SKINNY PUPPY - 24 HOURS IN VANCOUVER
Skinny Puppy dying from Rabies would have appeared formulaic, Hollywood invented, a cliche too ridiculous to regurgitate and say twice. After the release of Rabies, this Vancouver trio - whose music has belched, "Interpret this!" since 1983 - found themselves painted into a corner of a room; this room, once a hotbed of creative hysteria, became as inspiring as TV snow. Michael Nigro triangulates between the denizens of Too Dark Park: Nivek Ogre, Cevin Key, and Dwayne Goettel. 24 hours in Vancouver. Interpret this...
5:30 am. I am leaving Nivek Ogre's editing studio. Over the past two weeks in preparation for the tour, he's been splicing together miles of film with horror filmmaker Gary Blair Smith (visual guru for the tour), editing God(send - according to Ogre) Bill Morrison, and Ogre's girlfriend Cyan Meeks (Did you buy a t-shirt at the Ministry concert? That was her). And I'm walking, and it's dark, and I'm thinking, "Jeee-zus, I'm kinda lost." Then again, being "kinda lost" is like kinda having diarrhea. I refused to admit to myself that I was wandering aimlessly in a city where the concept for TOO DARK PARK was created. The fact that I had just spent six hours watching horrific images wasn't helping matters either. Panic stage? Not quite. I wasn't even swearing to myself, yet. "The hotel has gotta be around here somewhere." I walked with the confidence that I could always backtrack to the studio, "Right? Well, probably." I walked on, faster, rounded a corner, and noticed about 20 yards ahead of me a very tall, very skinny man with what looked like an abused package balanced on his head. This, I discovered as he walked by, was all his worldly possessions. His face was weathered - that crunched up piece of paper look - and though he purposely walked me right off the side walk, his eyes never glanced down or even glazed over me. Soon after I found the hotel.
About four hours later I was strapped shotgun in Cevin Key's white Volkswagen Bug ("Mint condition," according to him). We're driving through the serpentine roads of Stanley Park. The stick shift handle looks like the grip of a revolver, a hefty piece of grayish steel. I tell Cevin I want to see a Mounty. He tells me he wants to go bowling. Neither one of us believes the other. I press on about the Mounty: "A Mounty looking the way Dudley Do-Right looks. Or like the Monty Python guys in 'The Lumberjack Skit'". He tells me that the "red" uniforms are their "formal wear," says something else about bowling, and drives on. Miles later, he points to a man shutting a gate on the left part of the fork in the road - the road Cevin wants to take. "That's a Mounty!" he says. "And he's shutting the Goddamn gate!" He slows the car down (slightly), sticks his head out the window and starts yelling, intentionally inconvincing and totally sarcastic, "Please! Please, come back and open the gate. Please!" Without breaking stride, the Mounty turns around with a "get-a-life" expression. Cevin fires down to second gear, and we're outta there.
Dwayne tools around Vancouver on his bike. This, by the way, seems like a pretty decent mode of transportation in Vancouver: weaving smoothly in and out of the layers of traffic, moving through the congestion as evenly as exhaust. At 27, Dwayne is the youngest of the trio, and the only one who has had any sort of "formal" musical training. ""Here's a note, play the note," sort of stuff. Trumpet notes from his high-school days, actually. He gouges deep into that sort of training as something he had to try and "unlearn" when he joined Skinny Puppy in 1986. But formal training, like riding a bicycle, is probably more difficult to unlearn than learn. When we talk, Dwayne seems somewhat illusive. Apparently Dwayne has his own sort of language. A Goettelese dialect. Punctuated with self-produced sound effects - a human sampling machine, he is - Dwayne sounds like a young Jack Nicholson with a Californian surfer's drawl. "The point of me getting into music came from the frustration of not being able to communicate with people face to face. There's no way. I don't have the capabilities. I stumble. I get stuck. And then I find myself, sitting at a table, talking - which is what I couldn't do in the first place." Dwayne will suddenly abort a sentence with a pregnant pause and say "Oh... I can't make sense out of that..." He'll laugh: "Scratch that." Then he'll start over. Or, simply move on to the next topic.
