Pointed Return - An Interview with Tommy Victor of Prong
I wonder how many people that will read this used to watch Headbanger's Ball? No, not the new MTV2 show, I mean the original. In the late '80s with Rikki Rachtman. The one that was about 80-90 percent cheese with a decent video or two thrown in, not unlike the one good shot you hit in a round of golf, that keeps you coming back week after week to suffer through the insufferable mumblings of the puffy haired host for the occasional rocking tune. Well, I, for one, did.
I used to watch it, almost religiously like yuppies watch Friends and would video tape the one or two cool videos per week until I had a few hours worth and then would watch them over and over with my buds after school. Anyway, the point of my rambling is that they used to have the coolest opening scenes and theme music. It was a rapid blast of Bruce Lee kung fu stylings, set atop some crushing guitar riffs. And the relevance to this article, my friends, is that the crushing guitar was courtesy of Prong.
And not unlike Headbanger's Ball, Prong disappeared for awhile. Now they're back on an independent label with Scorpio Rising. So join me now as Tommy Victor (vocalist/guitarist) gives us his scoop on how and why things have changed.
Guitar.com: Hey Tommy, how are you?
Tommy Victor: Good, thanks.
Guitar.com: I got the new album yesterday. Got a chance to spin through it a few times; sounds great. I also got the press release, where you were saying that it was a lot like Rude Awakening ('96 Sony release) only like the next step.
Victor: Oh cool, right. Thanks.
Guitar.com: Yeah, I can definitely see that. I think that's a great description.
Victor: Well, I hit this point, with the style and then, I didn't want to detract too much of it. There we so many different ways we could go. So we really had to sit down and think about it a bit.
Guitar.com: I also read that you had written the lyrics first.
Guitar.com: Is that how you also did Rude Awakening?
Victor: No, Rude Awakening was written from the loops first and beats along with tempos, which turned out to be more of an experiment. We just had a lot of problems getting in the studio and jamming out songs. I didnt want to be too riff oriented. I felt that that was what so many other bands do so we tried to do things a little differently. That was primarily what we did however, the new record I tried another thing, which was coming out with the lyrics, intuitively and trying to get a real feel for where I should go with some type of chord arrangement or guitar part. But not all the songs, about 60 percent of them worked out that way.
Guitar.com: Being a vocalist and being the primary songwriter, how do you feel that writing the lyrics first and the music afterwards effects your ability to sing and play them at the same time.
Victor: Oh my God. It's difficult, man. These songs are really challenging to do that. I'm going to be really honest with you, a lot of them I can't right now. Because of technology today, years ago, we didn't have Acid or Cakewalk on your PC, so you were almost forced to be able to sing and play them in the studio as you were writing them. Now we've become so spoiled and being able to overdub and plus having Monte around has allowed me to concentrate on the vocals as well. But looking back upon that with having to sing and play these, it's been a little bit challenging. Making a record, I don't worry about those things that much somewhat to my own detriment. I figured, I'd figured it out later. On Scorpio Rising, I treated myself as a vocalist, guitarist and bassist, separately. They were three different modes that I got into, rather than trying than trying to put them all into one.
Guitar.com: So you played bass on there as well.
Guitar.com: I did notice that the vocals seemed really strong on this album. There's more variations on this one than on the previous ones.
Victor: I think that has a lot to do with, uh, I'm not going to blame Terry Date (producer of Rude Awakening and other previous Prong recordings) on this whole thing. But this record was pretty much produced by myself, Monte Pittman and Steve Bruno. So we had a lot more control over what I was going to do and I had a lot more confidence. These guys let me do what I wanted to do. Terry was very conservative in his view as to where Prong should have been with the vocals. And Mark Dotson was extremely hard on me vocally, very demanding in the studio. There were certain things that he didn't want me to do and just completely vetoed. So being on an independent label allowed Prong to do a couple of things that we may not have normally been able to do or not allowed to do by Franky our A&R guy. When it was more big league, we had a whole camp of people in the studio that were making sure that Tommy Victor didn't do anything wrong in the studio (laughs).
