On their new pop-punk odyssey, Kory Gregory strolls down the Yellow Brick Road of the mind.
This article originally appeared in print in AdHoc 28.
Kory Gregory is worried Prince Daddy & the Hyena’s new album might be a little too ambitious. Titled Cosmic Thrill Seekers, it’s a Wizard of Oz-inspired three-act opus exploring the singer and guitarist’s cyclical mental health struggles through layers of entangled metaphor and power-pop riffs, with moments of glockenspiel, acoustic guitar, and piano. “It might be a challenge,” he tells me over the phone.
The young Albany band has gained legions of listeners from touring with similarly self-deprecating outfits like Mom Jeans and Remo Drive—not to mention their 2016 debut, I Thought You Didn’t Even Like Leaving, which Gregory describes as an “instantly relatable” breakup album that found him coping by “smoking weed and eating Cheetos in bed.” He spoke to AdHoc about the bad trip that inspired the band’s maximalist new album, the soul-searching he engaged in while he was writing it, and why he identifies equally with the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man.
AdHoc: I noticed that in the press release for the new album, you call it “very, very, very much a selfish record,” with three “very”s.
Kory Gregory: The reason there’s three “very”s is because I was selfish on every level imaginable. For starters, I had all 14 songs written before I showed anyone in the band. There’s nothing political. There’s a lot of really heartfelt emotions directed at other people, but [it’s] more about how those attachments to other people affect me and my life. Everything I’m talking through with myself is me trying to dig deeper with my own psyche. There was very little outside influence.
Was that different from writing the last album?
I cannot write music in the same room as other people. I choke up and can’t do it. I’m very much driven by creating a body of work rather than just what sounds good. That sounds super pretentious, probably, but I don’t write a song without thinking, “Where does this fit on an album?” Having that mindframe writing music [makes it] hard to do that sitting in a room and jamming with people. I don’t want to act like a dictator in front of them. I’d rather just have everything done and let them do what they want with it.
The way I used to write before putting my energy into Cosmic Thrill Seekers was definitely personally driven, but there were a lot of outside influences. You could consider the first record a breakup album, which is kind of external. The majority of [Cosmic Thrill Seekers] is taking place in my head, which is also why The Wizard of Oz works as a vehicle to tell the story. There’s different characters, but they’re all figments of [Dorothy’s] imagination and different parts of herself. So that fit with how I was trying to portray my own—I don’t want to say mental illness, but neurodiversity, I guess?
Can you tell me more about the Wizard of Oz connection?
A couple years ago, I had this one bad acid trip, and it kind of fucked me up a little bit. It led me down some dark, scary black holes in my brain that didn’t really need to be discovered, and I ended up having to go to therapy for it. And I was going back and watching a lot of my favorite movies from when I was a kid. It was comforting; I felt like I was at home, which I definitely didn’t in that week I was freaking out about the acid.
Everything else was just hour-and-a-half-long moments of relief, but with The Wizard of Oz, something just clicked. Since junior year of high school, I’ve noticed myself going through this mental health cycle that fits perfectly into the outline that The Wizard of Oz gave to me. Not only did [its] vocabulary and imagery help me tell the story, but the Tin Man desiring a heart is the first act [of Cosmic Thrill Seekers], which is my quest for love. [Act Two is] the Scarecrow, who’s longing to be able to think: I’m at home obsessing over myself and struggling to maintain what I gained in the first act. And in response to that, in Act Three [“The Roar,”] I’m excessively longing for courage and impulsiveness, and it’s very destructive.
It’s interesting that the album is designed as a kind of infinite loop.
That’s definitely intentional. There are lines that appear at the very end of the record that call back to the first lines of the record. There are even chord progressions and melodies that are callbacks. The more you listen, the more you catch on.
Honestly, this was an obsessive record for me. I spent four years writing it by myself in a closet studio in my bedroom, and I was very specific and honestly, fucking annoying about it, probably. [Usually] when you go into big pieces of art and try to pick out the little things, they end up being far-fetched, like conspiracy theories. This time, I tried to confirm everyone’s conspiracy theories—to make sure that if they caught something, they were intended to catch it.
How are you feeling about putting the record out?
