Let’s face it; amid the oft-tumultuous history of the Hardcore Punk genre, few artists and groups have proved to be as enduring as New York City-based icons Cro-Mags. Unleashing their full-length debut The Age of Quarrel (1986) and it’s follow-up Best Wishes in 1989, the group would soon become among the first to meld Hardcore Punk with Thrash Metal (i.e., the Crossover Thrash sub-genre). Fueled by, primarily, at least, via bassist Harley Flannigan and guitarist Parris Mayhew, inner turmoil would cause Mayhew to depart for a second and final time following the release of Revenge (2000). Recently, Mayhew, always a man of many words and interesting stories, was kind enough to speak with us in regarding, among so many other things, the highly-anticipated release of the oft-mighty Rise Of The Aggros (2023) from his instrumental project Aggros and his career as a filmmaker.
Todd: What can you tell us about the group Aggros? Specifically, what led to the release of Rise Of The Aggros?
Parris: “Aggros is really just a vehicle for my songwriting. I had been accumulating songs for quite a while and once I had something that I felt I wanted to put out to represent me again, separate from my old band, I made a music video for “Chaos Magic”. I’d literally decided to put it out as I was posting it. I thought ‘Okay, now I have to pick a name. I’d been banding around a bunch of band names for a while, but I’ve also been working on a TV pilot about a band and I thought I would use the music that I was writing as the music for the band in the pilot. The name of the band in the TV script was ‘The Aggros’, so we took what I was about to propose for the “Chaos Magic” video and the name Aggros. That’s really how the band was formed. And I feel the same way about this as I did with the Cro-Mags wheres they are but a vehicle for my songs, but this time, I wasn’t doing it all alone.”
Todd: Did you have any intention of using the material for a new project? Had it been your intentions all along?
Parris: “No, I didn’t have any intention. I wrote all of those songs for my personal pleasure. When I come home, I pick up my guitar and start playing. I ‘pan for gold’ as I’ve always called it where it’s just me playing to play something because I truly love playing. That’s just how I play music. I don’t play songs that other people wrote. I never did. I don’t know any other songs that anybody else other than myself wrote at all. So I find those shiny parts in the mud and then I begin to assemble them into songs. The next thing I knew, I had a catalog of songs. I hadn’t planned to write an album, but all of a sudden I had it just because I enjoy playing music so much. Once all the skeletons of the songs were done, I stopped where I used to stop because you want to leave room for vocals. That’s normally how I write. All of the Cro-Mags songs were written music first with lyrics added later.”
Todd: From the point of view of a fan and relative novice, it’s almost unfathomable that tracks like “Crush The Demoniac” and “Down But Not Out” (from the legendary Best Wishes, 1989) would’ve been written sans lyrics.
Parris: “They’re adapted to fit the music. …It’s not like someone liked the lyrics and said ‘Oh, let’s write music to this’. No, the songs were already completely written and arranged, beginning to end, without any consideration of what the words actually are. With songwriting, there’s a framework that you’ve been working with. This song, when you listen to it even without any vocals, has a sense of dynamics, so I did that again this time, but without the singer stepping in. Because I had all this room left, instead of having a voice come in and have that conversation, I decided to have that melodic conversation with different instruments taking turns. …You really feel like there’s a conversation going on between the instruments that maybe wouldn’t have been a conversation at all had there been vocals. I certainly didn’t plan for it to be an instrumental, but when a song is complete, it’s complete and “Chaos Magic” was complete. I didn’t feel like it needed anything once it was done, so I put it out that way. And it was only when I began to approach all the rest of the songs that I was like ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to continue with that theme?’ And not only able to continue it, but I think I got better at it as I went along. The conversations became a little bit more subtle and intricate and more satisfying. Especially with a song like “Fear View Mirror”. I feel as if there is a conversation going on up there, but there still are no words, ya know?”
Todd: As far as your songwriting process is concerned, are there any differences, fundamental or otherwise, bet-ween how you ‘approach’ what you’d written for Rise Of The Aggros and what you’d written while in Cro-Mags?
