Interview: Tommy Victor, Prong
Tommy Victor has lived many music industry lifetimes. He was CBGB's soundman in New York in the late '80s before starting a hardcore punk band called Prong. Prong turned into technical thrash and signed to Epic, which would cause endless grief for Victor. The band then morphed into industrial metal, peaking with the influential minimalist riffing of 1994's Cleansing. After years of music industry difficulties, Victor put Prong on hold and moved to Los Angeles. There, he became a sideman for Glenn Danzig and Ministry. In 2000, he revived Prong and put out 2003's Scorpio Rising and 2007's Power of the Damager (which I reviewed here). Last year, I interviewed Al Jourgensen of Ministry on the band's final US tour. Afterwards, I talked to Victor, who was playing for Ministry. His answers were candid and revealing.
You've had difficulties with the music industry. What happened?
Problems with management come to mind. We had two guys that completely disagreed on everything. That created a lot of problems.
At the label?
No, our personal management. For years, I'd get one call from one guy that was like, "Don't do this. Don't do that. Fuck the other guy." We were caught in the middle of that. Prong was always difficult because so much relied on me - coming up with solos, all the lyrics, all the music. It was too much on me at all times. I'd get complaints from everybody about record sales not being high enough, and pushing to go in a different direction. So there was a lot of confusion with that. I held a lot in for a lot of years. Finally, I exploded. I was, like, "Fuck everybody, I can't deal with it anymore." So when Glenn Danzig called me and said, "Just play with me and get a straight salary, come on tours, learn the songs," I was, like, "Fuck yeah, this is awesome!" Eventually after a couple years of that, I realized that I could still write my own songs, and I wanted to do it again.
What was it like playing John Christ's parts?
I thought it was challenging. I had a lot of fun doing that. I was kind of proud of myself [for] figuring them out. I was a little disappointed at Glenn's reaction to it. I spent a lot of time learning the solos and everything as best as possible. It seemed like the more I learned stuff precisely, the more unhappy he was, which was weird.
He's kind of a diva.
Yeah. I'll never forget - one time we did this festival show. I was so happy about the show. I thought I nailed everything. When I got back off the stage, he was, like, "You played everything all wrong!" and destroyed the dressing room and got all mad at me. There's a lot of stuff like that in the music business. You can't really please anybody a lot of times. As much as you try to make everybody happy - other guys in the band, managers, A&R; people, the record label, producer, etcetera - it seems like you always fall short. Al doesn't care what anybody says. He's grown to that point where he just does what he wants. I'm still struggling. I think that Power of the Damager was successful, but it should have come out a long time ago.
Would your luck have been different had you not been on a major label?
Yes. I think that we should never have signed to Epic. Especially overseas - their labels were smaller over there, and their priorities were definitely the pop artists. Labels like Roadrunner and the more rock or metal-oriented labels had more ability to get press in the rock magazines, where, at that time, there was a stigma about majors which you don't really have that much anymore. At that time, it was, like, "Oh my god, Prong is on a major label, fuck them!" So we suffered that. Like Al was saying earlier, there's a concentration on a Top 40 mentality. Even if you're a rock or metal band, they're watching the charts and they're harassing you about how little records you're selling. That's why they're always pushing for "the ballad" or "the cover song." We had that all the time.
At the same time, the major label thing helped Prong for me. My first exposure was a video ("Prove You Wrong").
Other labels were having videos, too. Epic wasn't the only label. They were good on that, but we had to pay for all that in the end. They spend a lot of money in places that aren't necessary, and you wind up paying for it. You really don't have control over what promotional monies are being spent and where it goes. There were some good things. They had a big machine behind you. They'd buy tickets and make sure [you didn't play to] empty houses. We got tour support. But then they wanted us to be on [certain] tours. We had to spend all this money to be opening up for bands that we didn't think were proper [for us], and we didn't have much say in it. It's a "take it or leave it" mentality with them.
When you're doing sideman work, do you ever think, "Man, I wish I could be doing my own stuff"?
With Glenn I was more like that because he was so unappreciative. I love Glenn and we had a lot of good times together and he never said anything bad about me to other people. But within the group, I would have liked to have been more collaborative with him. Al takes care of that more. Glenn paid well, [but] Al likes to get other people involved so that they feel like they're part of the whole thing. I'm proud to be playing with Ministry. I was proud to be playing in Danzig, too. It's just that Glenn sort of ruined it a little bit.
Not many people can play the rhythm parts in Ministry.
You have to have the right hand chops to do it. Guitar players today can do it. From a technical standpoint, guitar players have improved so much in the last ten years with all the technology in order to get your chops together, which we didn't have years ago. I was just picking up a stylus on a piece of vinyl, back and forth. What you could figure out in a week, kids can do in an hour now.
Playing with Ministry is another thing, too, where you have to know your punk rock and your post-punk and industrial music, whatever that may be. You have to be a little bit more well-rounded than your average metal guy. I have no problem fitting in with it. Ministry for me is a piece of cake because I know this style of music. It's heavily rooted in punk rock. Prong essentially started out as a hardcore band. [Later] we added a lot of the noise elements that you find in Ministry and Killing Joke.
Your first Epic record marked a huge step up in your technical ability. Were you woodshedding a lot then?
Yeah. I was listening to Beg to Differ not that long ago, and I was going, "Holy shit!" I had improved an amazing [amount]. I never really played guitar as a kid. I was a bass player in bands, and I sort of fell into this role as a guitar player with Prong. I don't really know how I picked it up so fast, because I was working at CBGB's. It baffles me how far I had improved in a couple years. It was weird.
Who were your influences at that time?
