It’s not as if Prong ever completely fell off, really, but 2012’s Carved Into Stone nevertheless felt like a return to form in both energy and attack, and now, two years later, comes Ruining Lives, a ferocious, amped, occasionally pretty damn adventurous album that may very well be the band’s best effort since its nineties heyday. Songs like “The Book of Change,” “Turnover,” “Ruining Lives,” and “The Barriers” are straight up instant classic Prong killers, while other tracks push boundaries and play with our expectations — especially in terms of structure and vocal patterns.
In the midst of this renaissance moment Prong mastermind Tommy Victor — one of heavy metal’s true iconoclasts — graciously took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Decibel about Ruining Lives, shifting perspectives, manifest destiny, and why he is now able to listen to his band’s seminal early records again.
Prong has one of those oft imitated, never matched kind of sounds. Can you talk to me a little bit about how that developed?
Yeah. Uh…I had a bit of a rough childhood. Where I was living…I was always looking for a way to get the hell out of there. Growing up as part of that generation in America I just wanted to create something for myself — live that dream you were always hearing about, you know?
So, from an early age you saw music as a potential escape hatch?
Well, everything is an identity crisis at that age. I didn’t want to be a complete nerd, hiding in my room and studying all the time; my athletic abilities never took off. I just wanted something to make me cool. Honestly, it’s something I reflect back on a lot — why did I do this? Was it something hardwired into me at birth? Or did the conditions and environmental situations of my life guide me down this path? Tough to tell. What I do know is I always loved music. Couldn’t wait to get a new record and listen to it a million times — whether it was early Bowie, Sabbath, Tull, or even something like Earth, Wind & Fire. And then there was a lot of other kinds of music played in our house that I soaked up — a lot of Beatles, lot of Rolling Stones, even corny stuff like Mario Lanza and Andy Williams. My older brother threw a ton of shit at me, too. As a young kid he was always saying, “You gotta listen to this; now listen to this”; always feeding me all this cool stuff. “Hey, check this out — it’s acid rock, man! ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’!” So I’ll go ahead and blame him for how I turned out!
What did your brother think when you decided to try to make a career out of music?
He thought I was out of my mind. [Laughs.] Now he’s in his sixties and he’s got a Prong tattoo…
That’s amazing. And hilarious. Let’s back up for a second. Where did you grow up?
Alright, you’re in Queens, you’ve decided you want to pursue music. What’s your first move?
I picked up the bass, because I wanted to get into a band and nobody wanted to play bass. Of course, I didn’t realize the suffering and torment running around my old neighborhood with a bass rig would cause me — a complete nightmare!
And where did you go from there?
Alright, this is how life is — I got a job, ‘cause I wanted to go out and party and I had no money. By the time I was seventeen I was working a lot. I met another dude in Queens and he was like, ‘This place sucks. Let’s get the fuck out of here!’ So we got an apartment in Manhattan. I’m doing the bike messenger thing; saved some money, went to a trade school for audio. Got a job running sound at CBGBs. When [original Prong bassist/CBGB doorman] Mike Kirkland found out that I had played in other bands, we just decided to get something together. It was kind of crazy. I mean, when Prong started I really didn’t have any chops. I hadn’t sung in a band before. But it took off. So, like I suggested previously, I sort of fell into a lot of things. I feel like, in a lot of ways, outside forces have dictated a lot of my life. By the time Prong started I’d almost given up on playing music. It was starting to seem like a total waste of fucking time. And then — not to sound like Pacino here — but music pulled me back in. It’s been like that throughout my career. Anytime I’ve been like, “I’m out of here. I can’t take this anymore!” the phone rings with something cool to do.
Did way the city was at that time affect how Prong came together?
Definitely. It had an influence on a lot of aspects of my life. Lower Manhattan back then was a desolate, spooky—but glorious!—place. Basquiat, Keith Herring — the whole street scene down there was brilliant. People were living in lofts and burned out buildings. Rent was cheap, sure, but you were fighting rats in the street to get back to your place! It was a whole world of darkness and drug addiction and desolation — and that’s what informed the sound and style of a lot of the bands back then from Blondie and the Ramones to the Talking Heads to Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front, and, later, bands like Prong and White Zombie.
