THROUGH THE KEY HOLE
Ever Skinny Puppy's man in the shadows, cEvin Key has been making highly idiosyncratic, ground-breaking electronic music for nearly two decades now, under a panoply of different guises. The recent release of new album 'The Ghost of Each Room' prompted Daniel Lukes to call him up, to discuss past, present and future.
PUPPY LOVE AND DOGSHIT
Vancouver, Canada, is a drab place, where it rains 11 months of the year, and where the sheer greyness of the city, the uniformity of its high-rise office-blocks and vacant ring-roads mean that if you want entertainment, then it's up to you to bring the noise. Growing up here in the late 70s, cEvin Key, né Kevin Crompton, found himself turning to music at a very young age, at first to escape the claustrophobia of his own family, and later on in a more serious way, as the demands of the punishing high-school social hierarchy quickly pressure young adults into establishing their own identity, in a bid to survive.
"I had a weird and very dysfunctional family. There's no training for dysfunction." begins Key, a man who speaks softly, frequently going off in a hundred different and fragmented tangents. "Luckily my family had a piano and an organ that had one of those weird drum machines in it, and I sort of had the luck to be able to have these things around me, to take out frustrations on."
Gravitating towards drums and synthesizers, cEvin ended up playing in Images in Vogue, a local synth-pop band, who landed tour slots with Roxy Music, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode, but before long was finding their chart-bound sounds restrictive. Key's eyes were opened when he first heard 'The Elephant Table Album' compilation, featuring among others, the difficult electronic sounds of Current 93, Legendary Pink Dots and Chris and Cosey, finally seeing where his own love of the askew might fit it. A chance meeting with another Kevin, by surname Ogilvie, (Ogre) led to the birth of that mighty, mythical monster that was Skinny Puppy, bringing together their love of B-grade horror movies, surrealist theatrics and Throbbing Gristle, and burning a 12-year trail of blood, grime and innovation across the sky.
Effectively becoming a three-piece, since classically-trained keyboardist Dwayne W. Goettel joined in 1986, Skinny Puppy bashed out album after album of warped, twisted industrial nightmares, with Key and Dwayne providing the sample-spattered backdrops to Ogre's narcoleptic raving; from the icy, sleep-walking marches of 'Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse' to the smothered innocence of 'VIVIsectVI', the throttled chaos of 'Too Dark Park' and finally, the elegiac, sombre tones of swansong 'The Process', among others.
"Dwayne and I equally wrote demos" explains Key, "but surprisingly enough Ogre 8 out of 10 times would choose demos that I had written. I actually have really always felt that some of Dwayne's stuff was really overlooked, and that's what really broke up the band at the time of 'The Process'. There was a huge struggle. Dwayne was really nailing the future in terms of the whole pre-Prodigy style, and I don't think Ogre could really understand how to fit in on it."
MIND: THE PERPETUAL INTERCHANGE
With Skinny Puppy falling apart at the seams, cEvin had already set in motion his next musical venture, Download, along with Dwayne, and a handful of respected colleagues (see sidebar), when tragedy struck, and Dwayne died of a heroine overdose in August 1995. Much of what Download has been about, in the six years and five albums since then, has been keeping alive the spirit and legacy of Dwayne, who cEvin looks up to as an unrecognised pioneer.
"I heard things that I've never heard before coming out of Dwayne's end of stuff. Typically, only a small percentage of it got saved or recorded in actual pieces. I know what I learned from Dwayne. He was a brilliant teacher and he's really blown a lot of people away."
With 'brapping', or jamming with electronic instruments, always a large part of how Skinny Puppy's material came into being, Download's priority has always been to feature electronics as a major member of the band, with (human) members mutually exploring improvisation, obtaining solutions impossible to reach from "rigid songwriting". Relishing the challenge of a centre-less musical entity, unanchored by the presence of a frontman or his ideology, Key has used Download to plunge deep into the waters of experimentalism, to a place where chaos and tranquillity blend to the point of oneness, a dimension of never-complete purity where the philosophical search for knowledge and the surrender to the ticking, buzzing sonic pandemonium of the universe collide.