"Mass Direction Off And Away" Ogre is splicing. Gary is suggesting. Cyan is smoking. And I'm watching - for the umpteenth time - an Indy-car pit-crew member get completely flattened, whipped to the pavement. Dead. "Make the image move slower," Gary says. Ogre rewinds the film with this instrument that resembles a joystick, punches a few keys on the computer, and we watch it again, slower. The joystick can track the film fast-forward or frame-by-frame. "Tweaking" they call it. They have been working 14 to 15 hours a night tweaking away, creating specific films for each song. If Dwayne were here, I'm sure he could create a quick-edged THWAMP-ing noise for the guy who becomes one with the pavement. The action is so out of the ordinary it loks unreal. But it's real. Each time we watch the guy get flattened, our reactions are heightened, much like a crowd response to instant replays of near-amazing feats in sports. Ogre tweaks it back and splices it in twice. Twin Tweaks: 20 minutes of work for 10 seconds of film. THWAMP! THWAMP! Gary is moving back and forth in his swivel chair like he's about to wet his pants. "Oh yes! Yes! Look at that! It's classic Ogre." "Gary..." Cyan says. "This is almost sexual for you." Gary mimes jacking-off, grabbing what would be a monstrosity of an appendage. Bill (the editing godsend) comes in from an adjacent side studio, where he and Cyan had been "fine-tuning" Ogre's films. It's break time. Bill sneaks up behind Ogre and jabs him right below his ribs (a tweaking of sorts), hard enough to create a short spasm of startle. Ogre yells ("Whoa!"), squirms and laughs. This is one of those tiresome rituals that continues only because of the victim's reactions (this time it was Ogre), which give everyone in the room a good laugh. The element of surprise is key. Gary gets up, hands me this flimsy blue book that he and Ogre continously swap while working. Ahhh, The Blue Book. I'm curious. I open it. It's their personal Beta catalogue of grisly images, meticulously organized: categorized by movie title, image, how long the image runs, and where the image exists on the tape. There are four medium-sized shelves filled with these Beta cassettes. Bill sits down to view the latest segment of splicing. Gary is holding a lighter beneath Bill's ass. We're up to the human pancake scene. THWAMP! THWAMP! Ogre: "I've taken some falls in my life, but this is ridiculous." Bill twitches forward, "Damn that's hot!" Ogre laughs. Bill quickly jabs him. "Whoa!" Ogre tweaks the film back. We watch it three more times. THWAMP, THWAMP, THWAMP!...
"To Multiply Mental Shock" Out of the Volkswagen and into a small cafe. Coffee. Chocolate pastries. Having slept for an hour, I'm in dire need of sugar. We sit against the wall. Cevin faces the congested street. I face the noisy kitchen. I ask him if he's seen any of the films Ogre is making. "Bits and pieces," he says. "I'd rather see the finished product." Whereas Ogre creates the backing visuals for the tour, Cevin and Dwayne create "the reason for us to even be up on stage," Cevin says. "We could very well have a backing tape and stand behind synths playing two notes on the keyboard, but we've decided to physically strain ourselves and learn additional parts along with what we've already written. We know we're gonna play these songs, and they're gonna be songs we can perform differently every night." Cevin on drums. Dwayne on keys. Two turtlenecked yuppies sit down beside us - they're named Thurston and Phoebe, I'm sure. They're discussing the sub-textual meaning of oat bran in television (or something), with the affected tone of pseudo coffee house intellectuals. I note this because it's a white bread pageant of self-absorbed futuristic Hell. As for Cevin, I don't think he notices. He appears more attuned to utilizing the combined noises of the cafe to create a soundtrack for the action he watches outside. "Usually I start off with a sound that exists in the world already," he says, explaining his modus operandi of writing music, "like a sound from the radio. I'll flip through the dial, hit the sample button on the keyboard, and I'll get this sound - which may or may not inspire me. If it does, I'll build the rhythm into [it] and then work a song into that weird rhythm. This isn't how I do every song, but it's a typical example of how I like to work. It's totally at the will of the waves. So it's not so much [that] I'm creating the songs as I'm helping them come to life. It exists already in some form; right now there's a song out there waiting... it must sound crazy." I don't think so, but Thurston and Phoebe have subsided their oat-bran blatherings and are painfully obvious in their eavesdropping when Cevin begins to talk of Skinny Puppy's birth. "One day we were hanging out at this place, we had gotten high or something like that. Ogre was just a friend who was always good at... the song would be playing and he'd just sit there and go [makes garbling sound]. I said "Fuck, that sounds pretty good, why don't we put that down." Sp we did. Ogre laid the vocals down and we had our first song ("Canine"). It was some loopy concept of ours: Life Seen Through A Dog's Eyes." Cevin rhythmically rubs his stubble with his knuckles, pauses, and laughs. "Actually, I don't even remember naming the band. I don't ever remember saying, 'This band is called Skinny Puppy.' One day I woke up and it was on the tape." As Cevin and I continue to talk, Thurston and Phoebe exit quietly - exactly opposite from the way they entered.
