The Dark Arts - EMusician

The Dark Arts

Sometimes people drift apart, and sometimes people are driven apart. For Cevin Key and Nivek Ogre of Skinny Puppy, it was a lot of both. The death of
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Sometimes people drift apart, and sometimes people are driven apart. For Cevin Key and Nivek Ogre of Skinny Puppy, it was a lot of both. The death of keyboardist Dwayne Goettel in 1995 and the less-than-congenial recording sessions that produced The Process (American, 1996) capped off years of pent-up frustrations. No longer able or willing to work together, the band disintegrated, and both Key and Ogre found themselves ensconced in various solo projects. It seemed that one of the most influential forces in electronic music was to remain on permanent hiatus. The intervening years saw the release of a remix album, Remix Dys Temper (Nettwerk, 1998); a number of boxed sets; singles collections; and all of the other trappings of a band that was on its way out.

Fortunately, a persistent group of German concert promoters had other ideas and eventually convinced the band to reform and headline the Doomsday festival in August of 2000 in Dresden, Germany. “They were very insistent after the band broke up, starting in '97 or '98,” Key says. “They started making offers about doing a live show. And I originally responded that this was ludicrous; the band doesn't exist. And the next year, they called me again to headline a festival. I said again, ‘This is crazy; this band doesn't exist.’ And they said, ‘We know. But we'd like you and Ogre to reform and perform as best as you can as Skinny Puppy.’ So I had been running into Ogre and just talking and chatting on a personal level and mentioning this. And then the idea came up, ‘Well, maybe we should do it?’ Then they called again the third year, and they made an offer we couldn't refuse.

“So we spent quite a bit of time putting that show together,” he continues. “And we had such a great time, and it came off really well in our estimation. Then, afterwards, we were on a train a few hours later on our way to Prague, and we were like, ‘It's all over again.’ It was a shame that we had put all of this work into it and made just one big show. We thought that it would be good to do more but not make it retro and not make it always looking backwards at what the band was. We wanted to pick it up and actually make a new album and move ahead on that level.”

Following the Doomsday show in Dresden, Key and Ogre still had commitments to their respective solo projects. But rather than allow that to derail things again, the two worked to combine their efforts as best they could. “Both of us had solo albums going on,” Key explains. “I was doing The Ghost of Each Room, and Ogre was doing Welt. I joined his band and did drums on the tour, and we really unified our solo projects. Then, at that point, we felt the time was right to start recording new ideas. In about the fall of 2001, we started working on rough sketches and rough ideas, and then we really started working to finish it last October.”

THE NEW PROCESS

For this latest record, the band tapped producer Mark Walk, who — having worked with Ogre, Martin Atkins, Pigface and other related projects — was no stranger to the Skinny Puppy aesthetic. The songwriting and production process was broken into two camps with several distinct steps. Key initially came up with a piece of music, which sometimes comprised more than 60 tracks per song. The files were then sent to Ogre and Walk, who added the vocals and additional edits and treatments. Following this, the sessions were returned to Key for a final set of tweaks and ultimately sent off to mix engineer Ken Marshall for the final bounce at Sonikwire Studios in Irvine, Calif.

“The process had been adapted in the sense that we used to just have bed tracks and then do vocals and mix,” Ogre explains. “And, now, everyone is more open to rewriting as we go along instead of holding onto things that are very precious to us and fighting over them. So the system in this case was us getting bed tracks from Cevin and finding a structure within them and finding a melodic structure that fits with the vocal. Then, we would start abstracting and breaking down parts and building up parts and getting it to a point where we're happy with it. Then, we'd give it back to Cevin, who again can listen and add another layer to it.”

For Key, an important aspect of the songwriting process was the ability to sync his impressive array of classic synthesizers and drum machines with an Emagic Logic rig loaded with the latest software synths and samplers. “It was pretty cool, I must say, to have the ability to look backwards so far in time at myself and ourselves,” Key says. “I was wanting to reach out to older gear and set up the original equipment all over again, which I did for a large part of the album. It was quite inspiring to integrate that with my Logic setup. And I felt completely spoiled, to be quite honest, having virtual synths — being so good as they are now — as well as being able to lock all of my old gear to the clock of Logic and to work with the best of both worlds. It was too good to be true.”

