With their just-released new album, hanDover, Canadian electro-industrial pioneers Skinny Puppy have delivered their strongest artistic statement yet since reforming in the year 2000. Darkly cinematic, with moments of great beauty to be found amidst the usual Puppy brand of organized sonic chaos, hanDover represents a return to the darkly existential concerns characteristic of the pre-breakup unit (mainly comprised of vocalist Nivek Ogre, and multi-instrumentalist cEvin Key, along with late keyboardist Dwayne Goettel) and fully unites that vision with the progressive sonic experimentation of the reformed 2000s band.
Guttercandy recently talked to cEvin Key about the evolution of Skinny Puppy and in particular, about how he feels the band fits into the current musical landscape, and more specifically, his thoughts about some of the tracks on the excellent hanDover. Along the way, we also got to chat about Canada, Rammstein, Lou Reed and Metallica’s new project, and of course, cats! Read on!
GutterCandy: I first saw you guys in Windsor, Ontario, many years ago….
Cevin Key: That was ancient times! I remember that show because a bomb went off in my face!
GC: I do vaguely remember something odd happening at the show — I was just so happy Skinny Puppy was playing my hometown of Windsor, because usually bands just played across the river in Detroit.
CK: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I don’t think we ever played Windsor again, after that – always Detroit.
GC: How do you think being from Canada has colored your view of the U.S.? The band has done stuff critical of Bush-era policies, for instance.
CK: It’s kind of like watching the fish tank from the outside, then jumping in and experiencing it from the inside. I’ve been living in L.A. for about the last 13 years, so I dunno. I think we have a pretty sheltered, more protected type of existence in Canada, but at the same time, the pressure is still there. The pressure of the economy is what created a large part of what Skinny Puppy is all about. We were suffering from a bad economy in Vancouver at the time when we were starting — it was really hard to find jobs, there was not a lot of money, so I think we could relate to the position of anybody that doesn’t have anything, you know? Whether that be in America or Canada.
GC: How would you compare hanDover to the last couple of Skinny Puppy albums (The Greater Wrong of the Right  and Mythmaker ) since you’ve been back together?
CK: Definitely when we first reformed the band again, the concept was there to make Skinny Puppy … to re-form the basis of what it was about; really the whole discussion of it and eventual recording of it is idealized into a collaboration. It was really about testing the water with a bunch of different things, which eventually became the first album, Greater Wrong of the Right, and then with more fiddle, I believe, Mythmaker. But then I think that with the similarity, I’ll say, of the [current] economy of the U.S. and Canada [to] the time when we first started, [it] started catching up, so let’s say the pressure came on, and the variables in the band…. It’s now not about a collaborative project that we are starting, it’s now what we’re experiencing.
What I like about this album is definitely more about a personal experience, about the place of where we’re at. Instead of, “oh, let’s conceive what Skinny Puppy is and let’s bounce around the idea about it,” it’s truly to me about what Skinny Puppy should be, which is a barometer of what you’re feeling and the expression of it. To me, it’s more melancholic, it’s darker, it has more of the boundaries that a person that is a loner, that is in need of like, their record, which is what I feel Skinny Puppy was about in the past, these misfit feeling people who need that connection with something in the music biz. I feel that this album is truer to that sense of that….
GC: It struck me as being more organic.
GC: More about the individual, more existential feelings.
CK: Personal experiences, you know?
GC: There’s some real moments of beauty on the album — for instance, the acoustic guitar and piano on “Wavy.”
CK: Yeah, that’s my favorite track on the album.
GC: “Ashas” also has a real elegiac feeling, somber but beautiful.
CK: That’s for one of our lost crew guys that have been with us since we reformed. He died earlier this year. He basically was living through … he had a broken neck that he sustained not from working with us, but with another band. He was loading cases and I guess a case landed on his head and he broke his neck. But he still wanted to continue on, and he had bolts in his neck. I could see he was in immense pain, but he still did our last two tours that way. He wasn’t loading, but you would catch him wanting to do his regular work even though he wasn’t capable of it. He was really living through the pain, living with the pain, that whole song is basically for him. I don’t ever think I’ve heard Ogre so emotional in a song in my life.
GC: It’s very striking.
CK: That’s for him.
GC: “Icktums” [on hanDover] contains a chant, “system’s overloaded,” and there’s a frenzied feel to the music, like things are speeding up, going out of control. Is technology liberating us more, or enslaving us more?
CK: Well, I think it’s harder, like when you’ve got a million paintbrushes and you want to just, paint. It’s like you just look at all of them and not end up really painting, but thinking about how you want to do it. So, what I don’t like about always having endless choices is that in itself. You can’t really settle in on what it is you’re going to say until you settle on what it is you’re going to limit yourself to thinking. So to me, technology has been overwhelming, it’s way beyond what even Dwayne [Goettel] and I used to joke about, you know, back in the day, which is kind of funny.
When we first started using a computer to steer sequences on an Atari computer, that we joked there would one day be ability to just simply record audio into a computer. When you think about how much further it’s gone. And then grasping that when it comes to composition, and then putting that all in your head and stuff, it really takes a lot of time to figure out it all, and then become comfortable again with basically being simple.
Getting your emotions out, sometimes technology can cover up all that. And that’s what I learned about the giant collaboration of being in a band with too much technology, it can take away a lot of your personality, I think. I dunno, it’s a fine line you have to walk. But certainly I’m impressed with the modern state of technology. But for myself though, even just the fact that I’m getting into releasing modular [material], taking it back to this pure analogue and the beginnings of the synthesizer again, I’m really impressed with the interest in people in getting back to the purist form, so there’s an amazing advancement in computers and technology, but there’s also been amazing advancements in the modular world.
