Litany: Interview Archive

Radish, Diakon. "cEvin Key: Music for Cats and Video Games." New Empire, 1997 (?).

It is always a daunting task, to meet oneīs idols. Too often theyīre not as smart, interesting, or even as nice as we expect them to be. James Joyceīs final words to Yeats were "I have met you too late. You are too old." I called cEvin kEy, he of download, Hilt, Plateau, and of course Skinny Puppy, with trepidation. Thankfully, the usual cliches of rock-stardom donīt apply, much as his own music defies all stereotypes and easy classification. During the interview he even takes the time to notice the squirrels in the tree outside his Los Angeles apartment window. "Fluffy, brown-orange squirrels" that perhaps are attracted to a "natural" vibe, the thick smell of De Green Guy that we associate with Mr. kEy, the most polite and talkative interviewee anyone could ask for.

For someone who has been recording and giving interviews for at least fifteen years, he still has a lot to say, and he still says it enthusiastically. How does he stay vital and relevant, when his peers have been relegated to the status of elder statesmen, become paradies of themselves, or simply vanished?

"I constantly try to remind myself why I do this. It all leads back to īElectronic Music 101ī. Working with those basic elements, making the music, and seeing where it leads. The question mark is still there, and it keeps me going. I find that things can get kind of messed up. You can get caught up in all of the new music out there and find yourself morphing into a hip-hop or house band, or whatever. Then you have to stop and say īThatīs not why Iīm doing itī, and figure it out."

Is cEvin distancing himself from another Vancouver musician, who, for better or worse, has his ear to the ground and manages to release an album for every genre?

"Bill Leebīs a good friend. You know..." Sure. But, our fears are assuaged. cEvin kEy will not produce a drum and bass album. "I wouldnīt even know how to make one of those, really. Iīm too old."

Surely, though, there must be some music that he listens to, bands that consistently push the parameters back with each successive release. Speedy J? Locust? Autechre?

"Oh, Iīm familiar with all of those bands. I listen to everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Pavarotti. But, so few bands have really picked up the torch and taken some initiative. The 70īs and 80īs made a lot of forward steps. In the 90īs, weīve kind of stepped sideways."

Perhaps thereīs nowhere else to go but backwards, and nothing left to do but recontextualize? To spill out of the guts of the dead Author like the Alien, and spread old information to new hosts?

kEy vehemently disagrees: "When something is real, it really comes from a beginning, a discovery, and the amount of energy people put into it. Weīre at a stage now where it requires a huge amount of energy to make something happen. Now we have all of this music thatīs just made by pulling upon influences from this and this. It wonīt be until someone redefines music again with the same instruments that theyīll get some credit for the direction that music takes. Right now, music doesnīt take too many directions, compared to what you would expect. Over the last 15 years a lot of things have happened, but not a lot that says īThis is the new direction.ī But things like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher? basically the more extreme sides of electronic music? have really pushed things to the next level, the way I think Skinny Puppy did in the 80īs."

So, we canīt expect to see cEvin kEy running with Uwe Schmidt and his post-modern, sampler-toting, Baudrillard-quoting cronies anytime soon. He is a steadfast believer in the possibly-outadated paradigm of originality, bless him. Was this fierce sense of creativity the genesis of VIVIsect VI īs "Fuck you", "No thanks to the rip-offs"? How does he feel now, when there are more Puppy clones than ever?

"Actually, thereīs a story to that. It was more of a bitter thing. As for other people doing our thing, I guess itīs...what do they say? īThe sincerest...ī" Form of flattery. "I guess that when you do have people pushing those parameters, their efforts will generate a lot of excitement and energy, and other people will want to attempt the same thing, try the same course. But somewhere along the way it will miserably fail because the intention, the originality, isnīt there. You know? When someone is original, they break through all of the pre-conceived ideas. Punk, industrial, jazz, or the beginning of jungle. They make the new ideas and forge ahead. There just arenīt many people doing that right now."

Probably less than we think. Few musicians beside kEy himself (Autechre and Coil come to mind), are actively warping our conception of music. Even the redoubtable Richard James, whom the Subconscious crew hold in the highest esteem, is merely refining a sound, not redefining it. You can plot the development of most artists on a chart, with a lot of linear motion but little change on the vertical axis. But constant change, according to kEy, isnīt necessarily a good thing.

"You know, the whole "No thanks to the rip-offs" thing was really more in reference to a bitter vibe going with Frontline Assembly."

cEvin treads this subject cautiously, but my need for dirt makes me goad him shamelessly. Come on, cEv. Was there a one-upmanship thing going on, a sort of "Letīs see you top this album, Bill" message being sent?