When asked to describe his songwriting process, Key explains that most of his ideas come from actually working with the synthesizers themselves. “I'm more of a keyboardist,” he says. “It's always coming from either messing around with arpeggios or sequences. Or [it may start] with an old-school thing like the 909, where it's a pattern-based sequencer that's tempo-based, and it sets the tempo for everything else, and that becomes the frame that I build up from. I'm also a drummer. I have a drum room where I have a couple of what I call ‘drumosaurs’ because they're combinations of acoustic and electronic stuff. A lot of it is just a mixture over the years of all kinds of stuff, everything from the Simmons to Roland and SynDrums. I can come in and build rhythms and stuff like that. And then I can record that and cut it up to tempo. [I can then] sync that up with the old-school gear and see what I can match and make work with the new-school technology.”

SPACE ODDITY

For producer Walk, one of his biggest challenges was finding a way to integrate Ogre's vocals with Key's often-dense collection of tracks. To do this, Walk had to transfer the Emagic Logic files from Key via OMF into his Digidesign Pro Tools HD3 rig. From there, he was able to track vocals against the sessions and make edits to the original files before bouncing each track out as a discrete 24-bit file and sending them back to Key for further refinements. “I'd put them into Pro Tools and kind of find areas of those songs that seemed like a place where Ogre could fit in,” Walk says. “When we thought we had a vocal idea that was working for us, we would start looking at the parts that were existing in the song and try to make a proper song arrangement out of the track.

“Sometimes, the chord progressions and things would get changed,” he continues. “I would do some writing at that part of the process, trying to turn the music into a vehicle to deliver the vocal. It's a way I really like to work, trying to find the place where the vocal sounds the best and using the vocal as a lead and creating the instrumentation to gel with whatever happens there. I think you end up being able to take more liberty with the music. And the vocal doesn't become something that so follows the music — like if a person recorded a song on acoustic guitar, you would just hear their vocal line following the chords. A lot of the time, the key of the song that Ogre sang in or a chord progression would be removed after the vocal was there, and maybe a whole new key would be introduced.”

Ogre faced his own set of challenges when confronted by Key's often-daunting arrangements. “My first reaction is complete confusion because Cevin writes so much within an idea,” Ogre explains. “So it's basically finding one part that I can grab onto. For me, personally, with Skinny Puppy, my role is a vocalist. So I'm not really going to push on those boundaries because I have other outlets for the things that I do. In this case, it's just a matter of working on a vocal. And Mark and I would pass back files and work on producing the vocal. I think it's basically the same process we used to use, just with different people and different attitudes, because we all have personal studios now, and we're all able to do stuff without having to go somewhere else.”

CLOSING IN ON THE EDIT

Another important aspect of The Greater Wrong is the inclusion of some important contributors. For the song “Goneja,” the band teamed up with IDM artist Otto Von Schirach, who contributed sound-design components, textures and rhythmic elements that Key built into the arrangement. The track “Use Less” features both Danny Carey of Tool and Wayne Static of Static-X. For Key, the challenge was finding a way to integrate Carey's notable ability to play ambitiously complex time signatures with a more mechanical and quantized feel. “His drumming is signature-enough that we didn't want to restrict him to having to fit in with the 4/4 situation or anything,” Key says. “So we felt that it would be better if maybe he started the track. So we had him do some multitracks of drum performances. Then, I went in afterwards with Ableton Live, and I cut up a whole bunch of multitrack stuff into more or less of a drum arrangement and then built music around that.

“It's still a 4/4 time signature, but his method of drumming is well-displayed in the chorus section of that track. It is 4/4, but there is a certain amount of ‘Dannyisms,’ if you can call them that. It's like saying [Led Zeppelin's John] Bonham never played a true 4/4. He has a swing factor, or what people call a ‘swing percentage.’ I don't know if I should term what Danny does as swing percentage or as a ‘cool drummer percentage’ [Laughs].”

