Skinny Puppy's Ogre on Weapon and learning about the use of the band's music for torture
Emile Elizabeth and John Kraw
Formed in 1982, Skinny Puppy (due tonight, February 24, at the Ogden Theatre) is a pioneer of electronic industrial music. The band's dark aesthetic and its visionary amalgamation of rhythm, texture and tone cast an indelible shadow on virtually all industrial music that followed in its wake. Throughout its career, Skinny Puppy has presented an irreverent yet nightmarish reflection of the horrors and absurdities of the modern Western cultural land-scape. The group's landmark album, Remission, from 1984, provided a blueprint for such modern purveyors of the genre as Youth Code and Genessier. Too Dark Park, from 1990, and its supporting tour cemented Skinny Puppy's reputation as a band whose music and performance get under your skin like few others. The group's latest effort, last year's stark and affecting Weapon, is handily its fin-est effort since 1992's Last Rights.
Though now synonymous with the industrial and goth subculture, Skinny Puppy's music then and now is a true synthesis of sonic ideas including more pop forms and the decidedly avant-garde. From the beginning, the band used its music as a vehicle for making commentary on the more unsavory aspects of humanity's impact on the world and itself. It also wrote songs that were a compassionate yet unflinching self-examination, which has long endeared the group to fans for expressing thoughts and feelings that more conventional bands often don't.
During the first phase of its career from 1982 to 1995, it seemed as though Skinny Puppy not only embraced like-minded bands like Ministry and its various side projects and KMFDM, but it created a body of work whose influence is perhaps now beginning to gain its full flower among the more adventurous electronic artists of today that have grown up on electronic music and hip-hop artists that have made at least as extensive use of samples as Skinny Puppy has from its inception.
Surprisingly accessible while also fascinatingly challenging, the outfit first started reaching a wider audience during the alternative rock era with the release of its 1992 album Last Rites. But by 1995,during the recording of what might have been the group's most commercially successful album to date, The Process, the tensions involved in making that record resulted in Kevin "Ogre" Ogilvie quitting the band and Dwayne Goettel died of a heroin overdose shortly after.
There's no soft peddling the tragic loss of Goettel, but the legacy of Skinny Puppy's theatrical live shows, and its music, which is imbued with meaning, mystery and power, and the way in which Ogre connects so strongly with fans as the frontman of the group has continued to grow.
cEvin Key and Ogre reconvened the group in 2003, and the act has since released some of its finest material of its career, including its latest album, 2013's Weapon. Combining the simpler songwriting of the band's earliest offerings with the recording methods and sound design skills both Ogre and Key have cultivated in recent years, Weapon is yet another creative peak for the band.
In 2014, Skinny Puppy filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense in the amount of $666,000 for the use of its music in the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, a result of what the band learned from one of its fans stationed at the infamous prison. The case is obviously something of a symbolic gesture, but it's one that seems entirely appropriate in an era when many artists, like the public, are learning to use their influence and available power in productive engagement with the powers that be. We spoke with the always engaging, insightful and charming Ogre following the release of Weapon. Keep reading for the full interview.
Westword: Weapon is a bit of a commentary on gun culture and what's going on in the world right now. What was it about that issue that inspired you to comment in that way?
Ogre: It wasn't about gun culture, per se. It was a concept that was floating around right after the ohGr tour in 2011. We met a person in Phoenix who was a guard at Guantanamo, who was a huge Skinny Puppy fan, who actually heard prisoners being tortured with Skinny Puppy music. We did an extensive interview with him. Then the idea was that, "Well if they're going to use our music for torture, we'll make an album to torture people by." So the album, in its conception was called Weapon as in music to torture people by -- you know, Skinny Puppy used as a weapon.
Our tour manager is a freak of sorts; she's a wonderful circus performer who lives in Vegas. She was going to get a bunch of people together and do water boarding on stage. So we had this grand concept, and then it kind of quantified itself more in line with an abstract. I thought I was kind of pigeonholing myself and saying I was coming out now, that everything is going to shit, and talking about guns when the concept was fermenting for a long time.
It all ended up going back, more or less, to the concept of a human being as a weapon, in the sense that whatever we do and the actions and choices we make have consequences. Then it became something that was more manageable for me in how I could talk about it. Because then these things become generational as opposed to depending on bills, amendments, constitutional fears and all of this stuff. It becomes more of a public safety thing that will hopefully change in a generation or two.
