Interview: Ted Parsons
Looking back now and I'm like, I am so lucky that I was there at that time.
Ted Parsons has had a storied career, playing drums for so many legendary bands from Swans and Prong to Godflesh and Jesu. Gavin Brown caught up with Ted to find out what he is up to musically at the moment and what he has planned for the future as well as tales from his time with those bands, forays into jazz, his artwork, playing and touring with Killing Joke, his brush with death, life in New York and his current home in Norway and highlights from throughout his very varied and interesting career.
E&D: What are you working on musically at the moment.
Ted: I’m working on this jazz, psychedelic, ambient project, called This Celestial Engine. That is with Roy Burns, a keyboard player I’ve played with and Dave Stewart, who plays in Gong and plays with Bryan Ferry and all these people, he’s a great bass player so I’m going into this new territory, jazz, which is a completely new world for me but it’s a lot of fun, the stuff’s coming out really, really nice.
E&D: Will you have an album coming out this year?
Ted: We should do, yeah, but you know, the jazz scene here in in Norway is very healthy so we can get a lot of gigs and in summertime there’s so many jazz festivals and so forth. I just talked to Justin from Godflesh and he’s doing a new Jesu album and I’m gonna be doing some tracks with him in the near future. That’s about it musically. What I’ve been doing is selling a lot of my beats online and people seem to like it and I make a little extra cash here and there, so I think I’m going to do more of that, record just drums and let people do what they want with them.
E&D: How did you get into jazz, coming from the musical background that you do?
Ted: I don’t know, a friend of mind told me when I moved here, a few years ago that there’s a big jazz scene in Norway and I was like, “Well, I’m not really into jazz”, but now I’m discovering how much good jazz there is out there, so just just over the last couple of years I’ve been really. getting into jazz. A lot of the old jazz of course, I used to always love the big band stuff like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich of course, all the classic guys, I used to love love seeing that stuff. Not that I saw them live because I’m a little too young for that! There’s something about the big band music that was all derived around the drummer and when they had big battles, Chick Webb was a little guy. He was amazing. He played the Roxy up in Harlem, and it was all about the drummers and they all had these big drum battles and I thought that was very cool.
E&D: Is that the kind of jazz that you’re doing?
Ted: Yeah, the This Celestial Engine stuff is just drums and then keyboards and the bass player. and they’re both amazing. We don’t need a vocalist, we’re doing a lot of experimental live recordings and stuff. Dave puts in radio frequency stuff and he’s an amazing guy. He plays his fretless bass, but he plays with this Ebo which is amazing. The sound is incredible. Roy, he’s really into jazz he plays with Bill Laswell and a Tony Nevin, they’re both English guys. I have a lot of English friends here in Norway. Roy went to classical piano school so he’s like all over the map. I mean, most of the keyboard players I’ve played with just like doing samples, but this guy’s father was a classical pianist in London for a long time so I’m working with two very accomplished people.
E&D: Is it all fresh and exciting for you because it is quite new to you?
Ted: It’s pretty exciting. Yeah, it’s like I’m getting back into my artwork. I’m understanding because I went to art school when I was 18. I left Massachusetts and I went to New York and that excited me, I thought I was going to be a big artist. Now I’m starting to do more collages and drawings and I’m getting my mojo back from that and that gives me just as much excitement as playing the drums. I’ve had a couple gallery shows here selling that stuff.
E&D: How’s that going?
Ted: It’s going pretty good, yeah, still sort of a starving artists but people really like my collages, I broke even at the gallery and I made a little pocket money but I sold a lot of copies not a lot the originals.
E&D: Is that something you’ve always done alongside the music?
Ted: When I moved to New York, I begged my parents to send me my drums from Boston and my dad was like no way, you’re there to learn art! I tell you though, that period in New York in the early 80s, like from from 80 to 95 or whenever I left, that was exciting. As all the bands that I loved from England were coming into New York, and I’d be in CBGBs seeing them, I’m seeing them at all these venues and also going to a lot of these galleries to see artwork but it’s changed a lot.
E&D: Do you still go back and visit at all?
Ted: You know, I’ve got two kids now and we all want to travel, but we usually go back to Florida with see my parents that are retirees, with the rest of the retirees down there!
