Prong – At a Breaking Point

Tuesday, 24th October 2023

Photo: Nathaniel Shannon

When you think of gritty, cold anthems full of force and vigor, Prong has been one of the benchmark acts when it comes to heavy, groove-oriented metal through the decades. Incorporating influences across the board that can be thrash, hardcore, punk, or industrial-oriented, their fierce presentation album to album as well as energetic reliability on the live front has allowed the group to carve out a faithful following. Their latest album State of Emergency continues that benchmark output, with guitarist/vocalist Tommy Victor belting out his songs with a more than capable rhythm section as if it’s the mid 1990’s again, transcending modern times while also taking a deeper look at the social/critical injustices still going on in the world.

We recently got the chance to catch up with Tommy in this enlightening conversation, where we talk about the songwriting for this record, video work, how moving back to New York City from Los Angeles changes his mood/outlook on life, thoughts on the current music industry, fatherhood, plus the possibilities of future work on the final Prong album.

Dead Rhetoric: State of Emergency is the 13th Prong studio record. Considering the last release took place in late 2019 with the Age of Defiance EP, do you feel the extra downtime because of the pandemic allowed you to take a deeper look into the finer details of sound, tone, and songwriting when it came to this set of material? Where do you see this record sitting in the catalog of Prong discography?

Tommy Victor: Well, to the first part of the question, I don’t think the downtime had anything to do with the result of this one. I didn’t know I was going to do another record, I didn’t have a record deal, didn’t know if I was really going to continue with Prong. I think a lot of people in the music business were unsure of where they were going. Things started happening again where we did a tour, got a new record deal, subsequently I made a plan to do another record, carved out a time slot when I settled back in.

As far as where the record stands. It’s a throwback to the Cleansing era, the writing process a little bit. I was confined in an apartment and wrote a lot of the stuff myself, back in New York. Cleansing, a lot of that record was written in my bathroom in Brooklyn, coming up with riffs there as I had a Tascam recorder. This one is in my new apartment, I moved in with my family before we moved into a house. I set up a laptop in my son’s bedroom, busted out some riffs while he was in daycare. That’s the big throwback that happened with this record. This one is a little different, because I wrote everything myself. The last couple of records, there was some collaborative efforts. That’s why it stands out to me, I was able to come back and do this again without any reliance upon others.

Dead Rhetoric: And where did you want to come across with the lyrical themes for this record?

Victor: I wanted it to be direct and at the same time leaving things up to interpretation, without taking sides that much. It’s definitely a reflection on modern times, the Orwellian atmosphere that we are living in. The umbrella of a state of emergency. We are already getting into a period of reflection upon social media and its dangers, smart phone media news and its influence on mass thoughts. We don’t know what the consequences are too much, but I do see consequences in people’s general manic mentality and the isolation, loneliness that is present in society a little bit.

Dead Rhetoric: Was the song “Back (NYC)” your take on how things have been since coming back to the city after living in California for so many years?

Victor: It was a more romantic song. There isn’t anything deep about it. The main differences that I’ve noticed are the seasonal changes, how that affects people. In Los Angeles especially, the weather doesn’t change that much. I think that affects people’s mentality in a lot of ways. It’s easier there. New York, I went out with a few friends of mine, and they had recently seen me out in LA, they saw I am back in New York, and I was already complaining more. It’s a part of the general nature of things out here. When you feel comfortable complaining, whereas out there people think ‘oh – he’s always being negative!’. You can’t express yourself that easily. In California, if you don’t go along with the mainstream thought out there, you are ostracized. I’m glad I got out of there. We got lucky, my wife and I had a really nice place that was inexpensive with a great landlord. It was hard to give that up. Now you come to New York you are paying unbelievable prices for crappy weather (laughs).

Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel about your latest drummer Griffin McCarthy and what he’s able to add to the Prong sound through his efforts?

Victor: He played on the record, but he would rather play in his cover band, so I’ve had other guys do the live shows. Griffin is great, I was hoping he would stick around in the band. For some reason he just wants to stick around Long Island, he doesn’t want to do that much. Evetts (the producer) has a lot to do with the drum parts, we did the same thing on Carved Into Stone where Alexei (Rodriguez) is another killer drummer, he came in, we did intense pre-production, live jamming the stuff out. That was another thing I enjoyed – Evetts got into everyone’s face about the spots. As far as the general outcome with where the rhythm section lies, I give a lot of credit to Steve Evetts, he molds everyone into shape on that.

