Here Puppy! Nice Puppy!
After a Skinny Puppy concert this summer, electronic keyboarder cEvin Key was greeted by an enthralled female fan, joyous at having just seen Key's reunited band perform after a ten-year absence. Smiling, she offered Key a gift. Into the palm of his hand she placed a baggie filled with some unidentified substance.
"What's this?" Key asked. "Heroin," she replied with an idiot's grin.
"Are you stupid?" Key shouted. "Do you have no clue what we've gone through?"
Horse riding has taken a catastrophic toll on Canada's legendary proto-industrial outfit. With a sticker announcing "The Final Skinny Puppy Album," 1996's The Process was released after keyboard player Dwayne Goettel's overdose death and singer Nivek Ogre's resignation. "We've learned the hard way that hard drugs suck," Key says from his adopted home in Los Angeles. "Some of us realized that at one point, some at other points, so we were never really on the same page when we made The Process. That screwed us up."
So screwed up that long-time friends Key (born Kevin Crompton) and Ogre (Kevin Ogilvie) spent the remainder of the decade estranged.
Skinny Puppy came together in 1982, when 20-year-old Vancouverites Key and Ogre, fans of experimental noisiness like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, wanted to graft some of the crazy beats they heard in their heads onto a wall of static. Key came up with punishing drum-machine workouts. Over that barrage of evil, Ogre's perversely abnormal growl cut through, terribly twisted and mangled to sound monstrously inhuman.
With primitive electronics, keyboards, tapes, and synthesizers as well as bass and guitar, Key produced most of the noise, though Bill Leeb -- who went on to form Front Line Assembly and Delerium -- was an early collaborator. By 1984, the group had released a homemade cassette of material culled from what more conventional bands would call "jams." Skinny Puppy called them "braps."
"We'd stay up all weekend, set up the gear, and improvise a lot," Key says. "We used to say, 'Are we brapping?' We liked to make up words." Because of the music's mighty rhythmic structure, it moved bodies on the dance floor. But even within the sunless goth/industrial canon, calling Skinny Puppy "dark" was like saying absolute zero is "nippy."
"You have to explore darkness to really understand good," Ogre told New Times, just after The Process was released. "If you don't understand evil, you don't understand when you are being evil. A lot of evil is done in the name of good -- and I've certainly put my nose up the bum of experience for that sake."
In 1985, the Puppy unleashed Bites and Remission, two slabs of convulsive, almost seizure-inducing "dance" music tempered by Key's searing beats and synths and Ogre's terrifying voice. Samplers and sequencers beefed up the sound further with Goettel's arrival in time for 1986's Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse. By the time of 1987's Cleanse, Fold, and Manipulate, the band was taking on radical politics, drug addiction, environmental degradation, and animal rights as topics of discourse. Skinny Puppy's live spectacle -- a blood-drenched miasma of ear-splitting synthetics, videodrome nightmares, an assortment of Cronenbergesque props, and Ogre's frightening appearance -- was legendary.
Ogre's self-proclaimed "groundless moral ethics that I can't substantiate scientifically" offer a peek inside Skinny Puppy's uncompromisingly astringent sound and fury. "Medical school research is for people who don't have the social skills to become a doctor," he says with just a tiny bit of cheeky-tongue. "I feel, to be honest, that people who have continued over and over again to abuse their rights on this earth should be used in experiments. I wouldn't sponsor an experimental vivisection program to cure disease, but if something like that came up for a vote and a lot of people got behind it, well, I'd probably stand with it. People get too many chances in this world, and animals don't get any chances."
By the time of Rabies (1989) and Too Dark Park (1990), the band, with an affinity for their city's infamous high-test hydroponic they'd dubbed "wheelchair weed," had discovered real dope. Ogre had fallen prey big-time. But the band thickened up its sound yet again with heavy guitars (Ministry's Al Jourgensen was all over Rabies) and a series of experimental and disturbing videos. Last Rights (1992) revealed the first fractures, what with Ogre in recovery and his energy zapped.
Sessions for the band's next album started the following year, but the project was fraught from the beginning. In the summer of 1995, Key walked out entirely -- starting an ongoing series of solo efforts -- and Goettel was found dead at his parents' home in Edmonton.
"I didn't even see him in a tailspin, and that's the hardest thing for me," Ogre says. "He kept beauty and serenity in everything he did, and you could hear it in each note he played. When The Process came out, it was kind of fitting that some of his best work was on there."
With help from producer David "Rave" Ogilvie, Key finished the last album -- named The Process after the California cult/church -- but it wasn't well-received. (Acoustic guitar? Ogre actually singing? Oh, the humanity!) Skinny Puppy slithered quietly into history, save for a posthumous remix affair (Dystemper) and live album (Brap) while Key and Ogre continued with their own projects.
Forward to 2000, when a pair of rich Skinny Puppy fans from Germany dangled a carrot the band couldn't pass up. The reformed Puppy returned that August at a massive Dresden festival, performing a set heavy on old hits.
"[The promoters] made an offer no one could ever turn down," Key says. "It wasn't a dollar-value as much as a production-value issue. They were willing to do whatever it took to make Skinny Puppy come to life again."
Instead of pocketing the cash and revisiting old territory, Ogre and Key sat down and plotted new strategy, emerging with The Greater Wrong of the Right in May 2004. With its politically loaded title, Wrong certainly takes on injustice on songs like "Pro-test," but its Limp Bizkit rapping (and the potent but unremarkable lead-off track "I'mmortal") reveals too many concessions made to nu-metal minions. The interestingly glum "UseLess" takes the songwriting advances made on The Process to a more commercial realm. Best of all is the bad-moody '80s throwback "Past Present," which recalls the glory days with a pulsating sequencer and haunting synth line.
"'Past Present' was all about us taking the exact tools -- and I mean the exact same machines -- that we used 20 years ago," Key says. But Wrong has some future in it, particularly in the form of South Florida's famous IDM/glitch wizard Otto von Schirach. "Typical IDMers are very sterile," Key notes, "but when I played Otto's CD, my mouth just fell open. He's so on the page."
Schirach's noise sparkles on "Goneja," one of the album's high points -- which brings us back to Ogre and Key, living it up in Jamaica. They spent a week there this summer, before Hurricane Ivan wrecked the hotel where they were staying. In Jamaica, the old pals embraced teenage indulgences and further solidified their partnership, Key says. "We have an amazing situation, me and Ogre. There's no negative wall standing in front of us.
"I can honestly say the only thing that works with music is weed. We're really good boys now -- we have a few drinks, and we smoke weed. Every other drug only pulled us away from being better at what we could have been."
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