Parris: “For me, it’s always been the same. The only difference this time is that I complete all of the songs all by myself. I used to be where I would write a verse, a chorus and maybe a bridge, and then I’d bring it in to the band, and the band would play it over and over and over again. Sometimes, somebody would be like ‘Oh, well, I have a part that might finish the song’ and then the song would get finished. I can’t tell you how many Co-Mags songs where I wrote all of it except for like one little part that I didn’t even really like that much. When you’re in a band situation, people are applying for attention and trying to stake their claim, so they try to use brute force something into a song so they could be a songwriter too, and sometimes that didn’t work out well. Sometimes it did, but with this band, I was able to rely on my own whimsy, my own impulses, and I was able to change. I think what the problem was in the past was once people had their mark on a song, they didn’t want it to change. Even if you came up with a better part than the part that they contributed, they’d be like ‘Yeah, but that is my part’. With this, I could change and re-arrange. I re-arranged and re-Mixed these songs multiple times before they ma-de it to the record simply because I’d changed my mind. …You should be able to do that and do it with whimsy.”
Todd: For the uninitiated, can you please describe an example of a whimsical element from Rise Of The Aggros?
Parris: “I think a lot of those whimsical choices, for example, the organ intro on “Best Destiny”. I recorded that entire song and we were in the studio recording the keyboard part. The song had a guitar intro, but we were in there recording the chorus. I told my piano player I wanted an organ and he immediately got this sound that was like (late keyboardist) Jon Lord from Deep Purple and I was like ‘Not that kind of organ. I need a church organ so it sounds like chorale’. …And he suddenly found the church organ sound and I was like ‘That’s the sound’. It sounded just like fucking (Led Zeppelin bassist) John Paul Jones. I turned to the Engineer and was like ‘Roll the tape. Start recording right now’. So we press record and he started playing this thing that sounded like John Paul Jones was in the room. It was the chorus to the song, but played on piano, and he ended it on this resolving chord. I was like ‘Hold that chord. Don’t let go!’. That was something that happened very whimsically, with no argument, discussion or debates. …It was all a whimsy and I can’t imagine the song any different than it is now.”
Todd: With your individual careers as a Hardcore Punk pioneer and as a Union camera operator having already been discussed ad nauseam, have there been any true production overlaps between the two respective mediums?
Parris: “That’s a good question because when we were talking earlier about the TV show idea I had. When I was making the video for “Chaos Magic”, I didn’t plan to put the song out. I was going to use this song as one of the songs for the TV show. But if I was going to pitch the show, I thought one of the important things to pitch to people to make them understand is that it’s not going to be Gossip Girl or Sex And The City. It’s the New York of (the film) The Warriors (1979) and the darker New York City of my youth. I had to create something so that pe-ople will understand what the show looks like, so I made the “Chaos Magic” video with that in mind, and I think I achieved that look, that sodium vapor orange, New York City at night look, and it wasn’t until after the video was made that I realized ‘Oh shit, I got to just put this out because it’s fucking great’. …The song “City Kids” wasn’t finished, but I’d already started shooting the video. I hadn’t even recorded the guitar overdubs, the bass or anything, but I did have the basic drum track and the basic guitar track, so I just started shooting it. My wife would go out with the camera. It was her and I as the entire crew. We would go out at night, find a spot to shoot. We found the skateboard park under the Manhattan Bridge and we set up the camera. …There’s no camera movement in the video. All the shots of the music are stagnant shots. I don’t know if you realize that, but that’s all me. In the “City Kids” video, I’m actually the only musician. There’s lots of shots where you see three differ-ent people playing, but that’s really all me. If you re-watch the “Chaos Magic” video, there’s shots where there are twenty of me in there. There’s these high shots looking down the bridge with twenty people, but it’s all me.”
Todd: How large of an impact did (ex-Crumbsuckers guitarist) Chuck Lenihan have on Rise Of The Aggros? For those familiar with his body of work, his impacts on Rise Of The Aggros should be almost immediately obvious.