The unfortunate thing about America is that America is stuck in a place where one of the last bastions of wealth and manufacturing is weapons manufacturing. That goes back to Eisenhower and the military industrial complex, which has a stranglehold on this country. And the gun lobby, as well, has a stranglehold on this country.
That's something that, again, it's really people that have to look at their actions and ask, "Is it really right for me to, at a gun show, take a guy outside, [let him see a gun and meet him in the back alley]?" Is that really how we do things? The overall emphasis of the album, though, is a lot more subtle, and I try to explore the things in between all of that stuff and go back to a simpler, more direct kind of songwriting within Skinny Puppy, too.
There's a track called "Wornin'," and it's basically somebody's thoughts who feels like they're marginalized. There's that aspect of the psyche that feeds into mental health. I hate mental health being used as the only excuse for this because the problem with mental health and just looking at crazy people is, well, what happens if that guy's crazy, and he's got forty guns?
If you have training in crazy, like I do, then it becomes a bit more hard to discern whether you're having a dissociative break or a psychotic break to reach that gun and do something. It all goes back to an incredible quote from Adbusters. I don't know who the quote is from, but it's basically saying that until we create healthier mental environments and cultural myths, mood disorders, anxiety attacks and bursts of sociopathic violence will probably proliferate throughout this land for a long time.
Skinny Puppy has long had many songs that comment on various issues -- not that all of your songs are written with that in mind, but why did you feel it was important to, and even necessary to, use your music as a vehicle to express those kinds of things?
I guess I've always been kind of an observer and someone who has definitely not be centralized in our system of life in a lot of ways. I think I'm someone that's been given the opportunity to stand outside and look inward a little bit. Maybe there's that aspect to it. There's also thirty years of looking at the systems we put into place as humans that I see as kind of weapons. One example of that is nuclear power.
I think in the middle of last century, we made a huge mistake in our choice of exploring science and then charting it out to the military endeavors that wanted it. The idea of boiling water for power, as Einstein said, that's one hell of a way to boil a cup of water. That was the after effect that was used to sell the whole program to people.
That, to me, is just as much a weapon as holding a gun to someone's head as firing it. It's a system that's run amok and outlived its time but it will never outlive its time because the waste coming out is highly radioactive and will last generations and generations, hundreds of thousands of years. The disposal of this stuff is to take it and make things like bunker busters, tank busting missiles using depleted uranium.
So we continue to spread this stuff around. Not to mention the meltdown in Fukushima Daiichi in the northern part of Japan, which has been leaking [hundreds of] tons of highly radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean since March 11, 2011 with not a peep from the mainstream media. That whole psyop itself is a huge weapons program to me.
I guess I'm at a point in my life that the idea of a weapon is all around me. It's just hard to make a decision without affecting something in a negative way. Whether you're putting money into a 401K that funds a weapon program or just making a choice to buy something that supports further research into genetically modified foods. All of this stuff is going to come back on us in a lot of ways.
Overdependence on fossil fuels and the resultant wars that have come from that is all a whirling dervish. I can't speak for fossil fuels but as far as nuclear energy goes they only use ten percent of it right now and ninety-six percent of what comes out it is completely foreign and toxic to this planet.
Plutonium, after all, does not occur naturally -- it is a byproduct of nuclear fission.
Right. Exactly. So you have secret weapons going on in countries that aren't even supposed to have weapons programs. When reactor number four in Fukushima Daiichi was hit by an earthquake it was in the process of switching over to processing lost fuel or process the plutonium for power in these mixed breeder reactors. They're trying to take these older reactors and upgrade them to handle plutonium, so they can, in some ways, handle the waste.
The underlying part of that is that you know that Japanese scientists are taking ten percent of that plutonium for their own weapons program that they're not supposed to have. We have a pact with them established after World War II that they're not supposed to make nuclear weapons for their people -- not for us or for the security of the world. They made a promise to their people. They're probably processing weapons for the US and that's probably why there's plutonium all over Japan.
Have you ever received any kind of backlash for taking stances even in the more conceptual manner that you do? Around the time that VIVISectVI came out about discussing the source of one of the samples in "Who's Laughing Now?"
