by Ryan Meehan
The first Otep record I ever had the pleasure of hearing was 2002’s “Sevas Tra”. I was immediately blown away by the abrasive vocals and personal lyrics, and continued to follow lead vocalist Otep Shamaya on her intense life journey. Thirteen years after that ground breaking release, Otep is back and hard at work on a yet-to-be named album due in the spring of 2016. She was kind enough to take time out of her schedule to chat with us, and we are very lucky to have Otep Shamaya as our guest today in 10 questions.
RM: What was the first record you heard that really peaked your interest in vocal performance? How long after that did you actually start writing patterns of your own; and what was the first song you ever wrote?
OS: One afternoon, when I was about nine, my brothers & I were left alone but couldn’t leave the house. So, we started playing the stereo. We found some old vinyl albums and grabbed the first one. It was THE DOORS self titled album. Randomly the needle fell. The song THE END began playing. I was mesmerized. From the opening notes, the guitar slithered like a sacred serpent from a dark Lovecraftian dream, then Jim Morrison’s soft yet powerful voice floated like smoke from the speakers, and then the thrum and pulse of the rhythm section lifted softly like a storm approaching from the distance. Jim’s words were at once a love letter, a long goodbye, a taunting defiance against a world of contradictions (the Peace Movement, Viet Nam, Student Protests, public lynchings, the Civil Rights Movement, segregation) to the crescendo, the personal struggle between generations, parents and children, where he retells, in the common tongue, the ancient story of Oedipus the King who, try as he might, mistakenly brings about the disastrous prophecy he spent his whole life fighting to avoid. This song taught me, in one listening, all the things music was capable of. It opened my soul. It affects me to this day. The first song I ever wrote was inspired by The DOORS and it was on my first album SEVAS TRA. The title of that song is Jonestown Tea.
RM: Otep recently signed a deal with Napalm Records…What advantage does working with that label give you as opposed to the three previous releases you had done with Victory? Do you try to think about the business side of music a great deal, or do you feel that worrying about things like that can stand in the way of artists achieving their creative goals?
OS: It’s the job of the artist to know the job of the artist. And though dreamers we may be, we must embrace a bit of realism in that this is, undoubtedly, a Faustian alliance. If you make a deal with the devil sometimes you’re gonna get burned. And I’ve been burned. Believe me. But so it goes. It’s not productive to blame the devil for its nature. It’s my duty to protect my art, not the Suits – you know, business people – who absolutely believe in me and my creative endeavors yet have difficulty understanding the intense emotions that drive an artist like me. It’s not their job to do that, they’re not artists, for them, and rightfully so, it’s all bottom lines and what moves the needle. Fiscally driven decisions. They look at what’s selling, what fans are buying, and what songs are popular. But so it goes. This is my art, MINE, it’s my job to know how to communicate well with that side and understand what they can do, what they can’t do, and what I must do to fill in the gaps. And when it’s time to create, it’s equally important to know how to separate and segregate the business side from the creative side. Both are vital, especially if artists want to survive in an ever-changing landscape of technology and fads. Study, learn, digest, activate. On both sides of the axe – business and creative – study, learn, digest, activate.
RM: How would you best describe the origins of your book of short stories entitled “Movies in my Head”? Is there any possibility that some of the subject matter outlined in that set of passages will end up turning into songs on the new record; or was it your intention to create this project as something that exists completely outside the medium of music?
OS: “Movies in my Head” came from a dream: I was in an underground channel. It was dark but a light source moved somewhere down the tunnel like a swarm of fireflies. My shadow cast long behind me. Slowly, it slid down the jagged walls, collected itself like a pool and slowly enveloped me. In the dream I wasn’t aware that it was swallowing my entire body. I think about it now, maybe I wanted it to, I didn’t react. It glistened like tar in the flickering light as its sticky tendrils climbed over me. There were voices erupting from the commotion. I could hear an old miner, a little girl, and the gravelly voice of an ancient soothsayer. The voices joined to a chorus that dwindled to a whisper that I discerned as saying, “Mister Hiss”. When I woke I began writing about this THING called Mr. Hiss and those stories eventually became “Movies in my Head”. I don’t think anything from this book will end up on the new album but I have recorded an audio book of the first story, “PINEBOX JAKE”, to be released sometime this winter.
