Otep Talks "Spiritual Intercourse" and How Slipknot's DJ Convinced Her to Perform Again

Otep Shamaya is no stranger to controversy. She challenges every status quo in heavy metal, feminism, and well, the music industry in general. She welcomes the chance to stand up and speak out for those with no voice, or who risk too much to use it. As a result, the singer/poet/activist/screamer/illustrator/rapper is often the target of much anger and venomous insults, whether it’s from a misogynistic mosher or pissed-off politician.

It was 2013 when we last talked, right after the release of her concept album Hydra, which debuted at 155 on The Billboard 200. Otep had decided that Hydra would be her last “opus” to the music industry; she was sick of watching it dissolve in front of her, and feeling like music, peoples’ blood, sweat and tears, was being stolen with no regard. Another artistic animal inside needed nourishing, she said.

Exactly two years later, Otep has continued to tour here and there since Hydra, worked as a voice over actor, authored a book of short stories, and more. Last year the band signed an artist management deal with Mach 2.8 Entertainment Group, founded by Sid Wilson (Grammy Award-winning turntablist for Slipknot) and his partner Symon Mead. And now she’s feeling a revival inside of her that she can barely contain, and the result is a seventh album in pre-production. While talking to her, it’s evident that she’s feeling a fire that recalls back to the beginning, 15 years ago, when Otep was signed to Capitol Records based solely on the band’s live performance.

New Times talked with Otep about "spiritual intercourse," record companies fighting over her again, kids being named after her, and the recent incident she was involved in that has act Terror Universal dismiss their lead singer. 

So last time we talked was right when Hydra came out. We discussed how it was your “final opus.” Apparently a lot has changed since then.

Well I think that at that time, I had really been, really fed up with the record industry. I guess I didn’t mean for it to be my final opus, other than me just taking some time away to focus on other things that were creatively important to me. I took time to wrote and wrote a book of short stories called “Movies in My Head” that just released. And then I did an audio book of one of the stories. I also did a lot of voice over work, featured in the last Hobbit movie. I took some time away as an artist, and the business part of this industry is hard for me to handle. Especially with as many years as I’ve been doing this and as many songs as I’ve written.

So you did decide to focus on another artistic animal in you that needs nourishing, as you mentioned a few years ago.

Yeah—I mean, sometimes the suits don’t trust my vision with my fans, they don’t understand it’s about the message not necessarily that I’m the girl who goes grrr, but people care about the words too. It got really frustrating to give away bits and pieces of my soul in every song to people who didn’t really get it and never tried to get it. I needed time. And I didn’t want to fake it. That’s not part of my character; to make records and pretending they mean something when I feel depleted and exploited.

And then throughout all this time we did a little touring, not much, but wanted to keep connected to he fans. And then the words started to come back, and the melody started to come back. And I knew it was time for another Otep album. It’s exciting.

We talked a lot about the industry and how it can’t be fixed, and how you feel a management label wouldn’t sign Otep nowadays. Last year you guys signed a deal with Mach 2.8 Management Group, right? If you’re going to work with any management company, it might as well be with Sid Wilson’s!

Yeah, like a record label; it would be very difficult to get a label interested in an openly gay woman that’s a liberal and a poet, that raps, growls, screams, sings, writes political songs, writes poetry. Laughs. And try to make that make sense in this time, in this era. When we started with the “nu metal” genre catapulting fans into the stratosphere, it was acceptable to be a fusion band. You could have influences from whoever you liked, you know, like the Deftones look at those guys. Moody, heavy music where you rap, scream, and what not. And then look at Slipknot, all the different influences they have from drum and bass to hip-hop to thrash to hardcore. It was really an exciting time then for the music, because you didn’t really have to power a formula. You could just make music.

Then you had a new fad that shot up, where traditionalists were ripping off Pantera and not giving them their respect they deserved as pioneers in this industry. It became where you started to see the vision narrow. Luckily I have a very strong core base of fans that believe in what we do and have stood by us the entire time through every record and fad. I’m very lucky for this career.

And with Sid from the management company, and his partner, it’s nice to be with someone who understands the message. Sid and I have been friends for about 10 years, so it’s been really refreshing to work with them and feel like we have a team that understands the direction.

How did that partnership with Sid come about?

There was a birthday party that both he and I randomly attended; we hadn’t seen each other in years since we’ve both been on the road for so long. He asked me to come by his spot to catch up, and then we started talking about what he’s doing and what I’m doing, and I said I was in between managers, and he said, "well, you know we have a management company, would you be interested in letting us manage you?" And I was like, "Absolutely!" It’s been a really wonderful experience so far.
So tell me a bit about the songs that have been pouring out of you guys. I assume this album will be very different from Hydra, since that was a full-blown concept album.

Yeah it’s different in that aspect that it isn’t a concept album, but we’re writing some really really heavy groove-based songs, reminiscing of what we did on Sevas Tra and The Ascension; really dark and beautiful experimental pieces that are also reminiscent of House of Secrets. And we really haven’t had an album like that since.. I mean it’s really the only art album we’ve ever made. There was really only one track on the whole album that had vocals; really remarkable pieces.

