(Disclaimer: I have a very ambivalent relationship with my hometown.)
You might say Houston owes the world a metal debt. Two years ago, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the number one cancer research and treatment hospital in the world, couldn’t save Ronnie James Dio. After the loss of the man who gave us the “devil horns”, it seems fitting that an “occult doom” band should make its way out of the mire of the Bayou City.
Houston is as rich in Southern eccentricity as it is in things complain to about. Dominated by oil, gas, and energy empires, sprawling suburbia, yuppie wealth, and megachurches on the one hand; littered with drug trafficking, a murder rate over 1.5 times that of New York or Los Angeles, restaurants run like organized crime, and the distinction of being one of the drunkest cities in America on the other; it’s a difficult place for artists to thrive.
The arts in Houston flourish primarily in an ivory tower funded by (and therefore catering to the more traditional tastes of) the conservative elite. There are patches of bohemia in neighborhoods like Montrose and The Heights, but the general population’s lack of interest in being challenged by anything other than a sermon drives artists out of the city — or into Narcotics Anonymous — while, paradoxically, major performing arts venues like Houston Grand Opera continue to import their talent.
Houston is also a difficult place to get out of, as the job market is irritatingly great compared to that of the rest of the country, and the cost of living is cheap (so why leave?). This, and electing Annise Parker as mayor, seem to have added something to the city’s alleged “cool” factor, but we’re talking marginally “cool” in a metaphorical sense because the weather is usually fucking miserable.*
In popular music, artists who have worked their way out of Houston to national attention have included people like Beyonce, Paul Wall, and Slim Thug. In short, you don’t see much metal coming out of H-town.
And so, I was thrilled to discover that, from out of the depths of the pollen-coated swamp had crawled Venomous Maximus.
Like the moisture in the air that oppresses the soul under unforgiving Houston heat, the music of Venomous Maximus looms dense with foreboding gloom — the kind that drives one to mania. Singer and guitarist Gregg Higgins has that sort of doubly-ironic, winking-but-actually-serious sense of humor that you find in Houston outposts like Lola’s (where “We drink all we can and sell the rest” is both a t-shirt slogan and, most likely, true). Higgins delights in flipping off the audience and issuing forth formal calls to action. (In July at Santos Party House in NYC, he proclaimed, “I ask one thing: you must fist pump. That’s some Texas shit.”)
Also on guitar is Christian Larson, who plays with an endearing expression of reverence as well as a mop of hair on his face. Bassist Trevi Biles headbangs in earnest while Bongo (on drums, of course) keeps stoic time to rumbling tunes. They are a very tattooed assortment with distinct personalities welded into a mighty, cohesive mass of solid metal.
In recent months, VM has been gaining momentum. They completed their first national tour, and they won Best Metal Band at the Houston Press music awards for the second year running. Their video for the single “Give Up the Witch” premiered on Noisecreep last month, and they’re putting the finishing touches on a new album. (Check out the newest single “Moonchild” after the interview, below.)
Here is my point. Houston can be a stifling place to live — especially if you’re an artist whose work isn’t displayed in galleries, museums, or major performance venues. Much of the city doesn’t care about local music, and the rest of the country barely notices what’s happening down there. It’s easy to get discouraged, and it takes a lot of toughness to stick it out.
I’m no soothsayer, but, if it were up to me, I’d say: Venomous Maximus, y’all are gonna make it. Your music certainly deserves to, and Houston should be proud of you. \m/
Gregg Higgins responded to questions via Christian Larson’s email address. (Not sure how that works, but I’ll take it!)
OH: I don’t know much about your band’s story. How and when did you get together?
GH: Me and Bongo met a while back when he was getting tattooed at my shop. He seemed to fancy the tunes I was spinning. So we decided to jam. I had the concept for the [band]…Just waiting for the right time and people.
OH: I’ve seen the word “occult” attached to descriptions of your music. What does that mean to you?