It’s a different vibe these days, eh?
Now you got to be a millionaire to live down there! Completely changed! Back then I’d work, go party all night. Wake up, hit the mailbox sending Prong stuff out snail mail to fanzines. No cell phones — I was never on the phone! Yet somehow we managed to function. When we did our first demo, there were a couple stores that just sold demo tapes on Lower East Side. And we sold the fuck out of that tape, by the way. We sold hundreds and hundreds of ’em. We had a master cassette tape and we were dubbing these things like all night long. I remember hand delivering [the Primitive Origins EP] to Bleeker Bob’s. Definitely a different time…
Who would’ve thought all these years later a so much of this would just be zeros and ones for people to download.
But you know what? There’s a beauty to that, too. It’s always within the realm of what you’re dealing with. The artists who were big in the 50s were probably eventually bitching about cassette recreation. It’s always going to be something. You gotta make the best of your circumstances.
Speaking of those early years…people obviously still love the early Prong classics, still come out to the shows — does that dedication give you a new perspective on your own past work?
Yeah. It took awhile, though. I spent years ignoring my own records; allowing myself to be stifled by whatever disappointments and be led around by some stupid thing going down in my own head — Oh, I’m not listening to that record. It didn’t sell as much as I thought it should. It’s not just about sales, though. I didn’t listen to Cleansing forever and that was our most successful record. Why? I got into this stupid thought process that I’m being egocentric by listening to my own records. All so I can go out and tell everybody I don’t listen to my own records! When I finally did get around to listening to some of these records again, it was like, “Holy Shit! Did I do this?!” A couple years ago we did the whole Beg to Differ record from start to finish for a tour. I had to relearn how to sing and play those songs. I was like, “How the fuck did I do this? This is hard!” It gave me a lot of confidence actually to start writing new material, though.
The process of creating these records can be agonizing and, in the moment, you’re always looking forward to the next thing. That’s what keeps you going. But, yeah, looking back from a distance I’m starting to recognize how special some of our records were — and some of them are terrible, too, which I’ll readily admit. But you got to appreciate what you’ve accomplished at some point in life.
I imagine revisiting those records must almost be like being introduced to a past version of yourself.
Yeah. It’s like a journal almost.
The best part is, listening to Ruining Lives it seems as if you’re in a great place creatively after all these years.
Yeah, but it’s totally by accident. You couldn’t pick out any particular instance why that is at this particular moment. I think it’s just on the job experience — learning to persevere, learning to weather storms of discouragement. Surviving long enough to get to the next level, basically.
Looking at songs titles like “The Book of Change,” “Come to Realize,” “Turnover,” and “The Self Will Run Riot,” shifting perspective and self-empowerment seem to be major themes on this record.
Totally. You know, in the past, on records like Rude Awakening, lyrically I was in a very dark place, isolated, pointing fingers at everyone. I guess I’ve come to the realization that that’s not the answer to anything. And that’s reflected in lyrics — instead of getting further mired in whatever issue I’m addressing, I prefer to describe the quest I’m on in search of a solution. You’ve got to actively cultivate gratitude in every way or you’ll fall into the negative side of things. Believe me, I’ve been there. It’s impeded my development and hurt me in a lot of ways. Everybody is their own worst enemy, and I am certainly no exception in that respect.
It’s kind of interesting you chose “Ruining Lives” as the title of this album then!
[Laughs] Actually, I’m not going to fluff this whole thing up into something paranormal or metaphysical or whatever — I keep a running list of possible sonG titles on my phone and “Ruining Lives” was one of them. I got the guys together for breakfast, we went through some ideas, and everyone agreed that title was badass. Okay, so now I got to write a song called “Ruining Lives”! That’s how I like to handle stuff these days — throwing ideas at people, putting trust in the those I’ve decided to work with, having faith in group consensus. If it goes wrong, I don’t point fingers. We decide things together and reap the consequences — good, bad, whatever — together.
