Thursday, January 12, 2012

The conquest of the unholy mountain: An interview with VENOMIN JAMES

James Venamun is a character from the novel The Exorcist whose spirit invades people’s bodies and makes them kill other people. This in case you’re wondering where the name of this band comes from. But fear not, VENOMIN JAMES are few bearded men (well, maybe not all of them) who probably would never try to invade someone else’s body or force someone’s hand to commit murder. Although they come from a place notorious for some events in the past that would make the flesh of an average housewife creep and be a source of inspiration for not one and two horror movie makers.

VENOMIN JAMES is a Doom metal band from Cleveland, Ohio. The band was formed somewhere in 2005 and in 2007 self-released the debut “Left Hand Man”, a little bit raw but incredibly catchy and sincere album. The second one, “Crowe Valley Blues”, which went out through the Ohio based label Auburn Records in 2010, is again full of powerful riffs and groovy bass but more complex and showing a bigger part of the potential these guys actually have. What I know for sure is that VENOMIN JAMES have that ‘thing’ that gives individuality of the music they play, brings new life to their influences and makes their sound so distinguishable. For some reason both albums didn’t get the attention I believe they deserve, it could be me being biased because I like them so much or the radars of most of the people were broken at the time the records came out. I really hope more chance will be given to their next album. Joe Fortunato (guitars) and Jim Meador (vocals) were so kind to answer to a few questions, so here we go:

You guys are currently working on your third album “Unholy Mountain”. All drums are recorded by Jared and I can’t even imagine how difficult is for you to work on this record; because of this big loss and because you want to use only the original Jared’s drumming. Still, how are the recordings going? Where are you now?
JOE: Well, right now we are nearly finished with recording. After Jared passed in June 2010, we didn’t listen to his takes for quite was just too difficult to deal with, and it didn’t feel right to get started on anything so soon after he died. After “Crowe Valley Blues” was released in September 2010, we started listening to all the demos and drum recordings, trying to figure out if anything was usable for a proposed new record. What we discovered was that the drum tracks sounded awesome, but we had a few incomplete takes and a few other small problem areas that would require editing before we could track the rest of the band. So, we selected the best takes to work from and started tracking everyone else.
I should mention here that we specifically decided to only use drum tracks that Jared recorded, as a sort of farewell to him. We didn’t want to have Eric (Matthews, our live drummer, previously in THE SPUDMONSTERS & PRO-PAIN, and currently drumming for RED GIANT as well) come in and retrack everything, especially after Jared working so hard while we were writing the songs. Obviously, that made things difficult in many ways, but you can hear the urgency of his playing in these tracks, almost like he knew the end was coming before we did. He made sure to let us know his thoughts about the way he liked his drums to sound, which we worked on during the mix of the “Death’s Wings EP” from “Crowe Valley Blues”. By that time, he was no longer able to play drums. That was in the spring of 2010, a few weeks before he died. So, “Unholy Mountain” is dedicated solely to our brother Jared, and is part of his last set of recorded music. There are a few other things left, some just fragments, that we might do something with, but feel like they don’t belong on this album.
So, here we are in January 2012, and we have been recording the final pieces on 8 new songs. We have been doing some rough mixing as we go along, so once the final pieces are recorded, mixing will only take a few additional weeks. As you may or may not know, we have Gary Kane, vocalist from FORGED IN FLAME guesting on 2 tracks, and Human Furnace (James Bulloch), vocalist from RINGWORM/ GLUTTONS adding vocals to another.
JIM: As Joe said, it was a very tough time for all of us. I feel extremely fortunate that we were able to use those drum tracks, I personally feel his essence when I listen to the songs. A part of him will live on through this record.

I don’t know much about the music making process but I can hear the progress you’ve achieved since your first release….How is the production of “Unholy Mountain” different than the first two albums?
JOE: First and foremost, we learned a lot recording the first two albums. We learned what works for us and what doesn’t. We made a bunch of mistakes on those first two albums. We’ve also added some new gear to the studio, which makes it easier to simply stay out of the way, and capture the sounds we are getting in our live show. Tomasz and I also went to an intensive audio recording school in 2009, where we learned a few new techniques that have shaped the sounds we’re getting now. When we recorded “Left Hand Man” in 2006/2007, we were both new to recording & mixing with Pro Tools, so we also had a learning curve to face - whereas we can now pretty much do whatever we can think of.

Have you made up your mind about the format of the album? Are you still planning it to be a vinyl only? Honestly, I don’t like this tendency, I’m still in the CDs era….
JOE: This is an active discussion right now within the band. I think we will end up issuing the album in three formats: CD, Digital, and Vinyl - with the CDs being replicated in smaller numbers this time around. CD sales are down for almost everyone, so imagine how hard it is to sell when you’re an unknown band. At first we were only going to do Vinyl with a download code for this album, but realized that CDs actually do sell enough to justify making a small run - especially outside of the U.S.A. It also depends on what Auburn wants to do, but the discussion is alive.

