Royal Thunder is at a crucial point in its young career. The Atlanta hard-rock band's 2009 EP was like the hard-hitting rookie batter who causes serious chatter; a heavy, '70s-style riff machine with pipes that could tear through walls. But fast-burning flames burn the fastest, setting up crazy expectations and jinxing long-term prospects. To extend the baseball metaphor (sorry, I'm in full-on baseball mode right now), the members of Royal Thunder must have trained in the off-season for their new album CVI, developing songs beyond a killer riff and even adding a second guitarist to its roster. CVI not only builds on the promise of a great EP, but it's also a portrait of songs that have been painstakingly lived-in, like the deeply personal "Parsonz Curse."
After two slow hi-hat hits and a two-note walkdown comes the voice of bassist Mlny Parsonz: a deep, bellowing howl that reaches straight into the chest. She can growl, coo and seethe in one phrase without breaking the seam. To be clear, Parsonz isn't the center of Royal Thunder, as many bands with female vocalists sometimes paint themselves. She's an integral part of the psychedelic, bluesy thud that slowly spirals upward from not only "Parsonz Curse," but also the album as a whole
When I called members (and spouses) Mlny Parsonz and guitarist Josh Weaver, both agreed separately that Royal Thunder needed time to regroup after the EP, though that never meant taking a break. Between nightly practices and performances, Weaver says he dug into guitar gear as Parsonz came to terms with her lyrics and what it meant to sing them.
NPR: Without the benefit of a lyric sheet, I was struck by the pained threat of "Parsonz Curse." It sounds something like, "You can run, you can hide / I'm sorry that you're sorry / These walls will tear you down." What is the curse?
MP: The lyrics are actually, "You can run, you can hide / But I swear it, I swear it / These walls will tear you down." You know, I was asked recently about — more than I care to be asked — what the curse is. It's kind of a hard one for me because I... Lyrically, I wrote these words a long time ago. [I] had no idea that people would want to know so much. I thought it was just going to be this little song we played in Atlanta. I had no idea it would be on a CD.
I don't want to go into detail, because it is a part of where my family comes from and part of what my family's going through. And to give that information out seems like airing my family's dirty laundry. But I will say that there's something in my family that's been passed down the generations that I've seen in a lot of relatives on my dad's side. It's just kind of trickled down and fell on a lot of people. No one else is doomed to this curse. It's one of those things — every generation, [it hits] someone in my family. I've always seen it, because I feel like I'm a very discerning person; I can sense a lot of that stuff. Particularly, it's something that I've seen in my dad.
It's about that and what my family had to go through watching that. And that's the most I've ever told anybody. I've never even been specific about a family member, but that's a person that I had in mind when I was writing the song. It's more a song to my mother, walking her through it.
NPR: I think I understand what you're getting at — a trait or event that follows a family for generations, that's something I can relate to. I think it's something that a lot of people can relate to.
MP: And what you're saying makes me think that it's something that's not super-obvious.
NPR: It's something that hinders you.
MP: Right. And I like not being specific about it, because I don't know what you're thinking, you don't know what I'm thinking. I mean, I hope you can relate to it, and process stuff in your life with it. But like I said, I don't ever plan on telling anyone what it is, because I don't want to be a traitor.
NPR: Is it important for you to write lyrics from a personal space?
MP: Absolutely, yeah, especially on this album. I think I was afraid to on the EP. I wanted to say a lot of things, but I didn't want to be super-open. I'm open with the people that I'm close to, but I'm very protective of my personal life. But on the EP, I think there might be a sense of that holding back. On CVI, I think I kept it pretty vague, but I definitely expressed a lot of personal — every song was extremely personal to me, lyrically.
NPR: I read somewhere, Mlny, that you came to singing late in life, that you mostly screamed before. I was wondering how you discovered your voice, because I adore it every time that I listen to it. It's a rare quality when a singer actually matches the music he or she's making.
