The members of Royal Thunder jam amid kaleidoscopic colors, as a woman embarks on an abstract spiritual quest, in the group's mysterious "Time Machine" video. Frontwoman Mlny Parsonz – whose impassioned yowls set the group's dramatic and occasionally Zeppelin-esque riffs apart from other upstart psychedelic headbangers – underwent her own often-harrowing journey over recent years, one that informs Royal Thunder's latest album, Crooked Doors.
Compared to the band's breakthrough – the stunning, doomier 2012 record CVI – the new LP sounds freer and more like the product of acid rockers on a bad trip: guitars seethe between bluesy riffs and dark grooves, cymbals shimmy around jangly organ and, through it all, Parsonz hollers like a prisoner set free. The desperation in her tone fits the themes she's singing about, from her experience in a Christian cult ("Floor") to her breakup from husband (and Royal Thunder guitarist) Josh Weaver.
"I made some bad choices with someone, and having this person in my life was really toxic for me," she says somewhat guardedly about "Time Machine." "The song is me realizing, 'Oh, my God, I just wasted all this time.' You just have to take something from an experience like that and learn from it."
Crooked Doors is a gut-wrenching listen at times, but Royal Thunder remain one of the most dynamic new underground heavy-rock bands, something they're demonstrating by playing Crooked Doors' tales of heartache and breakdowns on the road with an unlikely headliner, Wilco.
Parsonz recently spoke with Rolling Stone about escaping the cult and living through some of Crooked Doors' most tumultuous moments.
What did you want to do differently on Crooked Doors from CVI?
I just didn't want to be all mysterious, at all, with lyrics. I'm more grown-up now, and I'm like fuck all of this. Let's just talk, you know what I mean?
A lot of the lyrics seem to detail your breakup with Josh.
I certainly didn't sit down with Josh and say, "Hey, let's write a breakup album." Josh didn't know what the lyrics were until our label, Relapse, asked for them. There were other things in my life that I've been going through, for two to three years, and they just started bubbling to the surface. I was breaking up with a lot of things in my life, and a lot of people.
How did Josh react when he finally read the lyrics?
There was a lot of confusion like, "What are you talking about? Are you saying what I think you're saying?" It was hard for him to hear some of the stuff, but we sat down and talked. I was like, "Hey man, I can't mask who I am and I can't mask my creativity for the sake of everyone feeling good about what I'm saying. If you hate it bad enough, then kick me out of the band." But he respects me as an artist, and he's fine with the freedom that I need. We've always had painful songs. But you fucking play 'em. You lived through it. You've got to face it.
The song "Floor" is about a Christian cult that you and Josh once belonged to. What made it a cult?
When we joined this church – I won't say its name, but it's an organization based out of Seattle – it seemed like it was on point and following pretty standard Christian doctrine. But they have these classes where they trained people to blame everything on everyone else in your family. Like, "This happened to you when you were a kid, and this person probably did this." They would constantly drill this sort of thing in to the point that you almost become alienated from you family, and the church became our family over time.
They were brainwashing people and introducing this new doctrine that was totally not the Bible at all, and it just got out of control. It fucked so many people up. There were people in that church that were forced to have sex with their spouses, although they were not OK with it, because it was the "right thing to do." The church leaders would schedule times for people – and I'm not speaking for myself – like, "OK, you guys should be having sex on this day, and then you need to come to counseling and report to us what your experiences were while you were having sex." They were constantly counseling people and asking people about their sex lives. And they would record it. They would pry into your finances and what was in your bank account. But there was something about them that you almost started to worship them. This need for approval from them was intense. Everyone was trying to be approved by this group of, so to speak, elders. But it got completely out of control.
How did your membership in the church affect your music?
I was a worship leader at that church, and that's where I learned to sing and play guitar at the same time. The head worship leader trained me – this is fucked up, I can't even believe I'm remembering this part – but he had trained me to never sing really well. He was like, "You should never do your best and sound really good because you'll distract people from the Lord and being able to worship God." Now I have a hard time putting a cap on myself. When I sing soft, gentle stuff, it's hard for me to pull back.
