By Bob Gourley | Published on November 19, 2013
The creative spark behind Skinny Puppy’s new album “Weapon” came about when the pioneering electronic-industrial band discovered their music was being used for torture at Guantanamo Bay. Initially, the idea was to focus solely on the concept of music as a weapon, and involved researching the science behind making sound a form of torture. But as the project developed, it began shifting towards the general concept of weapons, in both literal and abstract sense, whether in the form of guns, nuclear technology or the human being itself. Musically, ‘Weapon’ harkens back to the simpler, more direct song structure of early Skinny Puppy, while at same time pushing forward with the sonic experimentation and production. The group had been disbanded during the second half of the 90’s, and the members continue to put a great deal of focus on other projects, but “Weapon” cements the fact that Skinny Puppy are still a true creative force, and not just reuniting to appease the fans.
Skinny Puppy is currently comprised of original members niVek Ogre and cEvin Key along with Mark Walk (formerly of Ruby). The following is an interview with Ogre.
UPDATE: The story of Skinny Puppy invoicing the US government for use of their music at Guantanamo Bay has been spreading like wildfire. We’re posted a follow-up with more info on this, including a list of music used. Just be sure to come back to this page, as following Ogre interview is very interesting!
Having reunited in 2000 for the Doomsday Festival, at what point did you determine that the band would be continuing long-term?
“Well, you never really know these things. But I think that probably when we entered into a three album deal with SPV we knew it would be going for a little bit. That was the telltale sign.”
We had such a great time at Doomsday; it was the event that brought us back together. We didn’t have any acrimony or any kind of weirdness. We still had our normal issues, but we were a little older so we were able to deal with it. That was 13 years ago, and now it’s still something we enjoy doing. For me, there is always something to discover, and certainly never a loss of things to talk about when dealing with the concepts that surround Skinny Puppy. It has become more flavored as time goes on, and more varied and more vibrant in all of those dark cracks and crevices and crannies that need to be explored and maybe illuminated a little bit. So I think it’s something that we both honor in a way at this point.”
Are there any specific ways that your working relationship with cEvin has changed?
“This album we completed without management, and we learned a lesson. We actually got management back in 2004 to help bypass any problems that might come up between us. What seemed like a good idea ended up creating more back and forth between us, no pun intended. After a disastrous third album with SPV–not the album itself but just the business around it–we did this one without management. cEvin and I dealt with the business things we had to in a very pragmatic way through email, very quickly, without having a mediator. As a result, we delivered the record very quickly. That was a bit of a surprise to us–without mediation things actually work better now.”
Is Mark Walk a full-time member of the band now?
“Mark is my writing partner, much in the way that Ken Marshal works with cEvin on a lot of projects. Mark has been very responsible and instrumental in the albums from ‘The Greater Wrong of the Right’ up until now, including this album. Ken Marshall, due to his being in a new relationship and moving back up to Vancouver–he had to back away from the project, so it was really myself, Mark, and cEvin for the writing of the album, and then Ken came in during the last couple of weeks and mixed it.”
Could you discuss the concept behind “Weapon”?
“Skinny Puppy has become kind of amorphous. The days are gone of having to actually rent studio time and block out however many days you’re going to have to stay within budget. So things become much more amorphous and non-linear. This concept began developing on the Ohgr tour. We’d met a kid who was a guard at Guantanamo, who actually heard Skinny Puppy music being used–four songs, in fact–to torture people. The idea originally was to call the album ‘Weapon’ and actually make it a weapon, making music to torture people by. We were going to see if we could find documentation on methods used and try to follow them–get the frequencies, the whole deal. We still might do that, but the concept became very grand in scope. On the Ohgr tour, I had a tour manager who works with a lot of sideshow people, and we were actually going to take a torture show on the road. We’d actually waterboard people on stage. It got very pointed and directed in a certain way.
