Vio-Lence Interview

Metal Blade Records

Vio-Lence are a crucial San Francisco Bay-Area thrash band. Forming in 1985, their 1988 debut full-length Eternal Nightmare is hailed as a late ‘80s thrash classic. Vio-Lence spilled over into the early ‘90s, following up with two more solid full-lengths: Oppressing The Masses (1990) and Nothing To Gain (1993). They’ve reunited a couple of times and played special shows, but haven’t released a studio recording since Nothing to Gain.

Their first recording in nearly 30 years, the Let The World Burn EP revisits their early sound and mindset. In the following interview, original guitarist Phil Demmel chronicles the return of Vio-Lence. He gives us the scoop on making Let The World Burn, new members and dishes old school metal memories.

Darren Cowan: How did it feel to get back in the studio?
Phil Demmel: It was awesome! We worked really hard on these songs. There were some nervousness in some parts. Perry (Strickland) hadn’t done a thrash record in some time, although he worked very hard and got everything down. He was really confident in what he was doing. There is that first bit, “Hey, we’re doing a record (laughs). We’re on the clock here!” He did great! Perry did awesome! Captured some really magical moments. Having Bobby (Gustafson) and Christian (Olde Wolbers) out recording was a very good experience. Juan (Urteaga) captured a lot of good takes, and it shows. We’re super proud of this EP!

When did you start writing the album? Did you do anything different writing the album compared to your previous releases?
We started writing, I think, in February 2020, it was right before The Pandemic. We are on the 70000Tons of Metal cruise. Had the riffs for “Flesh From Bone”—three or four riffs set up, and Sean (Killian) took a little recorder with him. We shared a cabin and we were going over ideas there. The sessions continued at home. Me and Perry hashed out a lot of this. Sean was present for some of it, but it was mostly me and Perry hashing parts out, figuring things out. We went over everything together for hours and hours. Every part, every roll, every riff, every note was gone over and over again. The original thought was three-songs, and then it kind of blossomed into four. I wrote the last one, “Upon Their Cross,” with the idea that maybe it wasn’t a Vio-Lence song. I wrote the riffs and Sean came back with some music to it. It’s my favorite song on the EP. Sean knocked it out of the park, man!

You wanted to write something brutal like your classic debut Eternal Nightmare. Did you look back at that album for inspiration?
Did I go back to Eternal Nightmare? I did! We’ve been playing the songs for some of these shows, but I wanted to get back into my eighteen-year-old, high school mindset from when I wrote that record. I wanted that aggression. I wanted to put myself back in that 1986 Ruthie’s Inn, stone San Francisco state of mind. Use some of those structures… not so much structure as in signature sounds and movements that we did. I wanted to take all that time from my musicianship, song structuring and guitar playing and use that 1986 inspiration with 2020 kind of performance state that I was in.

Do you think the mix by Tue Madsen (Dark Tranquillity, Heaven Shall Burn) highlights the aggression of this album? Do you think this mix helps the brutality of this EP more so than your previous albums (louder volume, etc.)?
Yes, I do think that Tue brought out that aggression. He really amplified it, cleared it up and put it through a filter to make everything super clear. He did help with the aggression. It’s an aggressive mix. It’s bright. It’s fat. It’s everything that first record was; it really represents what the band is.

Do you have any favorite songs on the album? Do you have any fond memories you would like to share about writing/recording the EP?
Yeah, I think “Upon Their Cross” is my favorite. I love the solo section. I love the verses. It’s just kind of a modern Vio-Lence song. All the tunes are different. They’re all awesome in their own way. I love “Flesh From Bone.” I think the structure is great. I think the lead section is awesome. I think “Upon Their Cross” the trade off between me and Bobby and the harmonies that we’re doing there, the hook that Sean does — that’s probably my favorite song.

Why did you choose Let The World Burn as your album title?
Sean is pretty descriptive in his writing. It’s all a perspective on the current state of the world. It’s one take on that. I’d let him explain his lyrics and what they mean to him, but I offered up some cool visuals and an over-encompassing idea for what the record is.

Vio-Lence split in 1993, reunited a couple of times in 2001-2003 in 2018 and most recently in 2019. What about this reunion really stuck and led to you releasing your first recording since Nothing To Gain in 1993?
Yeah, the past reunions all ended for a reason. We reunited in 2001. We were planning on doing shows and doing all of that. I think we wrote three songs back then. We had three songs written and played two of them live at the last show we played before I ended up joining Machine Head. I was still with the intent that I was going to record the record. After I joined the band, I was told I couldn’t record the record, so that kind of ended that. That was the only time we got back together other than this.

Vio-Lence’s lineup now consists of longtime members Perry Strickland (drums), you and Sean Killian (vocals) and newcomers guitarist Bobby Gustafson from Overkill and former Fear Factory bassist Christian Olde Wolbers. How did you bring Gustafson and Wolbers into the fold? What do they bring to the band?
Christian was brought into the band to fill in for Dean (Dell). Dean wasn’t going to be able to make some shows. Then The Pandemic hit and everything kind of went away for a minute. Dean wasn’t able to commit to us the way we needed, in the capacity we needed, so Christian became the full-time member. Same with Ray (Vegas). He wasn’t able to be there in the capacity we needed. We knew Bobby back in the day, but Perry was close friends with him and kept in touch with him over the years and maybe played in a couple of bands with him. Brought in the same way. We are a long-distance band. Everyone is from out of state. It wouldn’t be easy if it wasn’t Vio-Lence (laughs). They both bring this solid musicianship, professionalism, pedigree, and just awesome human beings.