Black Flag was probably the major influence. Black Flag, Killing Joke, Die Kreuzen. Then I heard Celtic Frost and the thrash bands. Ted Parsons was really into that scene - Kreator, Destruction - [so] we added that in a little bit more. And
the New York hardcore stuff, like Warzone and the Cro-Mags - we were really into that whole scene, too.
Have you heard any Coroner?
Yeah. That's one band I didn't get that heavily into.
Beg to Differ reminds me of Coroner.
Somebody [else] said that, yeah. There were a couple bands doing that kind of thing. There was a band called Forced Entry back then. There were some similarities with that thrash/grindcore thing that started going around. Napalm Death and that whole scene - we sort of fit into that when we first went over to Europe. The first show we played [there] was with Head of David and Bolt Thrower. Then we abandoned that whole thing. That whole scene I could see stopping, so that's when we referred more to, like, Bad Brains and got into more of a New York urban punk-metal scene.
CBGB's is gone now. How do you feel about that?
I haven't lived in New York in a really long time. I had spent so much time [at CBGB's] in my developmental years - being the sound guy there, knowing bands. There were so many schisms and weird [things going on] that all I wanted was for Prong to get on beat, get on the road, and stay out there. I never looked back. Although two of the guys in the band worked there, we were never invited back to play. We sort of moved on. That's always been my thing - been there, did it, not interested in going backwards. I lived in that time when it was cool. In the later years when I was working there, it was becoming a tourist trap. It wasn't like it was from '86 to '90, or even earlier than that, of course, the early '80s. It meant more [then].
Reading interviews with you from 5 to 10 years ago, I get the sense of a great psychic hurt from the music industry. How is your psyche now?
I don't think it's changed that much. There's so much acceptance that has to come into view after all the years involved. When we first signed to a major label, my lawyer was, like, "Now the hard times come. This is going to be a nightmare." He had dealt with enough bands that had come out with one record, two records, and [then gotten] dropped. Sometimes you just have to be grateful that you've survived it all in some way. Like a lot of people point out, a lot of bands later did a similar format as Prong and became hugely successful. You just have to balance out those emotions. Essentially, everyone's [looking] after themselves, so you have to realize there's not a whole bunch of benefactors out there that want to help you out. You have to hold your own in a lot of ways.
So when you work with Al, do you still keep him at arm's length?
Well, with the Prong project, I didn't think he was able to understand it [fully]. That's why I let him be involved in [only] two songs. Even when he came in and helped mix those two, I was, like, "No, no, no."
I thought the one he mixed ("The Banishment") was awesome.
That came out OK, but we had to put our minds together. He wanted to do a lot more. Al goes out live with a bunch of samplers and his own monitor rig. Prong goes out in shitty clubs without a sound guy. I wanted to make sure that some of that shit could be recreated live.
Prong has gotten more refined and less edgy. Have you changed equipment or your playing approach?
There's been a lot of changes in gear. Recently I've strayed away from concentrating on overdubs. I want to combine everything into one riff [rather than] rely on a whole bunch of shit on top of one another.
Were you friends with Paul [Raven]?
Absolutely. We had a blowout years ago. [But] when Ministry reformed with me and him - that's when we started hanging again. There was talk about him doing the last Prong record. We just couldn't make it happen. He was doing so much other stuff; he was out of the country. We were supposed to be out on this tour. Right before he died, I had actually talked to him. I know he and Teddy Parsons got together to do the Treponem Pal record. That's when, you know, he woke up dead.
Ted's doing Jesu now.
Yeah, he's been doing Jesu for a while. I haven't heard any of that stuff.
Do you know the band Ride?
It's like if you put Ride and Godflesh together.
Interesting. I gotta check it out. [Justin Broadrick]'s amazing. He's one of my big influences, too. We actually toured with Godflesh once. They were opening up for us back in the day. I thought he was insane. Guys like him, Geordie Walker from Killing Joke, Daniel Ash [of Bauhaus], Bernard [Sumner] from New Order - the guitar magazines ignore all those guys entirely. That's very frustrating for me. Helios Creed from Chrome was another big influence on me. The guys I really liked were always overlooked. I feel like I'm overlooked a lot. What are you going to do? It's just the way it is.
I think the guitar magazines look at the bands first, and then the guitarists who happen to be in them.
To an extent. There are some obscure guys that they focus on. They're usually guitar wizards, Steve Vai clones. I have no problem with those guys. I think Steve Vai is unbelievable. He's not human. I can understand that.
When I listen to old Prong, I can hear New York. When I listen to newer Prong, I don't necessarily hear LA. How have your LA surroundings affected you?
It's hard to decipher how it has affected me. It's difficult to say because you're there [in the middle of it]. Financially I had to do it. Maybe it wasn't the best move in the world, but it was just what happened. There was nothing I could do about it. New York back then was a darker place. There were a lot of struggles. I don't necessarily want to live like that all of the time. But LA can be that way in its own sense. Where we rehearse has an industrial downtown vibe. It's similar to New York in a way. You almost have to recapture what's inside of you. LA is probably more difficult for a band like Prong. There are so many distractions and people don't like to get in touch with their negative side.
There's the sun.
Which I've embraced, too. It's good to have a balance for personal mental health. But I'm still a New Yorker through and through. Affording it, especially now the way it's become, is totally impossible for me.
Do you know Page Hamilton?
He kind of did the same thing, too, leaving New York for LA.
I wouldn't be surprised, yeah.
You guys were doing the chunky, downtuned thing at the same time. Did you have any contact with him in New York?
We didn't like each other. I felt like we were in competition with Helmet. I loved their music, but I knew the original Helmet, and they weren't doing what they were doing [later]. It's almost like they heard Prong and some other bands, and adapted that to their style.
That's all the questions I have for you.
Thank you, man, I appreciate it.