For Parris Mayhew, life under quarantine conditions has not passed idly by. A camera operator in the film industry by trade, Mayhew is best known as a guitar player, songwriter, and original member of New York City’s whiplash hardcore torchbearers the Cro-Mags.
The group’s story is riddled with lineup changes, inner-band squabbles, and just as many groundbreaking albums as forgettable releases, blending elements of hardcore, punk, and thrash metal. Just as Bad Brains adopted Rastafarianism, Cro-Mags singer John Joseph and bass player Harley Flanagan embraced Hare Krishna philosophies.
In June, Flanagan released Cro-Mags’ In the Beginning LP via Orchard Records—the first album released under the group’s name in two decades. After a 2019 lawsuit, vocalist John Joseph and drummer Mackie Jayson have continued playing live under the name Cro-Mags “JM.”
Mayhew served as principal songwriter for the Cro-Mags’ most influential albums—The Age of Quarrel (1986), Best Wishes (1989), and Revenge (2000)—but parted ways with the group long ago. In October he returned from his long silence to release “Chaos Magic,” a new six-minute instrumental song and video under the name Aggros.
In this two-part interview, Mayhew talks about the music and experiences that inspired “Chaos Magic,” and his move away from his past with the Cro-Mags on his own terms.
Chad Radford: The pandemic has been a trying time, but it has also played to my strengths: I’ve had time to focus on projects that have been on hold for too long, now that I don’t have to interact with the outside world. How are you holding up in quarantine?
Parris Mayhew: It’s an extraordinary kind of shock, like someone shook us all and said, “This is what life could be!” A lot of people are struggling, and people are getting sick. But, for example, I worked right up to the day of lockdown. After a month, when I got used to the idea of leisure time, I immersed myself in several projects. I have a pinboard with two movie ideas, and another pinboard with a television pilot idea. Over the years, I’ve been slowly assembling songs one at a time. When I found myself with all this time I began addressing those things in more than a peripheral way.
I spent 22 days shooting the “Chaos Magic” video, which is insane. I shot it by myself two-to-five hours at a time, and it was so exhausting that I couldn’t shoot for any longer than that. Then I immersed myself in editing. In one day, I went from a guy who used to be in a band to a person with a legitimate release. Probably none of that would’ve happened otherwise. I work on television shows, and got a call this morning asking: “Will you test today and start working tomorrow? That’s how quickly it happens. That’s been my life for the past 20 years, working on sets for 13 hours a day, five days a week, and sleeping away the weekends. I find myself with very little time. Your comment about realigning priorities based on having time—that has made a huge difference. And here we are having a conversation about my new song because of it.
On the surface, “Chaos Magic” is a somewhat different approach from what you took with Cro-Mags songs.
People have asked if I intended to make instrumental music. I didn’t realize this until maybe last night when I was lying in bed: I’ve always written my music as if it was instrumental music. Even with the Cro-Mags, I wrote songs to be and feel complete. All I cared about was making the music as heavy and as fast as I could. I tried to get out these complete musical thoughts. When it came time to have a singer—whether it was Eric Casanova, John or Harley—I always thought, how can I get the singer to sing on it and be as unobtrusive as possible? When I wrote “Chaos Magic,” I did it with the same thing in mind.
I puzzled together “Chaos Magic” from parts that I wrote over the years. I tried to have the mindset of myself when I was 15 or 16, standing in the audience looking up at the stage. I even put breaks in the song to rest. I knew that I would be going berserk for 45 seconds, and I’d need a break to take a breath, and then it starts again. I would just go crazy for another 45 seconds, and needed another break. That sounds a little abstract, but I literally thought of it that way. Playing and performing live is an athletic event. You realize that if you don’t put breaks in there your arm will fall off.
I remember playing songs that I wrote for Revenge when we were on tour. I would get to a point where I would just let a chord ring out—I would literally shake my right arm off while that chord rang out. Then I’d start again, like I was playing to the peak of my physical ability every night, just to complete some of those songs. I wouldn’t say “Chaos Magic” is written to the peak of my physical ability, though. It’s just a different kind of journey. It’s not such an athletic event as it is chapters. What I’ve found gratifying is that the song is almost six minutes long, but almost nobody has commented on how long it is.
