Sadly, the days of the video store are gone. Picking out a movie for the night doesn’t entail walking through row after row of VHS or DVD cases and picking out not only what appeals the most but what’s actually in stock. Now, rather than the tactile experience of wandering through aisles with other movie fans, selecting your night’s entertainment is relegated to searching through whatever streaming services you currently have to see what’s available and what you have time for. The experience is, ultimately, pretty similar but there’s something to the current process that’s a little colder and more detached than the way it used to be (or it’s just misplaced nostalgia on my part). Either way, for those metalheads clamoring for the good ole days of video stores and physical media, Canada’s VHS has you covered.
Since their demo Hi-Fi Horror in 2015, VHS has been steadily pumping out a variety of EPs, LPs, and splits to their horror hungry horde of followers. Fans have never had to wait longer than two years for a new full-length from the gore gods and 2022 blessed the bloodthirsty brethren with the latest VHS offering, Deep Gashes and Long Lashes. It is, unsurprisingly, another unflinching and uncompromising album of extreme metal mayhem that ranks amongst the best releases the band has put out so far. I recently caught up with vocalist/guitarist Mike Hochins to talk about the band’s history and their latest release.
First off, what is the origin of VHS? How did the band get started and what, initially, did the band want to do from a musical standpoint?
Mike: In a dark laboratory….. at the stroke of midnight…..VHS was brought into existence by a mad doctor hellbent on damaging eardrums worldwide! Just kidding. The original members of VHS actually all came together to play a cover set of Gwar tunes with my brother-in-law on vocals. I had a lot of fun playing with Andy [Middaugh] and Jimmy [Laukka] and wanted to keep jamming with them. My wife actually suggested the horror movie theme and I basically ran with it. We really didn’t have anything set in stone as far as what we wanted to do musically. I just started writing music and even way back then, we started having a very diverse approach. We had thrash songs, doom songs, hair metal influenced songs, and lots of fast, short, grind-type songs. We kind of discovered early on that we didn’t really need to have any boundaries for our music and that has only escalated over time and now we just do whatever we want, basically!
How did you guys come up with the name? Were there any other ones that you considered? I love it and it definitely makes the band stick out.
Mike: It was a long time ago now but I’m pretty sure the name came before we had even jammed for the first time. It was always Violent Homicidal Slasher but we decided that VHS was a lot easier to write and a lot easier for people to remember. We didn’t even try to come up with a different name because we knew we struck gold with this one!
What got you guys into extreme metal in the first place and who are some of the bands that got you into the genre?
Mike: I guess I got into rock music at a pretty early age. I was listening to stuff like Kiss, Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses, Skid Row, and AC/DC. In my early teen years I got more into punk music but also found myself gravitating towards stuff like Slayer and Pantera. I’m pretty sure the first death metal band I heard was Sepultura and, honestly, I didn’t know what I was listening to but I liked it. It basically snowballed from there and I got into bands like Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Obituary, and Suffocation. From there I discovered fanzines and I really started to just devour as much death metal as I could. I also had a zine in my teen years so once I had that a bit more established, I started getting demos and CDs to review and that really opened my eyes and ears to a ton of music I never knew existed. This was pretty much before the internet was what it is today. You could chat with metalheads online but we didn’t have Youtube or Bandcamp yet and a lot of new music was discovered through tape trading. I remember that is where I heard None So Vile for the first time. Someone sent me a dubbed tape of it and I fell in love with that album. There was definitely something special about those days but I can’t complain too much about the current scene because without the internet and Bandcamp, VHS wouldn’t have really had an avenue to get music out to so many people.
What’s the writing process like for the music side of things? Has that changed at all as time has gone on?
Mike: The writing process has both stayed the same and changed a lot over the years. I’ve always been the principal songwriter in the band. Early on I would bring songs to the guys in the jamspace and we would either learn them to record later or just work on recording them the same day that we learned them. The demo and the first three albums were written like this. I’d bring ideas to the table and we would jam until we had the songs sounding like VHS songs.