Guitar.com: (laughing) Right.
Victor: The system of checks and balances has become minimalized these days.
Guitar.com: That brings me to two questions I wanted to ask you about. One was, you toured with Danzig for a while?
Victor: Yeah, I'm still playing with Danzig. I'm playing on the new album and it's almost done.
Guitar.com: Have you played on any of their other albums or was it just a live thing?
Victor: Yeah, I came in right after Blackaciddevil (E-Magine) and we were working on some new stuff for 6:66 Satans Child (E-Magine) but then I quit. So I wasn't able to do that, which was unfortunate because I think both the last two Danzig records would have been a lot better if I was around (laughs). I mean it sounds egotistical, but I'm just being honest.
Guitar.com: Yeah, because I noticed in a couple vocals in there, I had my band over last night and we were listening to the album. And a there were a few vocals lines where we were like, Oh a little throw back to Danzig there.
Victor: Oh, I can't believe you said that, because we laugh about it. Pat Lachman was working with me for a while, the singer from Damageplan. He was involved in arranging some stuff for a bit. Monte went out with Madonna and I needed another guy to throw ideas against. He was like "Dude, why you trying to sound like Glenn Danzig, try to sound like Tommy Victor." To me, Glenn is the man. I think he influenced Hetfield a lot. I look to Glenn as a major influence in most of the stuff that I've been doing. I mean not most of it but as far as vocally. Its J. F. Coleman or Glenn or Ian Curtis from Joy Division have always been THE guys that I look to.
Guitar.com: Well then, right along those same lines, what about your guitar style. Who's influenced you there?
Victor: Well, I gotta say in the last six years, mostly because I've had to try to learn his guitar parts, John Christ, from the rock realm. He's completely underrated. Then there's a whole other spectrum, my early influences definitely were Andy Gill from Gang of Four, Bernard Sumner from New Order. Guys that were just harmonic-oriented and more rhythm oriented; Geordie (Walker) from Killing Joke. Then there were the more heavy guys like Tom G. Warrior, Hetfield of course, was a huge influence. Even Dr. Know from the Bad Brains was a major influence as well. Greg Ginn from Black Flag as well.
Guitar.com: Cool, so a lot of punk influences.
Victor: Yeah, that was what I was into before Prong got started. I listed to a lot of Chrome too. Helios Creed is unbelievable, just incredible textural guitar player that's gotten no credit. And for me, he's one of the greats. And then trash started coming out, like Vemon and black metal started, I started getting into those guys, as much as I could pick up while Prong was working. But initially Prong started out as a Black Flag rip-off band, mixed with a little Swans and Celtic Frost thrown in.
Guitar.com: That's a good mixture, those are all great bands.
Victor: Yeah, we were always trying to do a hybrid and eventually got into a more techno style guitar playing. Trying to emulate what guys were doing. Sampling guitars rather than playing them and I was trying to emulate that organically. Now you hear that a lot with bands like Mushroomhead, who are amazing and Rammstein, who taken it to another level too.
Guitar.com: The Prong sound has evolved over the years. I haven't gotten a chance to hear the first two albums, Primitive Origins (1987) and Force Fed (1988).
Victor: Don't worry about it (laughing)
Guitar.com: (laughs) I actually just saw online that the label re-released them.
Victor: They do that all the time. We've got a new record coming out so the re-release stuff. It's weird for me. That guitar style that I was going for back then, I've completely abandoned, sort of. I remember I was in contact with Lee Dorrian of Napalm Death. And then there were a whole slew of bands that were doing that, and then I figured it was time for a change. And Beg To Differ (1990) was much more of a groove-oriented metal record. Then a bunch of bands came around doing that. So we just kept changing. So evolution is correct, and on this record we returned to more of a rock format, I think.
Guitar.com: Beg To Differ was the first album I heard. And I have to say that was a majorly influential album for me. That was one of the first metal albums I really got into. I was into a lot of the punk stuff, what I called hardcore back then, The Misfits, Exploited, UBH. The really fast stuff.
