An Interview with Tony "Demolition" Dolan and Jeff "Mantas" Dunn of Mpire of Evil - April 3rd, 2012
Conducted at Annex Wreckroom, Toronto April 3rd, 2012
By Mike Bax & Trevor Lamas
Photos by Mike Bax
It was with trepidation that I entered into this interview with Mpire pf Evil. The band featured three ex members of Venom, recording new material together under a new band name. Back in the day, Venom was the epitome of the heaviest of metal. Music so black and evil that no parent wanted to see the record sleeves amidst their child’s collection of albums for fear the beast himself would manifest in front of their eyes and smite their children into the lower pits of hell for all eternity.
When I first saw a Venom track on an old music video show (circa 1982/‘83) the band was waaay too much for me. I didn’t get into Venom until 1985, when I really started listening to a lot of thrash and hardcore, and even then, the band still had this pedigree of being a bit more than a thrash band. Compared to most of the other bands I dug in the mid eighties, Venom took their speed metal to a whole different level of intensity.
My expectations were that I’d be sitting across from two gentlemen, their brows formed into a permanent furl, responding to me with very short monotone answers — NOT two very excitable and talkative gentlemen, still keen on their music, their audience, their new album of excellent material, and their new young drummer, Marc Jackson. Tony and Jeff were like two long lost uncles I’d never met before, eager to catch up on three decades of music news with me.
This interview went down in a Pizza Pizza at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor in Toronto. A fan who had listened to Venom back in the day, and who had come out specifically to see Tony and Jeff play on this particular evening, was pushed in between the two characters and both Jeff and Tony insisted that he hang around with them during the interview. This fellow sat smiling as two of his metal heroes talked at length about their craft with Trevor and myself for almost a full half hour.
I enjoyed meeting Jeff and Tony immensely. Their candor likely won’t be effectively portrayed in this transcribed interview, but I’m putting it up front right here, that they are more excited about their new album and the prospect of touring (as gentlemen cresting fifty) than a lot of bands half their age, and that was most exciting to behold.
Mike: First off - I'm not worthy. I'm in the presence of greatness here, and I know it.
This is loosely explained on your Facebook page, but it seemed like a good place to start. What prompted the name change from Prime Evil to M-Pire of Evil? Can you explain how that conflict in names came about and how it was rectified?
Tony: Well, basically what happened when I got a call from Mantas to do this thing, and that we were going to do it together, which was brilliant, we then had to think up a name. Mantas had a couple of name ideas and some artwork, so we were already thinking (about it). And then we thought, “Hang on here; there are so many people who wanted it to happen – when they started to hear about the project we really couldn’t decide on a name – and thought we should let them pick it”. Obviously a lot of favouritism was on Prime Evil because of the album, but in the back of my head I knew there was a band called Prime Evil, so I went online and had a look. In about 2004, after searching through this link, I found a band in New York called Prime Evil. They lasted about four or five years and then they disbanded. I’d actually tagged on their profile that we’d had an album obviously called Prime Evil. This was the only Prime Evil going at the time, and that we were thinking about doing something. I don’t know much about it, but they got really pissed. They decided to reform. I guess they felt they’d existed for a bit of time, they’d had two minor releases and some demos. I guess they thought we were going to eradicate them completely. So they got really upset by it and just attacked me as if I’d done it on purpose. So I was going back to the band and saying that we shouldn’t do Prime Evil, and that we should change the name. Jeff had done some searching at this point and felt that none of the bands were functioning anymore and that it shouldn’t matter.
Mike: The irony is they probably named themselves after you guys (Venom) in the first place.
Tony: Well, yeah, probably. It was starting to get a bit messy and we were trying to keep our heads down about it all. We’d signed with Scarlet Records as Prime Evil and then we got this legal letter saying these other guys had gone and registered their name as a trademark and all. So they’d spent a whole bunch of money that they didn’t really need to do there. And then a cease and desist letter came and by that point we’d already decided that this whole situation was just ridiculous. They were already on Blabbermouth having a go as us. Because Mantas had done so much artwork and gotten everything along so far, we wanted to try and keep everything he’d already gotten together. I sat down and just messed the letters around on ‘Prime’ which was ‘Mpire’, and I thought “brilliant”. People were going to think it was a gaff because there is no letter ‘E’ on Mpire, but it’s an anagram of Prime, so we didn’t stray too far away. And we had to drop the word ‘of’ in there as well.