So right now we’re just allowing the music to flow through and allowing it to develop. But it’s been really really exciting. My new band—well, not my new band, but the new guys I’m working with now, I think they’ve been with me for five years now—Aristotle my guitar player have been writing some incredible stuff. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, extremely talented as a songwriter and musician. It’s so nice to be in a room with people who have the same direction and message. We all have this type of telekinetic connection together and it’s the same song in all of our heads and we haven’t even spoken about it.

That’s definitely key I would think when it comes to writing again after originally thinking that you were leaving the industry a few years ago.

It is key. You know, my drummer Justin [Kier] is a phenomenal guy with influences from metal to reggae to Spanish to tribal; the kid can play anything. Our bass player Corey [Wolford] is a bass phenom.

Do you have any idea of a release date or season?

You know, we’re in pre-production so we don’t really have that in mind. We’re entertaining a lot of different offers from a few different labels which is—it’s difficult for me to get back in that thing… but, um… after the experiences I’ve had with record executives and so forth, but at the same time, it’s exciting because the labels are trying to take the position in a new direction and accepting the way that music is heard now. So it’s really interesting to see them finally catching up to the 21st century and where everyone else has been for 10 years. Laughter. And it is nice to be wanted. Laughter. But listen we’re trying to find the right partner who understand who we are and what we are, and who our fans are, and that’s the most important thing to understand what they expect and want and deserve.

That fan base is growing every day. We have people who have been here with us since our EP and then others who discovered us through Hydra. And now people are bringing their kids to my concert, and naming their kids after me! I’ve never known another Otep in my life and now there’s kids named Otep and I never thought my life would take me in this kind of direction.

Obviously there’s been a lot of reaction to the fact that Terror Universal’s singer groped you on tour. The age-old question is how women deal about sexual harassment in the rock and metal world.

That’s right.

Switching that around and ask how you deal with, for lack of a better word, groupies?

Laughter. Well… Um.. Long pause. Usually they are pretty polite, even the men. They aren’t normally aggressive. They may do something to me that’s a little, um, amorous? And hey—who doesn’t like compliments? If they tell you that you’re pretty or that they get switched on from seeing you on stage, hey—that’s part of music. That’s part of the spiritual intercourse and alive. Music is supposed to make you feel alive and vibrant. I’m not opposed to having people… I mean, even if people are overly excited and you know, some girls will try to kiss me and some guys will hit on me. And that’s fine, I don’t mind that.

What bothers me in this world is that, and we’ve had this happen in the past, guys come to the show and see girls there and they think it’s okay to touch them because they feel entitled to do so, and they have no right to do that. Especially if they feel intimidated. And I’m not speaking about every man, I’m speaking about a certain type of male that feels entitled to put a women in what he thinks is her place. And sometimes people get offended when I immediately start defending women when they get groped or molested. They say, ‘Oh, Otep is a man-eater.” But that’s not true. My band is male. My brother and father are male. My best friend is male. It’s just that I stand up for justice and equality for everyone. The problem with women who have been violated in this culture, and I’m speaking predominantly as an American because I am an American. We have it better in this country obviously. But the problem in this country is that when women speak out when they’re victimized, they are further victimized. Because people say it didn’t happen, you’re lying, you’re exaggerating, it shouldn't both you so much if you’re touched in a certain way… you know, and it keeps people from speaking out because they’re afraid to be further victimized or made fun of.

One of the reasons I spoke out about the Terror Universal thing, and I don't want to even bring more attention to this situation, because I don’t think the guy deserves to get more attention, and also because the band doesn’t deserve to get a bad rap because of their singer, or ex-singer. I’ve been friends with the drummer for a long time, so I’m not trying to bash Terror Universal. This is a unique situation that happened with that one guy. I only came out about it because the band said that I dropped off the tour, when I told them I wouldn’t play with that band as long as that guy was the singer period. They said they would be on the tour, so I said I was off the tour. Then people start complaining and want their money back, so then someone put out a statement that I was trying to extort money from the band or something, which is a complete lie, because that’s not a part of my character. I have agents; that’s what they are there for, dealing with money.

It would be a dangerous situation to put me in the room with that guy again. Not only because of what I might do, but because of what my band might do. And I’m not gonna share the stage and expose my fans to this type of a person. So when I did speak out and tell the truth, it damages that part of what some people think about me; like the mighty Otep, looking weak. So I wouldn't make this up. There were death threats against me because people are saying I left the tour and wasn’t tough enough to deal with this guy, that I was a lesbian so that’s why I’m making a big deal out of it, etc. And I’m pretty tough but you know what? This is why so many women don’t speak out once they’ve been violated because this is the type of treatment they get for speaking out. And that’s why I thought it was important to speak out.

If it wasn’t true, where are his lawyers? Why was he fired from the band? Why do I have private messages on my Facebook from his wife apologizing for his activity because he has a drinking problem?

Primarily, I want to focus on the idea that it’s tough for women to speak out once they’ve been violated because they’re afraid of being further victimized. That's what's important—speak out, no matter what gender, status, or situation. As long as you're not embellishing and you know what's right, do it. 

Otep is scheduled to play Club Red in Mesas on Saturday, May 30.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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