Interview: Swans, Prong, and Godflesh drummer Ted Parsons

Ted Parsons came up in the gritty, post-punk/no wave scene of early ’80s New York, in which the legendary club CBGB provided the focal point for much new music of that decade. After Prong signed to major label Sony, he spent a significant amount of his career touring the world. Today he lives in Oslo, Norway with his wife and two kids, where he continues to break the sticks and make a joyful noise.

When did you start playing drums, and what was the attraction to drums specifically?

I was in an elementary school band – the school band – and that was snare drum and bass drum. My main inspiration was my uncle who played jazz in Boston at the time. He was also in the Revere Raiders, which was like a drum and bugle corps. I’d go to his place and watch him do like the jazz shuffle, and I always wanted to do that, so I’d sit there and watch him for hours.

One of the first gigs I played was at this mental institution, and I’ll tell you why. We had this guy who wanted to be our manager – this is like when we’re about 14, 15 – and he said, “Well, I’m a cook over at the Danvers Mental Institution” – it was like this big, scary place almost out of a creepy movie, you know – so he said, “I can get you a gig there.” And we’re like “Oh, great, our first real gig.” So we get there and we’re setting up all our gear, and they open the doors and these disabled people come in on wheelchairs and stuff. It was almost like the Day of The Dead zombies coming in.

So we’re like, "Oh, well, whatever, we’re just going to play." So while we’re playing one of the guys in a wheelchair started having a seizure and fell out of his wheelchair, and the audience was going nuts because I don’t know if there was anything like that ever organized up there. So that was my first gig ever. We were doing like ZZ Top and Thin Lizzy, T-Rex, you know - basic rock stuff that you would hear on the radio at the time.

What happened after high school?

After high school I got accepted to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. My folks wanted me to stay in Boston ‘cause I got accepted to the Museum of Fine Arts School, but I thought Boston was a little conservative. I was so excited about being in New York in 1980. All the clubs were open – CBs was still open, the Garage, the Mudd Club, it was like the last year of Max’s Kansas City – so at that point I was so much into this new punk, post-punk and new wave stuff, and it was a very exciting time for me. I was out every night almost, seeing bands – everyone from New Order, The Stranglers, and Killing Joke. I was also hanging out at CBs and got turned onto The Talking Heads, The Ramones and Bad Brains.

Oh, great, our first real gig. And they open the doors and these disabled people come in on wheelchairs.

Did you play in bands in New York?

The first band that I started in New York was with Greg Grinnell, who I later played in this electronic dub project, Teledubgnosis. The band was called Group of Trees. It was me, Greg, and this girl Judy Jigsaw, who was also another student at Pratt Institute. She had no talent whatsoever. She was really big into Crass, but she had no clue how to make any music. She just had this crappy, old, electric guitar, completely out of tune, just bangin’ on it making weird noises and stuff. So that was sort of like my first official band in New York. And I didn’t have my drums at the time, so I was playing pots and pans. So I told my folks, you have to send me my drums, and my father’s like, “No way I’m sending drums up there, you should be studying.” Eventually, I just went back to Massachusetts and grabbed them anyways.

Then I went on to play in Crazy Hearts with Greg and we shared a studio on the Lower East Side with Bad Brains. The Crazy Hearts had a female singer, and we liked Public Image a lot, so it was kinda influenced by that. John Lydon actually came to one of the gigs we played at Danceteria. It was just kind of derivative of Public Image - and kinda dubby, kinda reggae, but with a lot of noisy electronics - and we managed to put out a 45. We just pressed up our own and sold them at the gigs. This is a time in New York when you could play anywhere, you know. Hilly [Kristal, the owner of CBGB] always had open mic night, and you didn’t have to be popular or known or anything. I kind of miss that about New York, you know; when you could get a gig any night, somewhere, somehow.

When did you join the Swans and how did that come about?