I watched the video and thought: “There you are playing bass, wearing classic hardcore gear … a guitar player wearing a Cheap Trick T-shirt … This must be the personification of crossover. Later, I read that each one represents different phases of your life. … I don’t see how it could be less than six minutes.
Your observation about crossover is relevant, because I’m just a fan of music. I love Cheap Trick as much as I love Motörhead and the Bad Brains. It’s personally gratifying when I am acknowledged by my peers, and I enjoyed giving nods to my peers in the video—Cheap Trick and Motörhead and so on.
When I was 15 or something, I went with my friend Paul Dordal—an original member of the Cro-Mags who came up with the song title “World Peace,” and wrote the Murphy’s Law songs “California Pipeline” and “Skinhead Rebel.” He gave them to Murphy’s Law as a gift. He said, “Let’s go see this band called the Mob, I think you’ll like them.” So we went to A7 on Avenue A and 7th Street—this little club that had no windows. It had a piece of loose-leaf paper on the front with the band names written in pen—$3 to get in. Bands would start playing at like 10 p.m., and the last band would go on at like 6 a.m. It was totally illegal, and that’s just the way it was.
I’m sure we had many cans of Foster’s lager beer before we went in. The place was glowing in the most perfect way that it can when you’ve had a bunch of beers. I stood in front of the guitar player, Jack Flanagan, who was a peculiar site at a punk rock club. He was a redhead, and had a gigantic red afro. He was also playing a B.C. Rich. They burst into a song and his right hand disappeared! He was moving so fast that it was a blur. I’d never seen anything like that, and I’ve never forgotten it. When I made the “Chaos Magic” video I was thinking about this part, and how fast I had to strum just to articulate it in time. When I shot my hand doing that part, I thought of Jack Flanagan, and I 100% was trying to recreate that moment when I was 15 years old.
Playing a Rickenbacker bass is a combination of my love for Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, and Lemmy. I thought about what T-shirts I would wear, the only one I was firm about wearing was the Motörhead shirt. Motörhead is absolutely the biggest influence on me both musically and physically. When I play, it’s the physical imitation of Lemmy, and I always say that my right hand is Lemmy and my left hand is Rush. Somehow it becomes this weird mix. If I did a breakdown of the songs on the first Cro-Mags album you would be amazed at where they came from. “Sign Of The Times” is basically “Anthem” by Rush backwards. Alex Lifeson does this thing at the beginning of the song, he rides the E chord high and then low. I remember thinking I can’t believe he’s making this amazing riff with just one chord! So I played it backwards, and instead of going high-low, I went low-high, but I played the right hand like Lemmy. So it’s like the same song flipped upside down and played by Lemmy.
The crawl at the end of the “Chaos Magic” video says COBZ plays drums …
COBZ is the drummer on this track, and he probably plays on four other songs that I’ll eventually release. There will be other drummers, too. COBZ is a Brooklynite. He’s got his own business, and he has kids. He’s got a busy life so he doesn’t prioritize music, but he is an extraordinary musician.
I have another track with Roy Mayorga from Stone Sour, and there will be others. I did it this time without trying to teach somebody how to play like me. To a large extent, when you hear the bass part on “Chaos Magic” you can’t play it kind of like that. You have to play it exactly like that. The drum beats are built into the bass rhythm. A lot of drummers have a repertoire of beats in their head, and they’ll start playing a beat without listening to what you’re playing. You literally have to place every bass drum and snare drum with my right hand, or you’re not playing the song. Otherwise it won’t make any sense.