But Carey wasn't the only guest on that track. Walk felt that the melodic foundation of the chorus needed to be thickened up before it could be fully realized. “Mark said that he had an idea of how the chorus should go,” Key explains. “And Steven Gilmore, the artist we've been working with for, like, 20 years is friends with Wayne Static, and he said that Wayne has been wanting to do something with Skinny Puppy for ages, and this would be his best opportunity. Mark said, ‘That's it. That's the vocal thing I'm looking for.’ So he brought Wayne in. And this is another example where Mark did a great job with the production. It's really Wayne doing a duo with Ogre, and for the first time with Skinny Puppy, you have full-on acoustic drums without electronic accompaniment in a certain section — then breaking down into what you might call a regular Skinny Puppy vibe. So it was a bit challenging bringing it all together. But in the end, we all dig it.”

MOVING FORWARD

For everyone involved, the overall sentiment seemed to indicate that this new album is really the beginning of a new phase for the band. From a technology standpoint, Walk feels that Live could be an important aspect of the band's sound as it moves forward. “To me, since completing the record, I kind of think that as far as creativity in the desktop world, Live is probably the coolest and most important thing that's happened since Pro Tools,” Walk says. “As I got way more into it after the record, I could see that being a pretty strong tool for me if we do more things together.”

“If it goes over well and it's an enjoyable experience, then who wouldn't want to do it again?” Ogre says. “Who wouldn't want to keep exploring? I know if we do another record, this process of recording will be more solidified. So we can kind of push things further. I see this as kind of an introduction again into kind of moving further away from the center. If we could do that a second time, take from where we took Remission to Last Rights, that would be an honor, indeed. The construct of being able to start somewhere and carry an audience further and further away — as opposed to what you'd normally do, which becomes more accessible to people's ears — has always fascinated me.”

“We never sit down to write anything commercial, to write anything that really caters to any trend in music or any particular direction,” Key concludes. “We let ourselves be ourselves and just go back and try and discover why we make music to begin with. So in the end, I think there is a vibe that comes when you're not trying to fit in with a certain genre. We're not hip-hop. We're not house. We're not jungle. We're not a certain type of labeled vibe. People would like to call us industrial. But I think that's maybe a term that has come since. We just continue to do what we do because of the big question mark in the sky.”

STUDIO DUALITY

Cevin Key

Subconscious Studios, Toluca Lake, Calif. (selected gear list)
Apple Mac G4/dual 1.25GHz computer
ARP 2500, 2600 synths
Digidesign 192 I/O
Electronic Music Labs EML 101 synth
Emagic Logic Pro (includes all Logic instruments)
Korg SQ-10 sequencer; MS-10, MS-20 synths
Moog Music Multimoog synth
Roland TR-808, TR-909 drum machines; TB-303 bass synth; MC-505 Groovebox; System 100 synth
Sequential Circuits Pro-One synth, Studio 440 sampler/drum machine

Mark Walk, producer

(selected gear list)
AMS RMX16 digital reverb
Apple Mac G4/dual 1.25GHz computer
Art Tube MP preamp
Digidesign 192 I/O, Pro Tools HD3
Electro-Harmonix Vocoder effects unit
Manley Dual Mono Mic Pre, Variable-Mu Limiter Compressor
Neumann M 269, M 49 mics
Shuttle XPC Pentium 4 computer
Soundelux U99 mic
Systech 4000A Flanger effects unit
Tascam GigaStudio 192 soft sampler

TOURING LOGIC

As computer platforms become more and more stable, many electronic acts are opting to run sequences, soft synths and even audio tracks from a DAW as opposed to digital tape or a hard-disk recorder. For the current Skinny Puppy tour, the band is running Emagic Logic on two separate machines. “We have to carry Logic with us to do this show,” Key explains. “We're going to have two Logic systems being run: one master and one sync. One will be operating with MIDI and virtual synths, and the other will be running audio backings.

“The live stuff we'll be playing old-school-style, so lots of two-handed playing and so on,” Key continues. “With Skinny Puppy, we have always had a theory of taking the album version one step further. So we want to present as much of the album-level production as possible but take it a step further — almost like you are in the studio with us while we're laying down tracks. In the past, we were largely utilizing, like most bands were, DAT backups. We're stretching that now and going for the whole full-blown method.”