Friday 19 February 2016

"The Ultimate Authority": An Interview with Tommy Victor of Prong

By: Mark Sugar & Tommy Victor

Tommy Victor should require no introduction. As the guitarist and frontman of Prong, he had an immeasurable influence on metal during the 1990s, particularly with the album “Cleansing”. During Prong's hiatus at the end of that decade, he served as a hired gun for Danzig and Ministry, as well as contributing to work by Rob Zombie and even Marilyn Manson. Eventually, Victor resurrected his original band, releasing albums consistently despite near-constant line-up and record label issues. These days, Prong is in full force once again, and their new album “X – No Absolutes” is imminent. As a lifelong Prong fan and a disciple of Tommy's unique guitar style, I couldn't pass up Sludgelord's offer to interview the man. Read on, you might learn a thing or two. ---- Mark Sugar, Black Sites

SL: First off, obviously, you guys have a new record coming out. I've gotten to listen to it a couple of times, really solid stuff. A little bit of it sounds kind of like the Prong of old ... you know, there's a lot of thrash influence, a lot of industrial stuff and then a couple of new things going on as well in there. As far as vocal approaches and melodies, I was wondering if maybe you have new influences going on or you're taking maybe a different approach?

Tommy Victor:  I think I've been growing as a vocalist, or thinking that I do. Like after working with Steve Evetts initially on “Carved Into Stone”, he taught me a couple of things. Then working on the “Songs From The Black Hole” covers record and having to learn or adapt to several different types of styles on that, it just sort of broadened my approach a little bit, and I figured I'd just take a shot at singing a couple of songs. That's where you have “Do Nothing” on the new record, which is a little bit inspired by the Neil Young cover, “Cortez the Killer.”  I discovered a new voice with myself. Chris Collier and I thought that we should just utilize it again instead of just barking and screaming all the time. I'm really happy with the growth of the vocal. I think we put a lot of attention on the vocals more these days.

Back in the day people used to say, "Oh, the band's good. The vocals aren't. They're okay," so I figured that we'd try to move ahead on that direction. Then there's still another little type of approach into a new record is always good for Prong because otherwise we're just sort of like a standard thrash, hardcore band and what sets up apart? I was like, "Let's try and do something a little different as an approach to stuff." It's the way I usually just try to make a record, try to mix it up a little bit, thinking of the whole album in entirety.

A lot of people don't look at it these days but now with the vinyl interests. I think it's good to mix it up a little bit, too, so people maybe sit down with the whole vinyl and open it up like people did in the past so you have a complete album to listen to in contrast to Spotify and streaming generation will give you 20 seconds. We have that covered, too, pretty much with “Ultimate Authority” being the first single, and the first song on the album that just sort of hits you hard. Later on in the record, break it up a little bit. No voodoo here, just average stuff.

SL: I was going to say though, I've noticed on the last couple records, especially on “Ruining Lives”, is that the vocal approach has come a long way, man.

Tommy Victor:  I appreciate it. That's through the coaching of these other guys. I couldn't do it on my own. I think when we went in and did “Carved Into Stone”, I'd really liked the work he'd (Steve Evetts) done with different vocalists, so he taught me a few things. Chris, too, had a lot of good ideas with the harmonies and different vocal sounds through mic techniques, et cetera. I appreciate it.

SL: Cool, man. Also on the record, I'm noticing some pretty intense guitar tones and some pretty low tunings. What are you playing through these days?

Tommy Victor: That's a secret. No, I'm kidding.  Essentially, I've been using the same guitar on most of the stuff throughout the whole record. I like doing that. I don't like using a lot of different guitars because then I get worried about intonation and challenges of matching different things. We like to do this fast. I use an eight string on there, and then there's a seven string. That's the first time I've used a seven string or an eight string on an album. As far as sounds go, it's all from the Kemper now. We didn't really like any amps up when we do that whole thing anymore. All of that, it's all in the toaster.

SL: No kidding.

Tommy Victor: Yes. It's easy to dial it in, you know?

SL: Yeah, I've heard good things about those. I'm just surprised. That is pretty authentic sounding.
Tommy Victor: Yeah, Chris is good at manipulating that, too. If I engineered it, it would sound like dog shit, but he's able to naturalize it. There are a couple other tricks that we use, but essentially it's all in the box.

SL: I also wanted to ask you about the lyrics. On the last couple records, too, since “Scorpio Rising”, but especially on the newer stuff, I'm noticing, in a weird way, these very positive lyrics. There's certain strength of character on there and a certain outlook on life. Am I way off base on that?

Tommy Victor: No, it's a combination of that and reality and the realization of lack of control over what's going on. It has a world look, too. The album cover, I don't know if you saw the artwork, depicts insecurities of mankind in a lot of ways and how you cope with that. Some of it is existential and then it goes into some zen-type vibes here and there. I think you're right, though. It's a combination of that and then a world outlook as well.