What is the dynamic like between you and Gustafson? How do you work together creating riffs and solos?
The dude picks up stuff pretty quick. He’s got a great sense of song structure. We didn’t really write together. He had a couple of really good ideas for the record. His solos are great! He’s got a great sense of what a solo needs and how to mix in some shred with some tasty bends. He’s open-minded and receptive to ideas and has great ideas. Like I said, we haven’t really created that much together, but I look forward to that.

How do you feel about getting signed to Metal Blade?
I just wanted to do a record with Brian Slagel. I talked to Sean, “This is where it all kind of started. They know what to do with their bands. They are a metal label.” Just because of the history. We aren’t eighteen-year-old boys anymore. We’re just looking to record a quality record, to have some backing that believed in that. There was really just one choice. We didn’t really look anywhere else.

Oppressing The Masses was released via Megaforce in 1990. Recently, Megaforce co-founder Jon Zazula passed away. His wife and fellow co-founder Marsha died just last year. Do you have a fond memory you would like to share about Jonny and Marsha?
Yes, they did Oppressing The Masses. We were going through a weird management phase. We ended up firing Debbie Abono who was friends with them. It was a weird time for us. I didn’t really know Jonny all that well. He was on the East Coast. I don’t think he came out to see us when we played there. I don’t think there was a really close relationship, especially after we fired Deb. He did just recently pass away. I remember them coming out to see the band before they signed us or they were gonna sign us. Metal Maria Ferrero was really instrumental to the band getting signed. I think that Jonny and Marsha kind of went along with her in that sense. I remember them coming out to see us play in our storage shed (laughs) and they were like “you guys are like a wall of sound!” I remember Marsha saying, “A wall could work for you if that’s what you want.” That’s my only real memory of them. I didn’t really know them.

Vio-Lence started as Death Penalty in 1985. Then you changed your name to Violence and ultimately put in the hyphen which stuck. What led to the name change?
I joined Death Penalty in May of 1985. They were called Death Penalty. It was a different band. Nobody other than Perry was in that lineup. We did a kegger party. After that party, Perry came in and pretty much told us “We’re going to be called Violence now! We see it everywhere. It’s all over the news. It’s everywhere we go!” Perry was the reason for the change. We were all along with it. We thought it was less cliché than having Death in your name.

Thrash metal emerged nearly 40 years ago and is still going strong today. However, bands are getting older and these groups that formed in the 1980s will not be around forever. What do you think about the current condition of thrash metal and where you think it’s headed in the future?
The band has been around a long time, and it’s cool to see these other thrash bands — the Havoks and the Power Trips and bands like that kind of carrying on what we did. Thrash, I don’t know what the future is. Metal is always evolving. Ton of metal bands getting really big. Arch Enemy are killing it. You have to evolve to survive. I really admire the bands that do their own thing. Metal is always going to be around.

Vio-Lence played special shows. You are set to appear at several festivals. Please talk about these special appearances.
We have done some festivals. We did the Power Trip festival in Texas. We did a festival in Atlanta, which was really cool, with Suffocation. We haven’t played Maryland Deathfest yet. But we’ve done Milwaukee Metal Fest in the past. It’s pretty cool for this band to get out and do stuff like that on a national level. We’re excited to do all of these. We’re doing the Oblivion Fest in May. So stoked to be a part of all that.

What have been some of your best shows in these reunited concerts? Please talk about the show with Sacred Reich at The Regent in L.A., which you said was the craziest you’ve ever played.
That L.A. show with Sacred Reich was the best I’ve ever been part of with any band. The Atlanta show was great. We did a show at Reggie’s in Chicago recently that was awesome! The Alcatraz Festival in Belgium in 2020. We did the 70000Tons of Metal. We were the first band to play. That was a fun set. Doing these reunion shows is a blast. We did a Sacred Reich show in Phoenix, which was cool but the two reunion shows at the Metro in Oakland were off the hook! Amazing! So fun!

What are you plans for the band going forward? Will we get another full-length album? Do you have any tours in the works?
We’re working on some new material. We’re setting up shows. I don’t think we’re going to do full tours. I don’t think Vio-Lence is a band that’s going to be schlepping around in a van for months at a time, but we’re setting up weekend shows. We’ll do West Coast runs. We’ll do East Coast runs. We’ll do mini-tours in Europe. Working on new material, too.

Thank you for spending the time to answer these questions. What are your final thoughts?
Thanks for the interview, and thanks to all the fans for the support. I really appreciate that after all of this time, you still support what we’re doing. Love to see you guys when Vio-Lence hits the road. Come and see us on the road and check out some new material. Check out the EP Let The World Burn.

(interview published March 3, 2022)

Watch Vio-Lence – “Let The World Burn” Video

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