Dead Rhetoric: You shot a proper video for “The Descent” – filmed by Ingo Spörl at Hard Media. What made this one of the ideal singles to shoot a video for – how do you feel the shoot went and how did you decide on the video treatment?

Victor: That was a little rough process, time permitting was the main issue. I became busy, apart from raising a couple of kids, I have a new baby, and we did a tour. I didn’t have that much time to do it back here, because I was also playing with Danzig, and I went out on some dates there. We were really pressed, considering how much time we had it came out okay. As far as that song to be selected – Napalm Records decided all that. I keep myself out of that whole thing a lot. If I put my foot down about something, I still feel that strongly because I don’t know if I’m right, I don’t have my thumb on the populace. I entrust the promotional people, the label, to decide. They wanted to use that song as the video song.

Ingo got a good idea of where it should be. The lyrics are dystopian, a guy in crisis and a narrative. I wanted to inject a little bit more of the element of media disappointment into it with some of the editing. The guy is in distress, and why is he in the descent mentally. Society is going downhill, he’s going downhill, and it’s basically because of social media.

Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the Rush cover for “Working Man” – what did this Canadian trio and their work mean to you over the years?

Victor: I’m not one of those Rush crazies, but that was an early record I had gotten. I moved back to New York, and I was reflecting on early influences, even before I went into the writing process. Grabbing those old records and listening to them, even if it’s on Spotify now. “Working Man”, at the same time I was fooling around with a Tony Iommi tune in C sharp. It sounded good in that low tuning, the fact that they are a trio like Prong, an early influence. The lyric is complementary to the general vibe of what’s going on with the State of Emergency lyrics. It’s kind of a doomy album to begin with, that song and that first Rush record has more of a stoner vibe. The opaque feeling to that record is where I was going with this Prong record, along with Black Sabbath – Volume 4, Led Zeppelin – III or Physical Graffiti, to be in that mode.

Dead Rhetoric: What about the cover art for this record?

Victor: That was an easy slam dunk. I looked at probably a thousand different artists. Marcelo Vasco is the guy I finally approached. I sent him the lyrics, talked about a couple of things, and he just nailed it. He got the idea of where I was trying to come from lyrically. The guy is blind, he doesn’t want to see anything anymore, the world is collapsing around him. He’s had enough, at the end of his rope, that’s the central theme of what’s going on in there.

Dead Rhetoric: You mention in the background information for the record that Prong has always been a genre-transcending band that ignores what’s going on in current times. Do you believe that’s a key factor in being able to continue moving forward and keeping your fanbase at the same time – because you have always maintained a certain level of quality control without chasing trends?

Victor: I don’t know. Quality control is a hard thing- you always try to maintain a certain level of quality control, whether that happens or not that’s up to who I call the art gods. There’re always conditions, curve balls are thrown during the making of records, there’s always obstacles to overcome. The planning and execution of this record was pretty painless. The genre of transcending that vibe is of being pretty much a legacy band. We’ve always tried to do that, and I feel like we moved at a pretty fast pace based on the early records. We did a thrash record, now what? We went groove metal, industrial metal. Rude Awakening is the origin of nu-metal, and it’s amazing how many people weren’t ready for that. Nu-metal is not one of my favorite(genres) because I don’t enjoy the rap element of it. The staccato guitars, some programming, the groove metal was the basis for a lot of that. I don’t think anybody was doing that before us, five years later this band Static-X comes about.

Genre-transcending was not done through any martyrdom or anything. We wanted to keep moving ahead, and it was an experimental time with music prior to grunge. It was the only thing that made any sense to the labels and radio, eventually in the 90’s until nu-metal, radio was dominated by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots. All these bands including Soundgarden. It was not calculated. Years ago, I could probably try to be current because I was younger, working at clubs in New York and I could see what was going on. Now I’m so far removed from that, I’ll get stuff later. I’m not going to try to copy that – if anything, I’m going to stay within the Prong framework. For me, it’s a little broader than I’d like it to be anyhow. It comes based on making so many records in the past.