So that was the inception. When I spoke to cEvin we talked about our own arsenal and looking back at how we use to write songs in the past, and that became part of the concept. And then when we started working on it, I was seeing a lot of other abstracts around me that I see as weapons, including the human being itself; actions and politics and spirituality being components of weapons. We are biological weapons. So I was seeing these abstracts that I wanted to pursue. And Fukushima happened. There are all these nuclear plants scattered around, and all of this storage. Yucca Mountain has gone to hell because it’s not safe, and there is nowhere safe to put this stuff. It’s being put in storage pools two stories above the ground that are only supposed to be used to transfer one bundle of fuel rods, and yet those pools are being filled up with waste and are just sitting there as open targets, and are weapons too. So that’s kind of how I progressed over the last couple of years, and of course the world has been progressing as well. It would be easy to say I’m just cherry-picking something like guns, but guns are just the tip of the iceberg and to me there are far more evil things out there there are killing us. Weapons that are kind of in the shadows and obfuscated by things like ‘well, we can boil water with this.’”
At this point, what can we expect in terms of a visual representation of these ideas?
“We’re working on a video with this guy Jason Jensen, who is in a band called The Alacrity. He’s done a short film and has offered to do a video for us. We’re working on a concept with him right now. It’s more touching on the idea of stalking, and these communications devices and devices we use for entertainment purposes that are putting us in the situation of ‘giving away the whole pantry’. Facebook, cell phones, GPS, all the stuff that we embrace and take on which is a huge asset to the intel of any country, really.”
Regarding the concept of looking back at how you used to make music, did you follow through with that?
“We did put it on the table. The rule was originally that we’d only use tools that were available during that time period, so we’d have to go back and resurrect a Studer 2-inch tape machine. It became very cost prohibitive for us to do it that way. And it also became clear that really what we were looking to do was just go back to simple and direct songwriting. I think that Skinny Puppy has gone through a lot of different cycles of evolution and change. We’ve certainly gone through periods of using production tracks and using more simple and direct songwriting that supports a vocal. On this album, there are examples of production tracks, songs like ‘paragUn.’ But we concentrated more on something that was … again, it’s easy to say ‘nostalgic’ but it goes back to more a way of parlaying information and something that’s fun again. In LA, I was going to a lot of these minimal synth shows that were popping up and seeing that people were really embracing a lot of that stuff. And I missed it.
“There’s also the aspect that in this day and age, with electronic music in general, basically anybody with a laptop and a little bit of money can get themselves a digital recording studio and can make music. So to be able to stand out and appear different like we did in the early 80’s, when a lot of people were using pure synthesis and trying to emulate real instruments or create really pure synthetic sounds, we were kind of going ‘well you’re not supposed to press this button, oh that sounds horrible, let’s use this.’ So we stood out like a sore thumb then. Now it’s harder to stand out. Whether that goes into the process …. for me, the process on this album was to have fun writing music again. And to really try to make it as strong and direct as possible.
“So I think that was more of a craft decision after 30 years of doing this, as opposed to trying to go back per se. Referencing those things was great, because I can still go back to ‘Smothered Hope” [from “Remission”] … when I was young, I sang ‘Withered rope you hang what’s empty can’t remain to put it simply in time cry the hollow words to sing with false disguise’ and I would always think to myself ‘Am I too young to sing this? Is this a song I’d be singing when I’m older?’ And now when I sing this song, it still resonates with me in the same way as when I was young and I thought I was writing a song that was too old for me at that time. It’s a bit of everything, coming from all that stuff that you kind of carry with you from the beginning. The one thing I can do is celebrate the fact I was able to grab some of that stuff and bring it up to the present and parlay it in this way.
“‘Solvent’ was an example of a song that we redid for the reason that we didn’t think it got its fair chance back on that EP [‘Remission’]. But from my point of view, because I couldn’t sing very well back then, I was a bit insecure and never really thought that I’d nailed that vocal. Although the fragility and the sensitivity in the vocals is probably what makes it work. But it was nice to reapproach that. The reboot of it is worthy and valid and strong.”
Has the fact that you don’t need to rely on commercial studios anymore changed the creative process between you and cEvin? Has it become a long-distance collaboration?
“The last time that cEvin and I really worked in a studio together, per se, was for ‘The Process.’ And prior to that, we didn’t work in the studio together, we worked in shifts. I’ve gotten that question a few times and I chuckle a little bit because the one thing that I think is a glue that made the band work all through the years was the fact that there was that separation and surprise. Whether it’s from cEvin hearing when a vocal goes on things, or when I hear a track that is really cool, we’ve always had that distance in our approach to things. Especially since now we live 50 miles away from each other, that process that we’ve used since the beginning has served us well–the only time it was different being ‘The Process,’ which was a catastrophe.”