E&D: What was New York like back then, was it as dangerous and as exciting as it’s made out to be?
Ted: It wasn’t dangerous. You hear all the stories, like don’t go out at night but I had a blast. I was out every night, I’m seeing all my favourite bands. Stranglers, Killing Joke and I also went to CBGBs because that’s where the two Prong guys used to work and I saw the Ramones there in the first week and Television, I got to see all this stuff in person at CBGBs. Looking back now and I’m like, I am so lucky that I was there at that time. There were all these clubs back in the day and if you didn’t want to play CBs or Max’s Kansas City, there were always these little clubs around that you could play every day of the week. Now that’s changed a lot and become gentrified. Brooklyn is not what it used to be. Everybody is moving to Brooklyn and it’s all become gentrified. Apartments are expensive.
E&D: How did you end up joining Swans and what are your main memories of that time?
Ted: Swans was great, man. I was playing CBGBs again with this other band, Ten Hail Marys, which was like a punk band and I met this guy Algis Kizys, he was drunk and came into the dressing room and we said, okay, who the hell are you? He said we sounded like Venom and we became instant friends. He called me up and we were playing in a band called Bag People together and one thing led to another, he says Teddy, you wanna play with Swans and I’m not really into that because at that point, I was still playing with Prong. I was more into playing hardcore thrash. He said, Well, you know what, there’s another drummer and we’re going on tour Europe for three months. So I said, sign me up! Three months on the road with Swans was definitely interesting.
E&D: Were you a fan of Swans before?
Ted: No, no, I didn’t really liked them that much. I didn’t really like Sonic Youth. I didn’t really like that no wave stuff that was coming out in New York at the time. What I did like was meeting all these bands in Europe like Laibach and Test Department and our soundman at the time was doing sound for Test Department, He used to do sound for Captain Beefheart years ago so this is like a whole new world for me, meeting all these new people. I came back to New York going “Oh God, you guys, I gotta tell you what I saw on this scene and what we’ve done.” The thing about Swans is we had to be mega mega loud so we brought around this sound system from Germany. It had to be very, very loud, this thing would tear your skin off your face, and we would just bring it into every single venue. We played Birmingham once and the ceiling was coming down, I mean, we didn’t care. We wanted to be loud like you’re getting punched! That was the big sound for Swans. I am proud a lot of the Swans stuff I’ve been on. The Great Annihilator was my last album that I did with them. I was proud of that album. I still keep in touch with those guys like Norman Westberg, Algis, they’re like brothers. Like family.
E&D: Were you doing Prong and Swans at the same time then?
Ted: I was sort of doing them at the same time but after I left Swans, we did more gigs with Prong which was more of my type of drumming. When I got together with Tommy and Mike, I got to really show what I could do and it was all really fast thrash and the great thing was you always played at CBs because Tommy worked the soundboard there and Mike worked the door. We’d always play the hardcore matinees. The thing is, people didn’t really know where to fit us you know, we’d play with Sonic Youth and the next day we would play with the Cro Mags and then the next day we’d play with Whiplash or Corrosion Of Conformity. We were kind of lumped in with the thrash stuff but I was never really into metal proper. Slayer we loved, obviously but the hair bands like Mötley Crüe and all that crap we hated.
E&D: Being from New York, did you feel more of a kinship with the hardcore bands?
Ted: Agnostic Front, Cro Mags and all those guys, we were friends with.
E&D: What were those early days touring with Prong like?
Ted: We bought this crappy old Ford van, we spray painted it all black and gigs like Boston and Washington, we would be lucky if we even got there. The thing was a piece of shit. We’d have the homeless people sleeping in there so we just left it unlocked and when we had to use it, there was a big sofa bed in there. Tommy’s still playing in Prong but Mike Kirkland’s not doing so good these days. I really love those first couple of albums. They have so much energy but listening to them now, I don’t think I could play the drums like that live.
E&D: What were some of the highlights with Prong?
