Songwriter Interviews

Tommy Victor of Prong

by Greg Prato

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Us rock music listeners got a little spoiled during the early '90s, didn't we? After all, it seemed like every time you turned on the MTV programs 120 Minutes and Headbangers Ball, there was a new, original-sounding band to discover (which you can say, is in sharp contrast to the "sound-a-like early 21st century"). And one such band that marched to the tune of a different drummer was certainly Prong.

How many bands before Prong merged heavy metal with such cutting edge, underground alternative acts as Chrome and Killing Joke? The answer is simple - not very many. And throughout their entire career (which saw the arrival of such standout releases as 1991's Prove You Wrong and 1994's Beg to Differ), the band has been led by shouter/guitarist Tommy Victor.

Around the time of the release of Prong's ninth studio album overall, Ruining Lives, Victor was kind enough to Skype with Songfacts (during a Euro tour, no less!), about songwriting, his influences, the stories behind several Prong classics, and working as a hired hand for both Danzig and Rob Zombie.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's talk about the new album Ruining Lives.

Tommy Victor: It was recorded pretty quickly. The songs were written very fast. I had a deadline and a window. So it approximately took, like, three months or so to do the whole thing. And the last record, Carved Into Stone, 25 songs were written, we had to pick eventually 11. Everything that was written wound up on the Ruining Lives record. So I didn't question anything. Anything that was out there came through me, put the riffs down, and made songs out of them.

As far as technical questions, it was done a lot differently. We didn't demo everything out. I went right in and tracked everything immediately. And a lot of that tracking made it onto the record, as well. It was done fairly inexpensively, as well.

Songfacts: It seems like that's more and more common now. I think bands are cutting out all the expensive studio time and just going for something that's a little more affordable.

Tommy: That has a lot to do with it. The budgets are going down on records, so you have to adapt to that.

Songfacts: Something that I've always found really cool about Prong is especially back in the '90s when people would name their usual songwriting influences, Prong listed bands like Chrome and also Killing Joke as songwriting influences.

Tommy: The guitar, it's based on a more percussive element. And there's also dance grooves in it as well. So Prong incorporated that into it a lot. And Jaz Coleman is a genius vocally. The lyrical content, the melodies in the vocals, while being aggressive, were always appealing to me.

Chrome were just weird and the fact that they did what they wanted to do attracted me to them. And the guitar stylings were great in Chrome, as well. There were a lot of sounds rather than strict guitar parts or scale oriented treatments on the guitar. And then the catchy element of Killing Joke was always something that I liked with Prong and I still try to attest to that, is that they are songs rather than just a compilation of riffs thrown together. And they hold their own.

It's cool that you pulled those two out of the bag, because they have strict identities. I mean, when you get into the thrash metal mode, most of the bands, they sort of sound the same in a lot of ways, and they rely upon the same tactics. Where I never really wanted to approach things that way. I was trying to do something different, pull Prong away from the hoards, the thrash metal bands, hardcore bands, and even post-punk bands. So that hybrid was always really important for me.

Prong was not the only rock band to issue a standout album during 1991 (as Prove You Wrong was released on September 24, 1991). This was the same year that spawned countless other classic alternative and/or metal releases, including Fishbone's The Reality of My Surroundings, Primus' Sailing the Seas of Cheese, Smashing Pumpkins' Gish, Metallica's Black Album, Pearl Jam's Ten, Nirvana's Nevermind, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, and U2's Achtung Baby, among others.
Songfacts: Back in the early '90s when I'd be watching Headbangers Ball, Prong songs like "Prove You Wrong" definitely sounded different than the average bands that they were playing at the time.

Tommy: Cool. I mean, "Prove You Wrong" is a very strange song. It's a combination of Killing Joke and Led Zeppelin. It really doesn't have anything based in thrash metal. It was always difficult for a label like Epic to market something like that. We were lucky that they found some way and they had some faith that we could wind up on Headbangers Ball, so looking back, we got lucky.