Probably not for samples, but for everything else, yes. One of our first videos, "Dig It," we did a letterboxing kind of thing on it. Where the letterbox would be black on the screen, we put in images that the Canadian government and Much Music deemed to be pornography. In fact, it was stock market footage -- on the floor of the stock market. Which, you know, I was using the analogy of their lay on the money back then. No better form of pornography. The PMRC came after us, with Tipper Gore back in those days, for the content in the lyrics, which were deemed unacceptable.
"Worlock," which is a video I cut together as an homage to horror films, obviously got censored but has lived on to be one of the creepiest, goriest or most disturbing video or whatever the year it was released on Halloween. We were arrested in Cincinnati for mutilating a dog, which was a puppet, when we were protesting vivisection. Which was ironic because there was a laboratory right across the street that was testing on animals at the time we were arrested.
In more subtle ways, I have one story that may or may not [qualify]. We'd been dealt a hand when we were doing The Greater Wrong of the Right, where I was doing a theatrical bit where I came on with a soldier's helmet on and a gas pump handle and tubing. That was my weapon, and I would walk on and start singing "Hexonxonx," and I had two roadies dressed in turbans with their faces covered in a shroud. They would come on with a huge machete and decapitate me and reveal themselves to be Bush and Cheney.
Before the election, there were mixed results. After Bush was elected again, and we went to Ohio, we got some problems from promoters that were told us we couldn't use blood all of a sudden after 25 years of using blood. They said, "You can't use blood because it has corn syrup in it." We sat down with the promoters and said, "Well do you serve High Balls? What's in the High Balls? Soft drinks, which have corn syrup. Which is the same thing in the blood." We had issues with that that was subtle. [We couldn't use the blood] even though GWAR had come through the week before and sprayed blood all over the venue.
More overtly, the biggest thing is that the way that it works in this country is that you don't get direct censorship. You don't get the same perks that other people get. My friend Robert M. Knight, the rock photographer, who's in a movie Rock Prophecies, has connections with Samsung. Samsung was sponsoring Sick Puppies with a sixty inch flat screen for shows.
I was like, "Man, I'm from Skinny Puppy, we do complete multi-media shows. We'd love to get on board with this. Is there any way you guys would be interested in sponsoring us. We do really theatrical programs that would really make use of all this technology." He turns to me and said, "Yeah, we'd love to. As long as you don't insult the president."
I can't say that I notice it because I haven't gone against my own Tourette's in speaking out against things. I don't feel disenfranchised because I don't know any better. I've always been kind of a dumpster artist that's been together with band aids. I don't really require sponsorships, we've never done a tour with sponsorships, we've never felt that pain. But we did inquire one year and no one really came to the table to sponsor us for anything. That's kind of how I think that works. Kid Rock can go to Wal-Mart and make sure every ticket's twenty bucks.
But that's the kind of entertainment you're getting, right? That's fine. I mean, that's entertainment, too. I'm not saying it's invalid; I'm just saying I think that's how it works in a capitalistic country as far as that stuff goes. You can even look at the 60s counterculture and the way that they squashed all those kids was with money--art programs and social programs. They flooded people with money.
You touched on this earlier, but Weapon seems very different from your most recent albums. Why did you want to go more toward that more basic songwriting for this album?
Again, during the talks for these concept within the idea for Weapon over the [two and a half years almost], we did talk about going back and using our original gear. More so to kind of approach our unhappiness with our original label, Nettwerk, and it was our fault, too, with whom we signed a terrible deal -- a seven album deal when we were really young in perpetuity to a label that has really done nothing with our product. One of the ideas we had was to go back and do an experiment with Remission and use all the old gear and only whatever was available at that time recording-wise. Two inch tape or whatever.
But that became cost-prohibitive. We went to our warehouse and a lot of that gear was broken and it became difficult to piece that concept together. What came out of all of that was a strong desire to move away from more production tracks and move into more simple and direct songwriting.
So the first song, "Wornin'," was kind of the prototype of that style. Then we wrote a lot of stuff and went back and listened to it all. That song really popped out and that proved to me that was the direction to go. We were at a bit of a stand-off to get cEvin to come forth with material. He did eventually. Right toward the end of the recording process he really came forth with some tracks that all kind of gelled.
