Ogre (Kevin Ogilvie) on how ohGr differs from Skinny Puppy and the death of Michael Jackson
ohGr (due tonight at the Bluebird Theater with Left Spine Down and Orbit Service) is a project involving Mark Walk and Ogre (aka Kevin Ogilvie), the legendary frontman from influential and pioneering electronic band Skinny Puppy. During the '80s and '90s, Skinny Puppy created one of the templates many industrial artists followed. But, perhaps more significantly for the current era, the musical DNA of Skinny Puppy's experiments in sound collage and moody atmospheres can be heard in the more adventurous electronic music artists of today.
With ohGr, Ogre is able to make an organically visceral music with strong narrative lyrics delivered in the way only a veteran of one of the darkest and most visually arresting bands of the last thirty years can.
Currently on tour in support of its latest album, unDeveloped, ohGr continues to explore the psycho-social perils of the world around us today in creatively poignant ways. We recently spoke with Ogre about the new record, his friendship with Forrest J. Ackerman and his unique and charming sense of humor. As always, Ogre's wide-ranging interests and intellect are on full display below.
Ogre of ohGr
Westword:In your press releases, there is talk of characters developing from Devils In My Details through to unDeveloped. Who are these characters, and do you approach their development in a literary and cinematic way?
Ogre: More schizophrenic, probably. It's more dealing with, I think, cognitive psychology than anything. Devils in My Details kind of recounted an experience I went through in downtown Los Angeles that probably changed my life forever. I wrote Devils as I was going through it, in the midst of it.
unDeveloped became more focused, like if you were looking through a telescope, as with Devils, through a microscope. I focused in it a bit more and came up with an alter-ego named Brownstone. Not Brownstone in the sense of heroin but in the sense of a brownstone building and tying it in to a lot of the cabals and conspiracies and twisted bits of human development we're going through right now.
So he became a character that was basically a military intelligence officer who is involved in a lot of surveillance and stalking, basically, of people -- Cointelpro. Things went bad for him when he started seeing the underside of the coin he was playing. So he went rogue and basically lives in downtown Los Angeles in the streets, and he has a little hovel that he goes to, and he dresses in various disguises, and one of them is this hunchback street person.
He goes around collecting various objects, and he's obsessed with electronic devices and wires and things that are wired up and goes back and pontificates about how he's been used and abused by the very intel agency he used to support. Then he writes all this stuff on a pre-Depression-era typewriter called the Oliver, which was the typewriter that was used in Naked Lunch. It's a beautiful, Princess Leia-eared typewriter.
He types these things out, scans them and loads them up to a Facebook page. He doesn't deal with any kind of electronic devices, because he sees the downside to all of that and prefers to use a typewriter and that's he communicates everything. So that character came out of all of that stuff. It's ever evolving and I want to develop it more. These kinds of things come and go like the storms in my mind.
In what ways did the death of Michael Jackson affect you, and how did that inform "Crash"?
I kind of saw the death of Michael Jackson, in the context of the song, as an analogy for what we were going through at the time with our record label, SPV, when they went through insolvency, which is basically the same as someone dying. You stop paying your bills, you stop spending and you just take money in.
I kind of also equated Michael Jackson's life, because he was in the music industry, to how the music industry was run, in the sense that it had created an environment that was completely unlivable -- you know, opulent, full of the idea of success and stardom and something that's more social conditioning. You see these people working in this business that has no tether to reality or to how most people live their lives. It gives kids, I think, [a false sense of what it means to be a musician].
The way I see it now, because I've been a musician and you see the restrictions that you have on what you do, even though you're allowed to say whatever you want to say, you become a foil for the idea of freedom. In the sense that musicians are in a way ineffective dissidents.
They're not in the streets doing anything. They're not causing dissent and destruction, but they can be political and say anything they want and represent freedom in America or in Canada or in the Western world, but are we really free? We've become this Joseph Campbell, mythological archetype for kids to look up to and aspire to be. That's both something I embrace because I see it as important but at the same time I see it as a manipulation.