SL: That's awesome. You don't hear a lot of that in this kind of music, so it's something that I definitely noticed right away.

Tommy Victor: It's sort of the hardcore stuff to me, and it's like a metal standard to have the positive identity in a way without going overboard too much. It's not quite straight-edge, some of the stuff, but it may be a little bit.

There's a lot of caution in the lyrics, too. I think that's another good word. You have to have responsibility. It jumps around a little bit. “Ultimate Authority,” that song in that hardcore vibe, everyone's free to do whatever they want but as long as you can accept the consequences, you're okay. It was seeing that you may have to experience consequences, like somebody pointed out to me. This is metaphorical but living in L.A. and you're driving and you're stuck in traffic under an overpass. There's an earthquake and it falls on you, who's to blame for that? You, because you drove under the overpass in L.A. and you knew there was a possibility of an earthquake.

Everyone blames everybody these days and is pointing their finger. Not everyone. I'm saying there is a tendency. I tend to believe, this may sound that way to some people, but I think that everything is the way it's supposed to be and people get what they deserve.

SL: On a different note: When Prong was coming up originally in the early ‘90s, when the band first started blowing up, you guys were on a major label and there were equally abrasive bands coming up like Helmet and Crowbar. You guys toured with Pantera. You were on movie soundtracks. What was that like, being at the crux of something like that as it was picking up?  The second part of that is, do you see the music business today having any potential to do something like that ever again, or is it totally done?

Tommy Victor: I'll answer the last part of that question and I'll say “no” quickly. I could go into a long theoretical monologue about why I don't think it'll ever be that again. That almost was the residue of the 60s still, where there was iconic rock figures. Rock music was a lot more important. There was a lot more focus on it. It meant something and I think the bands like you mentioned, we were almost at the last stage of that really. You had your Phil Anselmo's and Trent Reznor's and Rob Zombie's and Marilyn Manson's, and I think those are the last stand for the big time rock stars.
Actually, the big time pop stars, when you look at the whole thing, they're the last rock stars. It isn't Kanye West and Lady Gaga. That's really what we're holding onto nowadays. It's good to be part of that last bit of what was in an era. I didn't appreciate it back then. I didn't know what the hell was going on, so as far as the first part of the question, I never know what the hell is going on and didn't know it had any historic value or anything of that nature going on. It's a dying thing. It really is.

SL: Do you see Prong's influence or your musical style influencing anything that's out in the scene now? Newer bands?

Tommy Victor: No. It's hard to tell. There's such a wide range of metal and we're going into three generations after the fact, so it's really hard to dissect something of that nature. You really have to be a music sabermetrics person or something to figure this out. I'm certain there are some lunatics out there that still make these trees of where things come from and et cetera.
On a more positive note, I think that we had something to say initially that strained into a lot of stuff that inevitably happened. Whether this distinct, recognizable influences for a lack of a better word, I really don't see that, that much. I don't see the aesthetic anymore. Prong had a completely different attitude and vibe and history than most bands. That's why it's always stood on its own, really. It's hard to put in a genre. A lot of people don't identify with it. They don't know what the hell is going on, and maybe we never know what the hell is going on.

We were trying to blow things up a little bit and I don't think bands do that much anymore. They're afraid. There's a lot of confines within smaller genres now and you didn't have that back then. No one cared. It was an open scene, really. Back in New York, you had bands like Warzone, and you could play a Warzone, Prong and White Zombie show and it would work.
It was more intense. We're talking about a period before the internet. Communication was slow. We didn't have beyond social media. We didn't really communicate with each other, other than seeing one another. You had one phone in your apartment and you were never home. People today are much more confined to in front of their computers or in their homes a lot more or in their cars. New York, obviously, no one was in their car and no one could stand being ... Especially where I lived, you didn't want to be in your apartment because you're fighting off cockroaches and angry Puerto Ricans or whatever. It was a whole different thing, man.

SL: It was safer to be at the shows!

Tommy Victor: Yeah, right? Shows or in bars and clubs and staying out all night.  Problem as far as that scene, we were all like club kids. We would be out doing all kinds of crazy stuff all the time. You don't see that that much anymore. There's much more police presence and it's a different world. It's completely different now.
The old attitude is really what Prong's about and it's like, as far as guitar playing, too, I don't see anybody doing what I was trying to do. Dimebag (Darrell, Pantera) definitely accomplished. I don't think I accomplished what I was trying to do, but I was trying. Going for it and just creating, blowing things up a little bit more. Then Page Hamilton definitely blew things up, to me, as far as guitar players go, and just did stuff that's like, "Wow, that's pretty crazy."
Now everyone's worried about, with these technical proficiency of everything and what it's going to look like to their Djent opponents on guitar and its fine for this generation. I'm not going to compete with them. I couldn't compete with them. I just didn't grow up with digital technology. To sit in front of a computer and play guitar is the last thing I ever wanted.