“The Process” has become one of my favorite Skinny Puppy albums. Looking back, what are your thoughts on it?
“I’ve always loved that album, and I’ve always loved the project that went around it. We did something that I am still really proud of. It was really Bill Morrison, our videographer and the guitar player for Ohgr. He is also a documentary filmmaker. The project part of it was his driving, leading to kind of resurrection of The Process. We got in touch with them. We ended up giving the websites that we created, called process.edu and process.org, back to them in the end.
“They were kind of hiding in the shadows at that time. There’s a book about The Process called ‘Satan’s Power,’ by William Sims Bainbridge. He’s a sociologist who got into The Process at different times. He never was a member per se, but was part of it in a lot of ways, while being removed and objective. You’d go into bookstores asking for that book, and they’d go like ‘oh, no, we don’t talk about The Process.’ It had this Charles Manson sort of curse to it. So the fact that we actually got in touch with a lot of people from The Process, some of the original old members and the elite members, was a fantastic thing.
“Working with Genesis [P-Orridge] was also a fantastic thing. It was a very vibrant time period, and a very tumultuous one. But that seems to follow every Skinny Puppy album, so the tumultuous part wasn’t as critical until Dwayne died, and then it became very real. But I think the album itself was an incredible dynamic of really pushing and pulling between us and conflict. Whether it still resonates in that way I don’t know, but I’m very proud of how it turned out, and for me was kind of the first album where I stood away from using distortion and effects. I was tracking all vocals dry, and it was the first, fearful step into that direction.
“It’s a strong record. It didn’t get its due partially because of American Recordings, and partially because being different from other albums, it was a hard pill for people to swallow initially.”
For more info on The Process, check out this post by Morrison http://www.process.org/discept/2007/12/31/and-begin/
Since both you and cEvin have other projects, what determines when the time is right to return to Skinny Puppy?
“It’s kind of a natural thing. There’s an email that comes and we slip into the mode. After 30 years of doing this, you have kind of a sense as to when it is right to start working on the next album, and when it’s not and is best to give it some time to breathe a little bit. I can’t put my finger on exactly what the impetus is and the catalyst. Time goes by, and you just want to do this again. The other part is the business side of it; a time opens up where we’re able to do it through a label and stuff like that. When it comes time for us to self-release, we’ll see what the impetus is then to get things going.
“I think for me, for ‘Weapon’ at least, it was a concept, and the concept went through a huge kind of evolution, which I’m happy about. It shows me that even though I think I’m a very lazy person, there’s a lot going on in my unconscious because concepts keep moving forward. I think that’s what does it for me. Ohgr is more of a musical thing, which I really enjoy doing, equally as much and sometimes even more. Because there’s just my paintbrush along with Mark’s on the palette. Making music by committee, and within Skinny Puppy, is a bit tougher because there are more people involved. But it is equally rewarding. And again, we all have a reverence for Skinny Puppy and what it has done for us as people, both internally and as far as our careers go as well.”
Since the Skinny Puppy sound is constantly evolving, I’m curious as to how influenced you are by audience feedback?
“You listen to how people react…whether I’ve changed my vocal sound a bit or whatever….I certainly do listen to people, but I don’t let it determine what I do if I’m dead set and headstrong in another direction. But I certainly take things into consideration. I think on this album, there is definitely a desire for me to go back to a voice that maybe I’d left behind a little bit. I’ve always used it, but in the mid 90’s I had taken some vocal training and kind of veered away from that voice because I had a fear of losing my voice, which I was doing every night after every show prior to the vocal training. So over the last 17 years, I’ve been using those vocal exercises. With this album, I was going back to that voice, but with a new strength. Finding that new strength was a surprise, the cherry on the cake, so to say. Now I have that tool back in my palette. “
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Other interviews with Skinny Puppy members:
cEVIN KEY, interviewed in 1995, focusing on Download
cEVIN KEY, interviewed in 1997, focusing on Download
Ogre, interviewed in 2008, focusing on ohGr and “REPO! The Genetic Opera”
Ogre, interviewed in 2011, focusing on ohGr.