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Interview: Royal Thunder

16 June 2023

Photo by Justin Reich

“I want to tell my story and I want to be honest,” Royal Thunder singer/bassist Mlny Parsons says after I offer her the opportunity to tell me if there’s anything she’d rather keep private from the hour-long conversation we have. “My father killed himself in 2017. He overdosed and I still haven’t dealt with it. I haven’t really touched that. I forgave. I get it – mental health, life falling apart, addiction.” Parsons shares this story, as well as revealing her own struggles with addiction and how she’s come through on the other side, in hopes that other people who are experiencing similar issues don’t feel so alone. While those addictions were present during the making of Royal Thunder’s fourth album, Rebuilding the Mountain, Parsons says she considers February 1, 2023 to be the start of a new, positive chapter in her life.

As with most of us, the pandemic had some negative mental health side effects on Parsons and her bandmate, and ex-husband, guitarist Josh Weaver. The two had been slumbering along with fill-in drummers after Evan Diprima left suddenly while on tour in 2018 and, while battling their own demons, were reaching a crossroads in their musical career when they were hit with another blow – a global pandemic. If there’s a silver lining for Royal Thunder, it’s that Diprima came back to the band and the reunion inspired the trio to start working on new material.

Michael Toland’s review of Rebuilding the Mountain opines that Royal Thunder sounds “more cutting, more robust, more committed” and allows Parsons to “exorcise her demons and assert her right to live as she pleases.” The album sounds like the Royal Thunder of past which means it’s heavy, wrought with emotion, and even a bit jammy at times. Many reviewers, this one included, have thrown out comparisons such as “Janis Joplin fronting Led Zeppelin” and while those are a decent starting point to get you to listen, Royal Thunder’s a beast all it’s own.

Did you feel like, in 2019, the band was coming to an end?

MLNY: We were fine. We weren’t to that point of, “Oh shit, something bad’s going to happen.” And then that bad thing did happen. We played a show in Atlanta and Evan didn’t pack his drums up into the van, he packed them up into his car. He got into his car, didn’t say a word, and drove away. So, that’s when it got bad. But, we’re not there anymore.

Where was your head at when Evan left? Were you thinking that you needed to find another drummer or were you thinking that you needed to take a break to figure things out?

MLNY: When it comes to being true to ourselves and doing what we do, our band more specifically, we have this attitude of like, “Fuck me? No, fuck you!” So it was all about, “Let’s move forward. Let’s keep this thing alive.” Evan was angry with us, we were angry with Evan. And, I’m speaking very honestly, I can’t really remember what the fuck even happened. Looking back, it was a lot of addiction and all kinds of bullshit. It just made everything worse, made it all a blur. I couldn’t really tell you what exactly happened but it ended with Evan and we kept it going. We didn’t want to cancel any tours. We didn’t want to cancel our love for our band and what we wanted to do with our lives, so we kept on. We had different friends come along and fill his shoes. And, with all due respect to them, I’m so thankful for those people who came along and contributed to our band at any point in time, we wouldn’t be where we are today without that. We had some good times with other band members and they came and went, as things in life do, but not playing with Evan always felt empty. It felt like something was missing. That constant feeling we have when we play, it’s like this ring of energy that feels like it’s flowing when we start playing together. It’s like a wheel. I felt like we were moving and then it hit a pothole. After he left, it was like we were going through the motions. It was still very real but it was also very painful and confusing because it was like, “What’s happening? The rhythm is off.” Not literally, no pun intended, but the rhythm was off and the frequency was messy. I’m not saying that to disrespect anyone’s talent, it has nothing to do with those drummers, it’s just what we built our band on, a link was missing.

I thought maybe you were giving up music because I follow you on Instagram and you were posting pictures of doing some welding-type work.

MLNY: I went to Detroit and I attended this course run by a group called Women Who Weld. It’s a short, two-week thing. You learn how to weld. You spend 8 hours a day doing all different kinds of welding. It’s a non-profit organization, so women who were incarcerated that come out and are looking for job placement go there. And, because you’re paying for your course, it ends up paying for their course. They go through it and then they are guaranteed work and, meanwhile, you get to learn a new trade. So, yeah, I was very lost around that time and I was like, “I better figure out a plan B.” I know how to do construction and weld. That was me desperately trying to find out what I’d do if music didn’t work out.

It was a messy, weird time. It sucks to go through shitty things but, what a relief when you turn a corner and things get better. Nothing has to stay in a painful place or a dark place forever. There’s always something good in the bad. I’ve always believed that and I’m living it now. I went through a lot of bad shit and it’s okay.

2020 happens and we’re all in a bad place – the country, the world, politics, Covid. Had you started working on new music?