Do you find writing lyrics to be a process of discovery?
No, I don’t think so. I usually have a pretty good idea of where a lyric is going and am very direct about it. The trick of it is developing rhymes, figuring out a quote/unquote smart way to bring metaphors and interesting combinations of words together to tell a story that translates an idea or personal issue into a song. That’s what Bob Dylan, John Lennon — you know, the truly brilliant songwriters — were able to do. I don’t compare myself to them, of course, and I know I’m not anywhere near that level, but those are the examples I aspire to.
Does it surprise you at all that you’re still able to create new twists on the Prong sound?
I’m surprised at the end result usually, but when I’m in the thick of it I try not to harp on that stuff in my own head. Later, in interviews, I do end up reflecting on decisions that were made and how we got to where we wound up. Back in the day we pondered everything — Oh, how are we going to make this fresh? What’s the big idea here? — and that’s where I could really get stuck. Now I just try to stay out of my own way in bringing this stuff into existence.
Not to sound too arty farty about the whole thing, but I really do believe you have to leave space for whatever the record is going to be to come to fruition while the process is moving along. Which means, you don’t really know exactly where you’re going — and you shouldn’t! To have that one, immoveable, absolute model of an album in your head is shooting yourself in the foot in my opinion. Everything is always going to fall short of that model, so you might as well enjoy the process of discovery. Adapt to the surprises along the way, you know? Appreciate whatever comes out of that.
Has working with Ministry and Danzig helped you maybe filter out other muses and freed you up to have a purer experience with Prong?
Not in any way that I’ve noticed. I make it as simple as this: If someone I respect asks me to work with them or help them out, time permitting, I’m gonna do it. And then there’s the whole rocking chair aspect of these gigs. Some day, when this is all over, and I’m sitting on my porch, I can say I knew Glenn; that I worked with Al — I mean, these are amazing artists and great experiences. But as far as Prong? It’s a band with a whole different identity and a completely different way of doing things.
The one way I would say it probably has helped is in keeping my chops up. I’ve never been one to sit around and practice, figure out songs, whatever. When I’m not working, it’s really hard to get a guitar in my hands. It’s almost the last thing I want to do. So working with Danzig and Ministry, I’ve definitely played a lot more guitar than I otherwise would have.
I have to say, overall you do seem genuinely content and at ease with your lot in life.
Well, as you grow older, you learn to accept the fact that you don’t have control over certain things. So what’re you gonna do? Whining is for babies, you know? Regardless of whether you’re talking about the music business or driving your car, accepting and adapting to the framework of whatever circumstance you find yourself in is far more sensible than the alternative. I mean, that’s been beaten into me. Nobody wants to hear your bullshit. Every day is a challenge on many different levels for everybody. I haven’t made a lot of money with Prong but I am very grateful to be in this legacy position. I never thought I’d still be doing this at this point. I’ve accepted who I am as a musician and what this band is — I don’t feel like I need to be Yngwie Malmsteen anymore. If some kid out there that loves Whitechapel or one of these bands that do a hundred million arpeggios a second is giving me a finger in the front row, what’s the got to do with me? He’s coming at music from a totally different perspective.
And proof is in pudding, right? People are still excited to see what Prong is up to.
That’s the glory of the whole thing. That doesn’t deflect from the fact that every day you need to stay in a place of gratitude or the whole thing is gonna fall apart. You really have to be careful about getting too puffed up over your place in the food chain — Oh, I deserve better. It’s a struggle. If you walk into a rehearsal room or a backstage area and act like you’re the king, you will meet resistance. Allow others to make mistakes, and maybe they’ll understand when you fuck up. Everything else is relatively lower on the totem pole of priorities. You have to focus on yourself. I had to learn this the hard way — it’s not anything I came out of the box knowing. I mean, there’s no book written on how to behave in this situation. But my belief is, if you get your shit together, stay humble, and do the work you’re supposed to do, other people are going to fall in line and respond appropriately.
Now, as a human being, we’ll take one little negative thing that’s bothering us and let it cloud every other good thing. That’s the biggest mistake — in music and life.