Around ‘84, ‘85 I joined the Swans. I was playing in this band 10 Hail Marys with Greg Grinnell, which was kinda like the Fall meets the Dead Boys – really fast and angry. We were playing at CBs and this guy comes in, Al [Kizys], and he played bass for the Swans. And he goes, “Oh, man, you guys were great.” He was really kind of drunk, and I instantly bonded with the guy because I liked him, and we had the same taste in music. A couple weeks after that he calls me up and says, “Teddy, do you want to join this band Swans?” And I was like “Swans? I never really heard them.” I had heard the name, you know, like Sonic Youth, Swans, Live Skull, but I didn’t really like the music so much. But he said, “We’re going on tour for three months in Europe, you want to join?” So I said, “Oh, OK.” [laughs]

The ceilings would come crumbling in, and that was the whole point.

It was like pummeling, really slow music, very repetitious. But looking back at it, it was very important in music history because it was more about the space than the actual beat. So you’d have to count very slow tempos, maybe 50 or even 40 beats per minute. But I have to say that those three months in Europe were amazing. I met so many different bands; I was introduced to so many different types of music; I met the guys in Neubauten, which, to me, were the true industrial band. We met Test Department, Laibach – these were bands that I had never even heard about.

I remember we used to drag around this German soundsystem on the three month tour, called Dusenklang. We would bring this thing into any little venue and peel the paint off the walls. The ceilings would come crumbling in - and that was the whole point.

Swans - A Screw

How long were you with Swans?

I was with them for like five albums; for about four years. But you know the first recording I did with Swans, was “A Screw” on [the album] Holy Money? I get in there – I can’t remember what the studio was – and Michael Gira the singer said, “Well, you know what? There’s no drum kit here, we just want to set a snare drum up in the hallway and have you hit it.” And I was like, “What? OK.” So they set the snare up in this big hallway down this corridor, and I hit the drum, and that was it. They sampled it, and he said, “OK, that’s great, go home.” That was it. That was “A Screw.”

How did you transition then from Swans to Prong?

I answered this Village Voice ad that said: “From Black Flag to Black Sabbath.” They were looking for a drummer so I called the number, and it was this guy Billy Pilgrim. That’s when I met Tommy [Victor] from Prong, and we were just jamming. We really liked the energy of the hardcore, the punk music, so I said, “Yeah, I’ll play with you guys.” I had just left the Swans, cause Swans were having a little break. I could finally play some fast beats, so I could bring my hi-hat. We played mostly at CB’s since Tommy worked there and the first bass player worked the door. Mike Kirkland worked the door there, too, so that was like my home away from home. I could go there, drink for free and just hang out. See all the great bands.

The only reason we signed to Sony was because we needed money – like a loan from the bank.

We’d play the hardcore matinees. We’d play with Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, and bands like that. But we’d also play with Corrosion Of Conformity, DRI, Whiplash, no NY noise bands and Clutch because we never really fit in anywhere. We were hardcore, but we were a little more experimental. We would play anywhere we could. We played pizza places in New Jersey, but we would play mostly these hardcore matinees.

Vernon Reid used to come down all the time and check us out – super nice guy, love that guy like a brother. He loved the band, and they [Living Colour] had just got signed to Sony/Epic at the time. Without telling us, he went up to Sony/Epic and said, “You gotta sign these guys.” So Bob Fineagle, the A&R, a true A&R – he was one of the guys who worked his way up from the mail room to being a head A&R guy – came down to CBs when we were playing. After we played he said, “We really want to sign you guys.” And we were like, “Yeah, right, get out of here.” [laughs] But then we had the contract and off we went. But I’m thinking now that back in the day, the only reason we signed to Sony was because we needed money – like a loan from the bank.

Prong - Look Up At The Sun

What was it like going from indie labels and experimental bands to signing to a major?

To be honest, I don’t think it was all that great. They were trying to tell us what kind of clothes to wear – and I know Tommy was really stressed because we were just a T-shirt and jeans band. We were just like a regular hardcore band from New York. We didn’t really have like an image. I still had short hair and we had two guys who had long hair. They [Sony] were spending so much money on these friggin’ videos. The first couple videos we did ourselves. Mike Kirkland’s girlfriend did one from the Force Fed album, “Look Up at the Sun,” a black and white grainy video I thought was wicked, and just a hell of a lot better.

