Published Feb 01, 2002For nearly 15 years, Vancouver's Skinny Puppy have been finding and playing with sound, deconstructing and reconstructing it. Although they've always been favourites on Canadian soil, the reach of Skinny Puppy extends far beyond the confines of our shores. Probably the most visual of industrial bands, the band's focus was always more than just the music. Although Skinny Puppy's founding member cEvin Key sums up his career with Puppy as "lucky," fans see them as a living, breathing, pulsating work of art, constantly blurring the boundaries between music, performance and media, forcing us to question our perceptions and misconceptions, and spawning intelligent, innovative music that will forever be etched into the walls of anything we dare call "alternative."
Kevin Crompton plays drums and percussion in Vancouver synth pop band Images in Vogue. Crompton begins experimenting more with sound, specifically synthesisers and tape loops, and looks to branch out into a different project. He meets Kevin Ogilvie and Wilhelm Shroeder (later to become Bill Leeb, of Vancouver industrial unit Frontline Assembly), and Skinny Puppy is born. Kevin Crompton assumes the name cEvin Key, and begins jamming with Ogilvie, who changes his name to Nivek Ogre. Key works primarily on the instrumentation and rhythm, while Ogre steps forward as lead vocalist, and also contributes some percussion and synth work. Shroeder is brought in as a keyboardist for gigs and is listed as "guest artist" for much of their studio work. Influenced by bands such as Throbbing Gristle, Kraftwerk and Nocturnal Emissions, the experimental side of music production serves as a driving force behind the mechanics of Skinny Puppy. Late in the year, a self-produced limited-edition cassette entitled Back and Forth is released independently. Apparently, only 35 copies are printed, but more are rumoured to have circulated later.
Skinny Puppy signs to newly-formed independent Vancouver label Nettwerk. While recording at Vancouver's Mushroom Studios, the band becomes acquainted with record producer and sound engineer Dave "Rave" Ogilvie (no relation to Ogre). Key had worked with Ogilvie during the Images in Vogue sessions, and as Puppy's producer, engineer and live sound technician, Dave "Rave" would remain an integral part throughout the band's career; he's often referred to as the fourth member. Their first official release, an EP entitled Remission, showcases Skinny Puppy's emerging signature sound a collage of aggressive, "effected" vocals, layers of sound, and sampled fragments of dialogue and sound. Shortly after, Key leaves Images In Vogue. The band makes their debut live performance by breaking into a Vancouver art gallery. cEvin Key explains, "It was at a speakeasy art gallery without any art, just a bunch of party people. It was at a place called Unovis. Our friend who had the key to the place went away that day, so we broke in and set up. We went to see Alien Sex Fiend play, and then at three a.m. we played to about 300 people, including Alien Sex Fiend. It was the birth of the live SP."
Bites, their debut full-length, is released on Nettwerk. From the outset, the band demonstrates a strong connection to the animal kingdom; Bites is supposedly written from the point of view of a dog. The band quickly makes a name for themselves as mood-makers; their music evokes nightmarish images while exposing the underbelly of an imperfect world. With songs such as "Smothered Hope" and "Assimilate," their audience learns that filling the dance floor is not Puppy's primary objective; the agenda is more about creating thought-provoking music with a potent message. Bites helps them move beyond a tape-trading community and with Nettwerk's international push, the band begins to build a loyal following. They embark upon their first North American tour, where their visual and performance ambitions first mesh with the music. The tour incorporates huge stage sets, including deranged-looking props and buckets of home-made blood. Their true nature as performance artists begins to emerge.
After the tour, Shroeder leaves to form Frontline Assembly, and is replaced by Dwayne Rudolph Goettel, a former member of Edmonton bands Voice and the Pinstripe Club (later known as Psyche). He is a classically-trained pianist, and his presence in the new line-up adds a more melodic element to Skinny Puppy's work. In the studio, the band continues to experiment with musical technology, now digital as well as analog. Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse is quite different from their previous work; it very obviously showcases Goettel's influence. The album is initially successful and will, in retrospect, be widely accepted as ahead of its time. The band tours North America even more extensively. More successful than Bites, the Mind:TPI tour helps establish them globally in the electronic/experimental and underground music scenes. For the first of what will be a long and varied list of side projects throughout Skinny Puppy's career, cEvin Key hooks up with Edward Ka-Spel of industrial band the Legendary Pink Dots. Key does sound for a Ka-Spel solo show (as he opens for Puppy) and the two begin recording less abrasive, ambient efforts together as the Tear Garden.
