How a series of unfortunate events inspired Royal Thunder's new album

Royal Thunder: (l-r) Josh Weaver, Will Fiore, Evan Diprima, Mlny Parsonz
Royal Thunder: (l-r) Josh Weaver, Will Fiore, Evan Diprima, Mlny Parsonz

For someone blessed with such a formidable voice, it’s a surprise to discover that Mlny Parsonz is a reluctant frontwoman. Early home rehearsals with Royal Thunder, the Atlanta four-piece with whom she’s made her reputation over the greater part of the past decade, were somewhat embarrassing. “They’d be playing in the living room and I didn’t even want to sing,” she explains. “I’d take the microphone and go in the kitchen, where there was a fucking wall between us, so that the other guys wouldn’t look at me. And they’d start laughing!”

“It was awesome,” says guitarist Josh Weaver, tickled by the memory. “We were laughing because we were so excited, it was so good. We were like: ‘This is it!’ We were just blown away.”

The first song to come out of those jams was Hotel Bend, which appeared on their 2009 self‑titled debut EP. Since then Royal Thunder have been on a steep upward curve, fashioning a varied set of post-grunge tracks that flit between psychedelia, heavy rock, metal and distorted blues. They’re as partial to a king-sized riff as they are to a deep groove, and all of it is crowned by Parsonz’s powerhouse vocals.

Their third and latest album, WICK, their first since signing a worldwide deal with Spinefarm Records, is their most assured and explosive yet. Weaver, fellow guitarist Will Fiore and drummer Evan Diprima create a shifting musical bedrock over which Parsonz (who doubles as bassist) delivers the kind of vocals – sometimes armoured, sometimes vulnerable – that can emote, transport and illuminate in equal measure. Not that she’s courting compliments, even after all this time.

“I genuinely have never thought of my voice as a great one,” she insists. “I’ve struggled a lot, and Josh has been witness to that. But I’m finally comfortable with it, and that’s what’s important to me. I’m not holding it to a standard, I know who I am and it is what it is.”

By way of support, Weaver feels the need to add: “Generally, we’re our own worst critics.”

Seated in their PR’s office in West London, it’s clear that Royal Thunder means everything to Parsonz and Weaver. They’ve survived various emotional and physical crises – including the dissolution of their own marriage – without losing focus on the band that sputtered into life in 2004.

On first listen, many of the songs on WICK seem to be about escape or the casting off of burdens. But repeated plays reveal something more complex and ambiguous, suggesting that its overriding theme is transformation.

“We were all going through so many life changes and transition during the making of this album,” says Weaver, “and I think it just comes out in the music.”

Parsonz is less cryptic: “We all had a lot of struggles at different times. There was a lot of loss on this album. Three of us lost our fathers during the making of it. A song like We Never Fell Asleep was inspired by one of our friends, who also lost someone, and it got me thinking about loss in general. It starts off dark, but at the end there’s a light.”

The song resolves with the words ‘I’m finally home’, before the unexpected arrival of a heavenly gospel choir. “That’s kind of how I feel about life,” adds Parsonz. “You go through a lot of shit and maybe you’re not happy the whole time, but you can always find good in the bad. That’s just the damn truth.”

Weaver and Parsonz first met in Cobb County, Georgia at the back end of the 90s when they were both in their late teens. By 1999 they’d started making music together, two years before they tied the knot in wedlock. “We immediately bonded over music,” says Parsonz. “It was something we had in common.”

Weaver points out that they were both initially inspired to pick up a guitar by Nirvana: “Even before that I was listening to The Cult, who I think are one of the best modern rock bands. And when it came to writing music, I always wanted to make music that moves people. If you listen to First And Last And Always [1985] by the Sisters Of Mercy, it takes you on a journey and you really hear it. That was so special to me when I was growing up. And there was Nirvana, who can make you feel nostalgia when you hear them. Music that taps into something in your soul.”

For Parsonz, a drug-munching rebel and troublemaker who was a regular at various gigs around Athens in the mid-90s, her epiphany came when she first encountered sludge-metal icons Damad, led by dynamic singer Victoria Scalisi.

“I was probably fourteen years old and was in a grindcore band at the time,” she remembers.

“Victoria was this petite, soft-spoken, crusty chick with long hair. Then all of a sudden they started playing and this tiny little person let out these low, guttural growls. That was it for me. She was someone I really admired, and it opened up a door for me that made me realise that women can do whatever the fuck they want. It doesn’t matter if you sound like a man, woman, whatever. Just be yourself. That’s when I started pursuing who I am.”