Victor: Oh cool
Guitar.com: Yeah, and then a friend of mine started turning me onto S.O.D. and then Prong. The Beg To Differ album was just amazing to me. And it was the first time I think I'd ever heard anyone use artificial harmonics.
Guitar.com: And those are all over that album. They're all over all of your albums, so much so that my friends and I used to call artificial harmonics, Prongs. (laughs)
Victor: (laughing) Well where I think that came from is Gang of Four to me. To me, it was just noise. There was a guitar player in New York called Arto Lindsay and he had this band, DNA. All their songs were just harmonics and just like noise and stuff. And of course Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth and those guys were doing that. And Norman from Swans and I was so exposed to those groups constantly from the CBGBs days that it just got into me, where that was cool. And strict soloing or pseudo-blues oriented soloing was not cool. But inevitably I embraced that stuff too. There was a period where I was just getting into ZZ Top again and AC/DC so, I'm ever changing. Taking a little bit from here and there and never really trying to excel at anything. Taking little bits and pieces out and mixing it up really.
Guitar.com: I had read that you had picked up your first members from CBGBs and then of course, the line up has continued to change over the years. I've read the list from over the years
Guitar.com: You've played with some really nice players. Do you think as a whole, it's been a benefit to have these players coming through or would you like to have had a stable line up that you could grow with or do you think the changing line up helped keep the band fresh?
Victor: That was the idea. Initially, Mike Kirkland was playing bass and Ted (Parson's drummer) and I felt that technically, he was unable to take Prong to the next level on the bass. We wanted to continue to grow and that was the whole thing that we constantly wanted to grow and do something different. So that's true but on the other hand I do wish that there was some stability within Prong but we're dealing with, the '90s aren't like the '60s. Professional musicians.It's a little harder to get involved with something that has some longevity. Musicians are fearful of any project that they're involved in because of the state of the industry and the state of the labels, like making album sale quotas. I've just been the guy in Prong thats been willing to eat Ramen noodles and stick it out. Where other guys have seen dollars signs in other projects and left for that reason, primarily.
Guitar.com: So there's never really been about a conflict within the band? It's always been more of a money thing and people wanting to make more of it?
Victor: Yeah, I'd have to blame it on more on financial problems, yeah.
Guitar.com: That's interesting. I've heard so many times that once money comes into play, it takes a band from being a band, to being a totally different entity, once you get signed. Like who's going to get the most money. As soon as you introduce money, everything changes.
Victor: Absolutely. That reminds me of the early days of Prong, our confidence level was, looking back, so high, because we didn't have those problems. When we got signed our lawyer said, Well now the hard stuff happens. And that's really true. I tried not to but the camp would be constantly looking at charts. Then feeling of inadequacy due to sales or that you were surpassed by blah, blah, blah, or you get passed by bands that started later than you. Being the songwriter and singer, I seemed to get blamed for a lot of the stuff so a lot of animosity was developed because of that. And a lot of hurt feelings, defensiveness, blah, blah, blah then came into the picture, by the time Rude Awakening came around, there was such baggage from all that stuff, for me, it was impossible to continue under the Prong moniker without feeling like a complete loser, at that point. I had to let the smoke clear for a while, before I was able to do anything with any clarity or warmth or good feeling. It took a long while for wounds to heal.
Gutiar.com: So now you're on a more independent label..
Victor: To say the least.
Guitar.com: You mentioned some of the benefits like more creative freedom. What are some of the benefits? Give me your spin on major, minor, and independent labels.
Victor: Well, the A & R guy we got now, he's been around a really long time and he basically formed Nuclear Blast records. He doesn't get involved with anything creatively that we want to do. It's completely free reign and he continues to have, for some reason, this unbelievable faith in Prong and our ability to make cutting-edge music, which I think it's important for an independent music. As where a Major label is only concerned with hits, money, that's it. They don't care what it is. They don't care if its one chord, three chords, no bass guitar. It doesn't concern them. If it's quirky enough to get on the radio, that's all they care about. We caught the tail end of the old school major label philosophy, which was band development and longevity but that has long since gone out the window. By the time '97 came around, that philosophy was gone at major labels because of the pressures of the conglomerates and what they exist upon. If they're truly independent they're not affiliated with any corporate agenda. The final sheets are not the tell-tale of what a band's or a project's worth is.
