Heavy Metal Disco Inferno: Interview with Mo'Royce Peterson on making Tragedy for the ages
When a music promoter was looking to book a supporting act for a Neil Diamond tribute band slated to play a string of shows at New York City’s Irving Plaza, he knew exactly who to call. “It started out as a concept,” explains Mo’Royce Peterson, the lead vocalist and lead guitarist of the fabulous band we now know as Tragedy, “let’s do a metal version of something that’s not metal!”
The musicians explored a number of ideas, including a metal tribute to Anita Baker, but ultimately landed on the Bee Gees. “We were like: Oh My God, that’s it!” recalls Peterson. Thinking about what they were going to name the band, they looked up Bee Gees songs titles: “‘Night Fever?’ No. ‘Staying Alive?’ No. Oh, ‘Tragedy!’ Perfect.” But the idea needed some context, so they created a mythology to boot.
Today, the intro to Tragedy’s official biography reads as follows:
“Born out of the impenetrable divide of Disco and Metal, these fearsome brothers fearlessly obliterated the truce line that had been set in the great Disco/Metal Peace accord of 1977 when they seamlessly blended the two genres with their debut album, We Rock Sweet Balls and Can Do No Wrong...”
Although the band has been active for over a decade, playing countless shows and building up a fanbase around the world, it was signed by Napalm Records earlier this year and dropped its first album with the label on July 30th. Disco Balls to the Wall is a “greatest hits collection” that contains remixes, remasters, and brand-new recordings of the band’s most popular songs.
Of the six official members of Tragedy, five are actual musicians. Aside from Mo’Royce Peterson, there’s Disco Mountain Man (lead vocals, lead keyboards), Andy Gibbous Waning (lead bass, lead vocals), Garry Bibb (lead guitar, lead vocals), and The Lord Gibbeth (lead drums). The only non-musician and, therefore, non-leading member of the band is Lance (the towel boy), who is — as Peterson gently put it — “a total hack.”
“Technically we’re brothers, just like the Gibb, but we didn’t actually meet until later in life,” explains Peterson. “All of us, except the towel boy, either played in bands or worked on different musical projects together.” Unofficially, however, the band is also supported by the talent and effort put in by its members’ significant others. From album cover art to fashion and stage presentation, their contributions cannot be overstated.
Since its debut, Tragedy has expanded its repertoire from covering the Bee Gees to many other artists. But, no matter whose material they are performing, the incredibly talented musicians always strive to fuse their passion for music with humor, spandex, and leather. ARTpublika Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with Mo’Royce Peterson about his life, work, and what it takes to make Tragedy happen.
Let’s rewind back to the very beginning. Where are you from? Where did your interest in music come from?
I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and I started playing violin when I was four years old.
Was that your choice or your parents’ choice?
It was my choice. I saw a concert and was like: I want to do that. My parents — not musicians themselves — were very supportive.
What was playing around the house?
My dad was a real lover of music. The coolest album he had was King Crimson’s first album, In the Court of the Crimson King , with that amazing record cover! I would pull it out and be like: Oh my God, put this one on! To this day, “21st Century Schizoid Man” still blows me away. But, as a little kid, holding that album cover and hearing that song was just nuts. My dad stopped collecting popular music by the early 70s, but I had an older sister who got into disco, pop, rock, and punk rock, and I got it all from her bedroom across the hall.
There’s a bridge between playing violin and guitar, no?
I retired from the violin by the time I was six. [Then I got into] piano, then saxophone, and then guitar.
What record made you fall in love with rock music?
My first record was an Elvis Presley Double Album of his Top Ten Hits from the 50s. So Elvis was my first obsession as a little kid. But I became a collector of 50s rock and roll records when I was nine. So, that’s when I first went deep and started to really learn about music.
Who was part of your collection?
So, Elvis, Little Richard, The Everly Brothers. And the music had to be between 1953 and 1959, if it was 1960 or 1961, I was like: That’s not really 50s, is it? I would do the research and look at all the charts from back in the day. It was hard because you didn’t have the internet then, you couldn’t just look up an artist. I would have to go find a garage sale where someone was selling old records, and that’s how I got my collection.
Did you have a group of friends who were into something similar?
I had a friend in school whose parents, and I think the whole family, were kind of stuck in the 50s. I remember walking into his house thinking it was like Leave it Beaver. It was just like that. We had a Top Ten list that the fourth and fifth graders would vote on in school. He enlisted me to help him get Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” in the Top Ten. We did a campaign, made signs for it, and talked to everyone about it at recess, like: Vote for “Splish Splash.” So, he was kind of obsessed and got me interested, too. And we did get that in the Top Ten. It was amazing! It was the peak of my political career.
