Skinny Puppy's Music Was Used for Torture, So They Invoiced the Government
Skinny Puppy formed in 1982 when cEvin Key, inspired by punk-dance grind of Throbbing Gristle and darker edge of Cabaret Voltaire, left his band Images in Vogue to create music with "big sounds" beyond the current crop of new wave synthesizer-forward bands. Working with singer Nivek Ogre, Skinny Puppy's industrial sound garnered immediate underground support.
Constantly pushing the sonic envelope, the band eventually proved a strong influence on acts including Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. Ironically, Skinny Puppy's music was also an influence on U.S. government interrogators, who co-opted the band's music (without permission) to sonically torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Up on the Sun caught up with Key at his Los Angeles home to discuss the governments misguided use of his music, the band's most recent album, 2013's Weapon, the reissue of The Greater Wrong of The Right, producer Adrian Sherwood's role in shaping the industrial scene, and what to expect when the band takes the stage January 27 at the Marquee.
You released Weapon earlier this year. It received very positive reviews. What did it take to make an album that captured elements of the Skinny Puppy of old, but also develop something completely fresh? cEvin Key: We spent an unnecessary amount of time on HanDover. It wasn't really about the songs, but there was a lot of personal issues and other things. The album took several years. That was not the way Skinny Puppy made records. We were always much more on the spot. Basically we'd make a song in a night and mix it in a night. We decided to get back to that philosophy and that type of idealism.
There was an idea I wanted to try to remake one of the songs from Remission, "Solvent." I had an idea how I originally made it and I wondered if I followed the exact steps if it would turn out the same. It kinda did, but in a weird way because it obviously has a newer sound. It set the pace for the whole record. (A song) didn't sound right if it didn't sound like something we had just made quickly, like in the old days. The goal was to make something fresh and quick and if it sounded too complex like we need to spend two weeks more on it, then it was like, "no, this isn't where it's at."
We had a cool concept on the record because we heard through a reliable grapevine that our music was being used in Guantanamo Bay prison camps to musically stun or torture people. We heard that our music was used in at least four occasions. We thought it would be a good idea to make an invoice to the U.S. government for musical services, thus the concept of the record title, Weapon.
What became of that invoice? Did they respond to it? We never sent it. The album cover is the invoice. The original impetus of recording the album was those two concepts: the torture and the invoice.
Given that so much of your music is protest oriented, how did that make you feel to learn that your music was being used to torture prisoners? Not too good. We never supported those types of scenarios. It's kind of typical that we thought this would end up happening, in a weird way. Because, we make unsettling music we can see it being used in a weird way. But it doesn't sit right with us.
Jumping back, you said you wanted to redo Solvent like before, but see what the modern results might be. How have things changed in making your music just in terms of equipment? When you began in the 1980s synthesizers were somewhat primitive without all the digital options. It's changed so much so that if I had a moment (of thought) when we started making music that we would one day be able to do so using a computer, I would have laughed. But I've kept almost all the equipment that I've ever owned, so I tend to also use that same equipment when I record.
Not to limit myself, but to utilize the framework of some familiar sources, which I've tended to do for our history. I tend to go back to our history. It was important to try and keep the simplicity. In a lot of ways analog stuff has not been out done nor done any better with virtual instruments. I just kept it simple and kept the philosophy of it.
When Skinny Puppy began back in the early '80s, there were a lot of new wave bands using synthesizers, for better or worse, but you took it in a totally different direction. What was your inspiration, because at the time no one was really pushing to envelop as far as industrial or electronic music? I was working extensively with a band called Images in Vogue, which was a poppy synth new wave band. We toured with Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Roxy Music and a lot of respectable names in new wave music. We did a lot of shows, but also a lot of studio work. In the studio I learned a lot about my end of the spectrum, which was the drummer/percussionist, and programming was a new form at the time.
What I noticed that there was a lot of cool music around like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle--what was going to become more popular music. I could feel the underground punk type feel in there. My only observation was they didn't have very heavy drums. They had drum machines that were very small sounding. I kind of had spent the last few years working with people trying to make big sounds.