So, getting back to "Crash," all those things wound into the making of that in the sense that I saw Michael Jackson as somebody who created this life for himself. This house that was completely unlivable. That crosses over into the way I see how we've shepherded the planet and a lot of aspects of the various bubbles that we've been through at least in my short lifetime. Various bubbles that are completely hot air and vacuums.
If you look at the Stock Exchange right now, basically you have 1.3 trillion dollars in speculative trades every day. Every day on exchanges around the world. That's fifty times more than the value and the worth of all the exchanges in the world. It's ludicrous. People making money off of nothing. Speculating that you're getting colon cancer by age thirty-five. I don't know how old you are.
Older than that.
I've lost a bet, then! My derivatives are gone! You're still alive, damnit! How did that happen? My investment officer said this wasn't going to happen. You're supposed to be dead, sir. Yeah, all that stuff played into "Crash" and a slight inspiration from Pink Floyd.
How did you meet Mark Walk, and what does he bring to your collaboration that compliments well what you bring?
I met Mark during the recording of The Process. We had gone through two producers or one producer. Roli Mosimann came in to work, and it just didn't work out. So we brought in Martin Atkins and we may have brought in somebody else before that. Anyway, Martin Atkins had worked with Mark Walk on Notes From Thee Underground and Fook on the Pigface records.
That's kind of where Mark first heard me, on "Insemination." Then we met down in California. We just bonded immediately. He's a person who has no judgment but an incredible amount of skill and a very strong ego but not an ego that puts people down. He tends to bring people up to his level.
It was an incredible learning experience for me because I was, or was then, I think I'm a lot tougher now, sensitive and it was a bond based on those sensitivities that we both shared. It just developed over, I think, fifteen or sixteen years that we've known each other. We've been involved in each of our relationships and breakups of relationships. He moved down here from Seattle at one point and left a woman and a house behind. So we just know each other.
It's a different relationship than Skinny Puppy in the sense that Kevin and I are very good friends, but we don't necessarily share the same kind of connection. I guess within Skinny Puppy, when I was working with Rave, Rave and I kind of shared that. We have the same mindset, and in a lot of ways, he has taught me to free up a lot of the restrictions I've placed on myself, in terms of the industrial code or whatever, the noise code, that I grew up with -- the dissonant part of my brain. So he kind of opened that up to all sorts of possibilities. It's been a wonderful relationship for exploring.
There are aspects of sound design in a lot of your music. Do you find that approach to be especially suited to your songwriting, and if so, why?
More so in Skinny Puppy -- it's all about sound design. Skinny Puppy started as a sound design project where the voices are even an element of the sound design. We were making something that was so distorted and otherworldly that it became almost an instrument.
The music in Skinny Puppy, even if you listen to the new Skinny Puppy album, the vocals aren't really driving the music. The vocals are almost a distended accessory to the music to give it some context. But it's still very much the compositions. Because the writing style is like that. The compositions are done beforehand and the vocal fits over the top.
Whereas in ohGr, we tend to start with a vocal idea and base the music around that. We kind of deconstruct a lot more in ohGr and really explore something out to find what's best and what pushes the vocals. Again, one pushes the vocal more, and the other is kind of creating more of what you're saying with the sound design. Although within ohGr there's still a shitload of sound design that goes into the music. I think with ohGr we tend to use less sequencing and more straight takes -- just performance takes. I think we use a lot more bass and bottom end, less synthetics but things that are emulating synthesis, if that makes any sense.
When we're performing live, with ohGr, we strip back a lot of the electronics and the stuff that doesn't need to be there. Whereas I think you'll find that on Skinny Puppy tours, there'll be drums on tape, for example, that Justin [Bennett] is playing along with. We strip most of that out on ohGr -- all the guitars out, all the bass out, when it's played live, and a lot of the keyboards are played live, too.
