Otep on Hydra, Piracy, and Leaving Heavy Metal Forever

Imagine taking a demonic ride through a girl's mind, filled with fantastic illusions, haunting, heavy melodies, and vengeance against a world that has forgotten her.

To get there, you could spend an evening with Otep, one of the most prolific female-fronted bands of the past decade -- or have a listen to their newest album, Hydra, which was released in late January.

Based on a short story by frontwoman Otep Shamaya, the album evolved into a graphic novel based around a character named Hydra. Eventually, Otep realized that Hydra had become a creature all her own, and her story a vast musical excursion. But Hydra isn't just Otep Shamaya's latest work -- it's also her farewell to the music world.

Otep is playing with One-Eyed Doll at Joe's Grotto tonight.

Sure, you may think Otep is just an angry feminist -- a drama queen of the metal world. But her reasons for leaving after 10 successful years and 600,000 albums sold may surprise you. It may be difficult to argue with her aggressive, seductive demeanor or her sound (incomparable to anyone else on the scene) or the controversy she causes with lyrics about politics, sex, bigotry, and animal rights. But her newest controversy is her outspokenness about an industry -- and a fandom -- that she believes cheats its musicians.

Can you elaborate a little more on the concept behind Hydra?

I thought it would be an interesting experiment to surrender myself to this character, this creature Hydra, that I had created. Although she's obviously peppered with very strong parts of my personality, pollinated with my beliefs and philosophies, there is a bit of her that still thrives on the typical human experience, where morality teaches us to suppress such urges as animalistic responses to anger, to frustration, to irrationality, to fear. Hydra possesses none of those moral anchors.

Read More: The best Record Store Day heavy metal releases of 2013.

For her, the proper response to being afraid is to destroy that which makes her fear. For her, the only true type of intimacy comes through combat, and that's the only way she can really relate to the rest of the human race -- what she calls the "lesser race." See, her subconscious makes her more than human. She has no sense of who she is, and uses different identities to get close to humans, and then once she collects them, she then destroys what it is that she finds weak in those victims. So she's vicariously destroying a weakness within herself by destroying it in other people, and then absorbing the strength and absorbing what she finds good or seductive.

And then as the album progresses, she sort of starts to doubt whether any of it is even real. She starts to realize that she is being used and exploited by this dark thing inside of her. Then her reality comes when she realizes that when she dies, this reality will just move on to someone else.

So while you were writing this graphic novel that turned into an album, did you always have it in mind that this was going to be your last record?

It's about making the best record I can make at that time. People can debate the validity of my music, but they can never doubt how much I care about it and how much I work on it. That's all I do. When I'm building an album, I pour everything I have into it. What people think never enters my mind. I just focus on the song and question if it is saying everything that I need to say. What's the best composition I can arrange? Lyrically, what am I saying? You know, everyone knows I'm the girl who goes "grrrrr." Everybody knows I'm the chick who screams. But it's just an emotional component to deliver the message of the music.

How long did it take you?

About five weeks to write and record.


I'm a machine. [laughs]

Obviously. I saw you last time you were in Phoenix, and it was great live show. Is there a certain track on the album that was more difficult to write than others?

Honestly, every song is important. Most record contracts only require the band to write 11 songs. And they only pay you for 11 songs. So when a band writes more than 11 songs, that's usually a gift to the fans. And it's a part of our love for the music. But I think the three that I'm most fond of this week are -- maybe five -- I don't know! I'd have to say "Seduce and Destroy," "Blowtorch Nightlight," and "Apex Predator."

Why is this your final album? I know you've mentioned in interviews that it is a bit about being over of the industry, and working hard but having albums leaked and what not. Tell me more about that

It's so hard to love something so much, as I do with music, and to give so much of yourself over 11 years now, only to have it just stolen away from you with the click of a mouse. You know, large retail chains are minimizing their catalogs now, and it's not because extreme music scares or that it's corrupting minds -- it's because it's not selling.

Otherwise they wouldn't have rap music where they are talking about bitches and hoes and crack and guns . . . they wouldn't support that murder and death. If that mattered to the stores, they wouldn't carry that music. If they cared about quality, they probably wouldn't carry country music. [laughs]

It's not about that; it's about what sells. And unfortunately, in this era, pop, rap, country, and some pop-rock is what's selling. It's just the truth. I appreciate it when people say they go to the show and buy our T-shirts. That's great because you're financing the tour! We appreciate that and love you for that and need you for that: fuel, transportation, salaries. People do this for a living, so they have to make a living. But nobody's forcing us to do it; we do it because we love it. But it's difficult to watch the industry you love dissolve in front of you. It's interesting to watch something you love so much being destroyed.

