November 16, 2006
Speaking of Voices from the Shadows
Good Omens and Good Conversation with Otep
By Rob Swick
Photos by Marco Herrán
A few hours before her band’s eagerly-anticipated Halloween performance, poet-singer Otep Shamaya met with Rob Swick from All Access Magazine to talk about music, media, and messages...
All Access Magazine: Tonight it’s Halloween in Hollywood, and Otep is playing the world-famous Whisky-a-Go-Go where, back in the psychedelic era, the Doors were the house band. Otep Shamaya, in another interview you said that when you played the Viper Room years ago, you experienced a kind of “visitation” from Jim Morrison, right?
Otep: I think so. I mean, we had been told that the place was haunted, and it was kind of a big night for us, it was a showcase, and we were getting ready to come down for the show, and all of a sudden the music comes over the intercom, over the P.A., and it’s “Roadhouse Blues.”
AAM: Since this is Jim Morrison’s stomping ground, the Whisky, do you feel any kind of presence, vibe, sense of communion across the decades?
Otep: Well, the Doors are one of my favorite bands. And of course, the type of show we do is heavily influenced by the Doors’ live show. And so whenever we play here, I always hope to have some sort of creative connection, and it always feels like we have. Something blossoms beautifully in this place.
AAM: You do believe in omens, don’t you?
Otep: Sure, absolutely.
AAM: Then, speaking of omens, I would imagine you have a good vibe for your upcoming CD release, since, if I’m not mistaken, isn’t the title something like “Recognize the Signs, Obey the Omens”?
Otep: That’s a slogan for it. That’s not the title.
AAM: Do we have a title yet?
Otep: We do, but I’m not allowed to release it, the label’s will just strangle me.
AAM: Understood. Can you tell us when the release date is expected to be?
Otep: Early next year, they keep telling me February or March.
AAM: How many tracks so far?
Otep: Twelve tracks, with one “hidden.”
AAM: How much of tonight’s show will feature new music?
Otep: Three songs. We’re doing a ten-song set: five songs from the first record, two songs from the second, and three from the new.
AAM: You’ll be touring for the new release, won’t you?
Otep: Yes, we’re doing the first-ever “user-generated tour,” in November. We teamed up with Eventful.com, and allowed the fans to choose, the fans voted, and it’s the first time it ever happened. The response was incredible, we actually do have some of the most passionate and beautifully-inspired fans ever.
AAM: Let’s talk a little more about that. For instance, here in the Valley we have different interesting little population pockets. Do you find unexpected pockets of fans here in the Valley, or in L.A., or for that matter, around the country or around the world?
Otep: It’s always interesting to me whenever we go to play different cities. It’s a different culture, everywhere, and you can usually tell which areas you’re in by the style of dress and things that are indigenous to certain cultures. It’s always surprising to me to find that the counter-culture is so amoebic now, that it doesn’t have a central sort of leadership, it’s not focused, and maybe it never was, but especially now – it’s so thinned out, and I think that has a lot to do with the Internet. That allows people to connect. And so whenever we do shows like this, it’s always a blessing for me, because I’m able to connect with people that have the same mindset.
AAM: On that note, you’re known as a West Coast or L.A. band, to a degree. Do you or your bandmates claim any particular town, barrio or neighborhood as “stomping grounds,” from either old times or current times?
Otep: It’s hard to do that. We don’t really segregate ourselves to Silverlake or Hollywood. We’re an L.A. band, and we feel that all the different elements of L.A. represent us.
AAM: In addressing what you represent, do you sense any kind of thread between early protest-related metal such as Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” all the way up to songs of protest like your “Warhead”? Is there any connection, any thread of continuity?
Otep: Oh, sure, I think that there is in some respects. I think it’s the job of an artist to provoke. That’s a definition of art. People ask, “How do you know this is art?” – you know, if it’s Impressionistic or modern art, or whatever. If it provokes something inside you, then it’s art. And I think that people who do this for a hobby aren’t necessarily representing their audience the best. It’s our job to speak, when we have a voice, because there are so many people who don’t.
AAM: So true. And speaking of voices, you know L.A. lost hard-rock radio station KNAC a while back, but now we have Indie 103, which appears to have featured your “Buried Alive,” maybe among other tracks. Are you getting other local airplay?
Otep: No, we’re not, not that I know of. But I know that one of the DJs on KROQ is a real big fan. He came out to one of our shows and he was asking me, “Why don’t I have any of your music?” And I said, “I don’t know.”