This pursuit of self included the pair’s involvement in a local Christian church. It was there that, as a worship leader, Parsonz learned how to sing and play guitar simultaneously. As time went on, however, the experience became progressively darker as the organisation crept into the non-biblical doctrine of a cult. Parsonz’s tipping point was a three-day “women’s conference”, which had an intensity and outright weirdness that induced panic attacks and left her climbing the walls with fear. She and Weaver left soon after and have never been back.

It was a chapter in their lives that was partly documented on Royal Thunder’s debut album of 2012, CVI, perhaps most acutely on the shattering Black Water Vision. The scars were still visible on their follow-up, 2015’s Crooked Doors, whose racked emotional terrain also dealt with the break-up of the couple’s romantic relationship. All of this seemed to feed into songs preoccupied with identity and the search for unwavering truths.

“With Crooked Doors, there was a lot of searching going on, feeling out, trying to understand myself and my situation,” says Parsonz. “With CVI, initially, yeah, that church thing influenced things. But I don’t ever want anyone to get stuck on that part of our lives. And I don’t ever want to be defined by that, because truly that was something we ran from. It doesn’t make us who we are. It’s something we went through, in the same way as going through a death or a break-up. We broke up with this chick named church one time and, well, fuck her. I don’t care who she’s dating now or what her life looks like. She’s gone and we’re with somebody else now. It’s very much in our past. I think what we took from that, in a nutshell, is: ‘Fuck you, we’re gonna do what we want. We aren’t gonna play by anybody’s rules.’ I can guarantee you that not a single song on WICK has anything to do with that place.”

Weaver shares a similar philosophy. “Everybody goes through life experience, good or bad,” he posits. “For me, that might have been church at one point, but for others it could be any number of things – a shitty job, a bad relationship, whatever. Yes, it does have an influence on our lives, in terms of the fact that we found who we are. Personally I’m glad I went through it, so I can move forward and grow. That’s the key to it.”

These heightened experiences have, understandably, had a profound impact on the duo’s spiritual outlook – and, by extension, Royal Thunder. This goes some way to accounting for the uplifting quality of much of the band’s music, their ability to tap into something that’s profound and intangible.

“I think that church, for us, is plugging in, closing our eyes and turning it up,” asserts Weaver. “Whatever you want to call it, supernatural or spiritual or whatever, I feel like I was born to play music. And when I get on stage and hit those notes, it’s definitely like church. Afterwards you just feel changed.

“It’s easier to do something half-assed, but none of us in the band are like that. We’re very passionate and want to make something that moves people when we plug in and play live. I feel like it’s our duty to make music that takes people somewhere. I think about that a lot.”

Now in their late 30s, Weaver and Parsonz are thankful that they grew up in an era when rock music still had the power to startle and stimulate. The guitarist’s passion for tones, textures and sound is the product of both those formative years and him being a self-confessed “gear head”. It’s an obsession that regularly finds him building effects pedals and amps from scratch.

“Look at those old amps that Jimmy Page and Hendrix used,” he says, warming to the subject. “There was a reason they sounded so good: because it was all built by hand. It was the voice of rock’n’roll – loud! We did a tour with Monster Magnet [in late 2013], and those rockers played Marshall full stacks every night. It’d been so long since I’d seen a band be so loud and dangerous. They were a real rock’n’roll band. And you just don’t see that these days. You don’t go home so much any more with your ears ringing.”

That, thankfully, is an ungovernable tradition Royal Thunder are doing their utmost to keep alive.

After all they’ve been through – good, bad and indifferent – Weaver and Parsonz share a belief in the redemptive power of Royal Thunder that appears infinitely durable. They insist they never discuss what kind of music they’re about to make, preferring to be steered by the simple and intuitive process of four people jamming in a room together. “We’ve never had a formula and we never will,” Weaver says emphatically. “If it ever becomes that, then we’ve lost vision. We do what we feel and that’s always been what Royal Thunder is.”

For a self-prescribed dreamer like Parsonz, being part of a band like this is all she ever wished for. “This is my dream and I’m living it,” she declares. “I hope to be doing this until the day I die. Josh and I are soulmates at whatever level, and we’re meant to play music together. We always connected. We had very similar tastes and a chemistry that I don’t think we’ll ever lose. It’s part of who we are. All of us in this band are family. We love each other.”

WICK is released on April 7 via Spinefarm.

If you listen to one new track today it should be Royal Thunder’s April Showers

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.