"Calmly Through The Window Seen Backward" Artificially created , monosyllabic tech-noise from the mouth music of Dwayne: "piszzshew..." He's recreating the sounds his mother heard from the first keyboard he ever bought. "I saved up $800, started hanging around music shops, and bought a little MS20 Korg. I didn't even tell my parents. I'm up in my room, my mom walks in and she's like [Dwayne hits an "is-it-live-or-Memorex" falsetto], 'What's that!' And I'm sitting there with all these little keys and buttons going piszzshew..." Cannily, hoping he'll make the noise again, I ask, "What was that?" I realize I probably just sounded like his mother. Dwayne continues on about growing up in Edmonton. "I hated high-school," he says with a repellent laugh. "I went into the system one way and came out of grade 12 exactly the opposite. But I didn't even KNOW that I was rebelling that's what teenagers and rock culture have been doing all along. I grew up hating AC/DC, the Status Quo and all that. It wasn't until afterwards that I realized I was saying 'Fuck you' to this shit." Dwayne mentions his "trumpeting days" twice, both times creating a brassy sounding riff - "da dada-DA da DAH." I feel like yelling "Charge!" "I was learning notes, and chords and all the theory. All it did was set me in boundaries that I didn't think I could go outside of. Cevin, on the other hand, learned everything by instinct. He doesn't know a C major from an F minor and yet he can play really complex things, things that go inside and outside the rules. He showed me that when you start on a C you can play more than just THESE certain notes, that you can do whatever the moment demands of you, instead of looking blindly backwards."
"You Feel Like The Black Sheep" Ask Dwayne, ask Cevin, ask Ogre: "Did you think Skinny Puppy was going to get back together after RABIES?" They'll pause... "No." They're definitely in cahoots on this. Then, what was the matter? Seemingly, during the creation of RABIES, Skinny Puppy needed more than just a vaccination to keep the group together. Things started to fall apart and no one wanted to take the time to sift through all the rabid babble. Now, as things have been mended, they speak very logically and calmly abot the period that created a glacial coldness between the three. While talking with them, I get the feeling that there was never a Skinny Puppy Summit or a Group Hug which ultimately settled 1989's differences. Rather a natural, individual coming-to-grips with the situation melted the ice, for they each seem to have their own therapeutic reasons and answers. The is one deep pool. Take a deep breath.
Out of the three, Dwayne seems to be the only one to have handled the situation with a Zen-like attitude. In fact, when we begin to talk about RABIES, the first thing he brings up is the fact that "the album cover didn't turn out all too well." That's just for starters. "There are some great things on RABIES for all of us, but on the whole, how it came off was less within the Skinny Puppy vision. And things were up in the air: we weren't doing the tour, we weren't supporting the album, Ogre was in Chicago satisfying a lot of things that weren't being satisfied in Vancouver or in Puppy, and obviously Cevin and myself were satisfying a lot of things we wanted to do. Just the fact that there was so much satisfaction coming from outside Skinny Puppy led to that feeling of 'The End.'"
Cevin, on the other hand, was more bitter about the ordeal. From the very beginning, when Ogre was on tour with Ministry, Cevin was pointedly skeptical. RABIES came out with Al Jourgensen's name lopped onto it. The influence was heard, hands down. "We wrote RABIES before Al was ever involved," Cevin says. "But when we did write it, we were thinking about the fact that Al might come in the studio and jam." "So we're thinking," Dwayne says, "What would Jourgensen like? Well, he would like this." "So we came up with songs like 'Tin Omen' and 'Fascist Jock Itch'," Cevin says. Dwayne: "We were already guitaring out before he got there. But Al could play it and he had more power and control over those sounds. None of us can plug a guitar into a Marshal amp and go arn arn arn like he can." Pure Puppy does exist on the album with songs like "Worlock," "River," and "Choralone," but to many critics and fans, RABIES sounded like a hybrid of Skinny Puppy and Ministry. This is when Ogre seemingly traded allegiances to join Ministry. "Yeah, I was pissed off," Cevin says, "But I understand why Ogre was doing it. We had been doing Skinny Puppy for eight years and we needed a break. What I really got pissed off about was Al - although I don't have anything against him personally. His motive for the whole thing was to break this band up... At least that's what I feel."