So all I did was take the ideas I liked about the underground sound and punk and put it with a heavier production. That immediately formed some sort of weird, night-clubby accessible entrance way for Skinny Puppy because it started getting played in the dance clubs. That was out biggest asset, support from the dance club people. I look at Ministry and see how you get tied in together--both started in the club scene. Al (Jourgensen, Ministry founder) basically started in one direction, but once he heard Skinny Puppy decided it was time to make a heavier band and made the album Twitch. Twitch was a really important album for the whole genre. It actually introduced not only Al, but also Adrian Sherwood. Adrian Sherwood's production at that time was pretty much the peak of where people could imagine taking rhythmic music.
Where could industrial music go at its peak? At that moment Adrian Sherwood possessed the next level skills. When he worked with Al on Twitch it opened big doors for him, but obviously for us as well. Along came Nine Inch Nails a few years later, and Adrian was responsible for tweaking and morphing what would later become the first Nine Inch Nails record.
I'm giving a pat on the back to Adrian Sherwood for his skill in crafting what would become industrial music. He worked with us on the Addiction EP. That was how we first met Al. He came armed with a demo to the studio. It was a classic time period where the industrial sound really came together.
Skinny Puppy is more or less an electronic industrial dance band. Is this a good time for your sound given that EDM is on the rise even as industrial music itself is in decline? Where does Skinny Puppy fit in at the moment? Luckily, Skinny Puppy has never desired to fit in. At the beginning there wasn't a genre called industrial music. It was just a label. What we actually did and created was just what we felt. We were surprised and blown away that we were achieving some form of popularity. That wasn't really our thought when we started. That it went where it's gone has been quite... I couldn't have guessed.
We like follow what our original vision or feeling is, which has always been a gut feeling. People say the albums change a lot, but that's because we don't follow any trend. We don't try and keep up or compete with other bands in the genre. We keep our vision glued to the formula. It's like Coke Classic; you don't want to mess with the formula. For us you get this feeling when it's on track, and we try to follow that track. It we ever felt like it wasn't worth following that track it wouldn't be worth doing anymore.
When you've done something for 35 years you see things change three or four times. When we started there wasn't anything called hip-hop or house music. There was no such term as techno. We have been witness to all that but stick to our guns. We have gone through various morphs and influences through the times. We have been inspired by the 1993 techno scene and bands like Aphex Twin. There have been things that have affected us, but coming full circle I see us returning to our original vision more often than not.
Your stage shows have always been quite theatrical. What can we expect on this tour? I won't really know it until I see it. Orge doesn't really tell us what his costumes are going to be until we see them. We all work on our departments so when we come together it's like a big collaborative. We've got Orge, our visualists, our drummer. We learn songs we haven't played before so that in the end it's interesting and not just the typical get on stage with jeans on. It's a chance to say something. I'm looking forward to seeing what he'll do. I really don't know.
In February you're reissuing The Greater Wrong of The Right. This is the first album released after the reunion, and it was perhaps the most poppy and most accessible Skinny Puppy album. But why choose this one given the strong earlier recordings in the catalog? That era when we were reforming, it was a different era than now. The band has grown, matured and learned the way to become, in some ways, a different band again. It's more true to form of what Skinny Puppy will become. Right or wrong, it was a collective of people who wanted to perform in Skinny Puppy, but it was a collective and it wasn't really turned back into what I consider the purist form.
I'm not trying to degrade the album, but I'm just trying to say that after five years of having a band split up and having one guy die, maybe the band wasn't supposed to come back. We were brought back together by two German guys who insisted on overseeing everything. Orge and I got back together before the Doomsday gig, since he and I originally formed this, so that was the impetus.
We had so much fun doing that Doomsday show (Doomsday Festival, Dresden, Germany 2000) that we followed up with the idea to make an album. And I think the idea to make an album is preserved in The Greater Wrong of Right. Hence the title.
And if you can believe it, it is over 10 years since it was released. (The rights have) expired from SCV, the previous license holder. So now we can relicense it with another label, Metropolis. They've done a great job with the vinyl package and remastering.
Any bonus material or just the original album? Just the album.
So we get a sonic overload, but no extra music? Unfortunately, we can't go back in time to make more music.
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