What happened with the “Left Hand Man” vinyl re-issue?
JOE: It’s still happening. We got sidetracked with preparations for the Wacken trip, and then jumped straight into recording the new album when we got back from Germany. We have several tracks remixed for the “Left Hand Man” vinyl already, and I see the remaining tracks being finished up soon. Maybe the tracks didn’t need to be remixed, but we wanted this vinyl release to be the definitive version of the album. I see it also becoming available digitally for a low price. That will come out on Ripple Music, who also have POOBAH, STONE AXE, MOS GENERATOR, and more awesome bands on their roster.

You self-released your first album and released the second through Auburn Records. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a label? Is Auburn Records standing behind you for the new record too?
JOE: With Auburn Records, we have as much freedom as we want, to do whatever we want. Bill Peters (President & Owner of Auburn Records) is behind us at every step, and has said that he wants this record to help us get to the next level, whatever that might be. We usually consult with him about things the band wants to do, though. Without going into too much detail about that, we have complete trust in him, and however the album sees release is going to be with his blessing. The immediate advantages we’ve seen are that he handles some of the financial aspects of releasing the albums, and he represents us in seeking out new opportunities - such as being invited to Wacken Open Air 2011, and in promoting the band to radio and print. At this stage, the only disadvantage we’ve seen is that Auburn is smaller than someone like Warner or Universal, which limits the channels the band can use to promote itself.
Seeing how the major labels are in serious jeopardy in recent years, and seeing how their focus seems to be on fast sales and singles vs. developing artist careers, I can’t see a huge advantage to being involved with one of them except for the money and influence they can throw around. The cost to the band of being involved with the majors in terms of freedom and creative control are sometimes not worth pursuing for a band like VENOMIN

JAMES. That being said, if someone wrote us a huge non-recoupable check to make records the way we do now, and put us on tour with bands we love, we’d take it!
JIM: Based on what I have been seeing going on with the record industry, I no longer see any huge advantage to dealing with a large label either. I think the best situation for a band like us would be a larger well established indie label.

As you mentioned before, Gary Kane from FORGED IN FLAME is a guest vocalist on two tracks (the results of combining his and Jim’s vocals on “Black Horizon” are excellent to say the least) and Human Furnace on another one. You decided to do it because the songs required this or because you wanted to try something different with them?
JOE: We are very proud to be from Cleveland, Ohio - and we wanted to have a sense of community with other bands from around here. We wanted to promote the fact that there are some amazing bands in the local scene, and that we support them and want to collaborate. Hip hop artists do it all the time - why not a band like ours? Guest artists expose our listeners to new bands. We could only hope that other bands feel the brotherhood and might do the same some day.
The original idea to have guest vocals was Jim’s. I think he felt that having some other vocal textures on the album would strengthen the songs, and I agree that they do. Getting Human Furnace to guest on “I Am Infidel” will really add a gritty dimension to that song. There is actually one other possible guest, but we haven’t worked out the arrangements yet.

JIM: The idea of collaborating a bit originally stemmed from writing “Black Horizon”. When I was listening to it, I just knew that another vocal style would add another dimension to an already great song. Gary Kane immediately came to mind. We are all buds with Gary and the FORGED IN FLAME guys, and needless to say, Gary has a very strong voice that is quite different than mine. It turned out great and I think the final mix will sound amazing. After seeing how well it contributed to that song the guys threw around some ideas and got in touch with James Bulloch of RINGWORM. Dude has a very vicious and heavy vocal style; it will lend VERY WELL to the song “Infidel”.

You are doing almost everything if not everything by yourselves – recording, artwork, videos. It is I suppose a good thing from a financial point of view but have you ever thought assigning some of the activities to other people in order to speed up the process of making a new record?
JOE: That’s a tough one. For getting things done faster, it would be smart to use other people, but again - at what cost to creative control? If we are held in check by budget, such as spending less time in the studio because we can only afford to book so much time, I don’t think the songs will be developed the way we want them to be. We record and listen, then adjust, sometimes reworking songs or trying new things over several rounds of mixing. Since we have the gear and the know-how, it seems only right that we go the DIY route, because we have absolute control over the results and in our timeframe. If the songs fail, we have only ourselves to blame. There is no loss of our ideas in the translation to another person who may not take our music as seriously as we do.

