you. Instead of killing them with a pitchfork, reasoning is sometimes the way.

What do you think inspired that to come through in your music particularly? Was it from the bands you were listening to when you were growing up? 

Yeah, definitely. Like I was saying earlier about Metallica and NWA and even Napalm Death, all these bands had such a big influence on me. It’s definitely something that influenced me from a young age. It’s really important to me.

Do you think there’s an intrinsic link with morals in music and metal? You’ve been talking about NWA, but is it different with different types of music in any way?

I honestly think it’s everywhere. To pigeonhole this and say it only happens in metal is simply not a fact. It’s all around the world 24/7. It can be if you’re in an indie band or an emo band, if you’re a comedian or even if you’re in sports, it happens everyday in the world.

Finally, tonight and across your career, we’re seeing a growing younger fanbase in extreme metal and hardcore particularly. What do you think it is about bands like Code Orange that’s resonating with young people around my age and yours?

I would say it feels like it’s going back on itself a little bit because we obviously all come from hardcore and punk bands and groups like Code Orange are hardcore kids too. I think in hardcore and extreme music especially, we’re starting to get those more organic bands back and I think that’s what people missed. Obviously I don’t want to slate any of these bands that are super clinical with all this wild, machine-type stuff going on but I feel people sometimes just want to something organic and aggressive that they can kind of relate to.

Do you think that’s what’s led to the revival of this scene in particular? It’s not the lighter music that’s really coming through, it’s the heavy stuff…

Yeah, I think that’s right. If you look at the 80s and stuff like that where heavy metal was the biggest thing in the world, there wasn’t anything bigger. Rock music was huge and I think now we’re receiving that organic-ism back. People are finding what they missed and are bringing it back. I’m not saying “get rid of the clinical bands” but let’s find new grounds for it all and I think that’s what’s happening.

I’m glad Venom Prison is a part of it.

We’re glad to be a part of it!

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