SL: These kids today can kick my ass at guitar, all over the place.

Tommy Victor: Yeah, they're unbelievable but they're boring!  One of my favorite guitar players of all time is Rick Neilsen. He played great and he was dead on all the time, but it didn't seem that way. It was like controlled chaos. That was secondary to the show. He would go out there and just look like a complete nut and just really put on a show. He was great.
Hendrix. These guys are like ... First, you're a showman. That's like Dimebag, too. First, he was a showman, then he was a guitar virtuoso. Maybe down the line, a riffmaker. He had it all and that's what was cool.
Now, these guys are riffmakers but you can't remember any damn riff that they wrote.

SL: It's more about the technique.

Tommy Victor:    It's about technique and making sure that your hand is positioned correctly that the three guitar players out in the audience are not making fun of you.

SL: You're also the guitar player with Danzig. He seems to have some new projects in the works, correct?

Tommy Victor: We've been working on a new Danzig record for awhile. We quickly did this covers record that was done to drop a bomb on a bunch of stuff. We've been working on it and it's been slow in the making. That's Glenn's project and Glenn calls the shots. I really don't have that much to do with it. I go in and follow instructions a lot. There isn't much I can really say about it. It's been going on for so long; I don't even know any of the songs. I don't know what's going on with the thing.

SL: I also wanted to ask you and I think I mentioned this earlier, when Prong first came back from your hiatus in the 90s, the first album back was “Scorpio Rising”. I know that one caught a lot of shit from people at first, and is kind of going through resurgence lately. I've seen a lot of people on the internet encouraging people to give it a second shot. I happen to like it a lot, I dug it when it first came out. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that record now, looking back on it?

Tommy Victor: Knowing the method of going about or the operations behind the scenes and what was going on at that time, that may have an influence on my opinion of it because it started out with a different producer and it wasn't working out. This guy turned out to be this drug fiend. I was under dictation of a manager that wasn't really caring about the band that much, so they pushed us in a different direction with another producer that wound up to be a drug fiend.

SL: You got two of them!

Tommy Victor: They were probably lunatics. Yeah. It was just this endless, problematic period. We weren't really prepared to do a record. Quite honestly, I was on my last dime and I was broke. "Can we make a record? We've got to do it really fast," and I was like, I don't even really ... I have a makeshift band with guys that I knew that were hanging around that we worked with at the time. I worked as hard as I could at it. Maybe all those other factors surrounding the situation ... I look at that more than really what came out of it.
I had a conversation with somebody the other day (about that). Maybe if some of those same songs were done with Art Cruz and Jason Christopher (current Prong members), they would be good. A lot has to do with the supporting cast. A lot has to do with the producer and mixer and the conditions around the environment in recording the record that are definitely influential on a quality product. Those things were not in line. There was nothing good about any of the conditions surrounding making that record.
I didn't have the direction of a quality guy like Steve Evetts who really knows what the hell he's doing, that could correct some of my flaws continually on guitar and then vocally, and with really direct drummers. A guy like Chris Collier, who’s the same, who is not afraid to push me in the right direction. I think finally, after all these years, I've been blessed with having better people around me that are talented and are conscientious and are clean and sober and are not looking to party all the time, too.

SL: That certainly counts for something, I guess.

Tommy Victor: That's a really important part, for me. Some guys can get away with shit. I can't. You look at (Marilyn) Manson, for instance. He just got over making a brilliant record and he goes on with the same agenda that he did back in the 90s. He can afford to do that. That's fine for him. I'm not Marilyn Manson by any sense of the imagination. I have to conform to proper protocol a lot of times.

SL: Related question, and people may or may not know this: on “Scorpio Rising” you wrote some songs with Pat Lachman, who was the vocalist for Damageplan later on.

Tommy Victor:    Right.
SL: He seems to have maybe not done much lately. He seems to have disappeared. The guy who runs the blog asked me to ask you if you know what he's up to these days.

Tommy Victor: He's not into anything musically anymore. I could say something outrageous…and I will. He's smart enough to get out of the game. He's a really smart, healthy guy and I think he doesn't have the ego driven illusion like somebody like me does. He's able to move on to better, more healthy things to do with his life. He's still involved in the music business. I believe that he's with a very successful as production manager on tours.

SL: Prong's going back out on tour right when the album drops, correct?

Tommy Victor:    Yeah. It’s out now and, actually, our first shows are in March. We'll be out there for a month and then we go out.
People can check the tour dates. They're up on Facebook and then Yeah, we have the American tours and it'll be us and locals, and that's a pretty long, extensive tour in the states. We will be playing everywhere in America and Canada. Coming to a show near you!

The End

Band info: facebook