Q&A Exclusive: Metal legend Jeff “Mantas” Dunn on his brush with death and future

Photo: Raymond Ahner

If you scanned Venom Inc.’s social media account the past six weeks or so nothing would seem out of the ordinary. The band has played several festivals and was named as support for a rare appearance of the original Misfits in Chicago. However, it’s only because of incredible advances in cardiovascular health care and the strength of the human spirit that these things are possible.

In April, founding Venom guitarist/songwriter and two-time Decibel Hall Of Fame inductee Jeff “Mantas” Dunn suffered a major heart attack. At one point. Dunn was clinically dead and needed CPR. After open heart surgery and lengthy rehabilitation (“I had two electric wires in my body attached to my heart. I thought I was going to close my eyes and not wake up again”) Dunn made a remarkable recovery and was cleared for limited travel and touring just a few months after his illness. He gave Decibel the first interview about his heart attack and future. He also had a few words for some of his longterm fans who are getting older: “if you have a suspicion something isn’t right get it checked.”

How are you feeling? Has this changed your day-to-day life?
It’s still early. It’s been about three months since I had the operation. So I’m still in the recovery process. Every individual is different in that respect. I am back in the gym and training about four days a week. When I first got back in the gym, it was like I had never been there in my life. There’s no way I’m lifting as much as I did before the heart attack. I had this problem for a while because I can remember chest pain. The pains I experienced before my heart attack were identical to ones I’ve had for about three years. The thing about my generation and my parent’s generation is that we are too gung-ho for our good. We always think we’re o.k. My father passed away suddenly at 49 from a massive heart attack. I remember it was a Wednesday morning. He did his usual thing, pulled out of the garage and tooted his horn and waved. I expected to see him back at lunch and got the news he was dead.

Did you smoke?
That was my downfall I suppose. I did have a cigarette now and again. I was a guilty smoker. I enjoyed it, but I knew it was bad for me. There was a point between 1990 and 2005 where I didn’t smoke at all. I completely quit for 15 years. I put down the pains I was getting to indigestion. I remember when we toured with Necrophagia – probably the second tour we did with them – we did 30 shows. Every night I was in absolute agony with chest pains. So, this could have happened at any point. It could have happened on stage, and I wouldn’t be talking to you.

Were you doing any routine health screening?
No, and that was my fault. Anyone my age or even younger should get checked out. If you have a family history get checked even more. I had been very busy. (Venom Inc. frontman) Tony Dolan says that every time I came off stage, I was exhausted and gasping for air.

I imagine you have a new routine with medications and lifestyle changes?
I hate heavy-duty chemicals. I’ve never used drugs in my life. But when I came home, there was a stack of medicine I needed to take. There were blood thinners and beta-blockers and statins for cholesterol. I was very strict. The ones I hated were the blood thinners. At one point I started bleeding out of my mouth. I didn’t know where it was coming from. I just looked in the side mirror of my car, and it was my gums – blood was just pissing out of them. It was a very aggressive blood thinner. In the hospital, they kept me alive for two weeks on medication and a machine, and I was getting injections in my stomach twice a day.

So now is it more maintenance?

I’m on blood thinners but not any statins. I got my cholesterol checked every two weeks. It’s always been pretty good, but I need to check it every two weeks. I check my blood pressure every month. Taking a deep breath does still hurt because that operation was brutal.

When you were recovering, I imagine you heard from a lot of fans?
It was overwhelming (pauses). I can’t thank people enough. I heard from people I haven’t even met before who have just been to concerts. The personal messages were difficult to keep up with. I tried to reply to everyone to say thank you. Some people who were as young as 40 and had a triple bypass wrote to say the same thing happened to them. I’ve become friends with a guy in Canada who is a huge fan who almost died because of blood loss. I mean, I was clinically dead for over five minutes, and I still can’t get my arms around it.

The first Venom song I ever heard was about being buried alive … then you have this experience where you are dying but are still conscious of what is going on.
(laughs). The memories of it are still somewhat scattered. My partner Anita said when the ambulance came I was lying there. She asked how I was feeling and I turned my head and looked at her and said: “I think the pain is gone.” My head and eyes rolled back, and I was gone. That was the moment I died. At that point the doctor kicked the door closed, and two women pulled her away. She said the ambulance was rocking because they were doing CPR and they got the paddles. When I came around, there was a sharp pain on my left side. I touched the area, and there was blood. That was an injection site – adrenaline straight into my heart. I later saw the image of my heart on the screen, and two of the valves were not opening.

As you’ve started to process everything that happened what have you learned? Has anything positive come out of this experience?
Gratitude is the word. I’m grateful for the paramedics, the doctors, and the surgeon. I was in our local town in Portugal two days ago, and I just took a photo and posted it and said: “I love this town and I’m grateful to be alive.” Even in interviews before this, I’ve always said I don’t want to be the person sitting in an old person’s home considering what would have happened if I tried something. Coming back from this instilled that even more.

I would think there is a standard of self-care you need to take now, even on the road. It probably wouldn’t be smart to sleep for two hours on a bench in a van and play a gig.
Before this, we were doing shitloads of gigs with no rest. Unless you are absolutely exhausted you don’t rest. I can’t drink myself into a coma and go to sleep. There are a lot of younger musicians that dream of doing this – well, do it while you are young! I’m hurtling to 60 at a rapid rate and was still doing it that way. Doing it in luxury is bloody easy. These bands do hundreds of shows but have private planes, limousines, and five-star hotels.

What is the prognosis for your health? You’ve already played some shows, you are cleared to travel, and you are exercising.
The hurdle we have now is that Tony needs a hip replacement and has put it off for years. I’m not sure how he is still walking. This is what the fans don’t see. You hide everything on stage and just go for it. You just get on with it. But we will need to take better care of ourselves. I won’t be as much of a warrior as Lemmy was. The surgeon said to me when I was in the recovery ward that she’d given me another 20 years of life. And then Tony said to me: “it’s not 20 years of touring!”