You know, the only reason we were on Sony/Epic was for the money so we could tour. We were one of the first metal core band to do remixes. The Orb, Foetus, and Lee Poppa are a few we invited to do some remixes. And eventually we sold like 70,000 records, and for us that was fantastic. We thought, “Wow.” This was around ‘95, ‘96, I think, near the end. But, you know, we were competing with like Rage Against The Machine and Pearl Jam, and for Sony that wasn’t good enough, so they dumped us after five records. We lasted for five albums when there were so many other bands coming and going.

So after Prong was dropped, what did you do?

I went on to play with Godflesh, and then a whole bunch of other people. Justin [Broadrick] and Benny [G.C. Green] were the sweetest guys in the world. Prong did a couple shows with Godflesh back in the Southern Records days. We just thought they were so cool, so heavy. I told Justin, “Man, if you ever need a drummer, call me.” 12 years later, his management calls me from Earache Records and says, “Ted, Justin really wants you to come and play.” [laughs] So, yeah, I joined Godflesh and basically just played over their programmed drums, and had a lot of fun with them. They were a sweet bunch of guys, you know. Such pummeling music, but they’re so mellow. I actually ended up making an album with them in Wales around 2001, Hymns. It got good reviews and it got really bad reviews. But I liked the album. I thought it was good.

Godflesh - Defeated

What was that Hymns session like?

It was great. I was finally recording with these guys, and it was just typical Godflesh. But I always like to have a swing in my music, in my beats and stuff, and people kind of call me the swing metal guy, because in Prong I always had hip-hop beats in the music. I don’t know what they called it, they coined it like “hip-hop metal” or whatever it was. But then a lot of people didn’t like that album because they thought we sounded like nu-metal. But I thought it was a great album. We were produced by this kind of typical metal producer. He had done a lot of Fear Factory, and bands like that, and you know, he kinda watered it down a little bit.

You worked a bit with Bill Laswell. Tell me about working with him.

I met Bill Laswell because he really wanted to produce a Prong album. So we get there and we did a demo with him, and I had to admit we didn’t really dig it so much cause we wanted a tighter sound. Bill eventually invited me back to work on his Buckethead album, cause Buckethead really liked the Prong stuff. So I do this session and Bill asks me, “What kind of kit do you want?” And I said, “Just something basic like, kick, snare, couple toms.” So I get to the studio at Greenpoint and he’s got like this Neil Peart drum kit, with bass drum, double kicks, every single tom ever made, cymbals. It was like a drum shop. And I said, “Bill, I’m not going to play all these.” And he said, “Well, just hit what you want.” [laughs]

My wife at the time was like, What’s that smell – are you wearing cologne? And I was like, “No, I shook Bootsy Collins’ hand.”

And then I get to see Buckethead. I had heard about him, but all I knew was that the guy was kinda eccentric and he wore a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on his head. So I met him, and he was a really mellow guy and soft spoken, but on his amp he had all these dinosaurs and all these Japanese dolls and stuff, and, sure enough, the Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. So we’re just jamming, you know, and listening to it now, it’s kinda all over the place, but it was a really fun session. The biggest thing for me at that session was meeting Bootsy Collins. He’s on the album too. That night Bootsy was wrapping up all his gear – he had this giant case of effects boxes that were all slaved together – and he said, “Hey that sounded great baby,” and I shook his hand. When I got home, my hand smelled like Hai Karate or something, and I was like, “Wow, I’m not going to wash my hand for a month.” My wife at the time was like, “What’s that smell – are you wearing cologne?” And I was like, “No, I shook Bootsy Collins’ hand.”

Did you tour with Godflesh?

We did a tour of the States after that Hymns album. It was a strange tour, but it was a lot of fun. I did three or four tours with Godflesh. It was always fun with those guys, and totally intense. It was quite like Swans – I was in that mentality that it was like a trance. It was about the power, and the beat, and the groove, and I absolutely loved Justin’s guitar cause I thought he was really unique with his feedback. But it was tiring. To be honest, I was on tour for 25 years of my life. With Prong, we were on tour seven to eight months out of the year.