"No, we all felt that we, Puppy, had a very unique style. When Bill and we went our separate ways...he wasnīt really kicked out, but he didnīt really quit either...he sort of took a lot of our. Well, I donīt want to call them formulas or trade secrets. Itīs a valid thing to go and start your own band, but he really didnīt start his own direction. He just kind of followed up on an existing direction that was really quite unique at the time, and I think that there was a bit of resentment about that."

Thereīs none now, right?

"You know, at the time, we wanted him to tour, and he didnīt want to tour for personal reasons. That was originally the issue. We were a little bummed that we had to go out and find someone whoīd tour, and thatīs pretty much how we met Dwayne, who was way more committed. The bitterness came after he started a band and toured after he had basically fallen away and and refused to tour. But thatīs water under the bridge, now. I mean, weīre good friends and all."

kEy puts me on hold while I ponder friendships that require constant disclaimers. Before I know it heīs back, and originality is on his mind again.

"The only thing that really beefs me out a bit is the whole Nine Inch Nails hype thing, I think thatīs a bit of hype."

Ye gods, I think, thereīll be enough dirt in this article to clog the usenet with "cEvin kEy versus x" posts for the next two years.

"I donīt know. We were talking about originality and stuff, and I think that originalityīs one thing, and thereīs another thing when everybody else thinks itīs cool and it just becomes its own thing." Uh-huh..."So, you get Time Magazine calling [Trent Reznor] one of the most influential people in the world. So, when you look at the people who influenced him, I mean, what do we call them ? If I were responsible for recognizing everything and calling attention to everything, Iīd say īYeah, the new Bj?album is great, but Current 93 is great. Take a chance and look at something beyond the mainstream and what we call palatable.ī I wish we could get people to recognize art, but ever since the late 70īs, when music became nothing more than this commodity and labels signed what they thought would be big, rather than original and unique, that just hasnīt happened."

So, is he angry that when NIN broke, labels searched for or simply manufactured Trent-wannabes, rather than seizing what industrial artists saw as a golden opportunity to get away from their day jobs?

"No. Iīm just spieling."

Sooner or later, we have to turn to the music. Was III a deliberate evolution, a premeditated murder of the Puppy in him?

"Well, we had just completed a tour with download and had such a great time. There was a collective energy when it was over, with some definite ideas. Phil, Anthony [Valcic], and I all had equal say, and a lot to say. The title, III, was representative of the three individuals in the band. After a tour like that, the first thing you want to do is say something. I think we all wanted to kind of forget the past and write something new. I think that it was expressed well with the album."

Was it better expressed in music alone, without vocals? Will we ever hear a vocalist in download again, besides ?ack? Genesis?

"I donīt think that we connected with a vocalist, lyrically or vocally, so we took a different direction than we normally did with vocals. We felt that if we couldnīt find a vocal statement that agreed with all three of us, then we wouldnīt enter that realm. Iīm spoiled from working with Edward Ka-spel, Genesis P Orridge and, you know, Ogre. Lyricists who are able to open doors with words. I find it difficult now to work with something lyrically unless it captivates me in that same way. I do intend to work with Edward on the new Tear Garden album, starting in June. But in download, Phil Western had big influence, a kind of youthful electronic aspect. I think we took a big step forward by moving the attention from the vocals to the music."

The instrumental approach took away what is too often used as a crutch. Without a vocal and lyrical hook, more attention had to be paid to the basics, such as song structure and sound construction, to avoid the mindless wanking that crops up so often in techno. III balances art and craft beautifully: the songs are a godsend to casual listeners and trainspotting technicians alike.

"Itīs easier said than done, thatīs for sure. I think that making something good and lasting with electronics is much more difficult than with acoustics. I think acoustics develop certain tones and certain elements of chance that make your body want to say īOh, thatīs great how the room soundedī. With electronic music itīs much more difficult to create that ambience in which the music can be looked upon as more than just superfluous, disposable electronica. Iīm not saying that weīve achieved that, but to try and achieve that is much more of a challenge than you would think.

Music for Cats is not so easily written off as pre-fab dance, or "superfluous electronica". In fact, much of itīs pretty nuts, and with repeated listening the cat-loving hippy thing starts to make sense."

But how does download differ from cEvin kEy and the Subconscious Orchestra? The personnel is essentially the same. Why is Metropolis toting it as kEyīs first solo project?

"I donīt know. I guess that it was originally solo in its intent. When I conceived the album, I conceived it out of scraps of things that I had heard and had known were done, but had never really been utilized. It was something that I took the most interest in. Upon doing a lot of editing and manipulating of tape, I was able to make some song structures out of these little pieces. The album was pretty much a quest of mine to finish these unfinished things that I had an interest in. I really donīt want to look at it as a solo album, thatīs for sure. I find that I like working by myself, but I never really enjoy it like I do in a true collaboration. Iīve really discovered that the energy to create music that goes above and beyond needs to be created by more than one person. It needs someone to help fuel the excitement. I miss that a lot, that thing I had with my partner Dwayne. I really have to figure where I am with that, right now."

