As the primary architect of Skinny Puppy's harsh, foreboding atmospheres, cEvin Key was responsible for much of the early surgery on the face of industrial rock. After a plethora of side projects and the death of Puppy, Key is looking to reinvent himself. Jason Pettigrew interfaces the music.
Electronic-rock enthusiasts may have split up into many factions - power electronics, drum & bass, prog rock and industrial are as cant few-but most fans of the genre can vividly recall the first time they heard Skinny Puppy.
While audiences soaked up the charisma of frontman Ogre, keyboardists Dwayne Goettel and cEvin Key created harrowing back drops of underworld techno-fear. It didn't' matter whether Key was plying cheap synths and cheaper drum machines or state of the art samplers; he was unerring in his search for unholy sound, developing new forms of sonic expression within frameworks of thrash metal, dancefloor death-disco and tortured ambience.. Whether he was poising for obscured promotional photos or casting a huge monolithic figure around banks of gear onstage, Key seemed comfortable ensconced in the shadows.
But that was then. Right now, Key is talking on a cell phone from his rented apartment/studio in sunny Los Angeles, enthusing over-of all things-a backyard garden.
"It's a perfect setting here," he says. "There's a little garden out here where there are lemons, tomatoes and jalepeno peppers growing in front of me. What's so amazing is that the tomatoes and lemons weren't here before and the jalapeno tree-well, it's just a bush-has got eight or nine peppers growing off of it."
Maybe a trick of the light was what Key needed. Physically exhausted after the demise of Skinny Puppy and the drug-related death of his friend Goettel, Key decided a change of scenery was in order. After considering such places as Jamaica, Denmark and other parts of Canada, Key relocated to Los Angeles.
"I needed more sun," he explains. "When I'd go on vacations, I found myself going to warmer places. I decided to put myself in a situation where I could easily make music and be comfortable."
Considering Key's career as an audio spelunker seemingly gathering soil samples from the rim of Hell, this testimony makes the needle jump off the irony meter.
"It go so dark," he says, beginning to laugh, "that I was darkened by my own darkness! It's been good to get that darker phase behind me. Though there are some people I miss in Vancouver, I have an overwhelming desire to take a deep breath and move forward."
In order to move forward, Key has decided to move backward. Last year, the Metropolis label issued Music for Cats, a collection of Key pieces recorded over the last four years that's brimming with interesting textures. Recently he had been going through his record collection for inspiration, looking for the same spark that set the fuse to his career as an industrial rock progenitor. Then he was invited by some club owners in L.A. and San Francisco to spin discs.
"There's been a revitalization of the old era for me," he admits. "Before I was asked to spin records, I often thought about what kind of set I would spin. Most of it is the stuff that shook me up in the late '70s to early '80s electronic scene. Stuff like Fad Gadget's 'Ricky's Hand', the Human League's 'Being Boiled' or John Foxx's 'Burning Car.' I bought a lot of records in those days, and there are some moments where you can get some energy going"
"Fine, you've heard Haujobb and wumpscut, but have you heard yesterday?" he continues, addressing an imaginary crowd of neophyte tastemakers. "Whaddya mean you've never heard Bourbonese Qualk? Nobody's heard 'The Wrong Name and the Wrong Number' by Mark Stewart and the Maffia. It's so heavy and then you see people reacting to it like food for the brain." He pauses to laugh. "And when people ask, I tell them, 'This was done when you were 4! You were in diapers!"
While Key's DJ sets look to disprove the old adage "You can't go home again," his output as a musician displays a fresh arc of creativity. Skinny Puppy always adhered to a strict sense of creative growth that marked all of their records to the very end. But these days, much of the industrial rock scene has dilapidated into a 10,000 watt, 130-decibel yawn-with distortion.
"Goth music is getting bigger in general, and much of the industrial rock audience has always embraced that (subculture)," he opines. "But the scene here (in L.A.) seems healthier."
But that's only if you define the term "healthy" as "teeming with creatively bankrupt individuals." Key agrees that L.A. has a weird ability to keep any kind of subculture alive-there's some poodle-metal band stapling a gig flier to a pole as you read this. But subculture does not necessarily equate with talent, and most of the bands in the electronic underground are copping the formulas-albeit badly-Key had developed over a decade ago.
"To tell you the truth, that kind of thing is invisible to me," he admits, "I hear bands like that, but they don't move me or shake me."
"Right," he fires back. "There are certain phases of so called "industrial" that are failing, and there are directions that still seem relevant. I really like the Basic Channel stuff (the German minimalist techno-dub label). (Basic Channel artist) Maurizio is a genius. Autechre does some amazing stuff. I'm shooting for that same are of music that's jus tweaked."
Music for Cats, Download's Charlie's Family and the Involution project have garnered Key comparisons to the new European underground electronia; a representative from Metropolis likes much of Charlie's Family tot he work of Japanoise artisan Merzbow. Key's personal visions have inspired many, and he keeps tabs on the current scenes. Where does he see the music going?
"There's a class scene in Evil Dead 2 where there are sound effects as the camera moves through the trees," he says, outlining a possible course for electronic rock's evolution. "That's a viable direction for music-to marry sound and movement and take it to the extreme. If you have a vocalist that can carry a message brilliant enough to say something we haven't realized before, it will shake the world. Perhaps it will be a female voice: a female aggressor. I hope to be there at that time."
Then, unprompted, he casually answers a question that has no doubt been on the minds of his fans. "I spoke with Ogre the other night at the Bauhaus reunion gig. We've spoken about a couple things that could forward progress. Who knows?"
In September, Key will travel to Denmark to mix the next Tear Garden record, which is scheduled for release by Nettwerk in the fall. There is talk of collaborating with artists as diverse as Lustmord and minimalist composer Harold Budd. Key is currently compiling Hemi-Sync, the next Subconscious Communications compilation, and speaking highly of the impending Skinny Puppy remix "tribute." ("It turned out quite fabulous. It's just like a brand-new Puppy album.") And he's compiling Back and Forth 5 & 6, part of the ongoing series of Puppy archive releases. Yet after all of the projects were executed and the DJ sets are done, there's still plenty of time left for soul-searching.
"I'm not totally happy right now, to be honest," he says. "But it's only because of the loss of something that was special to me. I have no way to move forward that can be as fulfilling as that. It's all a huge part of going back to my roots and finding out where it might lead."
But the only thing that can measure fulfillment is time. Do you want to make an appointment to speak in 10 years' time, right now?
Key laughs, "Sure, why not?"