For us history buffs, can you talk about what went down at the alleged Disco/Metal Peace Accords of 1977, according to Tragedy?
Man! It’s so funny what happened to disco and hair metal in particular. Both took over the culture; everything had to be disco in the late 70s and then in the late 80s everything had to have a metal aesthetic; everyone had long hair and every song had to have a metal guitar solo. And then both died these epic deaths.
Clearly there’s life after death, cause Tragedy!
Well, yeah. I’d like to take some responsibility for that. The irony, too, is that the rockers and the disco lovers just hated each other. So we thought that we could resurrect this really great music that ended up being ridiculed, and also bring together these people who kind of hated each other. And then we saved the world, we forged world peace.
You’re welcome. I mean, we haven’t reached every country just yet, but in every country we’ve played in, there hasn’t been an actual war that’s broken out.
Can you talk about the creative process behind your music videos?
We didn’t start making music videos until our fourth album. So, the first one we made was for “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease . Barry Gibb wrote the movie theme song, and Robert Colin Stigwood, the manager of the Bee Gees, was the film’s producer. That’s kind of how we got into the whole Grease thing. But conceptually, usually someone comes up with an idea — it could be someone in the band or the director — and we brainstorm the rest together.
Are your stage personas a reflection of who you are in real life or are you all mild-mannered men?
There’s a contrast between us just kind of being ourselves in our daily lives and our stage personas. It’s pretty funny. Our drummer actually describes our stage personas as the people we all want to be. That’s the great thing about all kinds of art.
It’s easy to imagine you drinking tea with your pinkies out. Is there a switch that turns on when you step out on stage?
It’s not like we go from polite society to debauchery, but there’s a real on and off switch. I mean, the characters we are on stage are totally with us and in us all the time, but they take a lot of energy. If the people who only know our stage personas got a glimpse of us backstage — where we’re all sitting around, drinking water and looking at our phones, and everyone’s real calm — it could be kind of a shock. But, that’s also part of the process, we gather our chi and then release it all on stage.
Does it burst out of your chests like in Alien ?
Before you play a show, is there a ritual that the band engages in?
There are definitely things that happen every time. When I do a soundcheck, I always sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” which is very funny when we are playing outside of the country. And then the first song we always do at sound check is “How Deep is Your Love.” Everyone sings on it and it’s a really good jumping off point, technically.
How do you decide on the themes for new records?
We try to have some sort of a cohesive theme for our albums. Sometimes it’s a matter of: Well, we really like these new songs we’re doing. What theme can we come up with, and bring songs in along those lines? A very good example of that is our album Tragedy Goes to the Movies . We thought: It would be great if there was something from Star Wars.
In the band’s bio, it mentions that you guys crank it up to 11, so Spinal Tap (1984) is an influence?
Oh yeah! For sure. I knew about Spinal Tap as a teenager but didn’t fully appreciate it. I slowly came to appreciate it more as I got older, and I think all musicians kind of reference Spinal Tap in their lives.
Who do you listen to when you’re not working on Tragedy? Who is playing on your music streaming devices?
It’s very eclectic. Man-o-War and Frank Sinatra probably take up the most space on my phone. I LOVE Frank Sinatra, the way he tells stories through song, he’s just amazing to me. He didn’t write the songs, kind of like Tragedy, but some of his interpretations are just pure gold. He gets what it’s like to feel everything that’s in those songs, and there is so much that he talks about, whether it’s heartbreak or love or pride or pain — whatever it is — he really digs deep.
Are you a fan of female vocalists?
Oh my God, yeah! The Weather Girls! They have released a number of albums but everyone knows them for “It’s Raining Men,” which is amazing. That song and that video are just the best! They are my spirit animal.
What do you like to read?
Man, I used to read novels all the time and then the internet happened. I got really into Kurt Vonnegut. He’s really influenced my outlook, I think.
What books of his did you like?
I liked everything I’ve read — Slapstick (1976), Slaughterhouse Five (1969), but the one that was a real departure is Mother Night (1961). My friends in high school would criticize Vonnegut and say: He’s so cynical and unemotional. And then I read Mother Night. You want emotion? Check out this book.
When did you start playing the guitar?