Playing on so many different projects, how does your approach or technique differ from project to project?

I play for the music. I was never like a drummer who wanted to be fancy and knew all these drum solos. I always prided myself on listening to a lot of different music, you know, because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as being a metal drummer. I wanted people to know that I had a funky side, and I loved dub and reggae. But every time I got into a new project, I’d just play what’s appropriate. The thing is, I’ve been really blessed because I’m not a session drummer, I’ve always played in bands that I really, really like – I mean minus Swans, even though I grew to like them.

Teledubgnosis - 80 Creeps

So let’s talk about your dub side project, Teledubgnosis. Was that the first project that you were at the helm?

I wasn’t really at the helm. It was with Jason Wolford and Greg Grinnell and we all kind just started this together, you know, ‘cause we all loved electronic and dub, we all started messing around, sending each other cassettes. We were talking about how much we loved Lee Perry and all the Studio One stuff. Greg loves dub, reggae and ska. He used to be in the Toasters a NY ska band . So we said, “Fuck it, let’s make a dub album.” I blame my parents for getting me into reggae because they went to Jamaica in the ’70s and brought back all these Bob Marley albums – this is ’75, ’76 – so I caught the bug when I was a kid.

Killing Joke Requiem Lokerse Festival 2003 Full Show

What was it like to tour with Killing Joke in 2003?

Well, that was punishing, but it was a dream gig for me. That was another three month world tour. Big Paul, the original drummer, was such a huge influence on my drumming, so it was an honor to sit in his place. But after that Killing Joke tour, I started having these seizures. I was helping a friend take a ceiling down, and I felt this skipping in my head. They found two tumors kind of morphed together. I called them “Siamese tumors.” They said to my wife, “We don’t know how long he’s going to live, this could be deadly.” I had had no problems until then, but they told me it was probably cooking in my brain for about eight or nine years. So that was kind of devastating because this kinda stuff never happens to you, it’s always the other guy. I went through chemo and radiation and that just wiped me out. For a year I was in bed, exhausted and depressed. But I had so many people sending me prayers and positive vibes, and eight, nine years later, I’m tumor free. It’s almost like a miracle, you know, whatever you want to call it. I was supposed to be dead.

How did you feel when you first got the diagnosis?

I said, “I don’t want to die.” I’m not afraid of death anyways, you know. I was accepting it. I just said, “You know what? I’m going to beat this.” But like I said, after a year in bed, it was tiring. But three days after that they stapled my head, my head looked like a baseball. So I went down to the studio two hours after the surgery. This is when I had started playing with the Necessary [Necessary Intergalactic Cooperation, AKA NIC] guys. I went down to the studio, and the guys were like, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “I just wanted to come down and play with you guys.” [laughs] I was so out of it on painkillers and medication.

Out of all the projects that you’ve been involved in your career, what are your favorites?

Well, Prong was a big chunk of my life, so I’m proud of that. I’m not really proud of how the band started to become heavy metal and lost the whole energy of the punk and the hardcore scene, but the Prong stuff is some of my best drumming I think. I think the Swans stuff, too, was very important. I didn’t realize at the time how important Swans were in music. But the thing that I really love is dub, and playing reggae drums. I started this project here – kind of an international project – called Largo Beat Sound System. I got all these people rounded up from all over the world, who live here in Norway. It was like a guy from Africa, a guy from here, a guy playing tabla, it was a great thing, but I just could not muster up the money to pay all these people. ‘Cause I was trying to get funding, you know. We were supposed to play for the Nobel Peace Prize concert, so I was thinking that was going to be really good.

But you know what? There’s been a lot of failures and a lot of successes in my life, so you can’t dwell on the failure or the stuff that didn’t happen. The things that did happen, I’m pretty proud of. The Godflesh stuff, I loved playing with those guys live. I thought that was the best because it was a bit of Swans, it was a bit of Prong, but it was Godflesh, and I put my blood and sweat into that, playing live. So I’m pretty much proud of everything I’ve done. I’m very blessed that I’ve been able to play with all these people in my career.

By S.H. Fernando Jr. on January 28, 2015

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