You use alternate spellings for words in song titles. What has been the significance of that to you as an artist?
I've always played around with words since I was a young child. Not pre-writing, but probably grades four, five and six. I used to automatic write. Go down into my basement and just write pages and go back and circle phrases. It was more that I couldn't conceptualize what I wanted to say back then. So I found it very difficult. But I found something within that randomness that was amazing and I've always held on to that.
From that, I developed a keen sense of how words sound, how they can phonetically sound and be changed. How they words obviously have different meanings and with a slight displacement can take on almost a surreal meaning.
When I stumbled upon that, that opened me up to the idea of how fascinating language is and how it can really paint a picture. It can also be very acute and obtuse at the same time. I think for me there's an acute meaning, and it happens naturally now, but there's an obtuse meaning to it as well.
That just goes back to how much I loved lyrics as a kid and listening to music. The stuff that stuck with me the most is the stuff that kept opening up layers of meaning?
"traGek" was inspired by your fascination with the electromagnetic spectrum and what you're looking and what you cannot perceive. Obviously this concept goes beyond just the visible spectrum and that sort of thing. Why is that fascinating for you?
I'm going to sound like a crackpot but I honestly believe...I'm reading a book right now that's based on the brain and how we perceive things. Our conscious mind is a very small part of what our brain does. There's all sorts of fascinating things about the brain, about what we see.
What I look at right now, which is the valley I've looked at for four years -- I'm not seeing the valley for what it is right now. I'm seeing something my brain's recorded. And the only input that's going into my brain are the changes from the last time I looked at the scene. So what you see in reality is a very small part of what you're looking at at any time unless you're in a totally new environment.
So the idea of the visual spectrum and how little we see within it, I truly believe that there's a lot more stuff going on around us than we're aware of. That goes back to things like a guy named [Trevor] Constable, who worked on weather engineering, orgone weather engineering in the '40s, '50s and '60s.
He was taking pictures with infrared film and the orgone machines were shooting, I guess, negative ions up into the sky trying to make clouds and see clouds and whatever. They were attracting these huge blobs that would only show up on the infrared spectrum. That along with [Franklin] Musgrave, an astronaut who has been up in about five shuttle missions, filming these things floating in the upper atmosphere called "critters." So there's a lot of stuff, I think, that we don't see that's all around us.
The other thing that astronauts have seen these things, and this guy in DC has downloaded all of the NASA transmissions that have caught these things on Super VHS tape, that are little, multi-colored lights in the corner of their eyes. Little multi-colored lights. It happens in milliseconds. They've been caught on video tape and studied by physicists.
They are there; they appear as they are on film, but only on certain Super VHS tape that has -- I don't know the term for this -- two different layers for each frame, so it's actually sixty frames per second. And you see these things. Astronauts see them as something in the corner of their eyes. Basically it's like a being coming up to you and does a complete scan of your nose, eyes and face before you even know that it's happened. That's how fast these things are.
I have so many esoteric beliefs, but one of the things I'm starting to learn is that science is showing us that there's a lot more than what we see. Whether it's negative things like alpha and beta rays that are obviously passing through us and neutrons and neutrinos, which now have been proven to travel faster than the speed of light -- which is fascinating. That means there could be time travel and people could be going back and changing things.
Again, you go back to when, and it wasn't that long ago, people were thinking we were the center of everything. Like there was this glass snow globe all around us with things all around us in a perfectly symmetrical fashion, and it's so not that. It blows my mind and "tragic waves of radar lotion pours over on some distant shores," I wrote that line before Fukushima. But I was thinking of all these things by which we're being bombarded constantly, whether that's by EMS or microwaves or whatever, but now we're being bombarded by hot particles, fuel fleas, alpha particles and beta particles and life goes on.
Yeah, it's like how the human mind will try to impose meaning on experience. But when there's a stimulus outside any realm of experience we have, sometimes the mind will ignore it.