If this happened to a painter, and someone just walked into a gallery and took a Picasso off the wall in a gallery, you call that theft. But music is even more valuable than a Picasso -- and there would be a lot of people who would disagree with me -- but when someone breaks your heart, or if you have a great day, you don't go to a museum and stare at a painting. You put on your favorite song. It stays with you for the rest of your life. You can turn on the radio and hear a song from your past or a moment in time that will never exist again, but when you hear it you get that feeling again and it's resurrected. That song is a Picasso then. It doesn't cost a million dollars. It costs 99 cents. You'll always have it for less than a dollar.

Do you have a viewpoint on how to bring the industry you love so much back to life?

As far as the industry is concerned, it's a company. A corporation. Their job is to make money. My job as an artist is to go over the edge; to find the edge, go over it, look over it, teeter over it. You can't fault a lot of the industry. They think, "Extreme music and underground bands, their fans just pirate their music -- but the fans over here, they actually buy music. I can lay off half my staff who love music and build their lives in this way, or I can find bands that actually sell, the company makes money, and I can pay my staff."

So it's a weird place to be in, defending the companies for their choices, when it's just as simple as the fans need to buy the music that they love instead of going to YouTube or, or whatever. Even going to spots like Pandora or Spotify, at least when you utilize those, pennies are generated.

You go to any A&R today and say, "I got this great act. Crazy lesbian frontwoman; she screams and does poetry." They would say, "Oh, great. Good luck with that." Capitol Records gave me a shot and took a chance on me. Now you gotta produce results immediately in order to survive.

You know, you have bands like Korn and NIN and Radiohead saying that it's okay to pirate. Okay, but you guys have already sold, like, millions of records and have stock. You're not a working-class band. That's what pirating hurts the most. It helps exposure for unknown bands, doesn't affect the big bands. But it affects the middle-class bands.

What are you going to do after touring is done for Hydra?

I don't want to become resentful of the thing [music and fans] that has given me so much. It's just time to give something else a try. Another artistic animal in me that needs nourishing, and I'll give that attention at that point.

If someone had never heard Otep and you had to give them one album to listen that represented your music, which would you give them?

Hydra or House of Secrets are both very reflective of what we do. Hydra has a bit of every album I've done, and then just go backwards. I'm really proud of all of our works.

For a long time, the girl in the band was the bass player. And I have respect for that because there are some really great bass players, but that's really all they were allowed to do. Before, if they were singers, they had to wear leather or something, and high heels. And now in the decade I've been doing this, I've seen a lot more women in extreme music and whether I had anything to do with that or not, other people smarter than I, like historians, will have to be the judge of that.

What bands are you listening to now?

Contemporary bands? No, I haven't heard anything I really like in a while. That's probably not the right political answer? It will be turned into, "Oh, Otep hates all bands! She hates metal!" But I listen to music for the message and for innovation. I like music that challenges me. I don't like music that sounds like they are trying to be Pantera again. Because there can only be one Pantera. Only one! My God. And everything else is just a copy of a copy of a copy.

I'm curious about your tattoos. What was your first, and what is the one that means the most to you?

The first tattoo I remember getting was in my friend's kitchen. I had just seen Natural Born Killers and my friend said he knew how to do tattoos. And I wanted Mickey's yin and yang tattoo that he had on his forearm. So I got that on my upper chest. It's really awful and ugly . . .

But it's a memory.

For sure -- we were just a bunch of hoodrats thinking we were doing something real. And based on one of the most fantastic films ever made.

And is there one that means more to you than the others?

Well, not really. In fact, most of my tattoos have now become regrets.

A lot of them were done while I was on the road. And a lot of them were done without meaning. I'll tell you what would be a better question: Do I have one that I regret the most? That would be an ex-girlfriend's name on my neck. I regret that quite a bit now . . . because it's in every single photo taken of me on stage. You see this 'lisa' down the side of my neck. And then anyone else I ever date brings it up. Don't do it! Never get someone's name tattooed on you. And, of course, we stopped dating like two days after I got the tattoo.

Would you cover it up?

Well, it's rather large. So I don't know if I want another large neck piece. But because it's black inkm I could get it removed. Then I could get something really cool there, like a Gonzo fist. That's what I'm going to do. A Gonzo fist!

Otep is playing with One-Eyed Doll at Joe's Grotto tonight.

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Lauren Wise has worked as a rock/heavy metal journalist for 15 years. She contributes to Noisey and LA Weekly, edits books, and drinks whiskey.
Contact: Lauren Wise