Mike: When you look at the two logos side by side, you didn’t lose too much. The similarity is still there.
Tony: The similarities are still there, exactly. And that’s what we wanted to do — keep that similarity there so it seemed obvious. We made those guys really happy, and we kept basically as close to what we had done before we started this project officially.
Mike: Tonight was kind of a bonus for me. I didn’t realize you guys were on the bill this evening until a week and a half ago.
Tony: (to Mantas) That seems to be the case on this tour, doesn’t it?
Jeff: Yeah. Um. Hmm. Yeah.
Mike: Is the album available in Canada yet?
Jeff: You can buy it at the show tonight.
Mike: I’m picking one up for sure then.
Tony: It’s out here in three weeks or something like that.
Trev: A friend of mine was just telling me it’s out in three weeks here for sure.
Tony: It’s out on the 26th in Europe, and here it’s a little bit later, and Japan it’s a little bit later still. Ultimately I’d like the release to be the same day all the way around. The problem was we were going to be coming to America and it wasn’t going to be available until maybe half way through the tour, and that’s a little late. So we did carry some with us just in case, but because we had to launch and we had a problem with Antton as far as doing shows and then he departed – we got Jackson involved and we managed to just get it all ready and see how it worked. It’s turned out absolutely fantastic. When we get back we’ll get a week off after this tour and then we do a launch show in Milan. It will be a bigger show so this tour is getting us ready for all of that.
Mike: What is your history with Jackson? How did you bring him into the band?
Jeff: Funnily enough, I was helping to promote some shows in England. Up until the end of last year I was doing this thing called Rock School; basically getting kids in and putting them into rock bands and tech them how to play – usually a few cover versions; that sort of thing.
Mike: Is that televised?
Jeff: No, no. It’s just a school. A lot of the kids are from under-privileged areas and stuff like that — just getting them off the street, bringing them in, and then putting them into bands. Then they get a gig at a local venue in Newcastle, The O2. It’s quite a prestigious venue and their whole family and friends can come and see them. Off the back of that we do a thing called Classic Rock Legends which is all the best tribute bands in the northeast. And there was a tribute band to Black Sabbath called Sabbatica. I was backstage managing one night and I was watching this guy play the drums and I thought, “Fuck, he’s phenomenal,” you know? He was really good. At the end of that show he came over to me and introduced himself. He said he knew who I was and that if I ever needed a drummer, to keep him in mind.
Months passed. I didn’t see the guy. I had no contact at all with him whatsoever. We promoted another one just before Christmas and this was when we were starting to have the problems with Antton where he was telling us he didn’t want to be away from home for long periods of time and all this kind of stuff. So when he decided that was it, I was promoting this show and I had a word with Jackson and just asked him if he was interested in the project. Didn’t tell him what it was at all. And then I called Tony and I send him a link…
Tony: Yeah, a video file of him playing.
Jeff: So we thought, let’s roll with the guy and see what happens. And this is how close it all came: I think before this tour, we had two rehearsals with him. We had no time for any rehearsals or anything. Tony’s in London… he’s busy. I’m up in Newcastle and Jackson’s in Newcastle. So Tony came up and we had two rehearsals and then came straight out on the road and he’s been super. He’s the sweetest guy. He’s what, 23? 24?
Tony: Yeah. I keep saying he’s 24, but he’s saying he’s 23.
He looks older than 23, but he’s saying he’s 23, so there you go.
Jeff: All the girls love him, I’ll tell you that.
Tony: Yeah, he’s really tall, he’s good looking and he’s 23. WHAT a WANKER!
Jeff: He’s a great drummer and he’s picked up the stuff really well. He’s had some amazing comments from Die Hard Venom fans on this run. People are coming up and saying, “Man, I’ve never heard the Venom stuff sound like THAT before,” you know?
