2011 is a banner year for experimental music icons Skinny Puppy and their many fans... and that includes your humble author, who got hooked on their dark moods, complex beats and horror-movie samples over two decades ago. Since the band reunited in 2004, co-founders Ogre (aka Kevin Ogilvie) and cEvin Key (aka Kevin Crompton) embraced new music technology and, as always, twisted and morphed it into new shapes and patterns that no one had heard before. Their third post-reunion release Handover had been languishing in bureaucratic hell, but this month it's risen at last, revealing itself to be the band's best work in decades.
Songwriter & frontman Ogre is a lifelong horror fan just like us, and he's transitioned into a second successful career as horror film actor, with key roles in Repo! the Genetic Opera and 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams. I got to chat with Ogre recently about his music, film projects and much more, and he had some amazing stories to tell. Read on for the full interview...
FEARnet: I've been listening to Skinny Puppy since the beginning, and Handover is definitely one of my new favorites.
OGRE: Thank you! It's great to hear that, because it's something I was apprehensive about, after all the time it's taken to make the record, and the time it took getting it out there... but I think it found its slot.
I know it was quite an ordeal to get it out there. Can you tell us about that process?
We ran into an insolvency issue with our label almost two years ago... it was right after I released my solo album Devils in My Details, and we were getting into a tour cycle. We had a tour planned for the new record, but no place for the record to go. During that process, we'd gone through a number of head-trips on whether to just deliver a record that was more of just a noise record, like in the mode of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music... something kind of for the fans, and kind of for us, delivering something into the void, but that didn't end up working out. Then I released another solo record, UnDeveloped, and then we finally came back around to this when the label had their reformation, and finished writing the record... kind of quickly, in the sense that a lot of the ideas had already gelled and a lot of the themes were put forth... and because we needed all of this stuff exactly at this time on a certain date, before one of their tax cycles in Germany, or the deal was off. So the title Handover came partially from that, and also from some aspects of the economy we're in right now, and some aspects of my own life. For the first time since [1996 album] The Process, we lost a crew member who was very close to me. He'd sustained an injury and went through three years of hell trying to get worker's comp, then went through two subsequent neck operations, and on the third one his body finally kind of gave up. He had to face his nemesis, which was pain medication, something he'd been dealing with when he was younger. Another disaster we encountered was when we went on a tour last year, and our tour manager in England was dealing with his own fiduciary matters... and when we came back from the tour, almost a hundred thousand dollars in cash was supposed to follow us, and it never did. So we were dealing with our own little stimulus package that never really trickled down to where it was supposed to. [laughs] So we've been playing catch-up from there and reformatting everything into a new kind of paradigm.
What was your writing process like on this album?
Well, when I was very young, I started to write very stream-of-consciousness poetry in my basement in Calgary, and just write automatic writing that just filled the page, and then I'd go back and circle phrases that made sense to me, and take that as the basis of my poetry... and I sort of went back to that on this album. At the same time, just what was going on... you're already dealing with a business that's basically getting ass-raped, and there's no support for artists in the music business, unless there's some sort of angelic patron of some sort watching over you. A lot of that was grating on me, and I combined that with my early style of writing that was a bit unknown to me, in that there's no sense of its outcome. I also noticed a bit of a sociopathic aspect to it all, reflecting the whole lack of empathy that I feel around me. It comes down to a certain morose sadness that you have laugh at, like "what the fuck did you expect?" I think we made a mistake in the middle of the last century, just like Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex taking hold... that whole complex is now widespread and far-reaching, in the sense that you have somebody in some small warehouse making some small part for some bigger device that is based on death and destruction. You start to see why Terry Gilliam's Brazil was banned when it came out... it was really showing America for what it is.
I feel a lot of torment coming through in these songs, where it comes across like this gothic psychodrama. For example, the track "Brownstone"...
Oh yeah, that actually was just a stream of consciousness... that's why I'd embraced the character of Mr. Brownstone in the OhGr albums, because that character just kind of leaped out of me one night! [laughs] My take on Mr. Brownstone was that he was kind of an intelligence officer that couldn't be killed because that would expose the fact that he knew too much, so he becomes this insane sort of prophet of sorts, who walks the streets and takes on whatever identity he needs. That all came out of one free-form session, and I think it was actually done all in one take, with no overdubs. It created an impressive character that I'm very happy with and I'm glad it made it onto the record. It gives me a shivery giggle whenever I listen to it, because I didn't realize my voice could do things like that. It's like when I played Pavi in Repo – I listen to aspects of it and say "What? I did that? That's fucked up!" [laughs]
This album feels like it has a horror movie story arc, including a frightening final act. Is your writing also inspired by horror films and stories?
Oh yeah. I've been obsessed with horror films and books, and even within my own altered realities in my life. I've always been fascinated exploring the darkest depths of the psyche. The older I get, the more I realize that the world could be a lot stranger than even I could even imagine, so I'm quite glad I embraced that when I was young.
Is there a music video in the works?
I'd love to do one, because of the cinematic nature of the album, but right now it's really kind of up to the label; I think they'll rise to the occasion when the time comes. With Handover we're going back to a more experimental form, much like Last Rights or The Process, so there's still an undertone of uncertainty. Also we've never had a lot of money put behind that sort of thing, because most of the videos we've made have been preaching to the converted. The only video of ours I've seen in a shoe store in a mall [laughs] was "Pro-Test" from The Greater Wrong of the Right, which had the breakdancing in it, and we intended that to be more tongue-in-cheek. We're going to wait and see what happens, but I'd really like to do it... we're probably not going to be touring until the spring, so there's some time to think about it and see what happens.
Do you think your association with Tim Sullivan and Darren Bousman might help make it happen?
