Skinny Puppy Animal Rights Rule!
This article by Perry Stern was originally published in the November 1988 issue of Graffiti Magazine.
Somewhere in L.A. there's a nutbar who wants to kill Ogre. It had something to do with a girl, some bad drugs and an OD of what Ogre calls "over unreality". He's laughing now, but he admits frankly that, "if you sense any anxiety on the album, that's why."
Skinny Puppy lyricist/vocalist/conceptualist, Nivek Ogre, is on the phone from Edmonton where his band, "The Weirdest Band In The World" according to one Vancouver publication, is kicking off its current North American tour. The new album, the band's fourth, is called VIVIsectVI, and the anxiety, along with aggression, alienation and agitation, is all there, seasoning what composer cEVIN Key calls "a soup of today's available music".
The boys in the band are the crackers in the soup, of course. And if Skinny Puppy can honestly be accused of weirdness, then someone ought to pitch in a few more adjectives. Like "dedicated", "innovative", and "progressive".
The fuel that fires the Skinny Puppy machine is fear. Fear of what the world is and of what it may yet become. Fear of man's capacity to be inhumane is what inspired Ogre to take up the cause of animal rights. His own fear, an almost debilitating introversion, compels him to take the stage.
The Animal Rights issue is at the very heart of Skinny Puppy. It permeates all the songs on the album and it dominates, through mind-numbingly shocking films, the stage show. This time out, the band has decided to make their statement loud and unsubtley clear. In the past people have plead incomprehension of the Puppy's anti-vivisection communiques because of Ogre's bleating, growling vocal delivery. Whatever message they were sending out seemed lost on those unwilling ears.
People have always confused the appearance of Skinny Puppy with their intent. The conclusion is generally that a trio of black-clad, big-haired synth players who use more blood and skulls in one evening's performance than any three B-grade horror films combined must be some kind of gothic joke for disaffected teens. "We still have a heavy Goth appeal to teenagers," Ogre confesses, "but teenagers, in some ways, are a lot more receptive and smarter than those people who call us a 'teenie' band."
Now the unhearing disbelievers can read the lyrics on the album jacket and follow for themselves Ogre's nightmare vision of a human world devoid of humanity.
"People will always say that 90% of our audience misses the point," Ogre explains. "They say it's a joke. For this show, with the films I've just finished editing, I'd have to say the joke is on them. And I don't mean funny-ha-ha. The point in this show is very literal and can't be missed. Those people who are just there as cynics are going to be infected with the message no matter what. The films are too blatant. They might say 'ha ha' to the man on stage, but they can't go 'ha ha' to the message. It's just too important." The films, supplied by the Los Angeles-based animal rights group SURPRESS, vividly and shockingly display the use of animals for chemical and commercial research. No one who sees the incredibly cruel treatment systematically perpetrated on animals in the film will ever forget them.
Ogre's conversion to the animal rights issue can be found in his adolescence when, as a boy of 14, he held a gun for the first time. "We went out to my family's land about nine miles west of Calgary," he recalls, "me, my friend and his father. We went to shoot gophers. My friend was the first to spot one and when he shot, he only wounded it in the leg and it ran back into its hole. It stunned me. I just kept thinking, 'Wow, that gopher's going to go down there and slowly die. It'll never see the daylight again.' The feeling of sadness and horror overwhelmed me.
"When it was my turn to shoot, I just couldn't. I would sight a gopher down the barrel of my rifle, and I'd shoot over its head to frighten it away. It really pissed of my friend and his dad. When I was older my buddies would go out with their guns and shoot the swallows out of trees. Just for something to do. I'd follow behind them with mine, firing in the air to scare the birds away. I lost a lot of friends that way."
These days Ogre is, needless to say, a vegetarian whose only leather possession is a pair of Doc Martens. "They're the last bit of leather I'll ever get," he confesses. "It's just too important for me not to get nailed for anything."
It's the same sense of horror that Ogre felt that Albertan afternoon so many years ago that inspires cEVIN Key to compose his music. With relative newcomer D. Rudolph Goettel at his side, Key constructs the complicated percussive components that constitute Puppy music.
At about the same time Ogre was being threatened in L.A., Key was confronting a personal fear of his own. In Jamaica, ironically on a vacation that coincided with the visitation of Hurricane Gilbert, Key decided to face his visceral fear of water.
"To get over something like that means you carry on with your life," Key explains. "It doesn't sound like anything, but I used to have nightmares because I almost drowned two times as a kid. When you come close to drowning you go through this other worldly, fuzzy phase, the passing-on stage. I was only 9 or 10 at the time, but I can remember it as if it were yesterday." The prescription for Key's cure was scuba diving and, though he was petrified, he eventually conquered his fear by going deeper and deeper into the ocean. "The irony of all this is that I'll probably end up dying by drowning," he adds sardonically.