MLNY: It’s weird how quick we are to punish ourselves when we lose something. I don’t know what’s in that. I went through a thing where I didn’t want to hear music. I didn’t care if there was something brand new that came out and everybody was like, “Have you heard it?” and I was like, “No, and I don’t care. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t care about my favorite album that I’ve been listening to since 1992.” I didn’t enjoy anything. I was very suicidal, depressed, confused. I felt just naked as fuck and ugly inside and I didn’t have an outlet or anything. It was not a good time. I threw myself at self destruction. I was just like, “I’m going to fucking hide. I’m just going to bury my head and make this worse.” It felt so bad to not have it anymore. I wonder what’s in that? Maybe it’s an excuse to be like, “Everything’s fucked up and it’s gone.” And it was my excuse to be like, “I’m going to drink this whiskey at 9am because look what’s happening. Everything’s fucked, so fuck it.” It was just a good excuse to not give a shit and I really didn’t.

If this is not too personal of a question, how were you able to get out of that hole you were in?

MLNY: I barely made it out. I didn’t make it out until February 1 of this year. I was sober when we were making the album but that was a good behavior. Show up, do your job, be clear headed, be present. I didn’t really do it for me, I did it for Josh and Evan. But, really, all I was done was crawling out of my skin to get out of the studio as possible. I wanted to get fucked up. I was like, “Man, we’ve got two more weeks.” I was going to get an eight ball. I was going to fuck it all up. I was not in a good place until February 1 and what got me out of it was getting really sick from not drinking. I thought I had Covid or the flu. I thought I might be dying because I was throwing up everything I ate. I had constant heartburn. I was bleeding. Everything was just off. I was bloated. Actually, in “The Knife” video, and especially in the new video we did, “Fade,” it’s hard for me to watch because I can see it in my eyes and my face. I was just so sick.

What got me out of it was getting sick and not being able to do it. Getting through that and then waking up and having a clear head after a few days and being like, “I have completely fucked over my bandmates. I have fucked myself over. And everybody in my life has been putting up with my bullshit.” It hurt. It broke me when I actually realized what I was doing to myself and to other people. That really broke something in me and I’m glad it did. It was not easy to realize that you’re kind of a piece of shit. You’re making really bad decisions. But I walked through it on February 1. I was like, “All right, I got do to this.” The first 30 days was not even about being sober. It was about my old self being like, “What the fuck?” I was at war with myself big time.

And when we were making that album, I didn’t realize it until recently, it’s an internal warfare. It’s what was coming talking to what was. It’s me in a mirror, a two-sided mirror, just figuring it out and calling myself out and being like, “I know you’re really comfortable over here but it’s time to get uncomfortable and make some positive change.” I turned that corner. I cried so fucking much. I was like, “I didn’t know it was possible to cry as much as I was crying.” I was like, “Am I just that broken? Am I going to cry every day for the rest of my life?”

I fucked up a lot of shit. It’s a little embarrassing but I pretty much almost killed myself accidentally. I got some cocaine and was playing Scrabble with my friend and my friend was like, “Dude, are you okay?” We were playing Scrabble at four in the morning, doing blow, and I’m drunk and I turn ghost white and start sweating and the room is just disappearing. I’m thinking, “You got to go.” I’m stumbling down my apartment complex parking garage and the cops are standing there and they’re like “Put your hands on the hood.” And I’m like, “Fuck.” They’re like, “What are you doing?” And I’m thinking, “Did I do all that coke or is it in my pocket?” Then I’m in the ambulance and then I’m being told I need to go to the hospital because I’m probably having a fentanyl overdose and I run out of the ambulance. All this to say, I’m blowing everything up. I’m blowing up my relationship. I’m losing my apartment. I’m getting talked to at work about how drunk and fucked up I am by other people who are drunk and fucked up. And I’m like, “Wow, I’m really blowing it.”

I ended up moving in with Josh and his girlfriend. I live with them now. It’s just temporary but they were like, “Bring your two cats. We’ll put them in the basement.” We can’t have cats upstairs so they live in the basement. They’re happy. I made a cat cave. It was my crying cave for a long time and then it became a cat cave. I did a lot of healing down there. Thinks got really shitty but I’m thankful that they did because I came out of that and I wouldn’t trade how real life feels right now. I can’t fight myself anymore. I’m winning all the time. In my mind, I’m like, “I know what I need to do. I know how I feel. I know what’s next. I know what I want.” I wouldn’t trade that. I didn’t know for years who I was or what the hell I wanted. I thought I did. I thought the louder you are, the more confident you are. I found out that’s not so true.

When did you actually start writing the music for the new album?

MLNY: Evan came back to us. He was in North Carolina at the time. He came back apologizing and wanting to reconnect and make music. I would say this was early on in the pandemic. And it was automatic. It was a no brainer. We were like, “Fuck yeah, let’s do this.” That was when we started writing. I was not as good about bass and vocals and getting those put into the mix. But, we all downloaded Logic and we started writing remotely and passing songs back and forth. The main people working on it were Josh and Evan and then I was just the wild card. They were like, “Let’s hope Mel gets this bass line down.” I was a slacker. It was about a year-and-a-half of writing, maybe closer to two years, before we got into the same room. As soon as we did, it was such a weird feeling. It wasn’t like picking up where we left off but I was like, “I know this world. I know this territory. I know how to do it.” That was a good feeling. We were way rusty and had tons of dust to knock off but we’re here. This makes sense. This feels right.

