The Death of Skinny Puppy
This article by Perry Stern was originally published in the Spring 1996 edition of NETWORK Magazine.
It seems wholly inappropriate that Skinny Puppy's ultimate demise wasn't heralded by a thunderous cacophony of apocalyptic proportions but rather the inaudible whoosh of heroin making its deadly trek from syringe to bloodstream. As one of the originators of "industrial" music, the Vancouver-based trio spent a dozen years pioneering an important subgenre of modern rock-the place where heavy metal, the avant-garde and horrorshow theatrics all melt down into a crackling cauldron seething with angst and anger. Though Trent Reznor may have become the most successful practitioner of the sound, there are still pockets in Europe and the U.S. who only associate Canada with three famous names - Wayne Gretzky, Pamela Lee and Skinny Puppy.
On August 23, 1995 keyboardist Dwayne Goettel was found dead on the bathroom floor of his parent's home in Edmonton. Victim of an apparent drug overdose, Goettel had been working on the final mixes of The Process, Skinny Puppy's ninth CD. It was the last in a seemingly endless series of tragedies and mishaps that befell the band since embarking on the project. The ironic foreshadowing of their previous album title, Last Rights, was lost on no-one.
"I knew it was the last Skinny Puppy album for me," vocalist Ogre explains in a soft-spoken voice that belies the nickname he's borne since the inception of the band. "I think it's the most beautiful and most painful record we ever made. With hindsight I can see it carries all the battles of three people fighting over where it's going, it proves to me - in a very untimely way - " he adds with a sardonic laugh, "that there is still a lot of human feeling in electronic music."
In late 1982, two Kevins, Ogilvie and Crompton, got together in Vancouver and started making tapes. As a reaction against the effervescent electrobeat music of the day, the sound they saught was intended to seem scary, sickly and unloved by compassion - they called it Skinny Puppy. To save confusion (and, initially at least, to conceal the fact that Crompton was still playing drums with technopoppers Images In Vogue) pseudonyms were created - Nivek Ogre for Ogilvie and cEVIN Key (for the keyboards Crompton now played). Devoted to mind-numbing, metal pounding percussiveness and cryptic, caterwaled messages, Skinny Puppy's first effort, a now-legendary cassette called Back and Forth, won them the attention of Vancouver's fledgling Nettwerk label. The subsequent international success of the band would help finance the launching of several more commercially viable acts including Sarah McLachlan and Grapes of Wrath.
Personal relations between Ogre and Key were never smooth and when Goettel joined the band in 1986 (replacing Wilhelm Schroeder) an Us-vs.-Him dynamic was forged pitting Key and Goettel, who wrote and recorded the music, against Ogre, who handled lyrics. In a separate interview with Key, he acknowledges that there had always been "heated debates" between himself and Ogre - "usually about deeply personal topics like, 'I can't live with how you are!' There were emotions that were just as strongly positive, too, but the negative outweighs the positive in the end." The two no longer speak.
The divisiveness between band members often centered around drugs. Not so much whether, but which. As long as everyone was just smoking pot (allusions to "Green Guy" can be found amid early album credits) things were fine. Whenever things got harder, and they invariably did, life became tense. Oddly, though, only one member of the band was ever messed up on heroine at a time, while the other two would temporarily bond in an effort to reclaim the third. Dwayne was the last member to go through the heroine phase.
Trouble in making The Process started early. The band almost broke up after the Last Rights tour ended in 1992, but Key interceded. "Kevin wanted to shop a new deal for Skinny Puppy," Ogre explains. "He was really into turning the roots over and exposing the tree for what it is... tearing it down to build it up again. That seemed logical to me at the time." The group signed to American Recordings the prestigious label headed by producer Rick Rubin. Eventually the label would sink a reported $700,000 into the project.
The first problem came naturally, literally so. In November '93 the band had to quickly pack up and flee from a house in Zuma Beach (near Malibu) before raging fires in the neighborhood consumed it. In February '94, with the album ostensibly finished, Key took a part in a film, ominously called Doom Generation, and managed to severely injure himself (fractured kneecap and left arm, 30 stitches to face and legs) while performing a stunt. But American wasn't satisfied with the initial tapes and set back the release date indefinitely. After producer Roli Mossiman left the picture a second version of the album started taking shape, but since Ogre had already written and recorded his lyrics he became more and more isolated from the other two.
By early 1995 a second version of the album was completed and still American was dissatisfied. In March, Ogre had moved from L.A. to Seattle where he started working with Mark Walk (an early engineer on The Process) on a project called W.E.L.T. On June 12, according to Ogre, the singer informed Key that he was quitting Skinny Puppy. "I had to take a look at my life as Kevin Ogilvie, as a person, and ask what am I doing with these people?" he recalls. With Ogre ostensibly out of the picture, Key and Goettel took the tapes back to Vancouver and started work on the third version of the album, this time returning to work with Dave "Rave" Ogilvie who had produced all their previous releases.
Relations remained tough within the band. Key felt betrayed by American because they stopped financing the project once the tapes left L.A. and he learned that, though Skinny Puppy would be dropped from the label (negating a three record deal), they were going to release Ogre's W.E.L.T. CD. Even still, work continued on the album. It was all but complete when Dwayne died. A week-and-a-half later Key delivered the final mix of The Process to American.
We haven't heard the last of the Skinny Puppy sound, though. In May, Nettwerk will release Brap: Back and Forth Series 3 and 4, a 2-CD compilation of early, unreleased sounds and alternate versions dating back to the original Ogilvie/Crompton collaborations of 1992. Key will also continue working on Download, a side project he worked on with Goettel while Puppy was in disarray. As for Ogre, he describes W.E.L.T. as "dark, brooding record that doesn't have the layers on it that Skinny Puppy albums do. It's no less angry, just more focused."
If those words had described the last days of Skinny Puppy, perhaps The Process wouldn't be their swan song after all.