Reed, Alexander. "The Conscious Subconscious." Interface, 1997 (?).
Contributed by author
The elegant downtown building that, since early 1994, has housed the eighth floor office and studios of Subconscious Communications is a regal structure of stone and glass, adorned with art on the walls and oak trim in the entryway. It is primarily used by law firms and other corporate entities, whose foreboding doors are all identical to that behind which cEvin Key works six days a week, with the exception that on this one, countless locks and metal bolts prevent would-be thieves. Inside these doors, one immediately realizes that one is not in waiting room of a real estate agent. On one wall is a mural-sized work by Jim Cummins, a.k.a. I. Braineater, who created the cover art for Skinny Puppy's Too Dark Park, Last Rights, and Hilt's Journey to the Center of the Bowl. Other decorations include a poster in some unknown language advertising the release of Skinny Puppy's Cleanse, Fold, and Manipulate, a banner bearing the hammer and sickle of the Soviet flag, and a vintage Oberheim analog synthesizer for which a collector would pay a very handsome sum.
Is this what the myriad locks on the door are for? Hardly. To the right of the desk behind which cEvin sits to perform sundry tasks, which range from checking email to creating MPEGs of live footage for the next Skinny Puppy CD ROM, is the most important and certainly the most expensive room in the suite. "Every Skinny Puppy, Download, Tear Garden album, you name it, was created with this equipment," cEvin says as he walks into the surprisingly small (and hence, very crowded) studio and takes his seat on the black swivel chair in front of the mixing board and Macintosh computer.
Several dozen synthesizers, samplers, effects processors, sequencers, and who knows what else are piled on stands and racks up to the ceiling at every wall. Somehow, through what must be an unparalleled work of electrical genius, they are all wired together and run through a large mixer, which is possibly the newest piece in the room.
Almost everything in the studio is analog, as opposed to digital. "I've had almost all of this since I first started making music, really," cEvin explains as he reaches to switch on his ARP 2500, one of the first synthesizers ever, devoid of any standard keyboard interface, and operating solely on switches and dials. "You ever see one of these?" he asks as the machine's LED lights start flashing chaotically.
He reaches over the mixing board and brings up a channel, presumably the ARP's, and an allegretto explosion of sound, very similar to Pink Floyd's "On the Run", spews from the two speakers atop the mixing console, forcing their frames to shake visibly and causing the listener to wonder if the insurance office down the hall ever complains about the 90 decibel explosions that frequently fill the Subconscious office. The next room over is all but filled by a an immense purple drum set, composed of seemingly dozens of acoustic drums and many more pads set to trigger the array of samplers on the wall. "This is the set we used on Too Dark Park, Last Rights, and a bunch of Tear Garden stuff. It's actually for sale," cEvin mentions. This is also the room connected to the closet which any industrial fan would call Heaven.
Although the closet light bulb is burned out, one can still see what lines these shelves. DAT tapes on whose spines' are written things like "Father Don't Cry", "Inquisition", and "Worlock" are stacked two layers high. This is the vault alluded to in the liner notes of Back and Forth 3&4. Key retrieves a shoe box and opens it. "This is the first recording Skinny Puppy ever made." Another box is labeled "Last Rights tour" and contains a dozen or so soundboard DATs that cEvin claims he hasn't even listened to yet. He says it's something that needs to be done, as a Back and Forth series 5&6 is in the works.
cEvin is a formidably tall man in his mid-thirties. His red waist-length dreadlocks are a far cry from the black spikes that once covered his head in the early days of Skinny Puppy. He is friendly and hard working. He maintains a schedule of certain hours each day at the studio, despite the fact that because he owns and operates it, he could come and go as he pleases. This labor has manifested itself in the form of a highly prolific release schedule. In the last two years, cEvin has put out three Download albums, two EPs and a soundtrack, a Skinny Puppy album and a multimedia two-disc set, a Tear Garden Album, and many new tracks on re-releases (like Doubting Thomas's "Father Don't Cry", now available again on Metropolis Records) and compilations, most notably, Paradigm Shift, a CD sampler with a handful of Subconscious artists all contributing exclusive tracks.
In the very near future, Subconscious has several projects slated for release. Download's next album, entitled III, has been cEvin's main project for a while. It will be accompanied by two EPs when it is released in late autumn on Nettwerk. III has a different feel to it than Download's last full album, The Eyes of Stanley Pain. "Stanley Pain was a final purging of all the Skinny Puppy left in me, hence the initials 'S.P.'.... It was putting out a bunch of stuff lying around while at the same time creating a dark cohesion that climaxed with the last track," Key says of the work.
The new album is, in its maker's words, more danceable, melodic, and uplifting. It doesn't strive to be disturbing and generally maintains a positive spirit. Allegedly, Phil Western (Philth), whose background is more house-oriented, had much more influence in the making of this album than in the previous records. The beautiful cover art, like that of Stanley Pain, was created by Dave McKean, who also has done art for Front Line Assembly, Machine Head, Tori Amos, and assembled all the covers of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic. Samples of Jamaican natives intersperse the chaotic blips and beats that define Download's sound. Out of nowhere, major-key string swells interrupt the grind. The album is a full opus, complete in every way — almost...