Parris: “He plays on “Best Destiny”, “Chaos Magic”, “Fear View Mirror” and “Sk8bored Fight”. The entire album was finished when I suddenly said to myself ‘There are no guitar solos on this record at all’. I began to think about where I would want there to be guitar solos and since I’m writing and Producing everything myself, I figured I would give myself some time to come up with something and leisurely lay some solos down. And then Chuck Lenihan popped into my head and I thought to myself ‘I know Chuck. He’s a great friend of mine. I could call him on the phone’. I’ve known him almost all my life, but the realization that I could call somebody so astonishingly talented on the phone and ask them to play on a record that I just made by myself was a very strange feeling. I almost hesitated because we’ve been friends for a long, long time, but I decided ‘Okay, I’m going to do it real casually’. “Chaos Magic” was the first song he played on…and I felt like I had accomplished what I want-ed to accomplish with that song re-planting my flag, so the idea of having somebody play on it again just was a little strange, but I thought ‘Okay, I’ll give it a shot’, so I sent him a song. Then he wrote me back saying ‘Okay’.”
Todd: Once you became musically reacquainted with one another, how long did it take before he was actively sending you material to work with? Considering the amount of time that passed, everything came together nicely.
Parris: “And he goes ‘Okay’ and two or three days later, I got an email with so many tracks. My Engineer and I didn’t even know what to do with it. We had to get on the phone with Chuck and figure out what it all was. …It was astonishing to me. …When me and Chuck were teenagers, he used to have this four-track (recorder) and he would play me these recordings he made where he would layer six or seven harmonies and make guitar solos with them. …They sounded like video games and were the craziest shit I ever heard in my life. I would roll my eyes at Chuck and be like ‘What the fuck you think you’re going to do with that? How could you ever put that in the context of the song?’ So I called up Chuck and I told him that same thing. I was like ‘Chuck, remember those days with the four-track and the six harmonies and I used to roll my eyes at you and joke and laugh at you?’ and he goes ‘Yeah’ and I said ‘That is what I want you to do’. …The solo that you hear on “Chaos Magic” is this beautiful and scenic, multi-harmony piece, so after we did that one, I said ‘Let’s send him another song’, so we sent him “Fear View Mirror”. He did that solo, which, to me, was equally as astonishing and then I was like ‘Let me play in between Chuck’, so I did that and that’s what ended up on the record. It became this guitar dual. I’m really looking forward to the video coming out because I shot it like it’s a gunfight. The camera is over my hip looking at Chuck and then the camera is over Chuck’s hip looking at me and we’re soloing at each other. I shot these ‘Clint Eastwood’ type close-ups of the eyes as we were soloing. Chuck has his own unique musical voice.”
Todd: In hindsight, do you have any regrets regarding leaving Cro-Mags? Was it difficult for you to step away from such a substantial body of work? Was their a particular incident that made you realize it was finally ‘time’?
Parris: “I just wish I had quit earlier. …What would I have been giving up? The only thing that I gave up by leaving that band is my songs and I have more songs. I have no remorse about leaving those people behind. The only thing I don’t like is that I’ve left my songs for them to benefit off of in my absence. They’re making a career off my songs. That’s the only thing. But I wish I had left much earlier. For example, when I came back to make Revenge (2000), I wrote ninety percent of that album. It wasn’t until I was in studio recording some of those tracks….like the song “Tore Up”, which is my favorite song that I wrote on the album. (Bassist/vocalist) Harley (Flanagan) didn’t even know how to play it when we were recording it, so me and (drummer) Dave di Censo w-ent in and laid down the basic tracks. After we finally got a great take, we went into the control room and play-ed it back. I was just standing there looking at Dave. …I didn’t say anything out loud because that was strictly an internal thought, but I realized I could’ve made this entire record by myself. Revenge could have been my first solo record. It could have been, but I made that mistake, and I went in, made that record and had another terrible experience with those people. I felt regret almost instantly like I had been tricked, so I quit and I went back into the film business, which is something I love doing. I got immersed into the business again for a couple of decades. It basically took me that long to get over the trauma of the terrible experience that is me playing music with those people. So that’s why I say ‘I only wish I had left earlier’. I also wish I had left before I experienced so much of the trauma that made me not feel akin to my own music. It’s taken me quite a long time to shake that off. Chaos Magic really changed that for me. Driving around in my car blasting that song from beginning to end and saying to myself ‘None of those guys had anything to do with this and it’s better than anything we ever did’ was the most satisfying feeling I ever had as a musician. But I also had that feeling when I was in the studio making Revenge when it was Dave di Censo and I playing. I was like ‘Shit man, I could’ve made this record by myself.’”