Allegations of collaborations with household felines prove true.

"I originally thought Iīd end up these obscure tones that" ?wait for it? "only cats would hear".

And Metropolis thought that this might sell? Fortunately, the experiment proved something of a failure. The music is 100% audible for functioning human ears.

"I really donīt have to study their reactions. If somethingīs going on, the cats will become interested in certain things: squeaky sounds, squeaky melodies. I find. They lie on the board sometimes and push all of the pre-buttons. I always have to zero the levels before I can do anything."

kEy is horrified at the prospect of locking them out of the studio.

"My mother was the president of the Cat Fanciers Association of Canada. She was a show-cat trainer and breeder of Siamese cats. When I was born, I was born into this litter of cats that raised me like Mowgli from The Jungle Book." Whoīd have guessed? "I have these childhood memories of waking up in cats, waking up in this box, this cage that the families of cats would live in."

Apparently, his mother never took much stock in the wivesī tales involving cats smothering children. Hadnīt she read the articles about kittens stuffing their heads in sleeping babiesī mouths?

"There never was much information shared in my family. I think that thatīs where the big question mark comes from, the constantly wondering where I am and where Iīm going."

Metropolis seems to have a lot of faith in his questing, though, since Music for Cats is the first installment of a trilogy.

"Yeah, a trilogy of weirdness. Metropolis found interest in this idea that Iīm trying to develop, starting with Music for Cats. I donīt know. Itīs weird, in that Metropolis, as a label, is so concentrated and focused in what theyīre doing. So, Iīm allowed a lot of freedom to find some new directions. Iīve been working a lot with a guy named Paris Sidonis.

WEīve been doing a lot of stuff together as of late, so maybe on the next installment youīll hear that. Of course Iīve been working with Phil Western [aka Philth, Capīn Stargazer] a lot. Currently, weīre planning a new Plateau album, as well."

Will that be released on Hypnotic with a Cracker-Jack prize cover also?

"Weīre still not sure about a label. Weīve received a lot of attention and interest from other labels, and we donīt have a contract with Hypnotic for the next one. The fellows at Tone Casualties have been very supportive."

Well. The prospect of having such luminaries as Paul Sch?Accidental Orchestra, and Hungry Ghost as labelmates must be a titillating prospect indeed. Subconscious Communications, kEyīs label, is set for big things in the next year, with more Doubting Thomas and aDuck (aka Dwayne R. Goettel) material slated for release. The dual roles of label mogul and prolific musician have proven difficult to play.

"Iīm still in the transitional stages of trying to figure out where Iīm going to put my energy, whether it be this project or that. Iīve only been in L.A. for about two months. I think change isimportant, but thereīs always this uncertainty and confusion. Iīd like to dedicate myself to one thing instead of throwing myself around from project to project like Iīve been doing. Thereīs a freedom to it, but thereīs also a yearning for the detail and focus of a group effort, the be-all,end-all motivation."

Perhaps no one will be produced by cEvin kEy at the Subconscious Studio, then. No one gets to play with the undoubtedly impressive "analogue keyboard collection". cEvin assures me otherwise.

"Maybe what I need is to find a band and help them. Tell them what to do and just get involved with that creative aspect."

If I print this, I caution, your mailbox will overflow with demo tapes.

"Actually, I already have a lot of people contacting me via email, and thatīs great. Itīs like every day I get mail from 5 more people Iīve never met, I canīt believe it. I find that incredible, 5 more people every day, just saying hello. Thumbs up to those people who keep me going. I get a lot of tapes, and right now Iīm really not in the position or situation in which Iīd want to get in and produce right now, but definitely in the upcoming year, I can foresee doing that. Youīll definitely hear Kone. I also did some co-production of Parisī new album, Involution, which is also on Tone Casualties."

Paris again? On Tone Casualties?

"Iīd say that itīs really unique in the sense that it has its own face, a sort of personality that i can appreciate. Thereīs almost a Nocturnal Emissions-type vibe going on, and I could relate to that vibe, and would like to see it morph into something more modern. And I think it was quite successful."

So, the cEvin has finally brought the Puppy legacy into the production booth. With hope, the results will be more exciting ?and more successful? than Ogreīs attempt with Diatribe.

"I think there needs to be a rebirth of the home-recorded, dark scene."

Something other than post-Aphex, sinewaved bedroom-weirdness?