Ogre was the hub of everyone's concern. Leave? Stay? What was he thinking? What was he gonna do? In his soft monotone: "It's that old saying of divide and conquer. If someone can cut divisions between people, you'll eventually conquer that group of people. Whereas if those people stay together, concentrate and make decisions for themselves, there is no way a record label, or whoever, can fuck with you. "When we first started Skinny Puppy we never wanted to get anywhere close to being a conventional rock band. We just wanted to create a mood and sustain that mood by using lots of visuals, imagery and theatre. "I'm not sure about Cevin and Dwayne, but I personally felt that I flopped on RABIES. When I look back on it, I think I was near a nervous breakdown in a way - not the classic neervous break down where I'm in a straight jacket and frothing at the mouth. [Short laugh.] But I was really unsure of myself and unsure of what I wanted to say and do. The work and artistic environment really weren't there at all either. It was completely negative. With mud being thrown back and forth, there was no trust between the members. There were possibilities of me joining Ministry, but I didn't have a very good time on that tour." Reasons? "Lots of reasons." Ogre comes up for air. "Al is a fucking great guy, a real cool person. There are things that I admire about him... a lot. But there were a few things that happened between me and him that really made me question our whole friendship and his reason for having me down there. So I decided to bow out of the Revolting Cocks tour. If I hadn't, I would have come back totally addicted to heroin. There were rumours that I was fired, that I was a junkie - I wasn't quite at that point yet, but I was on that sort of final destination. I was plummeting into this pit and I had to get out of it."
NATURE'S REVENGE/SHORELINE POISON
"How Do You Get Out Of This/In The Age Of Reason Gone Bad" It is a fact that if you take a frog and place him in a pot of boiling water, he'll immediately jump out. Sounds obvious enough. But, if you take the same frog, place him in water, and GRADUALLY bring the water to a boil, the frog will sit in that environment until it ultimately kills him. The frog, quite simply, won't realize the severity of the situation. So happens a slow death. Cooked Kermit. Ogre and I are sitting, talking. The film studio turns off the heat - completely - at night. Though Ogre has a stuffed-up nose, he seems accustomed to seeing his breath while indoors. The cigarette he smokes looks as if it keeps him warm. I contemplate taking up smoking. I've already taken up shivering. The jeans he wears look like they have been run over by a lawn mower - on purpose,. twice - but where the material gaps, black long underwear fills the void. I asked about the concept behind the album and tour of TOO DARK PARK - the gradual decay of the planet, of humankind consuming itself, "man" actually eating himself away. "It's a very dark DARK show, an interpretive descent down a path ranging from 'personal' to a 'world' perspective." At first, the fact that Ogre couldn't conceptualize a positive ending had him frantic. That is, until he realized that the "message" was not supposed to create the feel-good-concert-of-the-year. Man's acceptance of decay isn't natural. It's idiotic. "It's that feeling of going down a road with the knowledge that you're breaking down. Yet you continue to travel down that road. Is there, in the end, some kind of final solution? That's yet to be seen." Except at the Skinny Puppy concert, where the conclusion is an effective warning of finality - globally and personally. "Our oceans are spitting up what we have flushed into them, and our water's become so polluted that Eskimo's are dying of cancer from PCB's that are showing up in the tidal streams. So on stage, I'm still very much a character, grossly exaggerating things, images. [Grand pause.] Than again you can talk to Cyan and she'll say that a lot of the qualities on stage are very much a part of me, just amplified. There's probably a Too Dark Park in every city in the world. But there are actual places where I can reference it within myself." Listening to Ogre speak on his personal Park that turned Too Dark is like looking at someone with a toupˇe - you know it's there, it just doesn't seem real. "I was in Chicago and going to buy some drugs. I went to a place called Wicker Park where I gave this dealer $109. We walked down to Walcott Street, which is in this really dark suburb of Chicago. There was this apartment building that had no front door. We went in. I waited in this empty sort of hallway while the dealer went upstairs. And I'm standing there waiting and waiting and all of a sudden a cop pulls right in front of the doorway and flashes his light on me. I'm like 'Uh-oh.' So I turn around and I'm thinking, 'Hell, I'll just walk away.' [Ogre goes into this law enforcement voice] 'Sorry white boy, you're in the wrong place at the wrong time!' So they dragged me out, frisked me, pulled up my sleeves, saw that I had track marks and said 'Oh... you are new at doing this aren't you. Gonna go make your arm warm?'" Ogre sits up on the couch, stands his cigarette filter on the table. "I realized that within minutes I was that far away from blowing my career. If I had been caught with heroin I wouldn't be able to come across into America ever again. I realized then that I was completely out of control - totally out of control."