A big year as far as releases, including the Chainsaw EP, a compilation/re-release of Bites and Remission, and a new full-length album, Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate as well as the Tear Garden's debut Tired Eyes Slowly Burning all boosted by Nettwerk's new world-wide distribution deal with Capitol Records. On Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate, the band adopts MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) as a standard, leaving analog behind and helping to set the standard for industrial recordings of the future. The album also demonstrates the continued evolution of Ogre's vocals. Stylistically, their abrasiveness proves to be an accurate medium for the message, with songs like "Addiction" and "Deep Down Trauma Hounds" speaking not only of Ogre's personal struggles, but of society's as well. Tours include Europe for the first time. Appearing on stage wielding a crucifix, Ogre flails behind a screen, as if being slaughtered, only to emerge covered in splatters of blood and other fluids. Crudely constructed metallic stage creatures and simulated injections, feigned bullet wounds and disembowelled body parts also contribute to the experience. By this point, fans and critics realise that the live show is an extension of the music itself.
Skinny Puppy continues to be prolific in studio and on tour. The first single from their new album, VIVIsectVI, called "Dogshit," has its name changed to "Censor." VIVIsectVI and its subsequent "Head Trauma" tour are important markers in the band's history. The album title is a clever play on the word vivisect, adding roman numerals VI at the end, combining with "VIVI" to create the phrase "sect 666." Songs like "Testure" reflect the band's pronounced interest in animal rights, specifically their use in laboratory testing. Another very visual and socially conscious performance art tour is mounted, this time focusing on vivisection as its major theme. During the show, Ogre performs mock lab tests and vivisection practices on a stuffed model dog (nicknamed CHUD). By the end of the act, Ogre himself becomes CHUD, wearing a half-man/half dog mask, and is then subjected to the same brutal, bloody trials that the dog endured. After one show, Key, Ogre, and their tour manager are arrested on disorderly conduct charges and spend a night in a Cincinnati jail after one audience member misses the point and assumes that CHUD was a real animal. Ogre's more personal struggles with drug addiction and conflicts within the band are also shared with audiences.
Ogre hooks up with Al Jourgensen from industrial kingpins Ministry. Jourgensen is invited to co-produce their new album, Rabies, and ends up co-writing several tracks as well, playing guitar and doing some vocals. This exacerbates existing inter-band tensions and drives Ogre's substance abuse to an even deeper low. Ogre gradually grows more isolated from Skinny Puppy, and begins working with Ministry on their The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, contributing guitar, keys and vocals; when he joins them on tour, he performs Skinny Puppy's "Smothered Hope" with them. Jourgensen offers Ogre a spot as permanent vocalist for another industrial super-group, the Revolting Cocks. Ogre declines, but does vocals for several studio tracks and accompanies them on tour. Despite the challenges surrounding the Rabies sessions, the album sells well. Skinny Puppy also release their first concert video, entitled Ain't It Dead Yet?, filmed in Toronto during the 1987 Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate tour.
The Skinny Puppy dynamic continues to change as each member more actively pursues creative outlets outside the band. When asked about the influence of the many side projects, Key says, "We just allowed for outlets of all sides of ourselves instead of hammering away at one level. I think everyone is multifaceted, so it was a strength to have sides that give people a broader picture of where you may come from." Ogre continues to do vocals with Revolting Cocks on their album Beers, Steers and Queers. Distancing himself from Puppy's immediate interests drives the wedge further between himself and the other band members. Despite this, the band completes work on Too Dark Park, a return to a more complex sound something they had ventured away from with Rabies. Various new media are employed for their tour, and with the help of Al Nelson with whom Goettel and Key work in Hilt Skinny Puppy produces a full-length film as accompaniment to the live show. The short-lived Hilt also releases Call the Ambulance Before I Hurt Myself on Nettwerk.
Ogre and Jourgensen begin producing material that becomes W.E.L.T. (When Everyone Learns the Truth). Although nothing is formally released under the name, Jourgensen will use what little material is completed on future Ministry releases. Ogre also joins Martin Atkins's industrial group Pigface for a one-album stint. Key and Goettel reunite with Bill Leeb (formerly Wilhelm Shroeder) to as Cyberaktif. As a duo called Doubting Thomas, Key and Goettel release instrumental/experimental material on a Wax Trax album called The Infidel. The soundtrack to Ain't It Dead Yet? is finally released on cassette and CD.
Nettwerk releases a collection of remastered early cassette tracks, live recordings, and rarities called Back and Forth Series Two. Last Rights, their eerily prophetic album, is completed under progressively more strained circumstances. Dave Ogilvie serves as a medium in the studio, working first with Goettel and Key, then separately with Ogre, bringing the work together later. In the press release for Last Rights, Ogre says the album title couldn't be more appropriate, as it feels like his own last rights. Ogre's lyrics are even more painfully self-reflective than ever before. Eventually, Ogre checks himself into rehab, emerging to participate in a North American tour for Last Rights. To many, the moodiness of this record recaptures the true spirit of Skinny Puppy; with internal conflicts merely reinforcing their foreboding musical messages. One infamous track, "Left Hand Shake," is omitted from the album after the band is denied permission to use samples of 60s psychedelic guru Timothy Leary.