Darren actually offered to do a video for the OhGr disc, for no money at all. But it was a time-frame thing; he got busy with some of his films. Really there's just no budget for videos for bands of our ilk... most videos are made for under 30 thousand dollars, unless you're talking someone like Rhianna.
Have you and cEvin ever been approached to write an original film score?
cEvin's done little bits and pieces of things, and Mark Walk, who I write with, has done a bit of scoring, so we've often been asked to work on films, and there's a few things coming up that are on the table... but as I'm sure you know, the film business is full of projects that just don't pan out, so I tend not to talk about it until it happens. I learned that lesson from a horror anthology film called Theatre Bizarre, which had a segment by Richard Stanley (who did the movie Hardware), and Tom Savini did a piece. There was a wraparound segment for the anthology, and I got a call from the casting director who told me "this is a one-time offer, you've got until Monday to decide, or it's off the table." So I was like "Fuck yeah!" and I had a great talk to the director. But that very week, I found out the producers were in Cannes and met with Udo Kier, and well...
I mean, I bow down before Udo Kier, so I couldn't argue with that choice... but inside I was like "Awww!"
I know you've been asked to name your favorite horror movies, but I'm more curious about your favorite horror music. Can you tell us what music really enhanced a horror film most for you?
For me, the score for The Exorcist was the one that really fucked with my head the most when I was younger. One composer who's also really close to my heart is Bernard Hermann, who I think upped the ante with the use of stabs, low tones, and different musical textures, especially in his films for Hitchcock. But more recently, I really enjoyed the sound design on Alexandre Aja's High Tension. That one stuck with me for a really long time. I still remember a shot of the truck driving across the French countryside – the sound was just static with a tone, and it was really effective. It was one of those cases where it was more about what they didn't do with the sound than what they did. Usually, for me if the music is working correctly, you don't really notice it, because it just sweeps you along with the images. They did a similar thing in Irreversible, which is one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen. It showed me how sound design can be both oppressive and uplifting.
Does your work in film bring you a new perspective on music?
I realize now that working on a film is very the same as being on tour, but in some ways it's even worse. You have a certain budget to work with, you have to hit your different marks, and finish in a certain amount of time. You're basically being shot out of a cannon. I've seen now just how complicated films are, that every element has to work a certain way. And you don't get any re-dos, just like in the music industry, unless you have the benefit of reshoots in your budget. Just like when we're on a tour, if just one of those elements gets out of sync, it really does have an effect on the whole. Now I see film very much like classical music in a way, the way all the parts work with and against each other to create an effect. It just fascinates me; it's an incredible medium.
Have you picked up a new fanbase specifically for your movie roles?
Yeah, I'd say it's about half-and-half right now. I was a little apprehensive about doing conventions at first, because as a musician you're always signing autographs and you don't really place a value on it, because I've always been doing it for the kids; I like to give them a great experience when they come to a show. So at the first Comic Con for Repo, I signed everything – I jumped over tables to sign things for people. I always used to go to conventions as a fan, and saw that some of the celebrities had long autograph lines, and some had little lines. I'm kind of one of the "little line" guys right now, and at first I kind of felt bad... but you start to realize there's this constant slow flow of people who wander through these conventions. Now that I've seen the other side of it, and I've had conversations with the fans, I see how it's a wonderful community of people who are just so kind and so sweet; they're incredible. It really has opened up my audience in a cool way, with people embracing the positive aspects of Skinny Puppy, instead of the demonization that used to follow us in the '80s.
It's cool to see you build that horror fanbase so quickly, mainly from just two movies. How did you make that break into film?
I've just been really lucky. Repo just happened out of a wish that I've had since I was a kid, and it kind of manifested itself through Joe Beshara, who worked on the music (he also played the demon in Insidious). He's a friend of mine from the music scene in LA, and we go way back. In the case of Tim Sullivan, he and I were pals with Forrest J. Ackerman from Famous Monsters of Filmland. Famous Monsters was like a porn mag to me when I was a kid [laughs], and I was fascinated with the Ackermansion. As it turned out, my dreams were not only answered, I actually became one of what they called "The Bat Pack," along with my good friend Joe Moe, who was Forry's caregiver for the final years of his life. When I moved down to LA in '91, Forry's house had basically become a hoarder's house, and we turned it back into what it was before. We built a Lon Chaney room, a Lugosi room and a Karloff room, all around the props like Chaney's makeup case, Bela's ring and cape, and Boris's ring. It was one of the most amazing periods of my life.
I can imagine!
I met Tim through all of that, because he was coming over to the house every once in a while, and from that came the opportunity to play Harper Alexander [in Maniacs]. For me, the great kick in that one was a kill that I'll never forget, a really gory, awesome kill... although I ended up getting eye and throat infections from being sprayed with blood. They had a canister of blood that was out in 90-degree heat all day, and that's the one they used on me, so there must have been tons of bacteria in it. When I got back to LA after the shoot, I knew I was sick, so I went to this East German doctor and told him I'd gotten sprayed with fake blood right in the face. He just gave me this look that made me shrink in shame, as if to say, "No, no, you're a porn star. You took a load in the face, didn't you?" [laughs]
I guess if you're working in horror, that just goes with the territory, huh?
Yeah, and I've experienced both sides of it now. But as I'm sure you know, it's a lot of fun, and I'm excited to do more. I had to leave it behind to get back to the music and get these records delivered, but I'm going to get my reel together now and go pursue some more.
Awesome. I'm happy to see you living that dream... it's a dream so many of us share.
It is, and I always tell people that I don't see myself as different than anybody else. It really comes down to really pushing past a lot of failure, and not taking anything personally, especially in film, because it's really so not about you... it could just be that your ear is turned the wrong way or something. But never forget that, and always just keep pushing forward, because those fortuitous moments are there for all of us.