(Photo by Ismael Quintanilla III, www.iq3photo.com)
Audrey Campbell won’t offer a lot of specifics about the harrowing personal experiences that have helped make her spiky, four-piece punk animal, Pleasure Venom, the snarling force it now is. But Rebirth/Return, the band’s brand new debut full-length, is testament to all that internal and external turmoil. And it’s marked Pleasure Venom’s arrival as one of Austin’s preeminent punk purveyors, led by an arresting onstage presence who bleeds the authenticity she preaches.
I waited a little bit after interviewing Pleasure Venom at ACL this year to put this post together — not really intentionally, but I’m glad I did for a couple of reasons. First, it’s more timely vis-à-vis the release of Rebirth/Return, which came out earlier this month and is one of the nastier and well-fleshed-out punk albums I’ve heard in awhile, living up to Campbell’s promise back in October that it would be “tight as fuck.”
Second, a good share of Rebirth/Return is a product of Campbell’s recent focus on mental health, and, well, now it’s the holidays. The holidays during an era, mind you, where one societal or personal discouragement seems to constantly give way to another — a maddening, interminable whac-a-mole session that sends many people in the opposite direction from holiday cheer. They despair — or worse, put that despair into action.
Campbell has been in that specific, horrid place. She’s survived it and a whole lot more. So right on the heels of talking to Urban Heat’s Jonathan Horstmann about mental health, I was doing it again with Campbell alongside the three guys who provide the controlled-chaotic, beat-y roar behind her commanding, storming-your-nightmares pipes: drummer Thomas Valles, guitarist Chase Dungan and bassist Jordan Emmert.
Rebirth/Return, she says, is more internally driven than anything she’s done since she and Valles met at an open mic night at Mister Tramps eight-plus years ago, forging a friendship and a band (and, starting about six years ago, a romantic partnership).
“I feel like a lot of past Pleasure Venom is me looking outward and like, ‘This shit pisses me off.’ Bigotry, homophobia, fuck this, fuck this, fuck you,” Campbell says, adding a laugh. But during the pandemic, “I had a lot more time with myself. I was working through a lot of things. There’s a lot more talk on my mental health. ‘Severed Ties,’ I literally tied it to my PTSD. I’m a survivor of many things, and it was nice to talk about it in song, get it out. So I guess a lot of this album, a big chunk of it, it’s a very vulnerable record.”
In turn, Rebirth/Return is many things. It’s accusatory (opening track “Behind Their Eyes” and its cries of “No truth! In you!”), not always pure punk (like the more traditional-sounding hard-rock throttle of “Peril”), palpably cathartic (the introductory shout of “Getting tired of living this shit!” for “We Get What You Deserve” and everything that follows it), and viciously mocking of bad people (“Bemusement Waltz”).
Through it all, Campbell — originally from Houston — deals in chopped acidity, keeping most of her phrasing short and full of invigorating gristle and well-timed screams. Dungan, Emmert and Valles are not only rocking but versatile, adding varied textures that stretch Pleasure Venom into something much more than just the typical soundtrack for bodychecking your neighbor at Hotel Vegas (former member Joel Coronado is the bassist on “We Get What You Deserve,” a 2021 single). Producer Elliott Frazier of Ringo Deathstarr pitches essentially a perfect game behind the boards, balancing rawness with clarity.
It’s a ripped scab of a record, the likes of which would indeed typically come from a survivor. But ask Campbell if she’s willing to talk about some of those “many things” she’s survived, and she’s not ready to go there. Not with any directness, anyway.
“I had a pretty interesting childhood, I’ll say that. It was really hard. But I’m here, and for the longest time … I didn’t look at myself as a survivor,” she said. “I felt not so great about — I don’t know. Whenever you come out of certain circumstances, let’s say abuse, things like that, you kind of walk the world kind of like …”
“Trapped?” offers Valles, her partner.
“Well, it just feels like you’re damaged goods, like you’re just not good enough,” she picks up. “I feel like … why would anyone pay attention [to me], what the fuck do I have to say? What the fuck am I? Somebody told me I’m not great,” she explained. “If you’re not getting encouragement, say, from certain [people] or whatever, you don’t feel that great.
“But the other end of it was just finally going to seek help, because I did have an attempt at a point. It got that bad, the depression and things like that. Laying out a lot of this music, I tell people, it’s definitely real [what] I talk about. And that rage is from a real fucking place. I was very angry at a certain point about being felt like I got a raw hand. ‘I didn’t fucking ask to be here. Fuck this.’ But I’m really grateful to my mother. She really stepped in at that moment and got help for me so that I didn’t go all the way through with it.”
For most of its eight-plus-year existence, Pleasure Venom has been Campbell, Valles and a changing roster of guitarists and bassists. The pair have nothing bad to say about any legacy members: “fucking talented people,” Campbell offers. But with the additions of Dungan, then Emmert after he saw them at a summer 2021 show with A Giant Dog and Dregs, the two originals believe they’ve found a special mix. They had kept hearing Dungan was the best guitarist in Austin — something Dungan humbly insists is “so not true,” but moments on Rebirth/Return will definitely make you wonder if it is. Valles calls Emmert “the missing piece” and says the band’s first practice with him “was like nirvana.”
And for Campbell, who’s offered constructive criticism that past bandmates didn’t receive as such, it’s a new chapter in another way.
“This is the first lineup where I feel like everyone is as probably detail-oriented as me,” she said. “I hear everything. … I don’t really have to tell them anything. There’s times whenever you guys make mistakes and I didn’t say anything. [They say], ‘Oh I messed up.’ I’m like, ‘It’s fine. You know I don’t have to fucking say anything.’ It’s nice.”
Having witnessed Campbell’s growth for close to a decade now, Valles carries pride in her for her personal and creative strides.
“It’s easy for a lot of people to let the world and the things that happen in the world we live in to affect you. I’ve seen her become very good at dealing with that sort of stimuli,” he said. “I mean even as an artist, [I] remember being pretty amazed by her performance style pretty early on when I joined the band. But now I’m watching her, the kind of stuff she writes and performs … She’s always been able to put her vulnerability out front and really just wear her heart on her sleeve.”
So if you need some inspiration to get through the existential hell that the so-called Most Wonderful Time of the Year often brings, Campbell’s words about how to push ahead might carry some weight. The titanic emotional release of Rebirth/Return just might reach you, too.
“I feel like just me being a black woman doing the most punk rock shit ever, just walking my black-ass life, doing this music, and doing what I feel like in my heart is right, whatever motivates me, that’s kind of what keeps me going,” she said. “Also knowing these fans that reach out to me. It’s very encouraging. Especially during the pandemic, I was feeling really low. They would still write me, like, ‘Keep going. We need you,’ and stuff. It’s beautiful.”