You say DIY and that leads me to the next question. I’ve said before how much I respect your DIY attitude, why wasn’t this attitude attractive for good labels before Auburn Records decided to take you on board?
JOE: My understanding is that the major labels like to assume large amounts of creative control, because they may have significant amounts of money tied up in promoting and developing a band. The label might pick the producer, the studio, the artwork, and sometimes pressures the band to write a certain type of song. VENOMIN JAMES is not really a commercial sounding band, and some labels may not see the sales potential in signing a band like us - which to me could lead to them changing the sound of the band to something more commercial. This we simply can’t do.
Auburn puts zero pressure on the band, other than to do what we already do. If we were good enough to work with to begin with - why change things unless it’s an organic change?

Do you have plans for touring? Would you like to come to Europe again any time soon? Maybe you could join forces with another band….
JIM: I would love to tour overseas and I think it would be a huge boost for our band. Our Wacken trip to Germany was a big eye opener. The crowds are definitely more involved there and Metal still reigns supreme. This is a situation that may require the support of some bigger label however, to do anything fairly substantial anyway. If we had some nice guarantees thrown our way through the tour, we may be able to pull it off as we sit at the moment. Who knows what lies in the future?

JOE: We are working on setting up mini-tours of the United States as we speak. We hope to announce some dates towards the middle of 2012.
When we think of Europe, we feel that the key to our longevity lies in touring there as much as possible. If we were able to tour in Europe, and even in Asia/Japan, I think we would be able to jump to a higher level. I don’t know if I have to explain the differences between U.S. audiences, and audiences around the world - it’s a known fact that U.S. audiences are somewhat jaded and uninvolved, and Europeans (and others around the world) seem more active and excited to see live music. I’m not saying I know all the reasons for this, but I’ve seen it myself at Wacken, and heard it from enough other bands that I now take it as fact. The first opportunity to tour overseas that comes along, we’ll jump on it.

Tell me something more about your appearance on Wacken Open Air earlier this year. Who made that possible and did you receive a good feedback from the audience for your performance?

JOE: Bill Peters is directly responsible for the invitation. He has amazing working relationships with several large european promoters, and specifically in Germany with Wacken and Headbangers Open Air festivals. When Wacken asked if he had any bands that he wanted to bring over, Bill suggested VENOMIN JAMES. They listened to the music and evidently liked it enough to invite us to perform.
One strange thing that happened for us - and I say strange because we’re so unknown - is that the festival asked us to have a Meet & Greet on the day of our performance. So, we showed up and signed things for people and took pictures with them. It went surprisingly well. At first we were afraid that no one would show up, but our German friend Ingo got things moving by finding a scantily clad woman to pose for pictures with us in the tent. It seemed to break the ice with the onlookers in the crowd, because we had a steady stream of people coming over for the duration of the event after that. They wanted to see what was going on.
The performance and festival itself was surreal to me, because we were treated like a world class rock band. We had nice equipment to play through, and the stagehands and every one we worked with at the festival were extremely cool and helpful. I could imagine for that short time what it must be like for famous bands to tour, and have so many awesome people helping them out. The whole experience was amazing, and a once in a lifetime thing. Except, of course, when the airline lost my luggage and destroyed my real guitar on the flight home.
The feedback from the crowd was mixed. Some of them were clearly there to see GHOST (who played directly after us on the same stage) and had little or no interest in seeing us. I think some others were pleasantly surprised by us, and maybe we gained some new fans. A lot of that had to with the fact that the only other band remotely like us at the festival was KYUSS LIVES! We were a pleasant deviation from the sameness of some of the other bands. I walked through the crowd and handed out CDs and TShirts right after our performance, and saw a lot of smiling faces that had a good time and liked us. You can’t please everyone, but I think we did well, all things considered.

JIM: Wacken blew my mind. The crowds were enormous and full of mayhem but to my surprise I didn’t personally observe ANY problems, fights, brawls or major production problems. The efficiency of how well the grounds were designed and managed was extremely impressive, especially for a rowdy crowd that size. In general though, it seemed that there was definitely a sense of community among everyone, you could really feel it.
Regarding our performance, it was a huge rush. There were some that were not really into our style, there were many that were really getting it and loving it. I felt pretty good about the response, I was initially a little concerned because we were so different than 99% of the bands that played there. It was a great learning experience in many respects for all of us and definitely cultivated a higher level of confidence for the band.

Also are you happy with the way the band played?
JOE: To be honest, I feel like we’ve played much, much better. Our inexperience showed on that stage. I think we tried to do too much to fit into what we thought the audience would want instead of being Venomin James. That’s my opinion. I can barely watch the video of our performance. Keep in mind that I am perfectionist when it comes to our show, though.
JIM: I agree with Joe. In hindsight I think some things should have been done differently. I in particular was a lot more active and it really affected my performance. I am a singer, not a screamer….so heavy breathing makes it a lot more difficult to do what I do. I received some good input from some very well known front men in the area before heading over and they gave me great advice, I did find however that I deviated a little too much in some respects. All things considered, I think things went ok for our first large performance considering. I really feel next time we will do much better after having gotten that initial one out of the way.