I was six years old when I retired from the violin. My older sister was playing the piano, and I got into that, but I was learning classical music and most kids don’t really want to be playing classical music. Then there was an opportunity to play saxophone in middle school and I thought: At least I’ll be playing music from the current century. That was more engaging to me. My dad had an acoustic guitar, just kind of sitting there in the closet, so when I got to be a preteen, I thought: I have to do something to make myself more interesting.
Is that code for getting the attention of girls?
Yeah. Let’s be realistic, right? I spoke to a friend who was taking guitar lessons and started taking lessons from his teacher. I remember the first lesson I had. I was taught two chords, D and A7, and with that I was given a thick book of songs that I could play with those two chords. I was taking weekly lessons, so between my first and second lessons, I wrote all these songs that I could sing along to, and I was just like: This is great! This is what I want to be doing.
Did you take singing lessons, or was that something that came with practice?
Some people are born good singers, I wasn’t one of them. But, I didn’t really care and fronted my own band when I was 13. I was into hardcore punk, which wasn’t so much about singing as it was about throat screaming, expression, and whatever else. I wasn’t even that good. But, eventually, I actually started trying to be a good punk vocalist. My favorite vocalist was H.R. from Bad Brains, and I wasn’t trying to sound like him but people started comparing me to him. The first time I actually thought of myself as a singer was when we were doing a string of shows — I was about 16 when this happened — in Wisconsin with NOFX. They said to me: “You know, you’re a really good band and you’re a really good singer.” We were thinking about going to the studio to make a tape but they told us: “No, don’t make a tape! Put out a record, a 7-inch, then you can get it reviewed. And you can get distribution. Do it!” So, a couple of months later, we went into the studio for the first time and made a 7-inch, sent it out, and got it reviewed. We were not especially popular in our own little scene, but the recordings got a lot of very positive mentions. And I would say that that changed the trajectory of what I thought of myself as a musician and a singer.
What was the name of this band?
Originally, it was Cruel Society, but then by the time we put out the record we changed the name to Cruel, because we thought that Cruel Society sounded too much like a hardcore band and Cruel sounded more arty. A few years after that, some of the guys were responsible and left the band to go to college. I stuck with it, toured the country a little bit, and got some offers, but when a major deal didn’t happen, I moved to New York.
When did you move to New York and where did you live?
Mid-90s. I was a pioneer in Greenpoint. I started working with a drummer who had a studio called Dangers Music. The studio no longer exists, but I learned a lot about the recording process and within a year or two of beginning work with him, I opened my own. I got introduced to a lot of musicians. Tragedy’s drummer came into the studio one day, for one session, and I was like: You’re a great drummer! Let me just get your information. I called him up for another project and however many years later, here we are.
Speaking of Tragedy, your stage presentation, how did that come about?
We thought we should look disco and metal. Initially I was the one who had a lot of stuff in my closet, but eventually people started collecting their own things. I mean we tried, before, to have custom made stuff for the band for a more uniform look, but it worked for some people and not others.
What song do you want to cover that you haven’t yet?
I’d love to do some Chaka Khan, she’s so dynamic and badass! I think “I’m Every Woman” done by a bunch of dudes would be pretty spectacular!
What are some of your fondest memories of performing?
A couple of my favorites are festivals we’ve done overseas. Our first big metal festival was Bloodstock in the U.K. We had no idea how it was going to go over. Ours was the only band that was funny or glam or anything. This was before Steel Panther started opening up a path for that at these festivals in Europe. But, it was fantastic! The Brits and the British metal scene just totally got it. They embraced the humor and everything that Tragedy represents, which was very, very special. The other festival was Motocultor, in France. I don’t think we played in France before that and we had a crazy, crazy time. We were playing the Summer Breeze festival in Germany every night. At the end of the final show, we had to get in a van that raced us to Strasbourg, so we could get on a train. We got on the wrong train, noticed just in the nick of time, got on the right train, which took us all the way across the country. We got picked up, taken to the festival, and after all of that, we were like: Alright, now we have to rock for these people. It was a multistage festival, so a band finished before us and there were five thousand people in the audience. We went to set up and they all went away — there were two people waiting for us — and we’re like: Oh boy! But by the time we set up, there were 5000 people again, waiting for us to start. Most have never seen us before, probably, and we didn’t know how it was going to go. But it was bananas! It was so fun! We finished the set with YMCA and luckily there is some footage where you see these metalheads in their battle jackets — all 5000 of them — doing the YMCA. It’s amazing when that happens.
Note* Images were provided by Tragedy, used with permission.