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Prong | Scorpio Rising | interview | Tommy Victor | metal | Lollipop
Scorpio Rising (Locomotive)
An interview with Tommy Victor
By Martin Popoff
Prong, as the cliché goes, were ahead of their time. Led overwhelmingly by the bridge-burning Tommy Victor, these bitter metal futurists went from indie band with cache to Epic/Sony signing with a buzz, to whipping post for a variety of major label ills, all in the span of ten frustrating years, ending with '96's Rude Awakening. However, the band's Cleansing album sold well, as Victor puts it, "hovering beneath" gold, and rockers are name-dropping the band as one of those crease-sitting enigmas that - together with grunge to the left and Pantera to the right - had quite an effect on the sounds of today's heavy metal radio mainstays. The comeback record is called Scorpio Rising, and all those weird, strangely "disadvantaged" Prong beats, bleeps, turgid gut-punches, and vocals in mumbled bunches, are here as evidence that Victor knows what he wants Prong to be.
What are the main similarities and differences between the new Prong album and the old catalog?
There's new influence from Monte Pittman, who's Madonna's guitar player. He initially got the Prong gig and started giving Madonna lessons, and now he's her main guy. He's an old-time Prong fan. I had a lot of material written already, and we went in, examined it, and we decided which ones were a little bit too off the wall, and made sure it stayed consistent with previous Prong records, as well as having a certain amount of a new tinge to it. A primary difference is the vocal range that exists now because of the different tunings we're using. Lyrically, it's stronger than any other Prong record. It's honed down to a fine delivery. But I don't think we can possibly ignore any of the early records. Then again, as any other Prong record, you have to allow for some new development.
What are the main characteristics of the Prong sound?
Heavy grooves, simple grooves. The drum parts are really examined and each fill, each part, has to be something that is consistent with the song. We definitely tried to minimalize the excess display of technical prowess. There are moments on the new record that do display it, but contrary to a lot of bands who consistently have to maintain this steady virtuosity, we keep it to a minimum. The song structures are important, the sense of a good song, which means there's got to be some hooks. I like the riffs to be somewhat catchy. There are some where'd you go "That's amazing! How does anybody play that?," but if they're unmemorable, they're discarded. Then there's a certain amount of otherworldly weirdness, somewhere in the record, that may be a little experimental, or have a certain dark quality to it.
What are the overriding lyrical themes? And did any readings in any direction take you to this place?
Oh, absolutely! A lot of reading, a lot of solitude. I did a lot of Masonic investigation. I read a lot of Crowley, in preparation, and the Bible as well. I started getting into more occult things, and I realized that a lot of it is based on some knowledge of Revelations, even some Old Testament. So I had to brush up on that and do a lot of Bible study. And reading Nietzsche was important to me because, again, that foundation of the Bible allowed me to realize where he was coming from.
You mention the Masonic stuff...
I got my hands on some actual Masonic texts, based on the rituals. A lot of Golden Dawn texts are based upon Masonry. I tried to familiarize myself with as much as I could. A little bit of Buddhism, a little bit of Confucianism, and Chinese investigation, the I Ching, and that again allowed a Masonic balance of all thoughts, even Cabbalistic views, that would give me some kind of foundation in order to write something that had some sort of relevance, rather than just... like previous records, there's a lot of moaning about how miserable I was.
Any major technological challenges on this record, either from a playing standpoint or simply from dealing with machinery?
There were some songs on this record that were demoed many times on my computer. This record was really the first one that was done in the advent of digital technology, where I was able to program. After the initial demise of Prong, I went full ahead into electronic music, and realized that there was a certain wall I had hit, and inevitably I would have to get in with live musicians and play again. I almost resorted right back into "I'm abandoning a lot of this loop-based music. I'd rather get in with a live drummer and have him figure out what the rhythmic parts are going to be." And that's what a lot of the challenge was. These songs were demoed by themselves, and Dan Laudo had to come in eventually and decipher it, and hone in and add distinct parts to it. That was one of the issues. Again, guitar tunings is always something that I'm looking to change, to fit the vocals a little bit more, allowing more range. Songs are recorded and played in different tunings to see what would be sonically more appropriate.
You've been through a lot, with both major labels and independent labels; tell me an instance where you just shook your head and said, "Man, this really is a seedy business."
Maybe not meeting expectations on radio that Epic had set for Prong, which was confusing for me to begin with. In the design of the records, we really didn't go in writing anything that was particularly designed to be radio-friendly music. They would try to find something that they could market, which is fine and dandy, but at that stage of the game, back then, it was such uncharted ground. The electronic metal/heavy metal/pop music that was on Rude Awakening was obviously a crapshoot. And after two weeks of realizing that they weren't getting the spins, they just dropped the ball on it. I mean, this is the type of act that it is. You know, maybe in a year, if you're persistent enough, it'll pick up. But it's the instant gratification that prevails with people who work at the label that I found disturbing. There are so many releases, and if it doesn't initially fly out of the box, they don't continue to work a record. We went with a major label, were in a van touring ten months out of the year at some points, and sacrificing our lives for the future of Prong. But most of the things I did, I didn't feel like we were given any credit for. But there are accounting sheets, and at any point in time if you don't meet those, they're ready to send you to the guillotine.
