A glimpse into high-tech hell: A misshapen creature dubbed "Guilt Man" is shambling across the stage, a human cancer urged on by the pounding techno-core beats echoing through the room. On one side of the stage sprouts a tree festooned with bisected human heads-their mouths frozen in silent screams-gas masks and aborted fetuses; on the other, a virtual reality setup straight out of The Lawnmower Man pulses ominously. Dead center a large video screen shows the same images over and over: a man screaming and then dissolving into static. Visual noise. Block the transmission. Jam the code. Prevent sense. Imagine a futurist nightmare, bad dreams from the day to day information overload, the moans of angry ghosts in the machine. Welcome to Skinny Puppy. This is not an exit.
"It's an odd proposition," says the man in the middle of it all, an amiable Vancouver native who calls himself Nivek Ogre. His real name is Kevin Ogilvie. His friends just call him Ogre. Mere moments ago, having shed Guilt Man's thick latex skin, he stood onstage, howling through a cyberpunk looking headset mic.
Along with percussionist cEvin Key and synthman Dwayne Goettel, he's responsible for Skinny Puppy's audiovisual carnage. They have the unique ability to bring their audience to the brink with an industrial strength assault that, live, verges on performance art. Art brut that is. "There's a certain amount of voyeurism to what we do," Ogre believes. "I'm sure there's a certain percentage of the audience coming to see somebody on the verge of collapse; people who want to see me mutilate myself, kill myself perhaps. There's also the theatrical premise of what we do, so people in the audience, if they do care bout the performer, create within themselves this hope that the character onstage isn't going to self-destruct. I think that's a positive thing."
Tonight's gig at Boston's Avalon Ballroom has been a decidedly negative thing for Skinny Puppy. When an errant stagediver grabbed one of special-effects/propman Tim Gore's half-head creations off the "Tree of Shame," Gore gave chase only to get socked by an overzealous security man who thought he was one of the throng. More blows were exchanged, and Gore ended up a bit shaken with a shiner over his right eye. After the show, Puppy's burly manager, Mike Ryan, is steaming mad, threatening to never play the room again and grumbling something about suing. Somebody says a few of the security guts are waiting out by the bus to kick the band and crew's asses. It's tense. The violence tonight was real, not the usual onstage visceral thrill-seeking, not one of Ogre's simulated-blood-soaked reveries. Everyone's a little freaked out.
Switch on the TV. CNN, the data stream, the dream machine, the guts of the spectacle. To understand what makes a band create music as harsh as Skinny Puppy's, you need to sample the never ending atrocity exhibition the idiot box brings us live and in living color 24 hours a day. Shit like: Footage of LA burning. A helicopter swoops like a hungry vulture over South Central on the day of the Rodney King verdict, capturing a truck driver being dragged out of his cab and beaten nearly to death. Shoppers in war-torn Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, dodge bullets to get a loaf of bread. Bodies are carried out of Jeffrey Dahmer's Milwaukee apartment. He'd been murdering and cannibalizing young, predominantly gay men there for a few years. The cops came once, smelled something a little ripe, didn't see anything out of place, didn't think much of it, and left. A few months later, no one cares. Background noise. Static.
"Violence is around us so much in our lives," Ogre says between turns on Nintendo with his girlfriend Jessica, a couple hours later, as Puppy's bus rolls safely to its next destination, a gig at New York's Ritz. "It's apparent in everything. We go to football games to, hopefully, see the wide receiver get flattened. We go to drag races to, hopefully, see a car blow up. There's something psychologically tweaked in people these days, definitely. I think what we do is provide people with a placebo of violence. It's cathartic. It's something that's close enough to touch and experience, but doesn't have the harmful effect. It's a lot more healthy than going out and ripping apart stores and rioting."
The members of Skinny Puppy (including soundman/producer Dave "Rave" Ogilvie) feel they're offering more than just an onstage bloodbath. The Grand Guignol visuals that accompany their "audio sculptures"-which are constructed of nihilistic electronics, malignant growls, sadistic samples and unforgiving synth groans, all at mind numbing volume-have a point to provoke. To shock you into thinking.
"Violence is a fundamental fear in today's society," Ogre states, his attention half on the video-game caveman he's putting through its paces. "We see how close violence is, and yet it still seems quite distanced. We're all trying to come to terms with violence, with death, with pain. I think everybody's interested in at least getting close enough to rationalize it and deal with it within their lives."
How would he deal with real violence, say a car crash or a murder, right before his very eyes?
"Totally, totally differently," Ogre admits. "That's a whole different set of emotions. We did an experiment on the last tour, because we've always been accused of celebrating violence for idiotic reasons. We used some images in our show from a film called Guinea Pig. They're these incredibly realistic, but simulated, Japanese snuff films. We inserted them into this roller-coaster ride of violent images and people were quite disgusted. People were vomiting in front of the stage. People came up to me after the show, saying I was the most disgusting human being-until they found out what it was all about. The whole reason we did that was to see if there was a difference. Will people react differently to something that's real as opposed to something they know is staged? They will. There's a whole different set of emotions people go through. It doesn't look like it looks on TV. It's quite sickening."