Songfacts: Something else that I always like about Killing Joke and also Chrome was I thought the guitar players in both bands were very original and they tried approaching the instrument from a pretty original perspective.

Tommy: Yeah, Geordie Walker's a huge influence. Like, earlier I said the percussive element of the guitar parts where they aligned with the drums and the beats and the bass, having a whole other identity in the songs was something that I thought was totally cool. Again, referring to thrash metal where the bass pretty much follows the guitar and if there's another guitar player, he almost does the same thing, or a harmony.

And then Geordie had this chaotic element to his playing, too, where it was just this barrage of overtones. You find that element in "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck," which has pretty much all the classic Killing Joke trademarks in one song. There's a flange-y chorus guitar in the chorus. And I always liked that with Geordie, were it was this strict percussive element, and then it would unleash at a certain part and into - and then there's a little bit of dissonance in there with a melodic vocal, as well.

One of the songs that I really like by them is "The Empire Song" and the song "Revelations." These are the really spooky character to his playing, as well. The riffs that he writes are great. I mean, who knows where they really come from? That's what's interesting is you really can't dissect the influences with Geordie. And I can't get it out of him. I met him a couple of times and he's like, "Whatever," and he doesn't really get in on it.

And Helios Creed with Chrome has a certain amount of those elements. Helios, again, experimenting a lot of Hendrix-ian styles that I really like. And I still continue to use these long, flange-y parts. You can hear that in some of Prong's stuff, as well. The use of the wah wah pedal, a closed wah, and, again, the dissonance, the spookiness of his playing could tinge on somebody like Tony Iommi, who was another one who was a great influence on me, as well. But Helios not many people know about.

And I've always been attracted to space rock, back with Pink Floyd, Ummagumma, and then Hawkwind, as well. And I think Helios took that to a different level, almost being a metal guitar player at the same time. So I try to emulate that, Prong being a metal band bringing in a little bit of this Helios Creed element.

Like you thought of the song "Third From the Sun" where the middle eight in there is just retardedly cool. They had the vibe, too, where the guitar would be contra punk to what the bass was doing, which is always interesting to me, rather than the standard thrash metal or hardcore tradition of having them do equal parts.

Phonetically, it's the way it sounds, too. I never looked into what gear he used. With the small amount of pedals and effects I use, I try to emulate what he did in certain occasions.

Songfacts: Something that's interesting that I just learned is I did a book about the band Faith No More [The Faith No More & Mr. Bungle Companion ] and by doing that book I learned that Geordie from Killing Joke almost joined Faith No More as their guitarist back in the mid '90s. I don't know if you knew that.

Tommy: I didn't know that. The early Faith No More records were definitely Killing Joke oriented. And having that staccato strict guitar part was always appealing with Faith No More, as well. That's always been appealing. That's interesting. I didn't know that.

Songfacts: Now I think about it, especially the first two Faith No More albums when they had the singer Chuck Mosley, I think have more of a Killing Joke vibe.

Tommy: Right.

Songfacts: Let's talk about the title track from Prove You Wrong.

Tommy: Ironically, that guitar part comes from "Celebration Day" by Zeppelin. I don't use the front pickup on my guitar that much, but I used it on that in conjunction with a wah wah pedal. It was from a time where we were trying to do things that were not traditional with thrash, so that's a weird influence right there. I always liked that song.

So that with a dance beat and then a screaming vocal which is sort of reminiscent of Jaz Coleman a little bit on the verse. Most like "Change," which is the classic Killing Joke song, which they got from "Me and Baby Brother," I think it was a Sly & the Family Stone song [It's actually a song by War].

And then the chorus being almost an Oi! vibe, where it's almost like a beer drinking anthem in a way. One of my early influences was Oi!, which people don't know is like a post-punk movement that assented on classic punk rock vibes with certain macho gang chorus elements. So we threw those all into one bag and that's how that song came about.