GH: All that word means to me is hidden or unknown. The music is not about everyday struggles with women or life. It’s more of the unknown, the not-talked-about, recurring dreams, deja vu, ghosts, reincarnation. The band gives me a chance to talk about things that aren’t normally shared or experienced.
OH: There are a lot of doom metal bands out there. What sets your music apart?
GH: I don’t think we are doom. I never have but can understand why we are called it. We don’t have anything in common with what everyone considers modern doom. Just mainly our art and our 70s record collections. Take Pentagram, for instance. There are two sides to that coin: the early 70s demos which are dark rock and then the 80s and 90s Dracula shit. The band name game can be fun, but if you’re gonna spit names, be clever about it, and get it right. I think we sound more like Dokken than any doom band.
OH: I read that your band name didn’t come from the G.I. Joe character. Where did it come from?
GH: I grew up in the country. We had satellite TV with like 500 channels. During the summer as a child I watched movies all night long. Apocalypse Now, The Shinning, and Full Metal Jacket have always stuck with me. The underlining theme I got from all of these movies is, if you want to be the best, you must go crazy. It is a special sacrifice that only a chosen few are born to do. They are the Venomous Maximus.
OH: What’s the metal scene like in Houston now? (Is there one?)
GH: Metal is fucking retarded. Death metal bands don’t like black metal bands, crust bands don’t like thrash bands. It’s all very childish. We are not trying to compete with anyone, and we are not trying to be a part of anyone’s group. We are the dudes that show up to your party, drink all your beer, have the most laughs, and DJ the best classic rock ‘n’ roll of all time!
*Don’t even start with me. The climate is humid subtropical. Houstonites will argue that this isn’t enough of a drawback to justify writing off an entire city as unlivable, and a population over 4 million proves them right. But then they’ll turn around and, perversely, both bemoan and brag about how awful it is because no other major U.S. city can boast of such a wretched climate. It is perhaps the city’s only superlative quality.
5. Morbid Angel – Illud Divinum Insanus – The Remixes
What would happen if a death metal band gave their songs to a bunch of hyper-creative electronic music artists to be remixed into a dance/death metal/dubstep hybrid? Awesomeness. That’s what. I don’t know whose idea this was, but it was a brilliant one. And I don’t even like dubstep.
4. Regina Spektor - What We Saw From the Cheap Seats
Regina Spektor has never made a bad album; this one surpasses its more serious predecessor Far by returning to the quirky charm of Begin to Hope.
3. Gojira - L’Enfant Sauvage
The title track alone makes the album worthy of being on this list. It’s outstanding. (The rest of the album is strong, too.)
2. Garbage - Not Your Kind Of People
Welcome back, Garbage. It’s been a long time coming, but it was well worth the wait. You make freaks feel cool, and we love you for it.
1. Baroness - Yellow & Green
The build-up to this album was absolutely ridiculous. The first single dropped months in advance of the LP. Baroness was touring the new material with Meshuggah and Decapitated, which didn’t make sense. (Why was a stoner sludge band from Georgia sandwiched between two European speed demons?). After red- and blue-themed albums, they chose not one but two colors for the name of this one. I worried that Yellow & Green would be to Baroness what the green album was to Weezer. I assumed it would inevitably suck. But it doesn’t. It is stunning. Gorgeous. Anyone looking to mosh and headbang can skip over this one (I won’t miss your bashing into me at the next concert). But anyone who gets excited when musicians won’t be confined by the genre they supposedly fit into will cherish Yellow & Green.
Biggest Disappointment: Jack White’s Blunderbuss. It was truly a blunder. Bland and boring.
I Have Yet to Hear: New Raveonettes album. Full new album by A Place to Bury Strangers (EP is strong).
Keep Your Eye On: Pilgrim, Lord Dying, Venomous Maximus, Bezoar, Emilie Autumn.
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ORIGINAL HIPSTER by Linda Leseman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at originalhipster.net.