I did that when Cro-Mags recorded Best Wishes and Revenge, too. When we recorded the basic tracks the only thing anybody heard in their headphones was me. When we played live, the only thing in the monitors was the bass drum, the snare drum, and me … Except for Harley’s monitor, he would have his vocals, but we always did a careful monitor set up so we wouldn’t hear anything but my guitar and the drums, and us two locking. I was the pace card. I basically did the same thing with “Chaos Magic.” I played everything, and in my opinion it couldn’t have come out better because it’s the song. It’s not about skill—I guess it’s about skill to an extent—because my playing and my writing go hand-in-hand, and whenever we would go on tour with the Cro-Mags, we took on new musicians, whether it be Rocky George, Bobby the Handball, Rob Buckley, Doug Holland, or any of the number of people that would play. I would always spend like two months teaching people how to play the songs. They couldn’t just pick it up off the recordings, because it’s a peculiar thing.
I literally blasted out all the tracks for “Chaos Magic” in one afternoon. It was the same thing I did with Revenge. I did all the guitars for the entire album in three days. Of course, we took eight days to do bass tracks, and we were in the studio for nine months. But I did all my tracks in three days.
You mentioned you like getting feedback from your peers. Have you heard from any of your former Cro-Mags bandmates about “Chaos Magic?”
I don’t have any contact with any of them. I did get an email … It doesn’t take much to get Harley to say unkind things online. But apparently this was fuel for him. Most people know that I don’t care or don’t want to see it, so no one forwarded it to me, or relayed what he said. They just say he wasn’t very positive, which I didn’t expect. He’s the kind of person who’s only happy when other people aren’t happy.
I see social media posts from Harley and John. They project a lot of positivity into the world. But when it comes to each other things turn negative quickly.
You write a book called The PMA Effect, and then spend the rest of your life being negative? I’ve observed that kind of thing with John for many years—espousing to be a religious person, based on a kind and loving religion. John’s thing with Hare Krishna is a strange offshoot. It’s like a bastardization of the Hindu religion: They recruit a lot of people by appealing to what they call the warrior side. They say that some people are missionaries and some people are warriors. That’s why the ranks of the Hare Krishnas are lined with lots of ex-cons. Like John!
It was always funny to me, whenever I met any of them through our encounters, almost all of them, within the first few minutes of putting their hands together and greeting you with a soft voice, would start saying, “Yeah, back when I used to fuck motherfuckers up! Back when I was serving time in the pen!” It almost always reverted to that.
Harley is the main reason why there will never be a Cro-Mags. People can say, “There is a Cro-Mags. They’re putting out records.” But certainly that’s not the Cro-Mags that people buy into. He likes to say publicly that the reason there isn’t one is because I won’t participate, and he wants to bury the hatchet. Be nice and all that kind of stuff—we’re all grown men …
Then he’ll go and make statements endlessly. He has a whole platform for making statements that diminish everybody’s role in the band—primarily mine. He doesn’t say anything about Doug because he doesn’t see Doug as a threat. But when you look at the credits on The Age Of Quarrel it says all songs written by Parris Mayhew and Harley Flanagan. My name is first, and the reason my name is first is because I am the primary songwriter. But he puts out a press release six months ago that says “35 years ago, I wrote an album …”
How does he expect there to be any kind of reconciliation when his entire platform is based on diminishing other people? The truth is, I have outgrown him. I outgrew him long ago. For a long time, I had an attachment to him because of my pride in my music. But one thing I realized when we were tracking basic tracks for Revenge, Harley didn’t even know some of the songs. I did the basic tracks with the drummer Dave DiCenso. Harley learned them and subsequently played bass on them afterwards. It wasn’t until I was in the recording studio playing these songs that I wrote by myself with the drummer, when I said to myself, “I could have done this by myself.”
The reason we kept returning to each other was because I made this connection between what I achieved in music with him, and I believed his hype of diminishing me. I believed it to a certain extent. I felt that we were connected by it. This time, I thought, I’m going to do it the way I have always done it, but without him. The results are for other people to determine. But I am happy about them. I am as proud of “Chaos Magic” as I am with anything I have ever done?
You can hear the The Age Of Quarrel, Best Wishes, and Revenge DNA in the riffs, guitar tones, and melodies of “Chaos Magic.” I don’t hate Harely’s new Cro-Mags album, In The Beginning, but it’s different. The values of what you’re doing with Aggros are more closely aligned with where the music came from in the first place—pushing forward into new musical terrain by looking inward.