It’s going to be a relief to get [it] out there. But I’m very anxious about releasing [this] album from a band who used to be infamous for their dumb pop-punk weed joke songs. The fanbase that we’ve garnered through touring is more on the side of face-value, instantly relatable “This is how I feel, my girlfriend won’t text me back, I’m smoking weed and eating Cheetos in bed” kind of lyrics. Which I totally fuck with, and I love dumb pop-punk weed joke songs, but I’m a little nervous to release a record that might end up being kind of a chore for them. It might be a challenge.
I’m a little scared that this might not be what those fans want from us. But I know we have a faithful enough little fan club out there that even if it doesn’t click right away, they’ll give it five more listens and realize, “Wow, this is something that I do relate to, on an even deeper level than Cheetos in bed.”
How are you preparing for your first headlining tour? Do you have any pre-show rituals?
P Daddy’s unspoken motto is that we want to be as real and transparent as possible, and break down the notion that anyone is above or below [anyone else] in music. We’re not writing set lists for this tour. We’re spending two weeks before the tour learning every song we’ve ever written, and then the set lists are just gonna be whatever people call out in the crowd.
These venues we’re playing are actual venues. Before a year ago, we’d never played on a stage. We played in basements or on the floor of an art gallery. If a show sells out, we have to take things seriously and do everything by the rule book. But we made a deal that if more than 50 percent of the tickets aren’t sold, we’re setting up on the floor so we can be eye-level with the people and stay true to our roots.
The only pre-show ritual we’ll have, probably, is taking a shot of something to loosen up and then maybe smoking some weed. Not all of us smoke weed anymore, but anything that’ll loosen us up and try to get us on the same level with the audience. We want to make it feel like there’s the least amount of separation between us and the crowd as possible. [That’s] part of what we stand for.
Has the bad trip you mentioned changed your relationship with substances?
It absolutely has. Since the acid trip, I’m more picky about smoking weed. There are certain kinds [of weed] and certain surroundings that’ll trigger one of those trippy acid anxiety attacks. I’m still a weed smoker; [I] smoke weed every night before [I] go to bed. But I couldn’t have smoked weed before I did this interview.
There are times when I’m down to party. I know this is going to sound crazy, but I get extremely bad stage fright before every show. I feel so self-conscious and insecure. It definitely takes me doing something, whether it’s smoking weed or drinking a vodka-Red Bull, to get me hyped. I could play a show, no problem, without anything like that, but I don’t want my performance to be the forefront of the show; I want the energy of the whole room to be the forefront. This sounds like it has a negative connotation, but there’s a level of carelessness you need to be able to jump around and laugh at yourself and get everyone on the same page, stage diving and throwing the mic and screaming at each other.
How do you feel about needing a drink to get there?
There’s a certain amount of it that feels like a dependency, but I don’t feel that dependency when I’m at home. This is gonna sound like the most unhealthy shit you’ve ever heard, but there’s 45 minutes [a night] where I need this, so I’m not going to go to a doctor to figure it out. I’m gonna deal with it myself until it becomes destructive, and I don’t think right now it’s destructive.
There are points, like the “Roar” phase of the album, when I take that too far. I’m not home for five months at a time, and I’m up until 5 a.m. drinking and just saying yes to whatever drug they’re passing my way. That’s destructive, and that’s unhealthy.
It seems like this record is a reminder for you that even those “Roar” phases will pass.
“There’s no place like home.” No feeling lasts forever. That definitely is [our current motto] as a band.
Last year, I had to drop a tour. I was just so homesick, and sick of everything moving in this “Roar” cycle—either you’re constantly on tour or when you are home, you’re drinking with your friends until the sun comes up, being risky and trying to mask whatever else is going on in your head. After years of letting that carefree, “Say yes” attitude dictate [my behavior], it came to a point on that tour where I was like, “Yo, I love this, but it’s time for me to break through to the next part of the cycle again: the love-driven one.” There’s a point where you need to move on to that phase, because you need it to stay sane.
And the album starts and ends with it. With “I Lost My Life,” there’s a point where I’m pleading: “I wanna go home, I wanna go home.” And then in the last song on the record: “It’s late and it’s calm and I miss my mom.” The meat of your life is one thing, but the bookends that tie it all together are sharing your love and letting other people’s love be shared to you. Having a sense of security and home. Having some kind of hope that maybe you won’t die alone.