Ted: Well, our first major tour after we got signed to Epic Sony was touring with Voivod and Soundgarden. Chris Cornell loved Prong and he had this big Prong symbol painted on the back on his leather jacket, that was a big highlight, because we were finally reaching a bigger audience. We didn’t reality want to get signed, we wanted to keep our base audience because the minute you get signed to a label, it’s like, oh, they’re not cool anymore, but it enabled us to travel and get out of the East Coast and get on a tour bus and start playing nationwide and worldwide eventually. We played a lot, Pantera absolutely adored us so we played a lot of tours with Pantera and Sepultura. Meeting Ozzy was kinda cool. We would play these big sheds, big outdoor arenas and Ozzy would always come out and talk, we talked about tattoos. One of the funniest things was when I saw Ozzy in his exercise room on the exercise bike, but he’s still smoking cigarettes. That was fun to play with Ozzy and to hang out with him. We played with so many bands like Faith No More.
E&D: When your time with Prong came to an end, is that when you went to play with Godflesh on tour?
Ted: Tommy went up to play with Danzig you know and we loved Godflesh in Prong. Years ago we played with Godflesh, I think it was Leeds and then we played in Birmingham and I told Justin, if you ever want a drummer, not that I don’t like your drum machine but if you ever need a drummer call me so it was great timing after we broke up, Justin called me up and say, hey Ted, you still want to play in Godflesh, I said hell yeah! I knew all the songs anyway. Benny got a bit tired of Godflesh and he didn’t want to tour anymore and so we got Raven in from Killing Joke because Raven was playing in Prong. I think Justin just was tired of it, it wasn’t really Godflesh for him. It was always him and Benny and the drum machine and they’re back now doing really well. I’m glad they’re doing that, you know.
E&D: You did a stint drumming for Killing Joke too. How did that come about And how was that was experience?
Ted: It was fantastic, Raven went back to play with Killing Joke and he said Ted do you want to come and play with us because Big Paul’s not going to be in it and I said, oh my god that’s my dream gig. Fuck yeah, I’ll be there in a minute.
E&D: Did you have to pinch yourself?
Ted: Oh yeah, I went to Prague where we had, like two weeks of rehearsals and bang, on the road but I knew all the songs anyway. Just to look over to see, Jaz, he’s a nutcase! To look over to see Geordie playing, I love Geordie, his guitar sound is amazing and my old buddy Raven on the bass and we had a keyboard player, those gigs were really good. Big Paul was a big hero for me, I really hope that I did your drumming service, you know. We also did this BBC live studio thing and I’m pretty proud of that and Geordie came over to me and said, oh now you’re finally playing Ted! I’m saying, we’ve been on the road for like a month, I wasn’t playing then! Jaz is a character, man, he’s something else, he’s a nutcase and being on the road with him for three months, that’d do anyone’s head in haha!
E&D: You’ve just released a new album as Necessary. How did the recording of the album go and what’s the reaction been like so far?
Ted: All the Necessary stuff was just something I wanted to do after Killing Joke and just doing something different, like jazz funk stuff. We did three solid recordings. One was on Malicious Damage which was The Killing Joke label. We had a couple of guest people on there, Keith Levene from Pil was on there. He was always complaining, He was a pain in the ass! I had always tried to get together with that guy, but he’s always a pain in the ass. He called me up like six years ago. “Teddy, I want you to come on play some drums on my project, and I’ll pay you”, he said. Well, that’s great. He put me out of the studio and then he never came back. I saw him, he was out with his girlfriend and he came back a week later like, oh, sorry about that. It’s kind of a big disappointment. Everybody was says that about the guy, he used to do heroin and all that stuff so his brain is fried I think, but anyways, back to Necessary. The last album that we did Voldeslokka, which I really like, Justin Broadrick. He mixed it and produced the whole thing. The guys didn’t really like that, especially the keyboard player who said it wasn’t anything like I played but it basically is a Justin Broadrick album. We did some gigs here and there. We did some jazz festivals, nothing really big but it just keeps me going and playing my drums. That’s sort of why I did that.
E&D: Is that a continuation if your NIC project or is that something separate?