Mike: Interesting. I’m looking forward to hearing that tonight.
Jeff: Good guy; really.
Tony: I mean, he’s added some other dimensions to our stuff really. Last night in Cleveland he was just playing something on his phone and it was some link posted of ‘Die Hard’ live from Chicago. That’s how it is now, isn’t it? We’re just getting on the bus and there will be footage from the show we just played online. I’ve been trying hard to not hear anything or see anything, you know? People are posting photographs and clips, and he was prompting me to have a listen to this clip. I reluctantly played it and man… particularly with him, I’m used to hearing 'Die Hard' played of course, but this kid is adding another dimension to it. We one either side of him on stage each night going, “Fucking hell,” right? (Laughter). It’s blowing me away, and the kid’s right behind us, you know? The audience reaction has been really great – it’s been like a steamroller.
Jeff: After every show that we’ve done so far, and hopefully, touch wood, after this one as well, everybody has been coming up to us afterwards and just going, “Wow!” He’s absolutely slaughtered it live.
Mike: That’s good, right? Imagine the opposite reaction, right?
Tony: That’s right; exactly. And that was the risk, you know? Antton pushed really hard that we go out and push against Venom, you know? And we were like, “No, no, no, we want to do it our way”. Jeff had composed such great tracks for this album we were just so happy with the album, and we want to play the album. It was looking like it was going to be really Venom heavy, and when it looked like we were going to get Jackson involved we became more focused on how the set should come together. We put more focus into the size of the set for these dates, and we thought, “Let’s pick what we like”. Jeff picked some songs he liked and then we all weighed in on what to play. We’re actually enjoying playing this stuff, you know? We’re playing songs that we really love to play. It’s working phenomenally. It’s got some old Venom, some of my period with Venom, and some of us (Mpire) in there as well. It’s a lovely set to play. It feels great, and it’s really natural. It feels like it’s the same thing, the same band, even though we’re playing a real progression of old and new material. Even the older stuff without Chronos, because he composed the tracks (points to Jeff) we’re playing – it just feels like us playing a good live show, you know?
Mike: The fans are enjoying your musical selection — playing the old Venom songs?
Jeff / Tony: Oh yeah, they’re loving it.
Jeff: We’ve had some great pits for ‘Black Metal’ and ‘Witching Hour’ and stuff like that, but also I think it was Chicago where we kicked into ‘Metal Messiah’ off of the new album, the pit went crazy there. And then for ‘Hellspawn’ it was more of the same. I don’t know whether they had the album or not.
Mike: I’ve checked out the songs that are on your Band Page. One of the songs, ‘Reptile’, sounded awesome.
Tony: Yeah, yeah, yeah; we did ‘Leave Me In Hell’ from Black Metal, which is from a classic album, right? It just brought the house down. We’ve been surprised. We wanted to do things that people wouldn’t expect us to do - just to entertain them as well, and everybody has been embracing it. It’s been great. It’s really good to have that, to be able to do that.
Mike: You are one of the only bands that I have talked to that have had a whole genre of music named after them.
Tony: Oh, yeah. (Laughs) Exactly.
Mike: You basically helped establish that whole sound, you know? And now there’s just this whole culture of all these different bands - not like they are all riffing off you, but Venom did help pioneer that whole sound.
Jeff: I always go back to say that the original line-up of Venom… we were doing an interview once, and Black Metal was written, it was all recorded and the titled… everything. We were doing this interview and the new wave of British heavy metal was coming on and at that point we were quite arrogant and pretentious…
Jeff: Yeah, young. (Laughs) We were. We just felt that we didn’t have anything in common with the new wave of British heavy metal - you know, the Iron Maidens and the Judas Priests, The Def Leppards and the Saxon.
Mike: Even now, if you play the old Venom stuff in retrospect, you can hear a different momentum. It was different from the new wave of British heavy metal bands.
