Return of the (Hardcore) King: Parris Mayhew Summons “Chaos Magic”

In case you forgot, Parris Mitchell Mayhew is back to remind you.

Thirty five years after changing the game forever with the Cro-Mags landmark 1986 album The Age of Quarrel — not to mention subsequently helping establish the blueprint for metallic hardcore on Best Wishes (1989) — the hardcore/crossover innovator and six-string prime mover, who went onto an impressive and wildly diverse career in film and television, kicks down the door of his old medium to deliver an absolute lives-up-to-its-title barnburner “Chaos Magic” via his new outfit The Aggros.

With “Chaos Magic” I wanted to make this musical statement, which was everything that I had done in the Cro-Mags before, but more stylishly, and performed better, and much more dynamic and just more interesting.

And at damn near seven minutes long, if hardcore was short on epics before, it sure as hell isn’t anymore.

“I guess to a certain extent you can’t ever say ‘I wish this or that didn’t happen’ because the end result is what it is,” Mayhew tells Decibel of the lengthy, somewhat arduous path back to chaos. “I mean, I literally walked out of the Cro-Mags and immediately got attracted to something else creative and went straight into the film business. I didn’t even think about playing music for years. My guitars were in storage for almost a decade, actually. It wasn’t until a friend of mine pressured me to revisit that part of who I am that I even started to think about writing music again.” Once he did, Mayhew wasn’t about to phone it in. “Because I was successful in the film business, I had good fortune to be able to do it on my terms in my own studio and at my own pace.”

Mayhew was kind enough to recently chat with Decibel about the musical and philosophical underpinnings of the Aggros unique alchemy — which you can check out immediately after letting the worlds-collide official video for “Chaos Magic” knock you on your ass below…

So you’ve got a creative skillset and background that obviously transcends your seminal work in heavy music: You attended the High School of Art and Design in New York City and then earned a degree in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts. You’ve had a long and diverse career behind the camera in film and television. Considering how outside-the-box/two-steps-ahead “Chaos Magic” is, I’m wondering if you think there’s a synergy at work between all these pursuits?

Absolutely. People ask me where this concept of chaos magic came from. It developed very organically for me. When I was directing music videos in the ’90s, I would make a very meticulous plan and then once I got on set, I found myself following my artistic sensibilities more. If I my attention was drawn to something that wasn’t on my shot list, I would still pursue it. If I started to shoot something and it was better than I thought it would be, I would shoot way more than of that I had thought I would. And the results of that type of approach — you know, striving to discern patterns and possibilities in what appears to be chaos to other people — are more interesting and original. I tried to draw a parallel between walking into a room with a camera and the way a sculptor would approach a block of marble. The sculptor finds a way to just remove what shouldn’t be there. I used to say to people, “The video is there, we just have to find it.”

You embrace the chaos and magic follows.

Right. The origins of magic were just primitive people finding items that they thought were interesting and then attaching meaning to those items. You put two or three of these things together — a feather, a rock — and you attribute some kind of magic to it, wave it over somebody’s head and now you’ve become a shaman. Or, later, you put any number of elements and chemicals together and, often accidentally, find some new combination that becomes a new material or medicine — you’re a chemist. That’s it’s own magic, right? That’s a magic that leads to medical discoveries and many other things we take for granted as intuitive today. I don’t want to over-explain it, but it can work the same way with art and music if you can get out of your own way, open your mind, and let it do so. I felt “Chaos Magic,” the song, was the ultimate expression of this in my songwriting, so that’s why I threw the title on it. But it’s not exclusive to me, obviously. I remember, when I was getting into the film business, I had just seen the film Hearts of Darkness, which is the making of Apocalypse Now.

Right, right. I’m very familiar with it.

I remember being kind of astonished that Francis Ford Coppola was basically making the movie up as he went along. He was writing all night and when he got on set, he would let Brando improvise or he’d change the ending based on his wife’s observation about a ritual she had witnessed. I remember thinking to myself, “This guy has got the entire movie scripted out. The whole thing is planned. They’re on set, spending millions of dollars. And he’s still making it up as he goes along.” And that’s when I realized that I wasn’t wrong to trust my sensibilities on set when I was directing music videos because here is a real artist — I mean, a true artist; Francis Ford Coppola is an artist is anybody is — and he was practicing this. So I definitely carried that example into my work in the film business and then into my work as a musician.