Ted: Yeah, that was a total separate project from everything else. We did a dub album, which we gave two tracks to people that I invited into to do that because I really love dub and reggae music as well. We have Youth from Killing Joke on there with all these people. Ryan Moore who does a lot of amazing dub reggae so we have the album, NIC on DUB, that’s on Bandcamp now, I think. After the Killing Joke thing. I was at a friend’s, three weeks to a month after the whole tour, I was helping a friend take some plaster down, and I started to have these seizures and, long story short , I went to the doctor, and they found two tumours, malignant, cancerous. So, it was a big deal. I didn’t really realise it but my parents came from Florida. My wife was there, the kids, and it was a big ordeal for sure. I mean, I should be dead, really. I cheated death when you think about it. It was just all these people sending me vibes and prayers and stuff and this happened like 2004, and thankfully I was in Norway because if I was in the States, Gavin, I had no health insurance and it would have cost me like a million dollars for treatment for this cancer shit.
E&D: But you’ve got the all clear now thankfully?
Ted: I’m fine now. Yeah, the only thing I have is short term memory loss and my wife’s like, Well, you’ve always had that! Besides all the music, life happens you know, you can never predict you’re going to have tumorous cancer of the brain
E&D: Obviously, that changed your outlook on life?
Ted: Definitely. Yeah and I have a big scar to show. I said why did you make that incision so big and they said, it’s so that your brain wouldn’t explode out of your head! I’m tumour free now so that’s good. I just turned 58 this year.
E&D: In terms of Dub and reggae. Is that something you’re still influenced by and listen to?
Ted: Oh, definitely. Yeah, Burial I love and all this other stuff, all the On U stuff I totally adore. My parents went to Jamaica in the 70s and they brought back all these albums and that’s when it started because when I was little I was just taking in everything you know, this is before punk came in. Bob Marley and all this great reggae that came out then, Jimmy Cliff and so I started listening to that and I was like, wow, this is different drumming for sure. When I went to New York, I went to the reggae lounge with a friend and it was just about the bass. I was like, wow, I love this shit. Really great and I still to this day, love, reggae and dub. I really do, Prince Far I and all that stuff that came out, it’s brilliant. People said because we were doing more of a metal thing, that I shouldn’t listen to it, I don’t care what people think. I love reggae.
E&D: Is it the heaviness of the bass?
Ted: Oh yeah, A friend of mine, Kevin Martin from The Bug, he used to do sound for Godflesh when I was in the band and he’s doing quite well for himself now, he’s all about the bass which I love but I hadn’t seen that guy in ages and he’s like, oh, man, I’d be so great to see you, so we hooked up in Oslo. I always try to see my friends when they come into Oslo. The band Unsane, which aren’t Unsane anymore, and then Swans when they used to come in. I try to get around and see people as they come in.
E&D: What’s the music scene like in Oslo?
Ted: It’s pretty healthy, but there’s a lot of rock bands here, a lot of punk bands. It’s kind of difficult to get gigs here. If you go away and you get really good reviews and come back, they think about putting a gig on for you. There’s a couple of places now. I’ve been talking to a friend that works at this place MIR to do This Celestial Engine, jazz, ambient stuff, and I think it’s gonna be easier getting gigs for that. I’m excited about that project, and it’s a lot of fun. If it doesn’t go anywhere, then, you know, big deal.I mean, I got into music because I wanted to have fun.
E&D: What are some of the highlights been from your whole career?
Ted: One of my favourite was when we first played CBGBs and it was packed. The first time we played in in London we played the ULU and we sold that place out. We were just like a little hardcore band from New York but we were massive in London and in England. I met a lot of people. That first gig we played in London was a big highlight. Being on MTV, I never thought we’d be on MTV. Not that that’s a big deal but we were interviewed on MTV and they used to use our Lost And Found music on Headbangers Ball, although never got paid for that, so we’re like, oh, fuck it. That was kind of a highlight. We did interviews at MTV and my grandma said to me Oh, Teddy we’re so proud of you with your orchestra. We saw you on MTV! Killing Joke, obviously, was a big highlight. Those are probably the three major things and just being able to tour and playing with with Prong and playing with all these people and having great shows. That was a big highlight for me, because finally, I didn’t have to go back to a day job. In the early days of Prong, I’d have to go back and drive a cab or cook in a restaurant. I tell my son that, if you’re going to be a musician or be in the music business. Always have a backup.