RM: As previously mentioned, you’re currently working on a new album set for release in 2016…What’s the biggest difference in how you’ve approached the writing process for this record as opposed to your previous offerings?
OS: I’ve entered this writing phase with no agendas, no chains or anchors, just an uncompromising focus on writing the best songs I’m capable of. In the past, the writing process was always encumbered with other people’s agendas. I believe it was mostly comfort and fear that kept those people anchored to a certain idea of what should be represented on an OTEP album. For example, I was told by a label exec once that “Perfectly Flawed” wasn’t an OTEP song because it was “too beautiful”. Absurd, I said. How could it NOT be an OTEP song if I, “Otep”, wrote it?! I won’t accept those kinds of barriers ever again. Though “Perfectly Flawed” was never submitted to radio or ever gets played by anyone outside of the fans who love it, it’s become one of our most popular songs. The title is the second most popular tattoo my fans and supporters get inked on them behind my name. In the end, it’s not the genres that will survive, it’s the songs. And my songs are my legacy. They are my creative children. They will scream to the world, long after I’ve turned to dust, that I cared, I created, I existed, I tried.
RM: Legendary producer Howard Benson will be behind the mixing board for this one, which is sure to add another element of mastery to your already thorough works…What was the main reason you wanted to work with him; and what do you expect him to bring out of you as an artist that listeners might not have heard in your previous music?
OS: First, it’s an absolute honor to work with Howard Benson. He’s challenged me, he’s inspired me, he’s pushed me to be my best and I’m forever grateful to him for that. I think what attracted me most to Howard and his incredible body of work is his focus on the lyrics and the message, on the vocals, how they’re annunciated, the cadence and the emotion. What I’ve gathered is that he believes in the power of melody, in the power of a single word, that the message drives the song and that is what lasts the test of time.
RM: What’s the likelihood that this next LP will end up being a concept album much in the same way that “Hydra” was? Are you going to continue to experiment with drum programming as you did on that record?
OS: I’m very proud of HYDRA. It came from the same creative fires that forged HOUSE OF SECRETS. I never know what kind of album I’m going to write until the recording begins. This time, it seems, the current album is an amalgamation of every album I’ve done but with the added benefit of being inhabited and pollinated by them. This current album is fierce and emotional like SEVAS TRA, it’s dark and ambitious like HYDRA and HOUSE OF SECRETS. But it’s also song driven, like THE ASCENSION, with cultural insights and “incites” like SMASH THE CONTROL MACHINE. It’s also as savage and daring as ATAVIST. It’s a coagulant of everything I was and everything I am now. I’m back where I belong. In the fuel that birthed the flame that became an ever-burning inferno.
RM: Can you pinpoint the exact moment in your life when you decided that the vegan lifestyle was a perfect fit for your belief system? What are some pointers you can give to someone considering a life without the consumption of animal products, but are worried about where they will be able to find adequate sources of protein?