When we got together to do Revenge, I didn’t want to call it Cro-Mags. At first we called it White Devil. I kept saying to Harley that I wasn’t interested in playing The Age Of Quarrel and Best Wishes again. We can certainly play those songs. I love them. But I only want to do anything if we make new music.
I also wanted to disconnect myself from 10 years of John touring and playing our music in a pitiful way. I say pitiful because when Harley and I left off with Cro-Mags we were playing festivals in Europe, and headlining. John has resigned the name Cro-Mags to an opening act, playing in small clubs. I wanted to separate myself from that degradation. I perceived it that way because it was my music. So we concentrated on writing something new, and I wanted it to be under a new moniker—White Devil. But as soon as we started playing gigs all the advertisements said Cro-Mags are White Devil. Literally every flyer and anything you saw, the word Cro-Mags was just as big White Devil. We were fighting a battle that was unwinnable. Just today I did an Instagram post where I said something like, nostalgia is an undefeatable foe. You can try to fight it and get washed away. It’s like a tidal wave. If you stand against it, it’ll wash you away until you’re not even noticed. Or you can embrace it—ride it. I don’t shuck off Cro-Mags. I am proud of it. I have just outgrown it, and I’m moving on.
The situation says something about the power of branding, too. The name Cro-Mags will always draw a crowd, because the songs are good, and it has good branding. But when I look at the Aggros logo, I see the same creative hand at work.
I created the logo for the Cro-Mags. I have the original paste ups! Back before computers and stuff, we would actually cut, paste, and put ink on paper. I have the mock-up for the original Cro-Mags cassette. I did it by hand—I have a degree in fine arts.
When I was going to do my logo, I wanted it to be familiar and I wanted it to be me. And to a large extent, the truth is, it was just an imitation of the Motörhead logo anyway! We even toyed with putting umlauts on it. We were kids!
I recently came across an interview where you said that you loved playing music with Harley Flanagan more than anyone you’ve ever played with, but you also hope that you never see him again. Has that changed?
At that time, I was still having a hard time separating him from my abilities. He really did a number on me. If somebody says something to you over and over, you start to believe it. In that same interview, I might’ve said that I would pick up my guitar and play a riff for him, and he would light up! We would play together for hours. To me, that was us, as opposed to us playing my song. The point is, if he wasn’t sitting there I’d still be playing the same song. And I never realized that until I made Revenge. I have finally been able to let all that go, and it’s still true. I still loved playing with Harley. It was great, but I don’t need that.
Do you have a schedule for releasing an Aggros full-length?
No. I don’t have people sitting behind desks telling me what to do. It’s not on a label, so it’s not a commercial venture. It’s just me doing it whenever I feel like doing it, but I have a number of tracks recorded and will release the next one when I finish the next video. Who knows how long that’ll take; I have something to live up to now with “Chaos Magic.”
My wife and I have an agency and we’re basically treating the band like a client to the agency. Once the second video is out we’ll construct all the elements for a 7-inch with probably four songs. Vinyl only. Downloads will be on the website. Hopefully there will be a number of 7-inches to come out, perhaps there’ll be an album collection of the singles, like Siouxsie and the Banshees did. Maybe I’ll pick up musicians as we go, and maybe we’ll re-record all the songs with singing. Or maybe we won’t. I don’t know. We’ll see. “Chaos Magic” was online for an hour and known people from known bands were texting me saying, “I want in.”
I think of the band as like Daft Punk or Ghost. There’s a creative center, and then other people are brought in. It’s presented as a band and why not? On Revenge, Cro-Mags wasn’t a band. It was me and Harley. We were the creative center, and we hired Bobby the Handball, Rocky George, or whoever it happened to be at the time. I’m approaching it that way. When this is seen on stage, it’ll be presented as a band. It will be a great band, whoever it is, but who knows who it’ll be, every time you see me.
That’s a good place to be.
It’s an awesome place to be.
Click here to read part two of RadATL’s conversation with Parris Mayhew.