Do you remember what the first song that you had done that made you think that you were ready to do eight or nine more for a full album?

MLNY: The first song we did, which was a couple months prior to going into the studio and doing the whole album, was “The King,” which I think is the second to last song on the album. I thought that was the direction we were going with everything because at that point in time, when we recorded it, the lyrics and the melodies weren’t in place for the album. I was like, “I don’t know what the vibe is going to be” but I thought that was going to set the vibe. You’ve heard the album. It’s not the vibe. It’s just a vibe on one song on the album.

“Pull” was the first one we recorded in the studio. That was the one that woke me up and I was like, “Okay, I think I know where I’m going. I’m just going to tell my story and be as vulnerable as possible but remain somewhat cloaked to leave it open for interpretation.” But, I didn’t do a good job of that because a lot of people have been like, “Dude, I know exactly what this is about.”

Because you’re as vulnerable as possible, is it ever difficult to revisit those things when you’re playing the songs live?

MLNY: For me, it means something. When I’m still in that place, it feels like that place, and it comes from that place. I don’t lose the feeling on stage. I’m always somewhere in the ether. I remove myself as much as possible because once you come back to it, I’ve healed from a lot of it or moved past it in some way, it’s not about me, it doesn’t serve me in any way. It doesn’t become my therapy or my outlet. Then I have to reconnect with it and I do that in a way that it’s not for me any more but I’m going to give this my heart and soul and my energy as I’m performing it. I’m going to give it away and let it stick where it wants to and speak to whoever needs to hear it. When it’s time to be broken, let it flow. I’m just trying to usher it out into the crowd and let whoever needs it take it and hopefully it sticks and does something good, even if it feels bad, I hope it’s healing for people. The whole reason I do it is for that reason. I put myself out there in a crowd with our music. I don’t feel above anyone. We’re all the same. I just want to share it at that point. It’s real and it’s an experience. It’s different. It changes. I try to read the room and feel it and go with that.

You’re going to be going out on the road with Royal Bliss. It’s been a while since Royal Thunder has played live, since before the pandemic if I’m not mistaken. How does that feel knowing you’ve got dates scheduled?

MLNY: I’ve played with other bands and I’ve toured with other bands, not that much, but I have hit the road to go do stuff. But, as the three of us? It’ll be the first time touring. It’s going to be like a vacation. It’s going to be an epic hangout.

We didn’t know Royal Bliss. We’ve never really played to the crowds that they have. That’s exciting to hang out in a new territory and enjoy it, see what it’s all about, experience it. We get to be together and clock in and do something really cool and then clock out and do something really cool. We’re really excited. It’s going to be a goddamn workout. I do landscaping now so I’m getting a little bit of a head start on tour muscles, but touring is always a beast.

This is sort of old news but in 2015 you did some shows opening for Wilco. How the heck did that happen? I love that bill but, on paper, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

MLNY: We’re all about that. I think the bass player was a fan of our band. That’s how we got that gig. And Pat Sansone’s parents live near here, so we would see him. I worked at this place called the Brick Store in Atlanta for years and he’d come in all the time and just hang out. Everyone was like, “He’s the coolest dude.” They were all really cool. But, yeah, if I remember correctly, the bass player liked us. I’ve done that before. I’m like, “Dude, we have to take this band on tour. They’re so cool.” And the rest of the band is like, “Okay, whatever you say.”

And how did you go over with Wilco’s fans?

MLNY: They have huge crowds. I think at every show probably like ten people were into it. We don’t worry about that kind of stuff ever. We’re going to do our thing and maybe you’ll like it. We weren’t embarrassed. We weren’t bummed out. We were just like, “This is cool. We’re playing an amphitheater. That’s not where we’re at.” That’s the fun part. When there’s a juicer backstage, we’re going to hang out and enjoy it. It was a positive experience. They were really kind and humble and just cool people.

Having gone through the struggles you’ve gone through, is there any trepidation about going out on tour? Are you worried about any temptations?

MLNY: I keep myself pretty busy and shockingly have a routine. It’s really important to me to take care of myself. I don’t really think about fucking my life up anymore. I’m pretty happy. I’ve worked really hard and I’m really proud of myself. I like where I’m at and I want to keep feeding that because it shines all over my life. I’ll look at trees or the sky sometimes and I have to take my glasses off and be like, “Is that the actual color of everything?” Everything’s just brighter and more crisp. I think being on the road is going to be really beautiful and really magical. Being on the road is like a fast-paced therapy session, always has been. Every day you’re changing, every day you’re acclimating and growing. Now I’m in touch with my feelings and I look forward to feeling a little bit of a rub, maybe getting triggered, maybe seeing people I have a history with. I welcome that challenge. Things aren’t going to be perfect but I’m open to understanding how to handle it and growing a little more. Maybe I’ll be a superhuman when I get back.