Venom Prison are a death metal band from Wales. Since 2015, their chaotic take on the genre has propelled them from Blighty to the US, Asia and Europe, sharing stages with the likes of Trivium, Dying Fetus and Power Trip. The quintet have won a couple of Best Newcomer awards at Metal Hammer’s Golden God Awards and the Heavy Music Awards, they’ve done a collaboration with streetwear brand The Hundreds (?!) and played festivals like Damnation, Bloodstock and even Glastonbury.
Their second album Samsara came out last year and is true to both their feminist, anti-fascist politics and their hardcore and black metal-inspired sound. Made up of members of hardcore bands Brutality Will Prevail and Wolf Down, they have an eclectic and fierce heaviness that contains elements of Death, Carnifex and Tomb Mold, while still being very much their own.
Their frontwoman, Larrissa Stupar, is known for her earth-quaking vocals and intersectional diatribes about misogyny, animal rights, rape culture, fascism and oppression. I hung out with her and their co-founder and guitarist, Ash Gray, (virtually) over Zoom and talked about their hardcore beginnings, their message and the time they partied with Craig Charles.
VICE: Hi, Venom Prison! Tell me about your introductions to heavy music?
Larissa: We didn’t really have a metal scene where I lived [in Ruhr, Germany], so I just went to local shows, which happened to be hardcore shows. I moved to the UK five years ago and I’m 31 now, so most of my young life I spent playing in hardcore bands, going to shows, putting shows on. Hardcore gave me the opportunity to involve myself in music. I think this whole DIY culture within hardcore and punk is what gives you the opportunity to go on and actually do it yourself.
Ash: I grew up in Newport, which is notorious for the pub TJ’s. We had all the metal and hardcore shows coming through. [..] That was my gateway. I went once and fell in love with it. That is reflected in Venom Prison because although I grew up loving metal, primarily I came from punk and hardcore. So when people say that there are bits of hardcore in our music, it was inevitable really, wasn’t it?
What’s the scene like in Newport and Wales now?
Ash: The scene in Wales is still very good. The only difference now is that we’ve had a lot of the venues taken away from us – we haven’t got TJ’s anymore – so it’s a lot harder than it was. It’s moved more to Cardiff now, from Newport. There are still a lot of people pushing the scene and keeping those shows ongoing.
What was it like being embraced by the metal scene?
Ash: When we played Bloodstock, it was very overwhelming. I’d never witnessed anything like that in my life. People were doing circle pits, moshing, and whatever else was going on, I found that relation between the hardcore scene I was in and the metal scene. Maybe not always moshing, but the same amount of energy and passion. I realised that these two things are really similar, but sometimes people are shy to admit that.
Larissa: We just love both aspects. We love it when people smash everything to pieces, we love it when people stand there and have the time of their lives by themselves.
Nice. You played Glastonbury last year. WTF?
Ash: I still haven’t figured that one out, to be honest [laughs].
Larissa: It was so strange. It was the biggest thing we’ve ever done. When we started this band we just wanted to play weekend shows now and again, and then we were playing Glastonbury! I was like, what the fuck? I do think it’s amazing that they’re giving a platform to heavy bands to play in front of these masses. Some people will definitely watch these bands and think what the fuck is this? But I think a lot of people will get curious and watch something different which will spark something in them.
I saw a photo of you guys with Craig Charles. What happened there?
Ash: We’re sat in this backstage tent area, he was playing the same stage as us, doing a DJ set when we arrived. A woman came round the corner and said, “You look like a band!” I said, yeah, that’s quite correct. She then said, “I think my husband would really like you guys. I’ll bring him round now.” And it was him! My jaw dropped!
Wow! What did you talk about?
Ash: Napalm Death, Carcass…
Larissa: She was telling us what it was like hanging out with Mötley Crüe, and telling us stories of the past. She said I look like Debbie Harry! They were really nice and they watched our full set from the side of the stage.
Ash: That’s my lifetime achievement right there.
Great. I saw that you also did a collaboration with The Hundreds, how did that come about?
Larissa: Bobby [Hundreds] ordered some merch from us and we were like, wait, is that the guy from The Hundreds?
Ash: Then there was this photo of Bobby wearing our shirt with Mike Shinoda [from Linkin Park] and Eddie Huang. I remember saying to Larissa, should we just tweet him now? So I tweeted saying “Yo, we’re doing a collab.” And he replied, “Yes we are!” I was like, what the fuck, it’s really that easy?
Nice work. "Political" metal bands don’t seem to be as common as political bands of other genres, like punk. Why do you think that might be?
Ash: In the early 90s and the 80s, you had a lot of stuff going on. You had Carcass who were definitely outspoken and Napalm Death who were outspoken, and Bolt Thrower, and then there was a weird gap in the middle of it. For a while it seemed like there wasn’t any of that going on. Then in the last five to seven years it’s kind of revived itself a bit. People think it’s a new thing, they say, “You need to get these political bands out of metal!”, but then their cover photo on Facebook is Napalm Death?! I’m a bit confused, but it’s very nice to see it back.
Is it the duty of bands and lyricists to sing about oppression and politics?
Larissa: I don’t think it’s the duty of every band, especially if you have no interest in these things. You’d be lying to yourself by singing about them. I think it’s important you stay yourself and spread the message that you want to spread. That doesn’t need to necessarily be political, it could be about mental health, something about yourself, something traumatic you went through – that is also spreading a message. For me, I always grew up in a political environment. I was born in Russia but Mum was a German immigrant when we lived there. Then I moved to Germany and I was an immigrant, I never belonged there and didn’t feel like I did. I’ve experienced some stuff I wish I didn’t, just because I wasn’t born there. It pushed me into the whole anti-fascist and anarchist thing. I was active in anti-fascism and animal rights, it’s something that made me who I am. That’s something I want to give back to the world.