OS: I’m an Animal Rights Activist and being vegan is a byproduct of that. I watched an undercover video from inside a slaughterhouse. The terror the animals exhibited, knowing they were going to die, screaming in pain as they were slaughtered, paralyzed me with fury and remorse. I knew right then I could NEVER again contribute to a system that tortures and murders innocent animals simply because I think they taste good. I am no longer capable of being that selfish. I refuse to give a single dollar to a slaughterhouse. I refuse to make rich-men richer through such an evil enterprise. Animals caged in the dark. Housed in filthy pens, stuffed together without fresh air or clean water or even a single ray of sunlight. I can’t pretend these horrible acts aren’t happening. I can’t ignore, right now, as you read this, somewhere, as this sentence enters your mind, letter by letter, word by word, an animal is suffering indescribable pain and suffering. Babies are watching their mothers murdered. Mothers are crying out in the dark for a last look at their children. They never know kindness or compassion. They only know panic and suffering. In the egg industry, male chicks are tossed alive into grinders because they are deemed “useless”. In the dairy industry, calves are stripped away from their mothers soon after birth so the milk can be sold to humans and not “tainted by the calf”. Imagine that. Carrying your baby until birth only to have it stolen from you and for what? Yogurt? Absurd. And it doesn’t end there. In the fur industry, to make one full-length fur coat, it takes 100 chinchillas and 60 minks. And depending on the fox, 10 to 24 are required. Most of these animals are electrocuted (anally) to paralyze them so they can be skinned alive for their furs. Skinned alive so the fur is intact and not damaged so some shallow socialite can hang a pelt around her shoulders. Unacceptable. And the chicken and fowl industries aren’t protected like other livestock so some live their entire lives with broken wings and broken legs, without any pain medication or treatment, before they are butchered or scaled alive. So much pain. So much terror. And for what? An unnecessary splurge? An unnecessary urge? Because … bacon? The Meat Conglomerates have duped us into believing that humans are carnivores. We aren’t. Carnivores have short intestines to digest meat and excrete it quickly. Herbivores have long intestines to digest fiber from plants. We are herbivores. Some will say “we need meat for protein” to build strong muscles. My retort is simple. A question: where do the strongest land animals alive, the elephant, the gorilla or the bull, get protein? Plants. All are herbivores. Just like us. I know some are aware these atrocities exist, who understand the science, who have momentary lapses in their apathy but still refuse to give up meat or stop wearing fur and leather because, you know …fashion. But I’m simply incapable of pretending these atrocious acts of animal cruelty don’t exist and I refuse to be complicit in them. Eating meat is an act of conformity. Fighting for animal welfare is an act of defiance.
RM: You had the chance to speak at the 2008 Democratic National Convention…If you had that same opportunity again in 2016, what would be some of the issues that you would cover in your speech? Why do those particular matters mean so much to you not just at an artist, but also as a human being in general?
OS: Climate change. It’s the single most important issue facing the human race. If there’s no habitable place left on earth then there’s no room for any other issue. We must address the crushing impact we have on our planet and move away from fossil fuels and the destructive enterprises slowly poisoning us. Anyone still claiming humans don’t have an impact on the environment can simply drive to Southern California and look at the sky. That constant yellow haze hanging overhead and the thick smell of exhaust aren’t natural phenomena. They’re man-made. And if we don’t do something now, not tomorrow, not next year, but right now we don’t stand a chance. I know some people still struggle with this because it isn’t happening all at once or happening all the time but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. There’s an old adage that says if you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water it immediately jumps out but if you slowly heat the water, the frog will remain paralytic and boil to death. Can you guess which pot we’re in? Additionally, moving to a plant based diet is proven to slow climate change. Cleaner water, cleaner air, more food in famine stricken regions, no waste-water from factory farms spoiling our soil and river ways. And it takes 13 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat yet 13 pounds of grain can feed an entire village. The simple act of removing meat from your diet not only saves animal lives but also human lives. I urge everyone to watch the documentaries “Cowspiracy”, “Racing Extinction” and “Earthlings”. You won’t see the world the same, I promise.
RM: What are the other forms of artistic expression that you engage in able to provide for you that music cannot?
OS: Writing is a form of meditation for me. Songs, stories, poems. It’s all very healing. But I also love doing Voice Over acting. I lose myself in the characters and it’s kind of like being a kid again. I do a lot of work in video games and film. Notably, I was featured in the BAFTA award winning PlayStation game The LAST OF US and the Oscar nominated film THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES.
RM: Which portion of the writing process would you consider to be your specialty and why? Is there any part of that procedure that you aren’t particularly fond of?
OS: I think I’m most proud of being a strong lyricist. Though I can scream and emote like a god, words matter most to me. The part I’m not particularly fond of is when it ends.
RM: What’s up next for you and the rest of the band in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
OS: World domination.
Official Website: http://otepsaves.me/
Otep on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/otepofficial
Otep on Twitter: http://twitter.com/otepofficial
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That was a very enriching interview. Thank you both.