Guitar.com: Tell me a little bit about your equipment. What you play? How do you tune?
Victor: I've been strictly a Marshall guy for many, many years. I have experimented with other things. But it always comes back to a tubeless rig. There is one 12AX7 in the Marshall Valvestate that it's in the preamp stage but the power is completely transistor. That was due to the low tunings that Prong started using during the Cleansing (1994) record. Initially, going in with Terry Date, who has worked on many guitar records and he was like what this guitar tuned to? I was said Drop C. He was like this is ridiculous but I think I could make it work. The only other band that I know that was that low at that point was Fudge Tunnel. I may be wrong but I think that was just the reality of it. So in order to have it-- that low end without having that warble, the only amps that could do it were the Valvestate 8100 or maybe a Randall. So, I continue to use the 8100 and now they have the updated version, called the MG8100. And I've been pretty happy with it. However, during the last record we did use the Framus Cobra as well. It's a tube rig mixed in with a Mesa Cabinet, a 2x12 cabinet. I usually use a 2x12 cabinet. It looks like complete ass on stage but for some reason, a compact box is always what I've seemed to like. Those Mesa 2x12s are good. I don't own one. I had to borrow one from Dino from Fear Factory. I have a Carvin 2x12 with 100 watt Celestions in it.
And then as far as guitar effects, it sort of been a multitude of those can come in a Vox wah; an ancient Digitech Chorus/Flanger that I continue to use; a MXR graphic EQ; and a TC Electronics boost, which I don't use that much when I'm recording.
As far as guitars go, for recording I always use an SG or a Les Paul Custom. But since those got stolen I've moved over to Schecters, I use the C-1. But I recently got another Gibson SG that I use a lot and then on the new record it's all batter tone. C-1 Schecters, with unbelievably heavy gauged strings on it. So we used this one guitar on the album, oh and Schecter basses too, Tribal basses. I have one of those. The whole record is tuned down to A.
Guitar.com: Whoa, that's low.
Victor: Yeah, but I mean if I was using a Dual Rectifier or something, it would sound a lot lower. But there's a lot of bite on the Marshall heads. It's not that evident. A lot of bands you'd go, "Whoa, that's unbelievably low." It's just a matter of EQ. There's been this big race as to who can go lower. That record was recorded and put together almost a year ago. In the future I think I'm going to move away from that and move up again.
Guitar.com: Typically I notice when bands tune pretty low and I didn't really notice that this was tuned to A. It must be because of what you indicated. The tone has a lot to do with how low it seems.
Victor: It has a lot to do with the vocal range. If the whole record was sung in Chris Barnes (Cannibal Corpse) range, then it be wow, this whole thing is fucking low. But since I'm going up and I'm going down, vocally and I'm using this hybrid vocal here and there, it sort of takes away from the so-called, constant look at the heaviness of it, which is important to Prong. The heaviness lies in the vibe and the mentality and not just a strict focus on Satanism (laughing).
Guitar.com: I noticed a couple of growls (on the vocals), here and there, I was happy to hear that.
Victor: (laughs) That's why I had to refer to the hybrid vocals. It's somewhat important to keep in mind, regardless of whether it came late or not, not to ignore whats out there, we didn't completely abandon trash on this record as well. That was sort of important where, we sort of spanned the course of what Prong has delved into. The stomps and the hip-hop beats, the thrash, the weird noise stuff, the atonal stuff is still there but in the context of rock n' roll songs. Devising that whole thing into one package was pretty much the idea behind musically, of what was going on.