The most significant lineup change from Stanley Pain is the departure of noise contributor and vocalist Mark Spybey, also of Dead Voices On Air and Zoviet France. cEvin explains, "We felt that we had gone as far as we could with Mark. He's not a vocalist, and he's not a lyricist. Download was becoming the biggest part of his life, and he's got Dead Voices to worry about, so we suggested to him that we each go off and do our own thing... We wanted to make an instrumental album." This is not to say that all releases in Download's future will be instrumental, but cEvin has stated that if he works with a vocalist, he wants a true vocalist, as opposed to someone with an affected whisper/scream à la Bill Leeb of Front Line Assembly.
Leeb is someone whose history with cEvin has been inconsistent to say the least. After writing and playing a few basslines on early Puppy releases, he became the target of Skinny Puppy's attacks, accusing him of claiming undue responsibility for the band's creation. He then, while staying at cEvin's apartment for a short while, had a creative rekindling with Key and in three weeks, they along with Dwayne Goettel put together Cyberaktif's first and only album, Tenebrae Vision, which spawned the classic, "Nothing Stays."
"We came up with a bunch of ideas and so Bill called WaxTrax! and told them that we were working together and they sent out the money right away to send us to the studio. While we were there, Blixa (Bargeld) stopped by and did some stuff, and that turned out OK... I actually don't really like that album," Key concedes.
Since then, cEvin and Bill, despite having lived in the same apartment building for a brief while, have not talked too much. Bill's former bandmate, Rhys Fulber, keeps in closer contact with cEvin. "I like Rhys. He's living in Amsterdam and working with Fear Factory now. Maybe I'll do something with him someday."
Any other word on voices from the past? Die-hard fans will be thrilled to hear that Ogre and cEvin have been speaking about the possibility of recollaborating their talents for new Skinny Puppy material. Ogre has been busy for some time not only with his own music (which was originally planned to be released as W.E.L.T., but will now likely be put out under another moniker) but with various legal battles that he claims have left him bitter about music in general. Aside from contributing vocals on Pigface material and on one song from the new KMFDM album, Ogre has been nowhere to be found.
"If we're going to do it, we're going to do it right," states cEvin about the possible reunion. "I think we realize that we don't have to live together, to hang out with each other... to get something good. There was something about his vocals that really worked with our music."
More than a million Skinny Puppy album sales can attest to that. Rabies, which heads the list with over 150,000 copies sold, was in recent years remastered to improve upon the questionable sound quality of its initial release. Another artifact of Key's success is the framed certificate in the main room of the studio, announcing that Bites has gone Gold in Canada.
cEvin is wary, however, of the pitfalls in making a new Skinny Puppy album. He admittedly isn't terribly fond of The Process, the last studio Puppy album. "We just weren't together. We'd (cEvin and Dwayne) spend a long time working on a track that Ogre wouldn't like, and when we went out of our way to have him like it, he's sometimes do a meandering vocal. I mean, listen to 'Death'. It's a really weak vocal that goes in and out. Dwayne hated metal, and when we laid that track down, we just looked at it and there was the title — just 'Death'."
cEvin's opinion of that album is not all negative. "I really felt we came together and all said 'Hey, let's really give this a try' on 'Candle'. I really like that song. If I were to make a greatest hits album, I'd put that on there, along with 'Rodent', 'Nature's Revenge', 'Worlock' and 'Killing Game'." He's also pleased with the recordings of "Jahya" and "Curcible".
Key says that at the peak of the tension while making The Process, Dwayne and Ogre were butting heads as to the direction of the band's sound. "Dwayne was doing techno stuff that was years ahead of its time. He was into The Prodigy and making jungle back in 1990 and '91." On the final album, though, the most heavily-influenced techno track, "Blue Serge", was hardly even touched by Dwayne, but rather put together by Ogre and Martin Atkins. Key explains, "It's really arbitrary what Ogre will like and what he won't want to do vocals for. I don't understand it. I think with 'Blue Serge', it had sort of a fun groove to it that seemed to click at the time."
It was at this time that Download began working together. "Download was created in rebellion against the commercialism of the record company we were signed to." In Malibu, Download recorded a 45-minute noise track called "Puppy Gristle", of which segments appeared on Stanley Pain. Key speaks of a possible future release of the work in its entirety.
Despite Download's being cEvin's primary project and time-consumer, he simply cannot shake the connection to Puppy that his name still bears. "Our fans are rabid. They're the greatest. They buy everything we do." Most mainstream bands sacrifice quality of fans for quantity, but on tour in Europe with Download, Key has noticed that while each show had been packed full of people, they still knew all the material that was played.
During Download's tour for The Eyes of Stanley Pain, the band would often play songs by Skinny Puppy (Inquisition and Dig It, among others) or even Doubting Thomas (Clocks) as encore numbers. "We had to," explains cEvin. "We thought it would be fun to work in some of the old loops. It took most people a while to figure out what we were playing, but some people got it right away."