Please, explain this: guitars destruction and crowd surfing. Are we going to see more than that from W.O.A?
JOE: We purchased two cheap guitars for the finale - destroying them seemed like a cool way for people to remember our performance.
We actually have two videos of the entire performance and hundreds of photos. One of the videos was shot by the Wacken crew, and we aren’t allowed to distribute that because of licensing issues. The other video was from one of our cameras that a friend held near the board at the back of crowd. Great video quality, but horrible, unusable sound. It hasn’t been released because it sounds so horrible. The guitar destruction video on YouTube is taken from that camera. Wacken is giving us the song “Unholy Mountain” from their footage that they will edit for us - we have permission to release only that video. We do plan to publish/post more photos, but just haven’t had gotten around to it.

The “Make No Mistake” video got more than 100 000 views on Wacken Tube in the first ten days it was available for watching. It is a terrific video in every sense of that word! What is the idea behind it? Have you expected so much interest and do you think it helped you to attract more audience for your performance?
JOE: The story told in that video is intentionally vague and ambiguous. The hope is that the mythology of the area we come from forms an interesting background to our music. If someone took the time to research the history of the area, they would find a number of disturbing stories and anecdotes, not to mention mysterious places of power and supernatural interest. The video is the beginning in a series of albums and videos that will include the mythology and history of Kirtland and Cleveland, Ohio somehow.
I never expected the “Make No Mistake” video to have the impact that it had. We thought it might be a cool way to interest someone looking into who the hell this band from Ohio was. Next thing we knew, it broke 100,000 views. I think it directly lead some of the festival goers to venture over and check us out. In fact, at our meet and greet, several people mentioned the video and it’s impact on them.

There are some very cool bands I know coming from Ohio and probably lots I haven’t heard of. Is the scene as vibrant as it looks, do people go to see local bands when they’re playing?
JOE: The scene is strong in my opinion, at least in terms of the quality of bands. There are bands coming out of here that I wish I could sign to a label. There are enough killer bands from Cleveland that we could see another “Seattle” happen, but with better music, in my opinion. I’m sure it’s the same in every city, but I witness it here in Cleveland almost every time we have a show with local bands.
Funny thing about Cleveland, and maybe even Ohio, is that the bands that deserve to gain recognition and become famous (or somewhat famous), are not the bands that are getting attention. Don’t get me wrong here, either - I’m not just talking about VENOMIN JAMES being overlooked. The bands from Cleveland that are currently in the mainstream, for the most part, have no business being there. Without naming names, how can you have any pride in your band when you have backing tracks for vocals & guitars, and you’re playing small theaters and clubs? And you’re in a metal band? Some of these bigger bands have members that hate each other, and there is high member turnaround. How the fuck can you make decent songs when you can’t stand each other and there is zero chemistry? The answer is: you can’t - and they don’t. I’m not afraid to say that those bands are fooling their listeners and don’t deserve to have them. Given some of the same chances these bands have been given, VENOMIN JAMES would be huge, and I’m not guilty of sour grapes when I say that. We would deserve the respect because the music is good and not some formula or fucking gimmick.

You have listed some bands you think people should check in the booklet of “Crowe Valley Blues”. It is not an usual thing to put on a booklet. Why you did it?
JOE: I’ve seen bands that I love do the same thing, and I checked out the bands they talked about...and by doing so, I found a bunch of new bands that I ended up loving. Our reasoning is similar, but also to let anyone that takes the time, figure out that there are amazing bands in our scene. We feel a sense of brotherhood and community with them. Cleveland is an underdog, not like New York or Atlanta or something, where the scene is well known at the moment. We feel pride in rising up in the shadows and proving that Cleveland has numerous talented bands.
Think of it another way: Growing up, I had posters of the bands I loved hanging on my walls. Sometimes just pages torn out of a magazine that I hung up. Maybe bands like Metallica and Megadeth (this is the 80s here...not the horrible 90s versions) would be wearing TShirts from SAMHAIN, THE MISFITS, and FAITH NO MORE - maybe even SEPTIC DEATH or something. So, I went out and found out about those bands, and they became some of my favorites.

Thank you very much for your time! Is there something I didn’t ask but you think is important and want to share?
JOE: You’re very welcome. I think we covered a lot here. I do hope that anyone who reads this will take the time to discover the bands, like ours, that are just underneath the surface.

*** interview conducted by VANIA***


  1. Love the comments about Jared. Very nice gesture from the band. I will share with Jared and I's mother. She will really like to hear that.


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