Guitar.com: I like the fact that you're not afraid of putting in what you like and to come up with the sound that you want to hear, as opposed to, if you add something in, you might lose some fans or gain some fans by doing this. You've got your own personal sound in mind of what you want to create. It sounds like you like a wide variety of music and that you can feel comfortable about putting that on the album.
Victor: I don't know if I feel comfortable about it because it's been to my demise so many times in the past. It's certainly not a formula for instant success. That's for sure. There's a lot of bands out there that do it well and there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. They look to the audience more and they do follow what certain trends are and they do it quite well. When Stone Temple Pilots came out, I was like, "You know what, this is ridiculous, this has been done so much" and then years went by there were bands that were copying Stone Temple Pilots. That style of rock is still on the forefront and I look back at Stone Temple Pilots and they did it really well. They excelled at it so the experimental side of things were just not what they were about. I'm not saying that Prong is an experimental band either. But when you start taking chances, you're shooting craps; expect to fail. This is the question of being safe or trying to do something the power of Prong is that we can span out a little bit. I think if we were trying to base our success on what was going on in the major rock scene, then it would be complete and absolute failure. It's just what I can do and what the calling is. No one's right and no one's wrong. I just want to make that clear.
Guitar.com: That's very cool. You have a very developed sense of music. I don't think that there's many people that can sit back and say that Stone Temple Pilots did what they did, really well. Most of the people in the metal scene, especially for fans on the metal genre it's really easy for them to just turn their noses up at popular music and to have the same reaction to STP as you initially did, like oh this has already been done. Because whether you like them or not, they must be doing something right. They're selling a lot of records and they're making somebody happy.
Victor: Essentially, you're putting out records to do that unless you're in Black Metal and then you're trying to make people depressed.
Gutiar.com: (laughs) Right.
Victor: And I have a total appreciation for that as well. Joy Division is one of my all time favorite groups and it puts you in the mood thats not like, "I'm going to go out with my girlfriend tonight and go to a movie." It's not about that. Music can take you in different directions. You gotta be honest, like writing a song from a lyric, that's your honesty right there. Initially if your pen hits the paper, you're expressing some type of feeling or emotion that can carry on into the rest of the song. After reading a lyric and putting a riff to that, that to me is the honesty that is needed in rock music, instead of completely conjuring up a proper project thats cut and dry, going to be a slam dunk hit. I can't do that. Maybe if I could do that, maybe if I was able, I would be more financially success today. The guys that could do it look at Linkin Park they do it and do it extremely well. I can't help who I am at this point in my life. I can try to change but my musical vocabulary is what it is. The bands that I liked and that initialized me and got me excited about rock, are off the planet like no one knows who they are anymore.
Guitar.com: So what do you find yourself listening to nowadays. Do you find yourself listening mainly to the classics or some new thing?
Victor: I'm getting away from the classics a lot. I went through that stage like four years ago where, if it wasn't Zeppelin or if it wasnt Fleetwood Mac or Sabbath, Priest or Deep Purple, I was not interested. Or Joy Division, Killing Joke, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus but in the last year, I've been listening to anybody from Mudvayne to Marduk to Shadowsfall. I've been getting into more guitar stuff. I don't know why, I've just been more excited about it. But I've also been getting into some of the pop stuff. I like The Used, Refused as well. Anything I can get my hands on. I can't go to a record store and buy records, these days. I don't know who the hell can. Whatever I can get off of Kazaa and download, I try to.
Guitar.com: I was going to ask you that. How do you think that's effected the industry?