The first three tracks were indicative of the sound I was going for. There's still a few production tracks. "paragUn" was more of a straight ahead production track. The other songs are more vibe-oriented, based around the vocal and a bit simpler. The idea was to get back to simple and direct as we did in the earlier days. But it's a bit more modern. The only kind of throwback to that period, we did a re-write of a song off our first album, Remission called "solvent."
That was just fun to do in the sense that when I first did that song I couldn't sing very well so I thought I never really nailed it. It all sounded very kind of fragile and vulnerable, which is probably what worked for it. Now it sounds a bit more boisterous, it has a bit more attitude and there's a bit more security in the voice so it turned out really well. I think it's a good choice because the album, when you play it, is much more consistent than, say, hanDover, which is a bit more based on production tracks.
The intro to "terminal" is reminiscent of the intro to "Worlock" in some ways. Was that intentional?
I can't speak for cEvin, he did that opening, and he actually cut back and reinforced that whole thing. There's aspects of Rabies in "illisiT." At the end of that song there's a little soliloquy where it says, "I am a weapon." It's kind of going back to that Rabies voice that we use at the end of the album. There's aspects of things we, I know I, cherry picked from Too Dark Park that lead directly to that vibe or epilogue in Too Dark Park. I think cEvin probably heard that because it's an emotional song and there are paths come that are very reminiscent of [our earlier music].
Your vocal style with Skinny Puppy has to take a toll on your voice. How have you been able to maintain and sustain the ability to do that all these years?
It's harder as you age. The hardest part is the screaming part of it. I've found some microphone tricks. I do a reverse scream kind of thing, inhalation, and with amplification, that helps. When I was younger, I was losing my voice after every show. Whether I was out with Ministry, or Skinny Puppy, Revolting Cocks, KMFDM or Pigface and whether one song, three songs or nine songs, I'd lose my voice.
So in 1995, I actually buckled down and thought it was going to change by going into drug rehab, and I went and took some training for my voice. You think you're going to end up singing in tenor or something. But it actually gave me tools to strengthen my voice. I've done exercises, not every day, but off and on, two or three times a week, ever since 1995.
One of the main things for a screamer is that when you're screaming, don't scream from the bottom up, scream from the top down and you'll never lose your voice. The rest is just that when you're on tour, and it's the hardest thing to do, after a show, shut the fuck up. That's really hard. It makes me feel sad for Roger Ebert, who lost his voice because you realize how important a voice is, for one thing. It's a strange identity crusher.
I train with it now and I try to treat it as well as I can. I don't smoke as much as I used to. I smoke with vaporizer now and do all sorts of geeky things. I don't smoke cigarettes, which is one good thing. I don't drink that much. Acid reflux is my big thing. I've gotten control of that by drinking lemon juice. I drink the juice of a fresh lemon in water first thing when I wake up and that's gotten ridden of any indigestion.
How did Skinny Puppy end up in The Doom Generation?
Just by happenstance. We were recording The Process at that time out in Malibu. Gregg Araki was working down in, I think, Long Beach. I think it was through American records and he got in touch with us. He's a big Skinny Puppy fan and he invited us to come down and play the goons, which was my first foray into acting. cEvin was seriously injured that night.
There's a part where we attack this car and he fell off, took a dive, and landed right on his face. Literally faceplanted into cement. They didn't have padding so there was this really odd silence after it happened. It was like a kid that falls down and gets up and everyone's like, "Are you okay?" "I'm okay." It was that weird. Then you realize that, oh no, his tooth is through his lip, he's broken his wrist, he fractured a rib, and we have to record.
I'm not sure what happened with cEvin. I think he had to go through insurance. I don't think we ever heard back from Gregg Araki after that, unfortunately. He's a great director, and it wasn't anything weird between us and him; it was just an odd thing that happened.
Was Dwayne Goettel in that as well?
Dwayne was in that as well, yup.
He never used any of your music in any of his movies? That's surprising.
I think if maybe we had had a better experience that first night, cEvin ended up having to sue his insurance for his injuries, so I'm not sure if the relationship could continue after that. Not that that there was anything bad said between anybody, it just faded away. He was into the music but I think it was literally that experience. I'd love to work with Gregg again, he was great.
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