That film is also an interesting study in self-belief, right? You get the sense that once he embraced that chaos if he flinched at any moment — if he stepped off the path and tried to do things in a more traditional way suddenly — then the whole thing would have fallen apart. He crossed a line and had to completely believe in his ability to pull it off. To drop off in the middle and make concessions would have killed that piece of art.

You understand perfectly. You just articulated it better than I could have. I remember walking out of the movie thinking, “Oh, yes, that’s exactly what it is.” It’s also the same thing that allows me to show up on a feature film as a camera operator where they’re spending a hundred thousand an hour and trust my sensibilities in that context. I’m not nervous. An established director or cinematographer might say, “This is what we’re going to do.” And I’ll say, “Well, actually, if we did it from over here, we’d be able to catch all the action and we only have to come around to one shot to complete the scene.” Or something like that. Often And these two experienced cinematographer and director will look at me and go, “Okay, let’s do that.” And you have to have that self trust. And self trust comes from that ability to recognize your own ability to discern and, again, that’s what I call Chaos Magic.

You know, subsequently, somewhere along the line — not even that long ago — I Googled the phrase chaos magic, because I’d never really heard it anywhere else. And something popped up, some kind of wacky satanic religion or something. I started to read it and then immediately stopped. Because I didn’t want some outside influence coloring it for me. It didn’t matter to me that there was some other definition out there, because my definition of the term was so personal, so intense. I did Google it a second time about a year ago and it turns out that there’s a band somewhere in Europe with that name. But that didn’t bother me, either. It didn’t feel like a conflict in any way because my motivation for naming the song had nothing to do with them.

It’s interesting to hear all this conceptual and philosophical background. On a more surface level, it’s an epic, multi-layered title for an epic, multi-dimensional song. Which I would guess is intentional.

Obviously, the song is not influenced musically by Metallica or anything that. But one of the things that I miss about the era of Metallica that produces songs like “Master of Puppets” is that those songs were a journey. That approach is sort of beyond genre. You could say I learned as much about that journey from Rush and Yes as I did from Metallica. The point is, this attitude of, “Oh, if you don’t get somebody in the first five seconds, you’re lost”? I totally reject that, like the bands I just mentioned rejected it. I refuse to write songs for today’s attention span. I’m not writing songs for Instagram. I’m actually going to write songs, in my style, for people who appreciate Close to the Edge and Master of Puppets — songs that were a journey and then after the first minute and a half might evolve into a completely different song with a completely different feel.

You mentioned Master of Puppets, but it almost feels like this is your …And Justice For All record. By which I mean, it’s recognizably “you” with a lot of next-level, unexpected twists and turns.

That’s really interesting. I will say, in my opinion, the best Metallica song is “Dyer’s Eve.” To me, “Chaos Magic” is kind of my hardcore “Dyer’s Eve.”

I always go back to this quote by Henry Miller from Tropic of Cancer where he says, “We raised everything to apotheosis.” I feel like sometimes after a band’s craziest record, they can’t really take it any further and there is a big shift. So …And Justice For All is immediately followed by the black album. The weird, intricate, genius apotheosis had been reached and change was inevitable.

Another band to go into your example is Rush. After Hemispheres, the next album is Permanent Waves. Short compact radio songs after this Hemispheres, which is my favorite Rush album.

That is so apt. What’s amazing about The Aggros is it does not feel like you’ve hot the apotheosis. To be honest, “Chaos Magic” is such a powerful journey it took me from a skeptic in instrumental hardcore to a believer pretty damn quick! It really shows what a high level you operate on as far as crafting those sort of songs go. But can you talk to me a little bit about why you decided to embark on that journey in that particular way?

Well, necessity is the mother of invention. That’s really what it is. I basically got tired of waiting for fictional people to show up. I remember I jammed with Roy Mayorga from Stone Sour one afternoon. And it was great. It was so great I just broke out laughing. He’s like, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “I’ve jammed with two dozen people over the past two years and we’ve accomplished more in this one afternoon than I did in those two years.” And he just looked at me and without any emotion said, “Well, that’s because you’re not playing with people on your level.” And it rang very true. I realize, of course, that it’s a difficult thing to approach later in life, as I did. It’s usually teenagers and their knucklehead friends, everyone’s in the process of learning new instruments and they all try really hard — except those two who don’t really try as hard as the other guys and eventually disappear. At some point, if they do have success, they got there together, developed together. It’s rare that somebody comes to the table a fully realized musician, like myself, to start something new. So at the beginning I just found myself surrounded by people at the very beginning of their learning curve. And while I could certainly speed them through that learning curve in some ways, most people just need to make their own mistakes. It got very tiring for me. A lot of them, understandably, wanted to have a voice and be heard in the process, but it was ultimately just taking me further away from where I was trying to go. One guy was like, “I really like the Black Crowes, can we play stuff like that?” And I said, “Well, I love The Black Crowes, too, but that’s not what I do!”