Jeff: This interviewer… we just said, “Look, if this is what you’re calling heavy metal, then every band that has got long hair and a guitar is put into this heavy metal box of sorts. We don’t feel that we fit in there at all, you know”? The obvious question afterwards was, “What are you then?” It just came out: Black Metal. That was it. It wasn’t conscious or contrived. We didn’t think we were going to start a whole new sub-genre of music. It was none of that. It was a statement to individualize the band and to alienate us from everybody else. We were always in the Northeast there was a great body of NWOBHM bands - Tyger, Raven and Fist. We were always the outsiders. That’s what we did it for. If we were on the outside of things even in our hometown, lets just alienate ourselves – be totally arrogant and get away from the whole thing, you know? But we had no clue that subsequent bands would do what we did with Black Sabbath and Priest and Kiss and Motörhead – take all of their influences and put it in a pot and try and be more extreme than them. Then all of these other bands come along and take what we’re doing and they play faster than us – heavier – until it’s evolved. Again, I always say this: ‘Without evolution comes extinction’. As far as I’m concerned now, my personal point of view is that a band like Dimmu Borgir – they’re at the top of the black metal trade - modern black metal. I think modern black metal has got absolutely nothing to do with what we started.
Mike: It’s all evolved. There’s been a lot of change.
Jeff: It has evolved into something different. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but Chronos said in an interview that all of these bands should have come out with a name like ‘corpse-pain’ or something, but again, its evolution. If you listen to early Priest, or Sabbath or Zeppelin or stuff like that – metal has evolved. Priest has evolved. Rocka Rolla onto Painkiller? Something’s got to have happened during those years. And on the new album, I’ve gone even further back. I wrote a track called ‘Devil’. It’s a big, dirty, heavy blues track. It’s got slide guitar and all that kind of stuff on it. It owes a lot to Robert Johnson and Crossroads and all the other blues players. I had the first couple of lines and then myself and Tony; we came up with the lyrics and the first couple of ideas for the song. Basically what I’m saying with this song is Venom created black metal before there was Black Metal. Before that there was Black Sabbath and Black Widow. If you go way, way, way back, there is some guy on the porch wailing about the blues. Everything comes from the blues. All I wanted to do was show that as you get older you start appreciating where things come from, you know? I was very tunnel visioned when I was younger - heavy metal, heavy metal - that’s all I’d play. What else is more extreme than that, right? You start to embrace different things. You start to go back to where it all came from. Guaranteed, every music fan will do that at some point in their life. We’ve had young kids at the shows here – kids who weren’t even born when Welcome TO Hell came out — they’re turning up in Venom shirts and I’m signing old Venom CDs for them. And more interesting is fathers bringing their sons out to our shows.
Tony: Yes, fans coming over and saying, “This is my boy, this is my boy”. Generations of fans…
Jeff: …Both in Venom shirts, you know?
Tony: That’s been fun. What we were talking about earlier, with those genres or sub genres; these days you hear things like: “The scene is weak. Heavy metal is a weak scene because it’s not as strong as it was back in the eighties when it was so much more cohesive”. There’s just so many bands…
Jeff: So many genres and they are all competing…
Tony: What we tried to do when we approached the Mpire album was to do songs like ‘Devil’ and recognize the whole Robert Johnson thing. Jeff has been doing these clinics now for a while. He’s teaching all sorts of music to fans. He’s doing slide guitar and all sorts of things we’d never done before. And I said “We need to do that!” The real question then was: “Will that fit our styles and our fans ears?” But really, with Mpire, we can do whatever we want. Nothing is defined. So the approach was: “Where are the Judas Priests and the Black Sabbaths now?” We wanted to go to those classic bands again. Those guys tour now and everybody goes to see it, you know? They want that sound. And sure there’s clubs where there are ten black metal bands on the same bill - doom metal clubs… they’re still all happening. But where is that fraternity we had back in the eighties where it was cool to ALL go to see something, regardless of genre.