Dead Rhetoric: When looking at the long career of Prong, what do you consider some highlight or benchmark moments as far as albums, videos, tours, festival appearances, or other activities when you knew you were making an impact with your work?

Victor: Beavis and Butthead was a great thing. That’s one of the most memorable episodes everybody talks about that still to this day. Every once in a while, people ask me, ‘weren’t you on Beavis and Butthead?’… yeah, sure. That is the highlight of my career, that song (“Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck”) is still used and played, it’s on different playlists on several streaming services. That song got a good amount of airplay out on rock radio in Los Angeles. We were touring in a van, trudging this road, and nothing was happening, that’s why when Cleansing broke, we had this song that’s making an impact. That has allowed me to have a career. That song is the pinnacle.

Dead Rhetoric: How did you spend the downtime away from live gigs and recording during the global pandemic? Did it force you to reassess how you view your daily life and where you want to go now that you are in your late fifties?

Victor: Yeah. During that period, my wife gave birth to my son, and I’ve had another child since then. She went back to work, and I was staying at home with my boy. I liked it. I was a stay-at-home dad, maybe I’ll get some other kind of supplemental job. I was enjoying living in LA; it was peaceful before he was in day care. We then got offered a tour, and I was back in the game again. My life has been so tumultuous, I’ve been moving a lot, this, that, and the other thing. A lot of travelling, not thinking about myself all the time, taking care of a child, and my wife, just being this homebody was a great thing for me. Now I’m on planes all the time, traveling, handling Prong business a lot of the time, it’s very nerve wracking, the whole thing.

Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the state of the heavy music industry currently? Do you see major differences between the veteran acts and a lot of the newcomers trying to break through in terms of their approach and how they handle the business aspects of things?

Victor: I’m not an expert at that. I’m clueless, and still struggling with Prong trying to get our small slice of the pie for us. We are competing with hundreds of releases every week, everyone is trying to get on these same playlists with Spotify. I really don’t know how the bands arise to become the cream of the crop. I think the music business is still very much based on luck. The right time, a lot of talented people out there, who really emerges? I don’t know how some of these bands get the followings that they do. How they get so popular.

In America, the big corporations have a monopoly on the scene. You still have this smaller to larger club atmosphere, there is a lot more interest in live shows in Europe. But in America, you could be playing a small club in Little Rock, Arkansas and the place isn’t well kept. Prong’s fanbase is a little older, and they don’t want to come out to these places. Europe is a little more condensed, people can take a train to a gig. You have to drive so long in America sometimes to get somewhere. The big groups, people will save all their money to see them like the Metallica thing, Pantera, Five Finger Death Punch. It’s great for the big artists, they make more money than they ever did, don’t let them tell you that they don’t. These artists are making decent amounts of money from streaming. Everybody else, you are lucky to survive, it’s terrible.

Dead Rhetoric: What have you changed your mind the most about over the past few years – be it musical-related or just with life in general? And why?

Victor: Wow. I have an older daughter, but I wasn’t around as much, so having these latest children has changed things. I think less about myself now. I’m not saying I was a narcissist, but you don’t have the time to think about me, me, me all the time. I think that’s good and natural. It’s why nature wants us to have kids and care for others rather than worrying about our own pleasure and what we are doing. There’s nothing wrong with ambition and trying to make an extra buck, but I think that society has gotten narcissistic, and people have gotten selfish these days. Looking back, the whole idea of having kids when you are young, and having a lot of them, that’s what nature intended and how we are supposed to live. The last three years, I have barely done anything for myself. I may be out of shape, and not look as great, but those sacrifices, I can sleep better at night. I feel like I’ve done the right thing in life.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for anything related to Prong or other music-related activities for yourself over the next year or so when it comes to live shows, tours, festivals, etc.?

Victor: We have a local show in Clifton, NJ coming up. Then I go to Europe for a month and we will be playing with Life of Agony. There’s talk about an American tour next year, trying to get that solidified. I’ll start working on another record somewhere down the line. That may be the last one, we’ll see what’s going on.

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