MP: Wow, thank you, man. I appreciate that. [Pauses.] Finding my voice, man. You know, I thought I found my voice in the back of a van — this sounds like it's going somewhere bad [laughs] — when I probably 6 or 7. I had been listening to so much Whitney Houston growing up and learning it on piano. I had a songbook for the piano. It was "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," and it had her on the front with a little white dress. So I got in the back of this van and had my cousins in there and my mom and my aunt, and we're driving. I was like, "I didn't learn this song on piano, but I learned how to sing 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' by Whitney Houston." And they're all, "Oh! Let's turn off the radio, you can sing it for us." And Whitney Houston did so many awesome things with her voice. When I was a little kid, I sang like [growls], "I wanna dance with somebody," and I did that the whole time. I sang the whole song like that. I poured my heart out and the van was just silent. It was terrible. In retrospect, it was f------ horrible. They were doing everything they could not to laugh. So that was my first experience actually singing, and I didn't sing after that. I just didn't. I think I grabbed my guitar a couple times and played for my dad, and he'd be like, "You done yet?" So my experiences with singing were pretty bad.
By the time I got to high school, I have this memory of being in somebody's basement with some band and my friend says, "Hey, grab one of these microphones. We're going to do some grindcore stuff. Just f--- around." So I grabbed one of the mics and just started screaming, doing like grindcore/death-metal stuff. And everyone just started laughing. I'm like, "Oh, God, here we go again." But they were laughing because they liked it.
NPR: How did Royal Thunder discover that you could sing?
MP: You know, [Royal Thunder] had been instrumental for a while and gone through some changes. Josh found a drummer, and it worked out great with the drummer. The drummer's like, "We need a bass player and a singer." And Josh says, "Oh, Mel plays bass and I'm sure she'll sing." I'm like, "Uhhh." I come into the room and he says, "Grab a bass and just kind of throw some lyrics on there, sing something." It was just one of those moments where it was like, "This is it. You're the singer." I was actually pretty bummed that I had to do it. I don't think I really wanted to. I was too shy about it.
NPR: The songs on the Royal Thunder EP were not necessarily short, but definitely punchy — something you might've heard on '70s FM radio. CVI develops more. Have you been listening to more Led Zeppelin?
JW: No, a lot of what happened was after the EP — I'm really into musical gear, and with this new album, I started experimenting with different guitar fuzz pedals and different effects. I've heard the Led Zeppelin comparison, and I definitely love Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin was one of those bands that I got into later on in life, actually the past couple of years. They've definitely become one of my favorite rock bands.
NPR: Then aside from some sweet gear, what brought you to these more extended takes? I mean, it's not a matter of being longer; it's more taking a riff and bringing it to its natural state. I'm wondering how you got there.
JW: From the time that we did the EP until the recording of CVI, we had been playing non-stop. We'd pretty much practice every day and we'd play shows all of the time, so it's that and me getting into more gear, and all of us growing as musicians and really just honing in our sound. I think that the songwriting's become more natural, and not just a riff, as you said.
NPR: What is the significance of the album title, CVI? Those are the Roman numerals for 106.
JW: It seems like one of those strange mysteries in my life and in Mel's life and a few close friends that the number 106 follows us everywhere. I can't explain it. I don't know what it means.
NPR: Where has 106 shown up for you?
JW: I see it everywhere. I have a good friend — his birthday is on January 6. There was a track that I did a scratch guitar on, and me and the producer were trying to figure out the beats per minute. It actually ended up being 106 beats per minute. It was like, "Damn, man." It was just hard to believe. That's just one example of it.
NPR: As someone who grew up in Georgia, I'm always happy to discover great bands from my home state. But having grown up in the Atlanta suburbs, I know that Atlanta is a different beast from what's considered "The South" — a culture that I treasure, but know is often misunderstood. Does the notion of "region" matter at all to you as a musician, either alone or as a part of Royal Thunder? I know you didn't grow up the South, Mlny.
JW: To a degree, I think so. I think where you're from definitely comes out in your music in one way or another.
MP: No. But I do think where you come from or where the music's coming from, I think it does have an effect on people. As far as Atlanta goes, it's kind of a melting pot for people of the South. A lot of people from around there and bands in Atlanta now — a lot of us come from the suburbs, and Atlanta's kind of a place to feel like you belong. In some ways, I can see how it affects Josh, he being truly raised in the South. He's so Southern to me. I think there's a bluesiness to being in the South. I think there's a sorrow.