That was the approach to Mpire – to make it classic, like a classic heavy metal album. All the influences are in there. Jeff wrote this album so you can hear all of the Venom stuff and the thrash stuff and the energy. We tried to hide all of that stuff in the album. The only thing pre-conceived was, “Could we play every song live?” Every song had to work live for us on this album. In our heads it was happening on a big scale and we could see the whole thing unraveling as we created it. We can play every song on the Mpire album in our live set, and they all work. There were a few tracks we weren’t sure how they would go over, but they are working thunderously well. We didn’t play ‘Devil’ or ‘Snakepit’ in Laredo or down in Texas. We realized that we needed more instruments with us, or else we’d have to de-tune for certain songs and it was impractical. But in hindsight, had we done those songs, we would have brought the house down. They seemed all to be begging for that kind of material down there. It’s great for us to have that kind of catalog of material at our disposal on this album. Everybody can get something out of our live shows, and hopefully that will bring everybody back together. It’s the kind of message we have been saying for ages now. It’s about heavy metal. It’s about fraternity. In the eighties I could have gone to see Rush and I’d have had a Motörhead patch on and Jeff would have a Toto patch on… or Slayer and Fleetwood Mac. We’d still ALL be seeing Rush. These days, it feels like kids think that it isn’t cool to see a band, because of the whole genre thing, you know?
Trev: Do you find with festivals like Wacken, where you have such a diverse representation of genres of metal, you are getting that? We were at Graspop last year, and Journey played. I thought it was going to be a bit of a shit show, but people were really into it. Fans with nails through wristbands were really rocking along with Journey. This was how it used to be when I grew up.
Tony: Yeah, exactly. And that’s what we want to bring through Mpire. It’s not about genres… it’s cool to just listen to (and play) what you want. It’s one brotherhood, and nobody wants to see you ashamed because you like the new Journey single or whatever.
Mike: That’s the way it used to be. I listen to all kinds of music; I’m all over the map, really.
Tony: And that’s what I like about the festivals. I went to Bloodstock last year and it was exactly the same – right across the board. Everybody from Napalm Death to WASP, and everybody was just having a great time! There was a real sense of community at that festival. This is what it’s all about. There is a fragmentation across the board, but there is still strength there. We just need to bring it all back together. If every show winds up being a festival show, then so be it.
Mike: What was the chemistry between you guys and Antton like working on this new material? Having worked together in Venom, Dryll and M-Pire, I’m curious if the chemistry was still there.
Tony: Certainly with Jeff.
Jeff: Well, Tony will tell you this as well. I wrote all of the music for the album and sent it off to them. The first track I wrote, which was an instrumental piece, was “Hell to the Holy”, which wound up becoming the title track. The album wasn’t titled at this point, but that’s how it happened. Tony had sent me a message on Facebook saying he thought it was a great song – let’s bring Hell to the Holy and I thought, “Hold on, there’s the title right there”. And then lyrically, I’ve had a few ideas that I’ve bounced off Tony and he’s had a few ideas that he’s bounced off me. Tony sent me all the lyrics, already written for 'Metal Messiah', the lyrics and the title, and at the bottom the remit was “Classic Metal. Priest”.
I just thought, “I’m on it”… it went down that way a lot. 'Metal Messiah' is my homage to Priest.
Tony: The whole solo section of this song and the reviews that have been coming around it have really shown that this is why Jeff is the guitarist that he is. His section is unbelievable. It’s absolutely great to play live – it just feels classic on stage. It’s like being on stage and it’s 1988. It’s wonderful stuff.
Mike: Are you guys considering (Marc) Jackson a permanent member now? Its early days I’m sure, but he sounds like a good fit for you both.
Tony: Initially, it was like we needed to get a good drummer and it needed to happen quickly. We didn’t want to rush into a third member because we’d just a problem with Antton. You don’t want to go through it all again, there’s publishing to consider; all sorts of hassles if it doesn’t work out, so we initially just proposed keeping him on a wage and seeing how it goes. It’s a risk for him and for us, and we can just test the waters. He’s a brilliant drummer and I like his retro style. When I saw him in Sabbatica I thought, “This kid can do it!” And after a month with us I thought, “This kid has got it right across the board”. We did the first show with him in Seattle and we thought, “That’s it”. The vibe with him is just perfect. He’s just a part of us. Right now I couldn’t think of doing anything else without him.