At what point did you realize the church was, as you said, "out of control"?
They had small groups that would come to your house, and they'd have guys in one room downstairs and all the girls upstairs. And you would just go into full detail about traumatic things that you had supposedly been through in life – some of it true, a lot of it not. But there was a sense of the leaders getting off on it, like, sexually. It almost had a voyeuristic vibe to it. At the time, I was like, "There's no way they're thinking [sexually] like this; they're Christians." But in retrospect, I can see it now. It was strange.
And there was a lot of swinging going on at that church and sharing of partners and things that people didn't know until years later. It was between a lot of the leaders and people that had been going there for a long time. I don't know that it was necessarily a cult when we started out, but it definitely went off the rails and it started to become that. By the time we left, it certainly was.
"Floor" is about your last days in the church. What happened?
They had a women's conference, and I was just so physically and spiritually overwhelmed that my body was just shaking. Like close to panic attacks. It was this trembling and this fear and this overwhelming sense of, "What the fuck is happening?" I passed out a lot during the three days they had this conference. When I would come to, people just thought I was possessed. They chased me around the church. I would crawl up on walls, climbing up on these huge welded crosses. I'd kick holes in the walls to put my feet in the holes, and then I'd kick the next hole so I could climb up the wall to get the hell away from the people that were cornering me and casting demons out of me.
How did you break out of the cult?
I was just sick. In my mind, in my body, I was exhausted. They'd made me visualize myself being on an elevator of life, and I had to get out on every floor and share visions. The doors would open: "What do you see? You're 2, 3, 4, 5, you're 20 years old." It was the most draining thing. And then they took me to this other room and I had to dig into my past, because they thought they had figured everything out, like, "Now we have to deal with every one of those floors." And I just lost my mind. I was babbling. I don't even know the shit that was coming out of my mouth.
When I got done doing that, Josh came and picked me up. And then the next day, I spoke to the pastor and was like, "I need to take a break." He was like, "All right, you can have next Sunday off." I was like, "No, I need a little more time." He was like, "All right, two Sundays, but I want to see you back after that. You need to be there." In my head, I was like, "Fuck this, fuck you." And out of my mouth came, "OK, I'll see you in two Sundays." I told Josh, "I'm not fucking going back, dude." At the time, he was really hurt by what I was going through and didn't understand it and was trying to process it himself. It took him a few hours and he was like, "If you're gone, I'm gone. I'm not doing this without you." And we just never went back.
Is this church still operating?
Are you afraid, now that you're talking about it, that the church will confront you?
Oh no, I really don't give a shit. People have reached out and extended apologies through cards and trying to show up at shows. And it's like, "Dude, fuck off. Leave us alone." Eventually it just stopped. It's just weird. They don't even realize how fucking crazy they are.
What do you think of that time in your life now?
I was fucking ashamed of it for the longest time. I was ashamed that I fell for anything like that and what people would think of me. Then I just got to the point where, going back to what I was talking about being honest, that's my experience. I'm not ashamed of the good and bad that I lived.
What do you believe in now spiritually?
I do believe that there is a higher power, and I meditate. My only concern is to be spiritually centered and find a positive place in my mind where I can function. I just want to be a good person. I want to treat people well. It works for me.
You're touring with Wilco. Is a member of that band a Royal Thunder fan?
I don't know. But a funny thing is when we started out, we were on MySpace and our drummer at the time – he loved and still loves Wilco – he put up a picture of one of their album covers, I guess one with birds on it [Sky Blue Sky], as a photo for the song. And somebody from Wilco contacted us like, "You need to take that down. If you don't, there will be legal action." We can't wait to tell them that story. Like, holy shit, remember when they threatened to sue us? Small world. I wanted to make a Royal Thunder shirt and just have their album cover on it and give it to them as a "Thanks for letting us tour with you" shirt.