It is this level of fandom, coupled with the innovation of Download's sound that cEvin feels will keep the more techno-oriented material from slipping between the cracks of the now overflowing electronic scene. Touring is an important part of cEvin's life. Recently, he played drums for the Dutch-English band The Legendary Pink Dots for several northwestern shows. Key has collaborated with the Dots to make three albums under the name of Tear Garden. The last Tear Garden album, To Be an Angel Blind, The Crippled Soul Divide, was a primarily acoustic-sounding album, despite its being recorded at the electronic-based Subconscious Studios.
Key claims that the new Tear Garden album, currently in the works, will be a more electronic endeavor than its predecessor. Key has been working in parallel with two lineups for the album, which he hints may be a double-length project. Martijn de Kleer recently left The Legendary Pink Dots, but has remained in Tear Garden. Half the time, Tear Garden is cEvin working with the current Dots lineup, which features a few new members, and the rest is the old Dots lineup, with Martijn.
Ryan Moore, also of the Dots, has his own solo project as well. Twilight Circus is a dub band with which Key has played on several dates. During one show, cEvin was impressed with the live contributions of two rappers, Jacob Cino and Kinnie Star, with whom he has expressed interest in working.
Recording songs here and there with other artists is certainly nothing new for cEvin. His completed solo album, which is called Music fur Cats and will be released on Metropolis, contains several tracks with guest vocals by a variety of people, including Mark Spybey and Genesis P-Orridge of Psychic TV. Key warns of the album that it is more a collection of noisy material left lying around than an indication of a new direction.
Some fans may also remember Hilt, a project from a few years ago in which cEvin and Dwayne worked with Alan Nelson to churn out two albums, which despite being quite good, were almost completely directionless, randomly switching between jazz, minimalist coldwave industrial, and self-mocking grunge-rock. As it turns out, Hilt is now working on new material again. cEvin reports that they've recently completed a new song. A future release may couple the new material with what cEvin calls "hours of trash rock that was never released..." He adds, "None of what Hilt was really about ever made it onto the albums." Hilt's psychedelic edge reflects Key's involvement in the support of marijuana legalization. He talks about the Vancouver marijuana market and scene, saying that the government basically allows and ignores it. "We're really pushing the envelope of what's legal and tolerated." Despite Key's support of pot legalization and tolerance for other psychedelic drugs, his feeling are not the same regarding all drugs. "While pot is probably safer than alcohol, I won't go near cocaine or heroin. I've been there, and it's nowhere I want to be," he emphasizes in a serious tone. "I've seen that danger and I ran away from it with my tail between my legs."
cEvin is understandably still upset about the loss of his friend and bandmate Dwayne Goettel to a heroin overdose in 1995. He notes that the "friend" who sent Dwayne the lethal dose of heroin is now dead too. Key has moved on, though. "Ultimately, you have two choices: Give up or keep pushing. Dwayne gave up."
More than one album has been dedicated to Dwayne's memory, and cEvin maintains Subconscious Communications, which was Goettel's brainchild record label, originally created for his innovative techno project, aDuck.
Philth also helps run the operations, but has been busy as of late. His programming skills have been recruited for recent work by artists ranging from Trent Reznor to mainstream rock icon Bryan Adams, whose studio is just down the road from Subconscious.
Subconscious has obviously expanded to release more than just Dwayne's work. They are presently accepting demo tapes from all around, but in Key's words, "Of all the tapes we get in, there's never been anything that's made us say, 'Wow, this has got to be released!' The most we've done is pass it on to someone else, and maybe they'll get signed somewhere, which is what happened with Switchblade Symphony." Thus, almost every artist signed to Subconscious has worked in close collaboration with cEvin. The Subconscious offices have an adjacent secondary studio which other musicians in the past have rented. Chris Peterson of Will and Front Line Assembly made Decree's album "Wake of Devastation" there and did some remixing work for the Wisconsin-based Oneiroid Psychosis.
"Chris actually credited Dwayne and I on that album... It's not a bad record, but it took him two years two make, during which time I think I put out about a half dozen albums," cEvin mentions. While some bands may wait three years between albums, cEvin works almost maniacally on his music and running the label. What little free time he has is spent working on his fully restored 1957 Volkswagen Beetle (midnight blue) or traveling.
cEvin listens to music too, but he doesn't see too much progress being made within the industrial genre. Instead, he asserts that most of the electronic innovation happening today is at experimental techno labels like Warp Records and Chain Reaction.
But Subconscious shouldn't fool themselves by excluding their own name from such a list. It takes a level of maturity to realize that good experimental (and even industrial) music can be made without the dark gothicism that, despite being loved by all its fans, has bogged down the genre. It is not terribly surprising and it's even comforting to see that the musician behind a band who ten years ago sounded like what most modern industrial bands strive to be, has continued to mature and is still two steps ahead of not only the industrial scene, but the entire electronic music community.