Right. Or, as Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." There's all sorts of things you can play on people. I like reading online about how a lot of religious people are saying that these interdimensional beings or UFOs or aliens, if they exist, they're not aliens, they're not another species more technologically advanced than us; they're devils or djinns.
To me that's about as ignorant and about as prehistoric a thinking as -- and I don't mean to denigrate animals -- a lab rat looking at a doctor in a laboratory. It's the same sort of fear in looking at something with no understanding, and you're applying all these kinds of mythological constructs to it, but it could simply be there's something far more advanced than we are out there not interested in us at all.
Last time I talked to you, we had discussed Forrest J. Ackerman and he passed away later that year. What would say his greatest contribution to the world generally might be and what to you personally?
For me, personally, he was an amazing man outside of all the collecting. I wasn't into him for the collecting, although I certainly partook in being able to go up and touch the Willis O'Brien brontosaurus and the sets from a lot of Ray Harryhausen movies I grew up on, like Earth Vs. Flying Saucers, Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth -- I got to touch all of that stuff and play with it and hold it. But Forry himself was an amazing, eccentric unique individual that was way ahead of his time. Not many people know that.
He was one of the first writers busted for sending pornography through the mail. He was one of the first lesbian authors in Los Angeles under a pseudonym and was taken to the [Daughters of Bilitis], as well and was embraced by the club. But he was arrested for sending illicit material through the mail. And he was a nudist at one time. So many facets of the man are amazing.
On top of that he had a humility and a humbleness to him. The reason he started his collection was that he truly believed he had nothing important to say. He believed that right up to the end of his life -- that people were only coming over to see his collection. That was the most endearing thing about him because people were actually going to see him. We would go over on Friday night and clean up the house and get it ready for the Saturday visit, where anybody could come over if they called ahead and walk through the Ackermansion.
You could walk through and look through the stuff the same way we did. Stuff was being stolen, of course, all the time, but it's what Forry wanted, and at the end of the day, he would bring everybody up, and they would sit around him, and he would sit in his chair and tell his stories: "I've left every last word in all of the books in my library." And he'd pull out a book, turn to the last page and read the last word. He'd do things like that, and he had great banter, and I don't think he realized people were coming to see him.
He was the keeper of all the stories. He was the first sci-fi fan. He coined the term "sci-fi". So many things I give to the man. Not gross fandom, just real fandom toward things. He loved the stuff and he loved showing the stuff to people, that was the main part. He didn't covet it and hide it away, much to the chagrin of other collectors, and, true enough, some of the stuff was out in the open and been in a better environment, but at the same time, it was something you'll never see again.
When we packed up that house on Glendower, I was finding mint condition, '60s girlie mags tucked behind fireplaces in boxes. It was a treasure trove of stuff. Not that I care about that; it was just fun to find it all. Like when you're going through a box and finding a letter from Bela Lugosi, or we found plans for a Fritz Lang movie. Set blueprints for a Fritz Lang movie -- I can't remember the name of it -- stuff like that. We never took it. It went back to Forry because he had to fight his lawsuit case.
We were the one group, especially Joe Moe, who looked after him until he died, were there not just to keep the thieves at bay but also to keep it open, so people could experience it. I look at it as kind of, "What a lucky boy I am."
Anyone who has never talked to you or looked more into your lyrics might not guess that you have a great sense of humor that informs much of your songwriting. How would you characterize your sense of humor, and what makes you laugh the most these days?
I think my sense of humor is very hit and miss and much aligned to my attempt to be a magician when I was younger. I was part of the International Brotherhood of Musicians, and my parents loved my magic shows, because all of the tricks went wrong and great humor ensued. I think my strength as a humorist comes when the frying pan hits me in the face, to a certain degree.I can spin elegantly and I can hit marks sometimes, but I'm not as funny as most people. But I definitely have a very playful and childish sense of humor, and it borders on Tourette's sometimes.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.