Lyrically, it's an in-your-face rebel-rock tune just questioning establishment and your typical vibe with that. Anybody that picks up the guitar can relate to that, or being in a band, because everyone's been telling you that you're wasting your time and you're never going to get anywhere. Follow these rules. When basically there are no rules when it comes to making music. That's really what that song is about.

Prong is always battling against the elements throughout our career and even in the early days. We've had a lot of criticism - people were constantly either hating us or scratching their heads about us. To come out with a record, the title track "Prove You Wrong" is "we're here to stay and that's it."

And it's amazing it actually worked out, because eventually I came up with the title "Carved Into Stone," which Prong is definitely, after 25 years is still around and embedded into rock society, even at the small level that it is, or whatever level it is. To me, it's a big level. But this commitment type of vibe that is embedded into Prong and the moniker of it.

Songfacts: What about the song "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck"?

Tommy: That's a weird song. That whole lyric was written really fast while I was on the subway. It's one of those songs that comes from being in the moment. That's what it's about: you want to enjoy what's going on right now instead of worrying about these things in the past or worrying about the future, really.

And the metaphor or whatever you want to call it of snapping your fingers or snapping your neck, it's just about extremes. So whether you remotely enjoy what you're doing right now or you're fully into it, it's just about being in the here and now, and that's what that song is about.

As far as the writing concept of it, I was listening to this band Front Line Assembly, and I was really into that band. I sort of stole a little bit from one of their songs and made a heavy metal song out of it. Even the guys in Front Line Assembly know it, and they're totally cool with it.

And it's another anthem. I always want to write anthems and they're hard to write. And when you get one going, it's very fragile. It's something to strive for, at least. On the Carved Into Stone record we had several anthems, and I think on the new record, Ruining Lives is 11 or 12 anthems - they're all anthems. So that's what it's all about to me, really, is just reflecting your passion for what you're doing into a song.

Front Line Assembly originally formed in 1986 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and along with such acts as Ministry, are largely considered to be one of the first bands to merge electronics with rock music, helping create what is now known as "industrial." A few members have come and gone over the years, but the band's founding member, Bill Leeb, remains in attendance to this day.
Songfacts: Which Front Line Assembly song was that?

Tommy:I don't remember. I don't know the name of it. I don't even remember the record. Back in the day of cassette duplication, somebody gave it to me.

I used to work the soundboard at CBGB's and someone gave it to me. It had magic marker written on it, "Front Line Assembly," and I took it home with me. Maybe that's where I got it from. I mean, it was a different era. I obviously didn't hear it online, because there was no Internet back then. So somebody had given it to me and it said, "FLA" on it, and I just started listening to it.

And I remember years ago when I was a kid, it was so hard, I didn't have a lot of money and the older brother of a friend of mine, I believe I was in 7th grade, he had Black Sabbath's Volume 4. I was like, "I've got to have this record." It was sort of hard to find, for some reason, so we recorded it. I had a tape of it. It was recorded on a microphone from one of those old Panasonic mono cassette recorders. That's what I listened to for years was this cassette, this crappy cassette of Volume 4. I don't think I ever eventually bought the album, so I was sort of used to that.

Songfacts: Lastly, with your extensive playing with other bands or other artists like Rob Zombie and Danzig, do you see if that influences your own songwriting when you go back to write your own songs afterwards?

Tommy: No, not at all. Glenn has his own operations in doing things, and I tend to do things different from what I see other people doing. So if I notice what somebody's doing, I'll purposely do something differently when it comes to songwriting.

As far as business stuff, I mean, Glenn's a great guy to hang around with. Obviously, Rob, I don't think he divulged many of his tactics. But I think Rob Zombie stole from Prong, really, so it would be sort of a regenerated version of what Prong was doing.

August 26, 2014.
For more Prong, visit prongmusic.com.

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