Sickening? Yes. Skinny Puppy's videos are routinely censored, and the band was once arrested on charges of suspected animal abuse (the films were all simulations though). Thought provoking? Absolutely. Delving into the darkest side of man in the technological age has been the underlying ethos behind Skinny Puppy since Ogre, cEvin, and a third member, Wilhelm Schroeder, started telling their tales of an uncertain future in 1983. The motivation? Little more than "an escape from the futility of what we were doing at the time, the jobs we had, the life we were living, and the need to make music that was different from the so-called 'normal' music of the time," the feral frontman recalls. The name/image? "A cornered animal. The mute animal that can't speak up. When its tail gets stepped on, it screams."
That was nine years and countless nightmares ago, most of which have been documented on a long stream of Skinny Puppy discs-Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse; Cleanse Fold and Manipulate; VIVIsectVI; Rabies; and Too Dark Park; to name a few-each a louder, denser, more evocative collection of dark moods and frayed emotions than the one before. Heavy metal? No, this is heavy mental, a sonic chamber of horrors. Their latest LP, Last Rights, Ogre refers to as "a document of delusion. Basically, it's my version of Rimbaud's Season in Hell. It's the end of a certain period in my life seen smack dab in the middle of a lot of pain and confusion.
The gloomy mind-set stems from a low point Ogre fell to, a low point that finally prompted him to finally kick drugs after years of abuse. From the opening growl of "Love In Vein" to the raw noise and aural flatlining of "Download", Last Rights is Skinny Puppy's darkest excursion to date. Ogre is reluctant to talk about that bad times though. He's more interested in sharing what it was that turned him around. "Being near death, being read those last rites," he chuckles. "It's the sort of slow, painful document you write for yourself before you die."
When did he come to grips with his own mortality? "Probably after the third convulsion," he admits. "I realized there wasn't much hope. Even before that, being unable to hit veins. It was out of control. Things I'd watch on TV were entering my mind, causing all these tumors and cysts to appear in my mind. The only tumors and cysts were the ones I was creating on my arms. It was really pathetic, a real Videodrome scenario."
For all of their industrial trappings, the root of Skinny Puppy is indisputably organic. They are interested in the mental and physical consequences of man's inability to keep up with the technology he's created for himself. There's a point in Skinny Puppy's current experiment in Shock Theater that concerns itself with one of Ogre's biggest fascinations, virtual reality. During the course of the show he finds solace in a virtual-reality helmet and the mind-bending computer generated landscapes it offers-becomes addicted to them is more like it.
"It's definitely a drug metaphor," he admits. "I've never experimented with it, but I've read a lot about it. I think the applications of it in the future are quite insidious. The film Brazil touched on it. Lawnmower Man too. I don't think virtual reality has been shown to us for all it could be capable of doing to us in the future. Already they're using it to train fighter pilots for bombing missions. It's all very unreal, even if it is virtual reality. Those pilots aren't seeing their targets, the casualties. The Gulf War was a good example of the use of virtual reality, the bombing runs and people being destroyed. We were all duped into thinking it was some video game. That terrifies me."
Getting clean wasn't easy, especially with Ogre spending his downtime from Puppy with Ministry on their infamous "Mind is a Terrible Thing To Taste" tour of two years ago. "All I can say about that," he recalls, "was that the level of tension and the energy level onstage was nothing compared to what was going on offstage."
He's more eager to talk about his work with the thunder and fury orchestra known as Pigface. In fact, it was his time with that band-which included members of Killing Joke, KMFDM, the Rollins Band, and Nine Inch Nails-that probably saved his life. "They kept calling when nobody else would, when my only trip of the day would be to the needle exchange" he admits. "I was shooting up even when I was with them. I would have two needles in my jacket, get offstage, and shoot up. They were always very supportive of me. They never gave me more guilt, more guilt, more guilt. They really watched out for me."
The next night, onstage at the Ritz, Ogre's back in the Guilt Man suit, a mantle of perverted flesh riddled with hypodermic needles and scrawled messages like "Forgive Me," "Bitch," "Liar," and "Not my fault." He stumbles about the stage, the horrific personification of a million things stored too long in his darkest mental closets. The very demons he's spent the past year exorcising.
The rumor is that this is the end for Skinny Puppy. "I don't know yet," Ogre considers, having already formed a new band, W.E.L.T. with members of Killing Joke, Ministry, and Prong. "There's always a new beginning after something dies. It's too early to tell what shape things will take. It's come full circle with this record, this show, which is the end of my personal chaos and strife. The casting off of the Guilt Man is a lot more than getting in and out of a suit. But there's still a lot of exposed nerves, a lot of other monsters, to take care of."
Transcribed by E. Michael Hall