“There’s nothing good about looking back at an experience where we completely lost control — all of us,” shudders Skinny Puppy keyboardist and programmer cEvin Key. In the midst of the celebrated electro-industrial band’s first tour in twelve years, questions have inevitably arisen as to what caused the band to disappear for so long. “We didn’t have enough insight to understand what we were doing to ourselves,” Key explains. “To our group. To … everything.”
Indeed, Skinny Puppy’s flameout in the mid-’90s was about as dreadful a collapse as modern music has ever seen. The great unraveling began in 1993, as the trio of Key, singer Nivek Ogre, and keyboardist/composer Dwayne Goettel set out to create the follow-up to their ninth studio album, 1991’s Last Rights, in Los Angeles. Then a decade into their existence, tensions were already high: The personal and creative relationship between cofounders Key and Ogre, rocky since the start, had completely devolved. Goettel — who joined the band for its third album, 1986’s Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse — usually sided with Key against their increasingly alienated frontman. The situation was exacerbated by heavy drug abuse and dysfunction by all three members, though the outside world had honed in only on Ogre’s recurring heroin and cocaine addictions and myriad psychoses, which manifested themselves in his tortured lyrics and Dalek-like vocal howls. Skinny Puppy’s infamously macabre, all-consuming live extravaganzas didn’t help.
Neither did an abrupt label change. The band’s first eight albums had been released by Nettwerk, a small Canadian imprint headquartered in Skinny Puppy’s native Vancouver, but when that contract was up, the trio inked a deal with the more eminent American Recordings, headed by Rick Rubin. The decision proved disastrous. The label insisted on replacing Skinny Puppy’s longtime producer, David “Rave” Ogilvie, which led to a parade of knob-twiddlers entering and exiting the project for more than two years; American then twice rejected the tapes.
Finally, in June of 1995, Ogre quit the group and formed W.E.L.T., and, in a subsequent series of events that enraged Key, American decided to sign the new band and drop Skinny Puppy after releasing the long-delayed SP album later that fall. Key, feeling betrayed by both Ogre and the label, grabbed the tapes and headed with Goettel back to Canada to do final mixes on the Puppy album with Ogilvie and focus his energies on Download, the side project he’d started with Goettel earlier that year.
But in August of 1995, Goettel was found dead of a heroin overdose in the bathroom of his parents’ house in Edmonton. Devastated by the loss, Key and Ogilvie finished the long-suffering album, dubbed The Process, in his honor; with little fanfare, it arrived in stores in the spring of 1996 and promptly sank. Meanwhile, American changed its mind about the W.E.L.T. album, choosing not to release it after all. Both Ogre and Key moved on to various solo and collaborative projects, and after a few perfunctory business-related conversations, the pair had zero contact.
For all intents and purposes, Skinny Puppy was dead.
“I really thought it was done,” Ogre chuckles. “Over.”
And then, just before the new millennium, Key’s phone began to ring.
“These two German guys were calling about us doing a Skinny Puppy reunion show, and I hadn’t spoken to Ogre in several years, and I didn’t actually see that we would be speaking to each other, so I thought it was a joke,” he recounts with a laugh. “But then I did run into Ogre, and we hit it off — we were hanging out with Genesis P-Orridge [of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV], who was a really good middleman, and I guess he instilled a lot of positive energy into the meeting. Whatever it was, Ogre and I both grew up and put away the past, y’know, water under the bridge, and we started to look at each other the way we should have done years and years ago.”
In August of 2000, the pair resurrected Skinny Puppy for what they intended as a one-off performance at the Doomsday Festival in Dresden, Germany. From all accounts, the two-hour set was a complete triumph, and as the duo boarded a train for Prague the following day, they discussed the fragile possibility of a future for Skinny Puppy.
“At that time, the things that pushed me away from it were personal issues of dealing with that persona, that archetype, and what I needed to do on stage in order to bring that to life — just digging back into that messed-up mindset to a certain degree,” says Ogre, who prior to the show had finally kicked the drug habit that brought him to the edge of death numerous times. “But the thing that pushed us together was simply the experience of doing Doomsday and how incredible it was to perform some of those songs again. I think that was the moment for me where all the acrimony toward cEvin that existed for a number of years was swept away by this epiphany of, you know, ‘Too many people are dying around me, so why hold to your grave these irrelevant reasons not to have a relationship with someone you shared so much of your life with?’ I spent a lot of time with this guy making music, you know?”
Four years later, having secured new management and a new record deal to go along with a rekindled partnership, Skinny Puppy has finally delivered new, excellent music in the form of The Greater Wrong of the Right, an album whose direction will very likely surprise longtime listeners. As one might glean from the title, the lyrics — written with 9/11 and the Iraq war firmly in mind — don’t skimp on the sociopolitical vitriol for which the band is renowned. And some of the hallmark Puppy stripes (eerie samples, ominous goth-cinematic arrangements, bellicose beats) are still present. But overall there’s far more emphasis on dance-slanted melody than experimental discord. Drum ‘n’ bass, and even some house-like textures, creep in.
Meanwhile, Ogre’s vocals are rarely buried in the usual distortion. He sings! He raps (kinda)! Let the backlash begin!
“I knew there’d be people on both sides of the fence with this album, because we focused on making songs that are based in pseudopop structures but then taken to a different space, which is something we did at the very beginning and then sorta sidestepped from,” Key explains. “I’ve heard some people complaining, like, ‘Ohhh, there’s just not enough pure hardcore noise or completely discombobulated beats,’ and it’s like, well, maybe we’ll get there again! We could have made a solid noise album, but that would have been an album that sounded like not so much of a progression to us.”
Ogre concurs: “I think the passage of time has painted us into a corner of being something so chaotic and so incredibly dark, but if you go back over our catalogue there’s a lot of moments where there’s a softness and a less abrasive and very melodic aspect to what we did. We’ve always had that within us — we’re not just doing this to be these malevolent, malignant tumoresque musicians who are continually delving into the evil side of life and supporting it to the very end!”
But don’t expect the live show to resemble Up with People. An early tour stop proved Skinny Puppy (a four-piece outfit with live drums and guitar on the road) to be as angry and intense as they were musically stellar, with songs spanning their entire career and a performance augmented by the usual twisted props and multimedia goodies. Still, one conspicuous absence still weighs heavily on their minds.
“We were all sitting in the rehearsal space before the tour, and I just piped up that it would be really great if Dwayne was here, and it got really somber,” Ogre says softly. “That was something that was a tragedy, and it shouldn’t have happened, and part of me, the one thing that I will always think about is that if I didn’t quit the band and we actually went on a touring cycle, would he still be alive? It’s really hard to talk about. But you gotta go on with life, and it’s a choice he made too, and things happened, and it could have been any of us at any one time.”
“It’s totally hard on a daily basis when you lose your best friend,” Key says. “You’ll never get over it, so we carry him with us. He’s still talked to, we discuss things with him, we have a healthy amount of respect for what Dwayne would have done or said. I mean, I spoke to him two days before he died — he told me in not so many words that he was in a bad place, and the one thing he wished was that he could be in the studio working with us again. So I know what he thinks. I know he’s in approval of this.”