Victor: It's destroyed it- at least what's left of it. I'm just waiting for when movies are going to be easily downloaded, which is already happening. What's going to happen then? If the music industry was smart, they would have set something up a long time ago and they could have saved themselves but they got lazy. It's like the NHL. The arenas are half full, yet they want more money. You've got all these struggling artists who are making great records and aren't seeing anything and then you've got your George Michaels and your Michael Jacksons, who eat up everybody's salary so they can exist. The music industry is so slow in realizing it, they basically fucked themselves. If they were aware, these problems wouldn't have happened. If these indie labels now that are keeping the whole thing going are concerned about record prices, in fact, smalltime booking agents that are keeping the whole thing going but they're keep ticket prices down. It's like who wants to pay $30 to see Six Feet Under or something, it's ridiculous. People got fat and spoiled in the music industry and it's the rock acts that keep it going and it's always going to be that way. It's got to go down to that level. It gets scary. When Punk got mainstream is when the whole thing sort of ended. I think that's why Kurt Cobain committed suicide. He knew what was going on and he couldn't handl it. It's absolutely a disaster. And it's not the fault of the kids that are downloading or the software companies that create the share programs, it's the big shots at the labels and the Japanese who created these scenarios. Like spending $50 million dollars per record for these big artists that end up selling a million copies like Madonna and stuff, it ridiculous.
Guitar.com: Well, it sounds like you've got a bead on it.
Victor: Yeah, mainly because I've been effected by it. I've been blessed because I can make records and not have to be on a major label. That's why there are geniuses like Glenn Danzig around whove had a career that spans thirty years now and done amazingly well for themselves because theyve set themselves apart from the music industry and what goes on there. They protect themselves. You've got to look to these guys. There's ways to do it. Now you hear about guys like Dave Matthews. He doesn't need a record label. I just emailed some kid who has a band. I heard from him and he said I know this is a ridiculous idea but is there any way we could do some shows with Prong on the West Coast? And I was like "No, it's not a ridiculous idea." You press up a record, you get a distribution company, you get some money together. You get a publicist and what else do you really need, especially if you have a little money in the bank from your parents or something. There are ways to do it.
Guitar.com: Do you think the Internet can help the distribution of smaller bands. Like you said that you cant afford to go buy records at the store so, I download whatever I can. Do you think, in a way that that help sell records. Teenagers are largely the market listen to this kind of music. I remember as a teen, I would save whatever was leftover from my lunch money and I would be able to buy one cassette tape at the end of each week.
Victor: (laughs) Cassette tapes..
Guitar.com: Right, remember CDs were just coming out back then..
Victor: Yeah, and they cost like 80 millions dollars so-
Guitar.com: Exactly, so I'd just go buy a cassette at the end of each week. If I would have had the Internet then, I would have been able to check out a lot more bands. Do you think, in a way, it could help the smaller bands, by comparison in the way that Prong is a smaller band compared to Madonna?
Victor: It is helping because there's a band called As I Lay Dying who are doing amazingly well. Their songs have been number one most downloaded on MP3.com for a really long time and that has really helped them. So if they're good, people will go out and buy the record, fuck it. As far as a strictly downloading scenario, I don't think thats going to work because there's something about having something in your hand, I mean hopefully it never gets to the point where there aren't any stores left. I still think people need to get out of their house and go to a record store and pick it up. The browsing side of record store buying has been diminished. You go into a record store and everyone is over thirty looking through records. Kids want to be instantly gratified today and the Internet is a good vehicle for the younger generation. That's their access to what's going on out there. Rather than when we were kids where we'd ask the record guy or browse more.
Guitar.com: Well here's your chance to be that guy. Guitar.com is huge and gets tons of traffic so there's going to be a lot of people on there that have never heard of Prong. Why don't you give us an idea of why they should check Prong out?
Victor: I've always considered Prong to be a very cutting edge band. The roots that we have, span Thrash, Hardcore, Industrial, regular rock - I think it's something interesting, especially for guitar players. If you want to catch something on a little different drift, that's heavy and covers a lot of different ground, I think that Prong does that. I think that Scorpio Rising has a lot of heavy roots and a dark mood to it but its also fun too. It's good beer drinking music as well which, I need to continue to have some type of sense humor in this whole thing in order to remain sane. What Prong is, is a vehicle for me to maintain some type of sanity in this world. If you're along those lines, Prong is something for you to check out. I think that about sums it up for me.
Guitar.com: Tommy thanks for taking a few minutes to talk with us.
Victor: No problem, I appreciate it.
To get more information on Prong - go to: ProngMusic.com