Ash: The minor thing for a lot of people to take into consideration, is if they have the confidence to be outspoken. When you become outspoken you need to prepare yourself for a backlash. The whole world isn’t going to agree with you, but a lot will. I’m thinking about the first ever article we did about feminism. That night when the article went out, the amount of shit we got… That was the first proper experience for me seeing that, and it was just like, holy shit, I’ve never seen that many comments saying “fuck you!”. I think we got called every name under the sun.
Why do you think people reacted that way?
Larissa: First of all, us having a woman in an extreme metal band alone is offensive to some people in metal. People think women don’t belong there because the genre was dominated by men for so long. Then the fact that we were talking about misogyny and rape culture in our society and within metal, I think that hit the nail on the head and people got really angry and upset. That’s something I’ve personally experienced before, in my old bands, so I’ve had to develop a thick skin. It wasn’t easy, I have to say. People get personal. When I was in Wolf Down, on tour I’d just lock myself in the bathroom and cry because things got so out of hand. But that gives me the power to continue. If somebody has a problem with who I am, based on the fact that I’m a woman, then I have to show them that I have a right to be there!
I feel that heavy music is most potent when it has anger in it. Is anger something you channel?
Larissa: You can have anger and make it a negative thing and go ahead and destroy people or objects. Or if you channel it into music, poetry, writing, drawing, painting, or whatever, then it can be therapeutic and you can create something. You’ll feel better in yourself because you didn’t destroy something, you created something. [..] For people that listen to music it’s also important to hear something and release their anger that way, either through feeling really energised while listening to angry and heavy music, or being able to let it all out at shows by feeling the energy.
Are you angry when you write the lyrics?
Larissa: Being able to play music and write lyrics was always therapeutic because there was always a lot of pain and anger within me. I tried to find a way to release it when I was younger. Around 14 to 17 years old, before I was in bands, I used to cut myself. I just had this pain and anger and I didn’t know how to let it out other than on myself. I wanted to physically feel the way I felt inside. Ever since being able to put it on paper and put it into songs and shout onstage, it became something really positive for me.
Your lyrics journey through feminism, misogyny, mental health, animal rights, rape culture, fascism and oppressive political systems – I would recognise this as intersectional.
Larissa: That’s right. When I speak of freedom I want freedom for everyone. I want freedom for any person, regardless of their gender, sex, age, or race. I want freedom for animals as well, because let’s be honest, we can’t be free until we’re all free. That’s what intersectional feminism and sexual politics are, for me.
[In regards to George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement] We as white people in Venom Prison will never understand what it’s like to be Black and to suffer in the way they have been suffering for hundreds of years, through the hands of white people. We have to face the consequences of our ancestors. We’re born into it, nothing will change while we disregard the fact that we have certain privileges over different genders, races and species. We have the duty to educate people that maybe aren’t aware of their privilege, that it is a real thing. We need to learn what it’s like for Black people to live in these circumstances. It’s not just something that happens in America – slavery is something that was brought upon the world by the British empire.
Hear, hear. Your latest album is called Samsara, which in Sanskrit means reincarnation. You also reference "Naraka", which is hell in some Indian religions, and "Dukkha" which is the Buddhist concept of suffering. Is the album inspired by Eastern philosophies?
Larissa: We came up with the name based on the fact that we all suffer in one way or another. We wanted to show that living and suffering are connected to each other. I was going through a major depressive phase in my life, probably the worst one. I was taking medication for the first time… all of that was influencing me into being really self-destructive and being filled with so much pain. There was no escaping this, for me.
So I researched this whole concept of rebirth and life, and I discovered the belief that there is a continuous cycle of life through suffering, so life is basically suffering, until you die. You get born again and fall into the same cycle until you transcend to this higher nirvana, higher universe, where you don’t suffer anymore. I don’t believe that after I die I’ll be reborn as something else, but I do think that you can transcend within yourself and break through from the suffering when you try and understand why you’re suffering. What are the reasons behind this? How can I help myself? How can I help others?
If you were to be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?
Larissa: I definitely would want to be a cat.
Ash: Me too. Cats are badass. All the cat family is cool. What’ve dogs got? Wolves… Cats have got panthers, lions, tigers, bobcats… I’d be a bobcat. They’re like the velociraptor of the cat family.
Larissa: I’d like to be a housecat. It would be nice to have a loving home, someone stroke me all day long, eat as much as I can, sleep, go out for a little exploration… it would be pretty cool.
You write and sing about what could be perceived as "evil" things - rape culture, oppression, and the other areas we talked about earlier. Do you think evil exists?
Ash: Evil exists.
Larissa: 100 percent. It’s rooted within humanity.
Ash: There’s no point in singing about the fucking devil, there’s enough of us on this earth. We’re the problem, aren’t we? Look around at what’s going on now. God didn’t cause that; Satan didn’t cause that. We did.
What about good?
Ash: Oh yeah, definitely. There has to be good where there’s evil.
What does it mean to make heavy music in 2020?
Larissa: It’s truly about pushing the boundaries. Metal and heavy music in general is the platform to push boundaries, and always has been.
Thanks for the chat!
Samsara is out now via Prosthetic Records.