Todd: Will you be able to tour in support of Rise Of The Aggros? Will this set list contain all eras of your career?
Parris: “Yes, we have a ten day tour starting July 5th at Saint Vitus in Brooklyn and then we play the next day in Providence (Rhode Island) and then we do four days in Canada in Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, and Toronto and then we play in Philly and in (Washington) D.C. …Even though this is an Aggros tour, I wouldn’t be opposed to somewhere down the line playing some of my other songs live. I mean, they are all my songs, so to me, that’s different from doing a cover. But I have all this new music and that’s the fire that’s driving me now. I don’t want to be a retro act. I want to be the current act making current music and that’s what I’ve done with Aggros. …I’ve made an album that people will recognize as something relevant to the moment and not some hope for the past.”
Todd: How immediate of an impact did the COVID-19 situation have on your film career? I can’t even imagine.
Parris: “The pandemic ended my film career and everybody else’s because there just was no work. …It literally just disappeared. It took me about a month to realize that my phone wasn’t going to ring again because it was kind of hard for me to remember the mindset. Personally, I didn’t even believe it was happening. My wife and I went out to a concert the night before the shutdown. We went and saw the band Princess Goes To The Butterfly that has the actor Michael C. Hall (Dexter) as their singer at the (New York City-based) Mercury Lounge. And it wasn’t until we got to the show and there was only forty people there that we realized there was something more going on. Even Michael C. Hall said something on stage like ‘This might be the last concert you’ll ever see’. We ended up talking to (Blondie frontwoman) Debbie Harry at the bar, and…the reasonable question I had for her was ‘At her age, do you think you’re at a higher risk of catching this?’. …Apparently, Debbie, Michael C. Hall a-nd all the guys in Princess Goes To The Butterfly had caught COVID-19 that night…but my wife and I did not.”
Todd: It’s amazing how unpredictably it initially spread, even in the presence of significant preventive measures. With that in mind, how did you occupy yourself creatively during the lockdown? NYC was like a ghost-town.
Parris: “We got home that night and the shutdown happened the next day. I think it took me a month before I realized I would not be working. …And then I began to settle into and enjoy the fact that I wasn’t working. For the past twenty-three years, I’ve been working five days a week, thirteen hours a day on television and movie sets and your life really kind of vanishes. …What I was seeing on the news was that there was nobody on the streets. I would go out every night at midnight and shoot. I would go to the Williamsburg Bridge and load up this big Rubbermaid cart. I would put batteries, guitars, sandbags, stands and wardrobe changes and pile it all eight feet high. And then I would roll it up the bridge, which is like a half a mile, I would set up and I would shoot from one o’clock in the morning until five am. when the sun came up. That’s how the video for “Chaos Magic” got made. I never would have been able to do that if it wasn’t for the Pandemic because there was nobody on the bridge. If you go up on the Williamsburg Bridge any night of the week in New York City, there will be one hundred and fifty people walking across the bridge. There’s a huge Hasidic Jews settlement in Williamsburg and they, as a social outing, walk across the Williamsburg Bridge all the time, but even they weren’t doing it. I took advantage of that and I went up and I would shoot. I’d go home and edit for a couple of days and then I’d go back to the bridge. This “Chaos Magic” video was shot in twenty-two nights over the course of the ten months.”
Todd: That’s amazing! Were you ultimately able to make use of that footage? There’s a lot of untapped potential.
Parris: “My wife and I also started a Production company and we did a series of jobs during the Pandemic where we shot products for people using drones. My wife and I would go out with these drones and would shoot the buildings and all the closeups of the big wide cityscapes. …We actually made a pretty decent living for those ten months doing those things. We also shot real films. We did an earth day film. My wife and I get up in the morning and we say ‘What are we doing today?’ and that’s what we did that all during the Pandemic. And of course, I wrote music. I played the guitar and I became a bass player again. My first instrument is the bass and I knew I had to record bass on all these songs, so I took out my bass and didn’t play anything but bass for almost ten months. I redefined myself as a bass player, so when I could go into the studio and play the bass on the record, that I would not be a guitar player playing bass, not that I am because my first instrument is bass, but that I would be approaching it completely as a bass player. Honestly, I feel the strongest performances on the album is the bass.”