Skinny Puppy is on tour and just got press in the Wall Street Journal. That the band could be part of the ‘Tunes for Torture’ soundtrack used on Gitmo political detainees (joining ranks with anti-Drone activist RATM’s Tom Morello, Metallica, AC/DC…) is funny to fans who know the politics of the band. Where these guys are one-upping everyone is with the idea that the Pentagon should pay for music usage – $666,000 to be exact. Now the MSM news outlets are making ink for a group they know nothing of, and this is creating a stir. Wait a minute. Wasn’t that torture chamber supposed to shutdown in 2008 when Obama became President? Skinny Puppy is reigniting the debate on this very topic while on tour, causing a lot of people to think – again.
One half of the genius belongs to performance artist and lyricist Nivek Ogre, along with co-founder cEvin Key of the 1982 formed and majorly influential group. Ogre offered his input to BeatRoute’s Terminal City Confidential column on the Luv-A-Fair and the death of disco in Vancouver (featured in this month’s print issue of BeatRoute BC, click here to read online). These are some excerpts from an extended discussion on his early days with Skinny Puppy, music and fear.
BeatRoute: This dystopian worldview – that we live under the tyranny of corporations, government, and greed – has evolved with the band as visual musical artists…
Nivek Ogre: We started as a reaction to every other electronic band doing nothing on stage but having a keyboard player – now reduced to a laptop – and a person singing. I wanted to do something different. I started off quite primitive in the sense of trying to find things that would shock people. The early shows were based on that. Also dealing with my own introversion. When I toured with Ministry I came out of my shell and started developing more conceptual ideas, but also abstract like poetry, to be interpreted many different ways. It became a test from tour to tour to make things bigger, stranger and dealing with subject matter that was contemporary at the time, whether it was Reagan or Bush. There’s a great deal of meat to chew when it comes to the subject material that Skinny Puppy tackles. All things left unseen or minimally reported in the media. There is a whole lot of room to explore messages and impressions and subject matter that may be off the grid. Our latest studio album Weapon is about the abstraction of weapons and this idea that there is a nuclear war going on all the time. A lot of it was inspired from the nuclear accident at Fukushima (2011) and the ensuing underreported radiation levels that affect the environment in so many ways.
BR: The band is labeled electro-industrial. In the ’80s there weren’t all these genres. Can you label yourself now?
Ogre: For myself, a ‘dumpster performance artist.’ For the band, I’d say ‘psychedelic industrial sound sculpture.’ The musical entity is unclassifiable but for better or worse it’s under the broadband of industrial.
BR: The truth about starting out as a band in Vancouver mid-80s onward…
Ogre: The industrial thing – well we were really looked down upon in Vancouver. CiTR (college radio) didn’t like us. The punks didn’t like us. Anybody that was hot in the Canadian music scene looked upon us as an abortion of music. It was melodic but noisy and new music and not music – a façade in the front with no content. So for Skinny Puppy – even on our best tour Too Dark Park in 1991 – when we came through here after having a successful tour in other cities, it was a very depressing night, the audiences heads were down …we felt like the bastard child of Vancouver and never felt accepted within the music scene for a number of years. I’m amazed that there is interest again in Skinny Puppy from a Canadian perspective. Within the Canadian press in general we’ve never really been lauded or recognized for what we truly represent. We usually get something like ‘some sort of a horror Goth band that plays with blood and mutilates animals.’ Under the surface of that is a much richer and deeper tapestry and something that, to this day, I’m very proud of because we have never veered away from these ideals we had from the beginning. We have kept true to what we felt was appropriate content to bring across to people.
BR: What are your memories of the New York Theatre (on Commercial Drive) show in Vancouver in 1985?