Jeff: No. Me either.
Mike: That’s kind of the way it should happen, if it feels right…
(At this point Tony shows off a tattoo that is obviously new on his left arm. He enjoyed Seattle so much he had the city and date stamped on his arm vertically, and then the next night, and the next night. He mentions that Toronto will likely go on his arm next, adjacent to a dozen freshly inked dates that already adorn his arm.)
Tony: Everyday we pull into these cities and every day we’re playing together. The synergies happen pretty quickly. With Jackson, it was after the third show and we felt like he’d been with us for a hundred years already.
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely.
Mike: What was the time frame here? Antton departs and you bring Jackson in - what did he have - two weeks to learn the material?
Jeff: Yes, about that. It was about two weeks for him, and then two rehearsals and that was it.
Trevor: Do you find at these shows that he is evolving each night?
Jeff: Oh, yeah.
Tony: All the time, he’s looking at us for stuff. He was looking at us for prompts, like switching songs during the set, and we were like, “Just keep it straight for now, just keep it straight!” But every time he has something new to try. We’re on stage going, “Where the fuck did he get that from?”
Jeff: We were at a show and the crowd was screaming for ‘In League with Satan’ — screaming for it. We had finished the set and we were about to walk off and they were just screaming the chorus for ‘In League with Satan’. Jackson has never even heard the song. He didn’t know the song. I’m looking at Tony and he’s looking at me, both trying to figure out if we even actually remember it. So I look at Jackson and he’s mouthing, “I don’t know the fucking song” to us. I leaned over the drums and just went (Jeff mimes the main drum beats for the song) “Do this all the way through.”
Tony: We just told him to hold that pattern and keep it through the song.
Jeff: And he did it.
Tony: And that was it, he nailed it. It sounded great when he went into it.
Jeff: And the crowd just lifted. They were so happy to hear the song. And Jackson was surely thinking, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m even doing!”
Tony: It’s that adaptability that’s amazing to watch. Last night he plays this pattern on the double bass drums… and he was following us - our guitars on the double bass drums. It was quite incredible, to have that behind you, playing that keenly. You can feel it so much more. And on ‘Witching Hour’, you know, unbelievable man.
Jeff: He’s like a freight train on ‘Witching Hour’.
Tony: He just pummels the crap out of it. He’s everywhere. It’s just great. It shares the energy all around, you know?
Trevor: You obviously come from a pedigree of classic metal. You mentioned shows where guys are bringing their sons, and the dad is saying, “These guys are the innovators of this genre,” and the kid says, “You guys are as good as Slayer”. How does that make you feel in the sense that you guys came before Slayer?
Mike: Or even if the kid said Killswitch; something way more modern, right?
Tony: Yeah, right…
Mike: And you guys totally know there is twenty years of space between your bands…
Tony: For us, it’s the fact that the kid is there. That’s what matters.
(Tony tells a story about young kids he’s seen at festivals, and how cool it is that they are with their dads and riding on top of their shoulders for some of the most extreme bands touring today. It ends with a similar tale of a young kid at an Mpire show recently, and Jeff gave the kid their set list and his eyes totally lit up when it was handed to him).
It’s different now. It’s a different time. We’re not coming to shows via backstage and fucking off after the shows. We are more accessible now then we ever have been before.
Mike: The internet has certainly changed that aspect of music; hasn’t it?
Tony: We walked off stage last night and walked through the crowd and we will do it again tonight. We like meeting our fans. There were kids that opened for us in Chicago and Detroit - young kids, nineteen or twenty - a traditional thrash band. And they were just wonderful with us, you know?
Jeff: Oh, they were great.
Tony: They just couldn’t believe they were playing with us. And to know that we’d inspired them to play - that was nice. They are the future. They have to keep it going. That’s what’s wonderful about younger audiences – hearing their enthusiasm for the genre. So if we get compared to Slayer or Killswitch and the kid thinks we are just as good – that’s perfect, really. We are all one thing. That’s what it’s about, you know? Keeping it all going.