What happened was, slowly but surely these guys fell by the wayside and, as I said to my friend the other day, as soon as the room was empty, I started playing my music again, you know? After showing the parts to “Chaos Magic” to twenty-five different bass players who never quite played it right, I just did it myself. I mean I’m a bass player, I started out as a bass player. I was originally the bass player of the Cro-Mags. Out of necessity, finding the other musicians, I switched to guitar. It was one of those kinds of things. So to play bass on the recording was actually a great thing. The tug of war and negotiating came to an end and I recorded all the bass and all the guitar for “Chaos Magic” to a click.

It was almost like a bittersweet feeling because I said to myself, “I could have done this five years ago if I had been more demanding instead of trying to cater to the desires and the happiness of other people in the room who didn’t have a direction.” We all fall in love with this idea of being in a band like the Beatles, where there are four guys and everybody contributes and the band wouldn’t be anything without all four, or the Eagles. One of those fantasy bands where everybody in the band walks up to the table and empties their pockets, you know what I mean? They take out everything they’ve got to chip in. They’re pulling out lint out of their pockets to give everything they have. Doesn’t always happen. I’ve never found that, honestly.

Did you know from the jump it was going to be instrumental?

Oh, no. I must have auditioned a hundred guys. And then I found myself with this recording of “Chaos Magic” that I had been sitting with for a while and I realized it never once felt to me as if it was missing anything. I mean, I did think that eventually there would be someone singing on it. But that was a knee jerk reaction because I figured, “Well, that’s the normal way of doing things.” But one day I was sitting in the car listening to it with a friend really loud and when it was over, I said to myself, “I’m going to make a video for this. Right now I’m going to start making a video for it, and that’s it. I’m just going to put it out that way.” I gave up on looking for the perfect singer, like I gave up looking for perfection in other areas, and it instantly liberated me to actually get things done.

Are there any instrumental bands that you’re a fan of that served as touchstones for you?

Absolutely. And, oddly enough, they’re not in the genre of heavy music. But in the ’70s, I listened to a lot of the Dixie Dregs and Brand X, which was a jazz band that Phil Collins played drums in. Those were my two favorite bands of that era. It’s funny: I really thought that instrumental virtuoso genre was dead. I never thought any band would ever be like that again, especially these days. But then I have friends who would say, “Oh, have you seen this person on YouTube?” And it’d be some kid playing crazy virtuoso stuff on a street corner and he’s got ten million views. From my perspective it’s like, “This is great…and also terrible.” I mean, the talent is awe-inspiring, and some of them are making money from it, but it’s a little too close to those weird phenomenon of game shows where people go on and sing cover songs. I’d much prefer all these virtuosos to get off YouTube and go find each other and channel their talents into original songs, you know? I guess you might say, “If someone develops this skill at 18 and has ten million followers, what’s their motivation to share the stage?” But I think it would be fantastic. I really only appreciate skill when its in a context that is purposeful.

Anyway, my point is, in going down that rabbit hole I did discover a video by Tim Henson from a band called Polyphia. Actually, it didn’t even mention his band, but I saw in the comments someone mention it. So I looked up Polyphia and this band already has four or five albums out. I was blown away. They seem to be heavily influenced by all those bands I liked in the ’70s. They look maybe fifteen but sound a lot like the Dixie Dregs if you threw in modern hip hop and lounge music sounds. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Polyphia, have you?

No, I haven’t.

They are fucking extraordinary. Best bass player around I think and the drummer is incredible. But, of course, the first thing you’re going to notice is these two guitar players. Just unbelievably great songwriting. The fact that they’re having success now also influenced my decision to put the song out as an instrumental. I was listening to a lot of Polyphia when I was making the music video. So Polyphia is definitely a band that’s almost completely instrumental. It’s inspiring stuff. I’d like to see that sort of thing make a real comeback.