"Believe In Words" Cevin and I have picked up Al Nelson, lead singer of Hilt, and are driving through Stanley Park again. They point out a section of Vancouver - a suburb - that is built into the side of a mountain. Nelson says, "The group Loverboy lives somewhere over there. You know they're coming out with a new album?" We snicker. "You wanna go bowling?" Cevin says looking into the rear view mirror at Al who sits amidst a pile of unfolded laundry - all black - and a bunch of TOO DARK PARD CD's. "Yeah, sure," Nelson says. "Yeah, right," I think.
"Totally Fuckin' Weirded Out" Weirded out - the Skinny Puppy catch phrase to describe, accentuate, or amplify. Weirded out this, weirded out that. Everyone was saying it.
Ogre and I go into the side studio where Gary, Cyan and Bill are watching a "snuff film" - a film of someone's murder: first the bondage, the the drugging of the victim, and finally the systematic delimbing of the victim. Gary, again, is holding a lighter underneath Bill's ass. Cyan is watching the victim's hand being torn off. Blood spatters everywhere. "This is totally weirding me out," she says. All of us are scrutinizing the film, trying to decide if it's authentic. Bill twitches forward. "Goddamit, that's hot." We laugh. A black carbon residue has left it's mark on Bill's jeans. We watch the film for the complete, well... snuffing.
Cevin, Al Nelson, and I pull into a parking lot and get out. Walking through these doors, I hear the faint sound of a ball rolling: fading, fading, fade - strike! Cevin was serious? We're gonna go bowling? We go to the counter and it's obvious that Cevin and Al are regulars here. They say hello to people, wave to others. "Yeah, we're all into bowling," Cevin says. "Ogre, me, Dwayne." I am bowling with Skinny Puppy? I stand confused; I stand stultified; I stand in bowling shoes holding this fluorescent orange bowling ball which will soon be rolling down the gutter lane, again. "Fuck!" I scream. An elderly couple the next lane over stare at me in disgust. I conclude that the look is a result of one of two things: One, THEY'RE weirding out, or two, they're both relieving themselves in their Depends undergarments. I don't care to ponder the thought; I have another gutter ball to roll. Cevin and Al bowl near 200 each game. Not to mention that it's one hell of a sight to see Cevin, all six feet whatever of him, winging the ball down the alley and releasing it about knee high.
"It Appeared To Me As If In A Dream" The concert: human-kind's inability to control its environment, painted into a room with seemingly no way out. Vision is hazy, music is loud. Ogre's films are tweaking high above on a giant canvas. The snuff film begins on both sides of the stage: the victim is alive, tied up and drugged. Stage divers start leaping like over-anxious lemmings: thwamp, thwamp, thwamp... But it subsides. The images and the music are completely effective. People become catatonic. As a defense mechanism, you must become desensitized. Ogre is raging in slime and blood, screaming his tonsils out, pealing away parts of his skin, consuming. He's pulling out his own intestines (liquid filled condoms, actually), placing them on the video monitor; they hang off like linked sausages. He's boiling, he doesn't realize the severity of the situation. Piszzzshew... Dwayne weaves from keyboard to keyboard, behind dead tree-limbs, as evenly as exhaust. Cevin's drums: fading, fading, fade - strikesthecymbal. Ogre is up on stilts, hanging like a marionette, trying to run away from it all. He goes nowhere. Reaching. Grabbing. Tweaking. Please! Please come back and open the gate! Please! Metal prosthetic attachments are now strapped to his arms. Ogre has four new, though useless, limbs. The snuff film victim, you now notice, has no limbs whatsoever. Ogre tries to walk on all fours, but with every step the arms collapse in a pathetic "Spasmolytic" torture. De-limbed, disemboweled, detoxed, distraught, demise. He's lost control. He's wearing this mask of decay - with that crunched up piece of paper texture. His eyes never glance down at the audience. A person holding a hefty piece of grayish steel leaps onto the stage and fires four shots at Ogre. Dead. The song ends. There's an uncomfortable pause. People stand confused not knowing if they should clap, stultified whether or not to cheer. (Thurston and Phoebe would definitely leave exactly opposite from the way they entered.) Ogre rises, suspended on a cable - an ascension into hell. He hangs pendulous, swinging in front of his own horrific images from the pages of his Blue Book. The show ends and all the monitors fuzz out... Nothing more can be offered except TV snow.
Alternative Press, February 1991, p. 40-46