Dwayne Goettel releases his first solo effort as Duck, a single called "Power." He also forms the Subconscious Records label. Cyberaktif puts out its first LP called Tenebrae Vision on Wax Trax. With Last Rights, the band had fulfilled their contractual obligations with Nettwerk/Capitol. They sign to the indie-minded American Recordings label and move to their new Malibu home to start recording. Relations between band and label begin to sour when American takes an active interest in sessions for The Process. The band is convinced to change producers, ditching long-time collaborator Dave Ogilvie. "Anger, frustration and stupidity" is how Key describes the feelings of the band at this time. "When I look back at how American Records manipulated us into the new producer idea, I can't believe we were so stupid to believe them. Unfortunately, all of us were about to realise that we had some very bad personal life stories that were about to unfold into a hellacious experience for one and all." Several producers come through the door in an effort to fill Ogilvie's shoes, notably Martin Atkins (of Pigface), but band resentment takes its toll on productivity. American becomes increasingly frustrated with the record's slow progress.
The Process in its first incarnation is completed, but American is not satisfied with the outcome. Download is formed by Key, Goettel, Mark Spybey (from Dead Voices on Air) and DJ Philth (aka Phil Western).
A second version of The Process is finished, but American still isn't content. Consequently, they cut the funding of the recordings and refuse to aid in any band promotions. They also renegotiate the contract from three albums to one. Ogre quits the band on June 12. He focuses on the W.E.L.T. project with Jourgensen, and signs with American to represent the new material, taking over Puppy's contractual obligations. Soon after, Key and Goettel take The Process tapes back to Ogilvie to be reworked in a last effort to complete the record. They also re-establish Subconscious Records in Vancouver, and release Download's debut album Furnace on the new label. This album features industrial band Throbbing Gristle's mastermind Genesis P-Orridge. On August 23rd, at his parents' house in Edmonton, AB, Dwayne Goettel dies of a heroin overdose.
Recent events mark the winds of change for remaining members. Key feels that although the band had formally made the split, Dwayne's death was indeed symbolic of the band's demise, "although the making of The Process, and the situation that everyone was in personally required time for us all to fix and change what we all knew was wrong with ourselves. We had all gravitated toward some really bad things. [Drugs, poor relationship choices, management problems.] It all escalated. Sad that it happened this way in the end," he laments. Download releases Microscopic and Sidewinder EPs on Subconscious/Cleopatra Records, as well as The Eyes of Stanley Pain on Nettwerk/Subconscious and a score to a Jim VanBebber film, Charlie's Family Soundtrack. The Process is finally released on Subconscious, through American Recordings, and sadly is Skinny Puppy's last record as the original Ogre/Key/Goettel line-up. Subconscious/Nettwerk releases Brap: Back and Forth Series 3 and 4, a compilation of CD-Rom material, previously unreleased demo material from 1983 to 85, and live material and outtakes from 1990 to 1992.
Metropolis Records re-issues the Charlie's Family Soundtrack and Download releases III on Nettwerk.
Key releases his first solo effort called Music for Cats on Subconscious/Metropolis, and Nettwerk releases the Remix Dys Temper album, a collection of Puppy remixes by artists including Autechre, the Deftones and Mark Walk.
Nettwerk releases The Singles Collection and The B-sides Collection.
After many offers, Ogre and Key reunite for a one-time Skinny Puppy concert on August 20 in Dresden, Germany at the Doomsday music festival, blowing fans away with an elaborate stage performance. "Yes," Key says now about the potential for more concerts. "We are thinking of forming a new Skinny Puppy to continue onward." Download releases Effector on Nettwerk.
By the new millennium, old grudges between Ogre and Key have been renounced, and they begin to take more active roles in each other's musical endeavours. Key goes on tour with Ogre (now spelled OhGr) playing live drums for his first solo album called Welt, on which he collaborated with Mark Walk. OhGr also makes a vocal appearance on Key's second solo release The Ghosts of Each Room. The Doomsday show is finally released as Doomsday: Back and Forth Volume 5.
cEvin Key continues work with Subconscious Records, giving a home to Download, Tear Garden, Hilt, and plaTEAU. Future Puppy material includes a 45-minute live Puppy-meets-P.Orridge (of Throbbing Gristle) jam session from 1994, to be released under the name Puppy Gristle. A collection of live tracks and outtakes from 1984 to 92 is also soon to be released. Both of these will be limited editions, and can be ordered through Subconscious Studios at www.subconsciousstudios.com. According to Key, the wait for the renaissance of Puppy will be short. "We feel that we have more to say. It is about moving onward, and respecting what we are and what opportunities we have to speak again."