GC: “Brownstone” on the new one is a spoken word piece that reminded me of something like “The Gift,” John Cale’s classic narrative with The Velvet Underground, with more technology added.
CK: Cool, thanks.
GC: Is that something you were going for with that song?
CK: It’s kind of funny that you would say that, because we started working on this album in 2008, then some things were written, 2009 more things were written, then the record label started going kind of under.
GC: The “In Solvent See” Tour….
CK: Yeah, so we had worked on some ideas and we thought, “if we give this album to a record label that’s going to sink under the sea, that it would be kind of pointless to put all this energy into it,” so we started thinking on the level of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. So we started thinking well, let’s make an album that will be the album we give them, but it will be designed to go sink in the sea [laughter]! Like a conceptual record. And “Brownstone” and “Noisex” were part of that record. And when we started piecing [hanDover] together, we thought wow, it’s kind of cool that because we thought that way for awhile, and made these songs, these two really kind of stood out as two, ideally, that could still be on the album. That’s why we included those — that’s where the framework of the thought came from.
GC: Speaking of Lou Reed, are you looking forward to the Lou Reed / Metallica collaboration?
CK: Aw shit, I hate Metallica [laughter].
GC: Me too, always did. When I heard about it, it was like, “Oh no, Lou, why did you pick them, come on!”
CK: I know. There could have been so many better choices I think. But you know, I think [Metallica guitarist] Kirk Hammett is a really really nice guy, I really like him. I’m not big on the other components of the band, but if Kirk gets in there and does something good, I’ll be proud for him.
GC: I heard a track and to me it just sounded like Lou reciting a bunch of lyrics and saying, “you guys do something edgy in the background.” It didn’t really fit together, for me.
CK: That’s more what I would expect.
GC: Like gluing two parts together that didn’t really want to go together.
CK: Dude, that’s what this fully should be. I mean, Lou Reed and Metallica? [laughter]
GC: I wanted to ask about your live presentation. Skinny Puppy seems one of the few remaining bands, along with maybe Roger Waters and Rammstein, who are interested in doing something more than just standing there playing music, but in staging a real audio-visual spectacle for the audience.
CK: I’ve always been happy to see where a show on this kind of level will go. Especially when you’re working with a visual guy like Tim Hill, and Ogre’s recent ideas about using shadows and screens. Right from the very first show we’ve done, [Ogre’s] always had a pretty clear concept about what he wants to do, and I’ve never stopped being surprised and amazed by it — what it is I end up seeing. Let’s say that’s been one of the fun parts, for sure. Rammstein, man, they put on an awesome show. I saw them earlier this year. Killer.
GC: All the fire.
CK: I couldn’t believe that.
GC: I saw them in New Jersey at the IZOD centre and you could feel the heat way back in arena.
CK: I couldn’t believe it, me too! I think that’s one of the best metal shows I have ever seen.
GC: Oh yeah, they’re amazing.
CK: That’s what metal should be — that’s an amazing show.
GC: I’ll take them over Metallica any day [laughter].
CK: Any day. And Lou Reed I could see working with them.
GC: That would make way more sense.
CK: Much more.
GC: On a personal note, you did a great solo album called Music For Cats, so I have to ask, are your a cat fan?
CK: I have one sitting on my lap right now [laughter]
GC: What do you like most about cats? What are their best qualities?
CK: My mom was a cat breeder, so my bedroom room was all cats! I was essentially raised among packs of Siamese cats. So, even as a baby, I have pictures of me as a baby surrounded by cats. I just feel a connection to them somehow. I’ve always had cats all my life and they’re just super important to your feelings of the earth, your experiences as a living being connecting with another being you can’t speak with. Yet you have this connection, that’s based on spiritual and pragmatic [things].
GC: People always say they’re independent and not affectionate, but I’ve never found that.
CK: Oh no. Like I said, this guy is completely sprawled out on me right now [laughter].
GC: Finally, when you look at the music business as it is now, are you optimistic or pessimistic? You’ve outlasted many of your contemporaries, and maintained an edge when many who you’ve influenced have given up or fallen behind. Do you feel alone out there?
CK: [laughs]. That’s a good question, because honestly, sometimes I feel so disconnected from the whole scene of it all, and when we’ll play a festival in Europe that will be like, a bunch of bands that are part of the modern scene, it’s not really the type of music I listen to … I find it hard to find my place within the scene in that sense. But one thing that I do feel good about is being true to what we do, and not trying to have or follow a scene or being part of any [scene]. I’m thankful that the people who follow us, the die-hard fans, I appreciate them very much, they don’t seem to fit sometimes into certain definitions, they could be anybody, male, female, young, old, it doesn’t matter. You can’t really guess a Skinny Puppy fan.
GC: Very true.
CK: And I kinda like that, I’m glad we’re not appealing to just people who are wearing the large Frankenstein boots and the yarn hair [laughter]. I don’t wanna be selective or part of say, a particular….
CK: Yeah, or be constantly known as, you know, the “EBM King” or whatever.
GC: That gets very constrictive after awhile.
CK: To be perfectly honest, in a Penelope Spheeris type way, I think that it would be brilliant if someone were to go and follow us on a tour, and capture the earnest sort of personality of a lot of the people who sort of stick it through, and are still hardcore industrial fans, or whatever. In a lot of ways, a lot of the people kind of seem like they’re a fading trend, but also, it’s more challenging for them to be a true, devoted fan. All we would have to do is follow somebody and interview them and see where they come from and what the many ilks of society brings and why they’re so pure. It would make for a super-interesting docu-drama, I think. How they all come together.
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–Johnny “Gutter” WalkerPowered by Sidelines