Hopefully this isn’t too far off topic, but you mentioned people at the beginning of their musical journey. I always think it’s a little bit of a shame that hardcore has such a youth culture focus to it. Because when you look at the people who stay active in the scene…well, not into their middle age even, but, say, past their early twenties, the music they make is often just so brilliant. I guess what I’m trying to say is it seems like so few people stick in this realm of music long enough to benefit from experience, benefit from growing to fully know themselves, to fully know their artistic selves. When I listen to “Chaos Magic,” for example, “Oh, this is a master craftsman in this arena.”

It’s definitely true that there aren’t enough mature voices in heavy music. I guess that’s why I use Metallica as an example — it’s very sophisticated songwriting and arrangement and they also came from an era where bands had time to simmer and fester and develop. Whereas now it’s like four guys get together and they have a song online before it really should have been out there in my opinion. “Oh, you can record an album on a laptop! And put it online! It’s so easy!” Yeah, maybe too easy. The result doesn’t seem to have been a larger quantity of great music. It’s actually the opposite, oddly enough.

My point is, I didn’t just jump right back in and try to continue exactly what I was doing before. I let my creative juices fester and develop again. Oftentimes, the band’s first album is the result of a bunch of years leading up to that first album and I fortunately had the luxury of being able to basically do that again. So this record really feels like my first record, even though it is probably a little bit more mature in terms of songwriting structure and arrangement.

If I understand correctly, the plan for The Aggros is almost guerilla-style thing, releasing songs as you get them done with a visual element.

Yeah. I want to make a video for every song. So I’m just going to release one song at a time. Because I can. I’m not on a record company schedule; there’s no machine waiting for an album. I don’t even know if that model is valid anymore. Seems like so many people release EP length things and they just go to the web anyway. Also, dealing with this pandemic where there are no concerts… The old model was you put out an album, you go out on tour to support that album, and then once you’ve done as much touring as you can on that album, you stop, you make another record, and you go through that cycle again. That’s not even possible now. So I kind of feel as if the circumstance and my desire to do it this way are actually in line, because if I release one song every couple of months for, say, the next year, and then concerts do return, I could do a collection of the songs I released in that year and it would be an album. I do plan to put out a 10-inch EP in 2021 of the songs that I will, hopefully, there’ll be four or five songs out by that time and I’ll put those four or five songs on the EP.

You must be gratified by the response to “Chaos Magic.”

I’m a little astonished. It’s been a long time since I put out a record so you never know. Maybe people just aren’t going to dig what I’m doing or who knows? I watch a lot of YouTube Music and one of the things I notice is how unkind and unfriendly and nasty actually the comments are, not only to the musicians, or the artists that the videos are, but I read people fighting with each other. Someone’s post comment and then it’ll go 50, 100 comments of people calling each other assholes. And I was like, “Oh my God.” I don’t want that and I actually discussed it with my wife. I was like, “I think I might turn off the comments.”

It’s scary, right?

Absolutely. We actually discussed it quite a bit right up until the day of the premiere. At the last second, I was like, “Eh, I’m not made a glass I guess I’ll just have to deal with whatever comes.” And literally, the video has been up for almost just under three months now, and there hasn’t been a single negative comment. Nobody bickering, nobody being insulting. That astonishes me more than anything else. And the other thing that I really appreciate is not one person has commented on how long the song is. If you can put out a six and a half minute song and nobody says that song is really long? That shocked me. I hope that’s testament to them being involved in the journey. If you find yourself with the song ending, and you’re not really aware of how long it was, that’s the best case scenario.

So as far as the Aggros go, what’s next? Is there another video imminent or…?

There is a video that’s imminent. I would be out shooting it right now because I wanted to shoot one in a snowstorm. We’re having a blizzard here in New York. I directed this web spot for this chocolate company and we’re editing right now. But it literally is imminent, I just bought a new camera, I was actually waiting to get this new camera before I shot the second video and I’m just going to go out and start shooting some ideas. I’m not on a timetable. There’s no record label pressuring me so I’m just going to take my time and make the second video. And I’m also in the studio, kind of finishing up another song, which I want it to be the second song but I don’t want to wait that long to start shooting another video so I’ll start shooting a video for this other song, which is more of a straight rock song and then the third song will be another kind of six minute long, hardcore ethic.

Just keep going.

That’s the idea.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.