Ogre: Our show at the New York Theatre (ed: not their first gig) in February 1985, Skinny Puppy tried its own pyrotechnics and the use of a hangman’s rope. We didn’t know what we were doing. The rope got hoisted on the wrong cue and I was suffocating up there dangling from it and trying to sing. There was too much smoke. We had this flash pot effect where the guy in the audience runs up to me and says ‘fuck you Skinny Puppy’ and shoots me. The flash pot was plugged into the wall and I wore a metal chest plate. We did something wrong and I was getting electrocuted. At the same time a girl in the audience ran up to me and said “Ogre, I want to fuck you.” Meanwhile she touched my leg and I was having convulsions from electric shock. The next show at the Luv-A-Fair (also 1985) we had skulls as props. They were meant to be used differently depending on the thickness of the skull. We got our props mixed up. Wrong skull being used on my head and in the end I threw one at the glass mirrors along the dance floor and the glass shattered. We were paid $500 for the gig and once we settled damages, we made $25.
BR: Skinny Puppy started the same time music videos were becoming part of the artists’ must-haves. How did that help you?
Ogre: MTV (MuchMusic) shot a fork in our back when we did the video for “Dig It”– Steven (Gilmore) plays the father figure having a heart attack having worked too hard – We letterboxed the video and underneath put abstract images. They chose to see pornography in those images and that gave us a negative image that didn’t help when promoting the band. What they saw as pornography was ‘stock exchange’ footage. The kind of press we got from that was what is behind censorship boards. Again we never got the support from Canadian press, letting us starve like skinny dogs.
BR: Skinny Puppy has influenced the likes of NIN, Marilyn Manson, Tool, Ministry, KFMDM, the list is endless, and the Los Angeles Times (1992) said you were the first “industrial” rock star.
Ogre: Trent Reznor has always been very forward in saying he was influenced by Skinny Puppy. NIN opened for us in 1987 when they were a synth-pop band. We influenced Al Jourgensen (Ministry) and he influenced us. Marilyn Manson did not steal my show; he stole a character from the Too Dark Park tour. I’d created this character for that tour, complete with stucco stilts, pneumatic crutches. I was a quadruped and could spin the stilts. The Dripping bloody mask added to this impressive character that could be read from the far back of the room. Marilyn Manson took that and made a toy out of it. McFarlane Toys created a Marilyn Manson action figure of that very character.
BR: The band broke up in 1995 and had an eight-year hiatus. Now after 30+ years you and cEvin are still together. Is that your longest relationship?
Ogre: Yes. It is. We have had times of great joy and times of extreme acrimony and great attrition. A hiatus after Dwayne’s (Goettel) death. Petty arguments have dissolved into the realization that we are our only allies in this thing. There was a period of reformation from 2004 till now when we used a manager between us. Now the door is open.
BR: Recommended Skinny Puppy for new listeners (risky question)?
Ogre: Earlier releases VIVIsectVI, Too Dark Park, and Remission. We worked with producer Dave ‘Rave’ Ogilvie. There are a lot of memories of excitement working on those earlier projects. The frailty of my voice gives the emotion. I sang from my throat. I was self-medicated and would lose my voice. When I started working with producer Mark Walk we went to Seattle in 1995 and I took singing lessons for the first time with the baritone singer David Peter Kyle. I like Weapon, which we did with Mark. Weapon is an achievement of concept for me. It’s more crafted than our earlier work. The Greater Wrong of the Right is also just released on vinyl.
BR: Your body of work is 30+ years of a consistent approach to facing fear fearlessly…
Ogre: I get caught in the branches of fear. Memory, knowledge and time is fear. The mind constructs branches of it. It’s totally abstract. I’ve been resolute in my beliefs. I’ve had a lot of struggles with anxiety and drugs. Life is about being able to access those gratuitous moments. I meet a lot of broken toys. I tell people to run towards their fears. On information, the problem is there will come a time that this high level of information transfer is nothing but static and noise – how will you find the truth? On privacy, I fear that our children may never have a private moment in their lives, or worse, never a thought for it.
My first song I recorded in 1984 was “Smothered Hope” on the Remissions album. Those words resonate with me more now. They have led me to where I am.
By Susanne Tabata
Photos: Emilie Elizabeth and John Kraw (top and bottom), Marc T. (1986 photo)
Susanne Tabata is a UBC graduate of International Relations, a documentarian (Bloodied But Unbowed a.k.a. thepunkmovie.com) and author of BeatRoute’s Terminal City Confidential.