Lately we have been doing things a bit differently. We’ve all been really busy and the band hasn’t made playing live a focus, so I’ve been doing most of the writing at home and sending the songs to Andy for him to write and record drums on his recording setup. I definitely miss the whole camaraderie of recording together in the jam space but tackling writing this way allows me to look at things more as a whole and envision an entire album as opposed to doing one song at a time. I find myself writing a lot more as well these days. We’ve just released a new album and we are already almost done recording the follow-up album and I have the next album after that almost written already. I’m very much a strike while the iron is hot kind of songwriter. Generally, if I find inspiration it isn’t to write one song, it’s to write an entire album. It’s just the way my crazy brain works. As far as the actual riff writing goes, anytime I pick up a guitar I usually come up with something. I’ve always been way too lazy to learn other people’s music. A riff here and there for sure but I’ve never really been a learn an entire song kind of guy. If I’m playing guitar, I’m probably writing music or trying to remember something I wrote previously so it doesn’t fall into the abyss of forgotten riffs.
What’s the writing process like for the lyrics side of things? What do you try to do with the words to a VHS song and is there anything that you turn to in particular for inspiration?
Mike: Inspiration is pretty easy to come by since all of our songs are based around movies. The process for writing the lyrics has pretty much stayed consistent throughout the existence of the band. Generally I’ll throw on whatever movie I’m thinking about writing some lyrics about and see if I can come up with anything. Usually I’ll write down anything that stands out: a one-liner maybe, a cool kill, the names of characters, locations that the movie takes place. I just try to write down as much information as I can and then start to assemble the lyrics around the notes I make. If it happens to be a song not based around a specific movie, usually those songs start with a few lines that pop into my head or sometimes I have a song title that I think of and I based the lyrics around that idea. I have a blast writing lyrics so hopefully people at least somewhat pay attention to them!
I’m always interested in how bands got the opportunity to record their first album and what that process was like. How did getting to make Screaming Mad Gore come about and how much of a learning experience was the process of writing/recording that one? What did you learn making that album that you took to future recordings?
Mike: We actually started recording Screaming Mad Gore before we had the record deal in place. Basically once we started writing for the band we never stopped. Especially early on since we had a recording setup in our jamspace we basically would record every time we got together. So essentially after we finished our demo, we went right into writing and recording more music. We weren’t even sure if it would be a full-length. We recorded a bunch of new songs and then ended up re-recording all of the songs from the demo since we weren’t very happy with the overall sound of them. That ended up being the music for Screaming Mad Gore and, funny enough, if you listen to the album and notice that some songs sound different it is because we pretty much did everything wrong with the album! We recorded over a long span of time and didn’t record the album in the conventional way at all. That, I guess, would be the main thing we learned while recording the album: that for future albums we needed to be a bit more consistent, tone wise, and try to keep the setup as consistent as possible throughout the recording process.
You guys always have really cool covers to your albums and they always stand out. Who does them and how much direction do you give them? Specifically, how did the cover to the new record come about?
Mike: We’ve worked with a few different artists. Most of our albums have had cover art done by Nev at Gruesome Graphx. He’s become a good friend and we can always rely on him to nail what we are going for. The new record, however, we went with someone different. We wanted a different style compared to what we used in the past. We wanted to make sure we really nailed the giallo vibe and had a more serious tone to the cover. We worked with an artist named Christopher Castillo. He had done artwork for another project I am in so I was familiar with his work. Generally, we just give the artist a basic idea and let them experiment and come up with something cool. With this one, we talked about what we liked as far as old giallo covers went and sent him a few examples of what direction we wanted him to go in. The art definitely nails that vintage giallo vibe that we were going for and honestly I couldn’t be any happier with it.
You guys have had a really consistent lineup overall. How do you guys maintain a healthy band dynamic through recording and touring?
Mike: We don’t tour at all so we don’t have to worry about that coming in the way of our friendship! We’ve all known each other for years so we all get along really well. We’ve never really had any issues thus far with any drama within the ranks of VHS. Even the lineup changes we have had in the past were mostly because of people stepping away from music so it wasn’t caused by any turmoil within the band. I think we maintain a healthy band dynamic by just keeping things fun and not really having any expectations. We are a small band and don’t have any label pressure or anything outside to really press us either. We just do what we like and hope people are along for the ride.