"I've always had that idea, since day one, that you're not really 100% controlling this. The machines and the abilities of sound waves, the energy, electricity and vibes: everything goes into whatever sounds come out in the end. If you have a connection with your senses, sometimes you'll hear things that are above and beyond what you're creating yourself. You feel there is almost a third party involved there."
From the chaotic, tightly-packed nightmares of 'Charlie's Family' and the spookily-titled 'The Eyes of Stanley Pain' to the more lushed-out soundscapes of last year's 'Effector', Download has always been about collaborating among musicians on an intuitive level, cutting out the burden of rationality and tuning in to a hidden world of sound around us. Great art should always question, unsettle, render anew the magical multiplicity of the world we inhabit. All things Download attempts.
"I think I've been interested in my whole life in things around the edge." explains Key. "I don't think I strive to be unsettling. I think that that's simply what attracts me to make the sound and hopefully achieve the result that will make that journey interesting for me."
BRAP TO THE FUTURE
From Skinny Puppy's politically-charged diatribes to the highly experimental bent of Download and his other projects, cEvin Key's music has always courted a sense of abstraction, a concept even the man himself finds hard to pin down:
"If I came back on any given day and re-looked at the piece that I'd just finished I'd probably find some other way to approach it and make it a whole different expression. The whole thing about electronic music in general is that by the time your album comes out you're always a few steps above and beyond where you were and you're always striving for the next level of what you're trying to say. There's a certain buzz towards that, about becoming more in tune with your knowledge, with your co-ordination, with your ability of understanding sound."
With a thousand different projects in the pipeline, life is never dull for cEvin Key, now living in Hollyweird, LA, with his four cats. 'The Ghost of Each Room', his recent solo album, second in the trilogy begun with the (headache-inducing) 'Music for Cats', is a concept somewhat based on a 'sensation' he picked up on whilst in The Haunted Rose Hall, Jamaica, a place which provided him as a young man with a dramatic culture shock. Featuring a collaboration with Ogre in the form of 'Frozen Sky', and with cEvin just back from touring with his former bandmate under his ohGr guise, Puppy fans will be happy to know that they plan on resurrecting the band together, though there are still doubts about how to continue Skinny Puppy in a way that would be faithful to Dwayne's vision.
"Our goals for the future are to combine everything, take the best of what we can do with Ogre, and the best of what we have from our past, as well as the future stuff that we can do, and put it into one touring situation which I'm sure will stroll back into bloodville!"
With Key's track record so far, and his constant commitment to experimentation, this renewed bond will surely be an antithesis of the usual cheap reunion moves motivated by money. So, cEvin, where is it all headed?
"I don't think that we understand that. There's many question marks in experimental music, as to the universe. I don't think anyone should ever guess ahead of time where it can all head. I think I've heard it all, then I'll hear the new Squarepusher album and I'll go 'Oh my God, I have not heard it all!'"
And the underlying thread to cEvin Key's body of work?
"Madness!" he laughs, "Just madness over all."
CATS AND DOGS
cEvin has collaborated with more people than he's actually met. Probably.
Founder member of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. Has often lent his eerie vocals to Key's work. The spooky 'Beauty is the Enemy' on 'Music for Cats', was recorded over the phone.
cEvin: "We did a 45-minute jam in Malibu in 1993 and to this day I don't think I've had so much pleasure in my life as seeing Genesis P-Orridge jumping up and down with this huge smile on his face in front of his Gristle box. He's just brilliant.
British-born, ex-member of Zoviet France. Has worked with Key on the first two Download albums, amongst others. Is ambient improv act Dead Voices on Air.
cEvin: "Mark is a great ambient artist. He's a great guy, he's an occupational therapist - a really good guy to talk to at various times - just kidding!"
Visionary behind psychedelic electronic troupe The Legendary Pink Dots. Has collaborated with Key on The Tear Garden albums.
cEvin: "I've been working with Edward for over 15 years now. He is probably one of the only poet/singer/songwriter guys that when he starts singing for some reason, I know all the lyrics and it's not often that way for me. It's been such as gas, really.
AKA Philth. Download collaborator since day one. Has taken on a more major role in the band lately. Also one half of the platEAU project.
cEvin: "'Phil's style tends to get on the more soothing side, rather than the more aggressive side. He takes it into a zone that's more chill than thrill, more ambient.
Transcribed by Nigel Lloyd.