"Something more along the lines of Lustm?Current 93, Nurse With Wound, and the like. I think itīs the best music going, when youīve got people creating with very primitive equipment. You wonder how they did that."

Theyīre forced to push the limits of the equipment, to punish their machines. The best bands always eschew the tempting, easy presets.

"Yeah, thatīs why we used to bug Bill, I mean...there were a lot of presets."

Oh, boy. I do have to stress that cEvin doesnīt sound like a curmudgeon, bitching and moaning.

"I mean, Billīs great, heīs a friend. Donīt get me wrong, Iīm not trying to say anything negative. I think Rhys should get a lot more credit than he does. Rhys was such an integral part of that sound, but he never really got the credit he deserved for being the writer of the music before the vocals. I mean. The vocals were not really the thing that was making the statement to me.

"Right now, Iīm trying to set up a tour with Edward Ka-spel for September. Itīll be the Legendary Pink Dots with the Tear Garden, as well as the potential for other guests like download, Plateau, Twilight Circus, and Silverman."

Will an internet diary be kept, as download had done for the last tour?

"That was actually Spybey. I donīt know. If we can get a steady and reliable connection, yeah, weīll probably post a lot."

And now, from cEvin kEyīs own mouth, the lyrics to the unintelligible bridge of "Sheila Liked the Rodeo", for the benefit of those who have slaved away at deciphering it for years (yours truly included): "Iīve got a head and I keep it, I put it in my mouth got a head and I keep it...."

"Itīs about Dahmer, you know."

Really? Itīs to Edwardīs credit that he can make the tired old industrial serial-killer motif sound fresh and even subtle.

"Heīs a genius. Heīs very dark. Whenever I work with Edward, I get rejuvenated, itīs like going to a place thatīs the source of good music, and if youīre lucky you can bring some with you when you leave. Iīve been working with him for like 14 years, itīs been great."

What about other collaborations? The usenet has been circulating rumors of a Coil vs download "remix war" for quite some time now, is it all just some cruel hoax?

"We did receive an offer from a European label to do some collaborative remixes, but we never received any tapes. I donīt know if if itīs becasue thereīs not a finished new album by Coil, or what. I think thereīs just been some lag in getting it done. I actually heard that Coil committed to it also, but weīve been waiting. Weīre also waiting for a tape from Autechre, as well. Theyīre supposed to be doing a remix for us at this current moment. Actually, we were supposed to receive something about a month ago."

Autechre and Coil also have apparently been trading tapes. Could this jaw-dropping scheme, the community of musicians stretching across continents and oceans and surely producing the most incredible music weīre likely to hear, be the band of the future? After more than 15 years in the music business, kEy is reluctant to make any definitive statements about his own future, let alone that of music. He is, however, quite reflective of the strange ride heīs been on.

"I was never really in Images in Vogue. It was never my band. If anything, it was more like college. I learned a lot. I originally was going to live in Japan. I was offered this job at a radio station in Tokyo, Iīd get interviews with music and entertainment personalities, then Gary Smith invited me to come and play with Images in Vogue. I think about how if it werenīt for that chance offer, I probably wouldnīt be here now, or have gone the way I went. Itīs quite funny. I wonder how long until this trip ends, or if it will end."

kEy is unfazed by this uncertainty that has followed him thoughout life.

"I sometimes wonder if itīs all just pre-ordained. I listen to some of the old songs and find them scary, because theyīre just on. Itīs almost like how ants no how to build a bridge, even if the individual ants donīt realize their significance in building it. I think thereīs a plan, but who knows what it is?"

More confounding to kEy, and frustrating, is why "creative-minded video game designers, film directors, and other people who are serious about whacked-out music havenīt contacted me. Iīm getting antsy, and Iīve got great ideas. I want to do some video games!" Well, we want you to do some video games, cEvin. "I hear about it, but i never get contacted by anybody who does it. Where are you all? Iīve got the studio here, letīs go. Fuck, man."

kEy sounds genuinely perplexed by this most egregious oversight in the film and video game industry. Letīs seem there was Charlieīs Family. Chunk Blower, too. Neither of these are likely to be seen by the average Puppyload fan.

"Weīre ready to do more. Come on. I want to make a surrealist film that goes where the music goes. But, I need to learn these things from more experienced people."

And there you have it, coders and film kids. An open invitation from cEvin kEy, the greatest musician who ever plugged something in, to collaborate.

"Iīd like to get into product development for someone like Roland, too." So, maybe weīll see cEvin kEyīs mug plastered all over Keyboard magazine? "Yeah! Just gimme a call, damn it. See? Thereīs too much to do. I donīt know where Iīm going."

Wherever it is, cEvin, weīll know. Weīll just watch everyone following your path.

- Diakon Radish

Back to Litany