What is it about this band that keeps you coming back and has made you want to dedicate so much time and energy to it?
Mike: For me it is very easy to dedicate time to this because I love what we do. I have a blast writing the music, making the merch, and interacting with people through our social media pages. The motivation basically comes from the fact that this is the type of band I wanted to do when I was younger but never had the chance to put it together. Now it basically exists as a love letter to the music and movies I loved as a teenager. Recording has become a lot more available to the general population and the internet makes it very easy to get music out to a lot of people, so it is an ideal time for a band like ours to exist.
What was the writing/recording process like for the most recent record, Deep Gashes and Long Lashes (I love that title, by the way)? What was the goal with this one and how do you feel about the final recording?
Mike: I didn’t really have an end goal because the album started out as an experiment almost. I wanted to see if I could write Italian horror movie style music or giallo movie music so it started out basically just to see if I could do it. At first the entire album was instrumental and entirely synth-based. But I decided to try and add guitars to see how it sounded. It was sounding really good so I thought, well, let’s write some lyrics and try to do some vocals on top. I really loved how that was sounding so I just kept working on it and before you know it, I had a full album worth of music that was very different than your usual VHS style. The whole thing came together in a matter of months and, honestly, it feels like a total blur. It was a lot of very sleepless nights and experimenting but I think it came out awesome and I hope people enjoy listening to it as much as I did creating it.
I wanted to ask about the lyrical and musical inspiration for a few songs on that album. Could you tell me how the song “Solange” came about from a musical standpoint and where you got the ideas for the lyrics on that one?
Mike: “Solange” basically started with the opening melody and then kind of grew from there. It’s based on a movie called What Have You Done to Solange? and musically it really isn’t influenced by the score of the movie at all. It definitely has more of a ’80s synth vibe than a ’70s giallo soundtrack vibe. The song really ended up having a lot of dynamics. You can almost dance to it yet it also has some of the heaviest riffs on the album. It’s also the only song on the album with a guitar solo. Lyrically, it was pretty standard for me. I just watched the movie and took some notes for anything that stood out. I think the line “Her baby was aborted and now your life is forfeit” was one of the first lines I came up with and everything else kind of fell into place after that.
The title track is another favorite of mine. Where did the musical and lyrical ideas for that one come from?
Mike: The title track was the first song I wrote for the album actually and is still one of my favorites. I think it’s the one song on the album with the least amount of guitars as it is mostly synth-driven. Musically it was no different than the rest of the album. Just started with a basic synth line and then worked around it until I had a full song. The song has a bit more of a dance feel to it, I’d say. Lyrically, it is the one song that isn’t based on a specific movie. It basically explores all of the cliches and things you’d typically find in a giallo movie plot. Lots of weird characters, scantily clad women meeting their demise, etc.
“Fear, Murder, Obsession” is another song I really dig from there. Could you talk about the inspiration for that one?
Mike: This one was one of the first ones I tried with guitars and it took a bit of tinkering to get it to work. Once I had a good grasp on what I wanted the guitars to do I moved on to the other songs and started writing the guitar riffs. The song is based on the Dario Argento movie Opera, and I actually tried to find a plugin that would mimic a choir or an opera singer. It definitely added another layer to the song and it also made me take the plugin into some of the other songs and see if I could add yet another layer to some of the songs. I like how straight forward this one is, to me it sounds the most like a VHS song, if you will.
You guys were able to get some really cool featured players on this record. How did those come about and what made you want to work with the guests that you got for this record?
Mike: Guest vocalists have been a part of pretty much all of our albums so I knew I wanted to keep that going with Deep Gashes and Long Lashes. The main plan with this album was to stick with guests that were all part of bands based in Italy. The album is very influenced by Italian horror movies and giallo movies so it only made sense to ask people in bands who dig that, [and they] just so happened to be from Italy. All four of the guests are in bands that I really enjoy and would consider myself a huge fan of. Fulci, Tenebro, Guineapig, and Golem of Gore are four of the best bands going in Italy right now and all offer a very different style of extreme metal. If you aren’t familiar with the four bands, you really need to fix that immediately! [Ed. note: Seconded!]