The sense of humor and horror is always there in Key's work. He finds most of his inspiration in "my infatuation with bizarre film and bizarre music". For people trying to comprehend the cacophony of his compositions he tries to come up with a cinematic comparison. "Remember the eerie feeling of Eraserhead and the initial horror of The Exorcist?" he asks. "I think people who've seen those particular movies will understand that the combination of the two, for me, is like a potion."
The potion is potent indeed. Key says that he feels a "complete form of physical release" when performing, "in the same way that my experience in the water led to the complete emotional release of my fears. Everything builds up and every so often you have the opportunity to release that. For each person the release comes differently: a game of squash; a good fuck; a good drunk; an acid trip. For some it's being live on stage."
The "physical" release that Key feels on stage works as a counterpoint to Ogre's "emotional" response to the experience. Despite the fact that Ogre has performed hundreds of times in front of an ever growing audience, he is inordinately frightened throughout. Like Key's attitude about water, Ogre sees the value of confronting his fears head on. "Performing in front of people and facing that fear," he compares, "is like cEVIN going scuba diving over and over and going deeper and deeper. You start feeling more and more comfortable and by feeling more and more comfortable you start doing more with that time that you are feeling the fear."
Of course, regardless of how "comfortable" Ogre might get with performing, the odds of him mellowing into a more conventional singer are just about nil. Key laughs at the thought. "When we first got together, the idea of becoming a singer in a rock 'n roll band was as alien to him as the idea of becoming a stock broker would be for me. My warped idea of how I would handle stocks and bonds would probably be how he would handle being in a so-called 'normal' band."
"Normal" is not a word applied to Skinny Puppy too often. On VIVIsectVI, an album they see as their most accessible to date, the constantly erupting percussive rhythms of Key and Goettel are the backdrop to Ogre's harrowing, haranguing vocalese. Even the album's title is confrontational. Invented to portray the notion of vivisection in the same light as those who would find evil in the most mundane rock lyrics, Ogre explains: "Instead of looking to the 'Theme For Mr. Ed' by playing it backwards and finding satanic messages (which they did), we're taking a word, breaking it down by syllables and finding it just as satanic as 'Mr. Ed'." On the album jacket the word "sect", which to Ogre implies a cult, is highlighted with the first two syllables of "vivisect" stylized to represent the roman numerals for the number six. Together with the final "VI" of the title they bracket the "sect" with 666, the devil's number. It may be a complicated, perhaps convoluted joke, but the sentiment is very real for the Puppys.
It's impossible to interpret the words of Skinny Puppy in the absence of the music. Ogre's lyrics, like Key's music, are an amalgam of sounds, thoughts, emotions and phrases. They are pasted together by the glue of collaboration and, like a pointillistic painting, they need to be observed from a distance before the complete picture is understood.
The opening track, "Dogshit", is what a Skinny Puppy feels like in a dream. Released as the first single for the album, the band had to bow to record label pressure and re-title the 12-inch version "Censor". From the song's final scream of "You asshole", the album moves on to "VX Gas Attack", a song about chemical warfare haunted by a found sample from a newscast that ominously intones "ritual murders" again and again. "Harsh Stone White", like "Dogshit", is another of Ogre's nightmare visions.
"Human Disease (S.K.U.M.M.)", the first side closer, rails against the constant struggle between man and nature. Man, the apparent victor of the battle, ultimately will lose the war because he poisons himself by poisoning his environment.
"Who's Laughing Now?" is a rare narrative. Invoking the memory of "Broken Alice" with her "lizard kiss rhetoric", Ogre paints a portrait of a drug-diseased wastrel, tormented by her own intelligence, tortured by the life she creates in a world she's trying to escape from. The boldly anti-vivisectionist "Testure", which will be the second single (and whose 12-inch remix is probably the most club-oriented and successful dance track the band has produced since "Dig It") is what Skinny Puppy consider as their most radio-friendly song to date.
"Testure", Ogre explains, "was meant to be very accessible in order to have it played on the radio and to put the message out. In fact," he laughs, "it's the only song I think they will be able to play on the radio. I hope they do play it because it's the only way we can go beyond our ranks and our loyal fans who already understand the message."
"State Aid" addresses the role of the CIA's chemical experimentation in the fostering of sexual paranoia in the AIDS era. The final song on the album, "Hospital Waste", portrays the current environmental nightmare that is washing up daily on the shores of the eastern United States. The garbage that we dispose of so thoughtlessly eventually returns to haunt us. As Ogre sings in "Testure": "What goes around comes back stronger". What we discard, knowingly or not, as trivial, whether it's a bag of used syringes, ozone-destroying chemicals, or the life of a defenseless animal in the name of science and commerce, will inevitably return to destroy us.
Skinny Puppy may be "weird", but they are visionary as well. It's easy to couch a "message" in the luxurious folds of a pop song. It's much more complicated to give the music and its performance the same impact. Skinny Puppy succeeds.