What are your fondest touring memories, and your worst nightmares?
A lot of that revolves around problems with other members, and the lack of camaraderie that occurs. Unfortunately, just like any realm, in a marriage or whatever, it's usually pinned to something financial. And being the chief songwriter of Prong through all the years, being the lead singer, guitar player, producer of the band, when things went wrong, I would get blamed for it. Those issues are really hard to overcome with certain people. There's always somebody advancing himself a lot of money and not reporting it, and those things can't be overlooked. And it causes a lot of stress. Initially, the band was free-spirited and on an indie level where we didn't have the pressures of selling a certain number of records to survive. Videos were done cheap, and it seemed a lot easier back then. But once you're thrown on a big tour and aren't getting the response you'd like, it creates a lot of problems. The early days were always more fun because the pressures were off, and our payment was just a bag of White Castles and some Miller at the end of the evening.
What about Terry Date? Any interesting comments on him as a producer, as a person?
Terry is the bare-bones guy. He's an excellent engineer. What Terry did was turn Prong into a real guitar band, and that's what we needed. A lot of the techniques that he taught me are still used. Based upon his work with so many other guys, he had it down to a science. Sonically, those records we worked on with Terry were great. He's a great manipulator. He's an unimposing guy: He's short and skinny, and I think that really helps in dealing with the crazies in bands. He keeps everything under control. That's really what a producer has to do: Make sure egos don't fly too high, and keep everyone in balance. He's sort of like a guru that way. He's sort of a spiritual dude. I could never do that. I'm too neurotic and too ego-driven to be in that position. So it's important for me to be around people that are less like that.
You have a reputation for being hard to work with
In the past, yeah. I'm sort of a guy who likes to be on time. I like to put extra hours in, I like to make sure parts are ready, I like to be prepared. I've learned to lighten up on that aspect a lot, but I'm less tolerant of others who don't have that similar attitude towards the work. And that can be perceived as taking yourself too seriously. But it's part of my upbringing. Musicians are generally slackers. In the past, I had a lot of deficiencies I didn't examine. Now I figure it balances out. The amount of extra work that I put in makes up for certain other things, like lack of talent. So I cover my own ground now and let the chips fall where they may, rather than try to be controlling and worrying about what everybody else is doing. Everybody's got to be responsible for their own territory these days.
Why did you pick this title, Scorpio Rising?
It goes with the occult design of the record. Because my ascendant is Scorpio, my investigation into that... I found it to be true. Subconsciously, I put myself into difficult situations or create some sort of hardship in order to grow. So the dark period of my life post-Rude Awakening was one of these dark nights of the soul-type periods of introspection which hopefully enabled me to progress as a person and allowed me to work on some character defects. I think that's described within the death card of the tarot, which represents Scorpio. And having that as my ascendant, the influx of that prevails through a lot of the lyrical content of this record. Not only this record, but the last few. You know, from Cleansing on, there remains the topic of growth as an individual. On the cover, you see a variation of the Scorpio card, from the Tarot, Death, which has a depiction of Osiris as The Grim Reaper, again, as a sort of personal cleansing and rebirth that is generated from that image.
How did your Epic albums sell?
Cleansing was obviously the big seller, and it was a hugely successful record. It hasn't hit Gold yet, it's hovering just beneath. The other records were all around the 100,000+ mark. To hit those kinds of numbers these days, because of downloading and file sharing, is impossible, which is one of the crazy realities of the music business now.
Tell me about being on tour with Glenn Danzig. (Tommy is also a big part of the new Danzig album.)
Glenn is really conscious of his fans and he's really dedicated to them. With the knowledge that a lot of stuff is sold on eBay etc., he's still extremely generous. Glenn is a fan to begin with. He's a fan of horror movies, anime, and he's extremely well educated in comics and artists. If somebody comes to him with one of their own designs, he'll talk to them for ages about it. His knowledge of pro wrestling... he's an encyclopedia of trivia. He loves it. That was really his main impetus for starting the Misfits: To create a musical version of that whole genre of campiness. So he continues in that realm, and people see him as one of the last survivors of that culture, and he's totally aware of that and he's respectful to everybody. The first three Danzig records have always been among my favorites, my top listens of all time. So I enjoy playing those songs, and I'm looking forward to doing the new stuff as well.
Any comment on putting together the new Danzig record? What is it like in the studio? What is the modus operandi?
It was interesting to see how he actually operates, because I hadn't really been in the studio making a record with him before. He trusts his instincts and he trusts mine as well. He's really old school with that, whereas a lot of records are overworked. My tendency is to dissect every little part and think about it and re-evaluate constantly. Working with Glenn is the total opposite: He believes in inspiration and doesn't question his own decisions. I've tried to apply that to what I do. You know, I'll just get these things done, and it's up to the gods now. We shouldn't distrust our own creativity so much.