Being that it’s Halloween season, is there a better time to release a new VHS record? What appeals to you guys about the world of horror and what are some of your favorites from the genre (movies, books, games, etc.)?
Mike: I actually think this might be the first time that things have aligned for one of our albums to come out on Halloween! We’ve usually done it in the summer or after Halloween, I think. I’ve been a big fan of horror from a very young age and I think it basically started with me thinking Jason Voorhees looked like a badass and wanting to watch Friday the 13th Part 6. It really did escalate until I was 17 or 18, had my own job, and really started collecting horror movies. This is when I discovered a lot of Italian horror movies and other gems that I couldn’t find at the video stores we had locally. By this time, which was around 1997, most of the mom-and-pop video stores had already closed their doors so VHS tapes were pretty abundant at thrift or second hand stores and you could find a ton of old rental tapes for dirt cheap. Bookwise I was always a big fan of Stephen King. I know there are a ton of other horror authors but I’ve never been a huge reader, unfortunately, so I know there is a lot of stuff out there that I haven’t discovered yet. Maybe one day I’ll go down that rabbit hole and read a bunch of stuff I’ve missed over the years!
How affected has the band been by the COVID pandemic, either in terms of recording new music or getting to play live?
Mike: We don’t play live very often at all so our live shows weren’t really affected outside of a gig with Nile that ended up being cancelled. COVID definitely affected how we record though, for sure. We used to record in our jam space and generally we were always recording. With the last few albums, we have been essentially recording at our own homes and then I will mix the album once we have everything recorded. It’s been a bit of a blessing, honestly. We might not have been so prolific if we hadn’t figured a way to work around the pandemic and we are now working on our fourth album recorded this way so it has definitely helped us. We try to maintain an album a year sort of pace and, while it is difficult at times, I think we can keep that streak alive for a while yet!
What’s your local scene like up there and how has that affected the development of the band?
Mike: Thunder Bay has a pretty good scene. It has been very receptive to us and we always sell a bunch of merch when we play, for sure. The main problem is we just don’t play live very often or have the urge to play live often. If I had the choice between writing a new song or rehearsing a song to play live, I would go with writing a new song every time. We like to keep the creative juices flowing and we always have multiple things on the go at any given time. Even right now, the other guys are working on finishing our next album and I already have the next one half-written and well on the way to finishing it. We just always like to be busy and playing shows slows down that creative process.
You guys play a really extreme brand of music. Is there anything that you guys listen to frequently (artist or album) that might surprise your listeners?
Mike: I think I might listen to a lot of stuff that would surprise people. I’m still a huge fan of death metal, grindcore, and black metal and every niche to be found within those, but I am also a huge pop punk fan. I’m a huge fan of the glory days of Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph Records. NoFx is one of my favorite bands and have been a huge influence on VHS. Bad Religion is another favorite as is Less Than Jake. I’ve been listening to punk longer than death metal so it makes sense for me to still love it. I’m also a huge Kiss fan and a fan of ’80s cheese metal/hair metal whatever you want to call it. Warrant, Skid Row, Guns N’ Roses, Cinderella, Def Leppard, all of that stuff I love. I’m also a huge fan of just ’80s music in general and a lot of that stuff ends up influencing us in different ways. We tend to write music more like pop songs to keep things memorable.
Lastly, what’s next for VHS? What are your goals for the future of the band?
Mike: More albums, more shirts, more nonsense, more VHS. Deep Gashes and Long Lashes is the priority right now. I want to make sure we get that into as many ears as we can. The next album is going to be called Quest for the Mighty Riff and is going to be fantasy/sword and sorcery themed. Probably looking at a summer 2023 release for that one.
Photo at top: Deep Gashes and Long Lashes album cover.