AAM: Okay, to find out more about how your music got started, can you tell us how young were you when you started writing?
Otep: As soon as I understood what a story was, I started writing. I was still in grade school, probably.
AAM: Did you keep it to yourself for a while, or were you able to share even from those early times?
Otep: I shared it with my mom, but that’s it. I wasn’t raised in any intellectual, progressive household.
AAM: And it was after you found your written voice that you began to develop your audible vocal style. How did you begin to develop your style, which I think is still evolving?
Otep: I think it’s an artist’s job to always evolve. Once I feel like I’ve plateaued, it’s time for me to switch to another genre or another medium.
AAM: Well, coming out as Otep did, around the year 2000, were there certain influences that might have helped you?
Otep: Sure, bands like Tool, Korn, Slipknot, The Doors, Nirvana, The Deftones. I think all those bands made such an impact because of their uniqueness. They were so unique, and had their own identity. There are not a lot of bands that have identities nowadays.
AAM: Among the aspects of your own identity is your vocal range. How do you protect your voice from show to show, month to month?
Otep: I drink a lot of tea. It’s Yogi Tea, for the throat. A lot of lozenges. And I actually do know some vocal warm-ups and lessons and things to strengthen and protect. It’s all muscles. I think a lot of times singers’ egos get in the way of them stepping and admitting that they may do exercises or something, and I think that’s silly, and I think, why? You should always want to protect your instrument.
AAM: Do you play any other instruments now? Strings, keys or percussion?
Otep: I won’t ever dare to say that I play any instrument. I mess around a little, but I compose more than I play. That’s what the musicians are for.
AAM: And the composition process is a team effort. Now, you’ve been through various personnel changes over time, so we want to make sure we get the lineup for both tonight’s show and the new disk. Obviously, Otep Shamaya, lead vocalist. We’ve already seen Evil J on bass. Karma Cheema is who you’ve got on the axe tonight, and on drums would be Brian Wolff. Now, are these the same guys that will be on the new disk?
AAM: Any other featured performers, backups?
Otep: No, but I wrote with a lot of people on this record, not only the band. I wrote with the guitar player from Mudvayne, I wrote three songs with him. I wrote with another songwriter I was really pleased to work with. That’s part of what I hope to do, to be inspired and challenged by as many artistic influences as possible.
AAM: And you’ll even be willing to synthesize or merge or meld with other minds.
Otep: Sure – how else am I going to grow?
AAM: Let me ask about the live performance experience. Do you find it to be a catharsis for you?
Otep: Sure, absolutely.
AAM: Can it then be a way to disperse negative aggression, to help to re-focus it possibly in a positive direction?
Otep: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that’s the point, the whole purpose of it. I find art to be a method. You have to want to be saved, you have to want to grow, you have to want to change and heal and get strong. Nobody’s going to knock on your door, bop-bop-bop, and hand you a new life. It’s more about being consistent and focused and passionate about it.
AAM: Do you believe, though, that we can fully “exorcise” our demons, or must we simply come to grips with them, learn to live with them?
Otep: I think we must learn to put them in chains. I don’t want them to go away. I don’t want anything to go away – I want to always remember it. But I just don’t want it to control me anymore, I want to control it.
AAM: Remembering the excesses and untimely demise of Jim Morrison, for instance, or how about Rozz from Christian Death a few years ago – when do you know when to step back from the “edge,” maybe of madness or self-destruction, and how?
Otep: You know, self-destruction is counter-productive, and at the same time, who are you satisfying with doing that? I mean really, who are you going to end up hurting? And are you just really surrendering? I would prefer to go down in a fight, rather than just fold my hands and say, “I quit.”
AAM: Will the Whisky provide the stage tonight for some kind of “dissident cabaret”?
Otep: Of course. All of our shows are dissident cabarets.
AAM: It appears one of your influences was French writer Antonin Artaud, who asked, “Who am I? Where do I come from?” Do you begin to answer, or try to answer those questions, when you suggest that we “shed our skins”?
AAM: You have said that you’re a message-driven band, and not only can you, as a writer, stand for something, but your fans can stand for something too, for instance, when we come to the term “shadow soldiers.” For the uninitiated, what do you mean by “shadow soldiers”
Otep: I feel like a lot of us live our lives in the shadows, invisible. So I felt like it’s important for people to feel empowered by, say, their isolation, or if they don’t feel like they really fit in anywhere. So I felt like they should feel empowered by something, so we gave them a label that I felt was important. Plus, at the time, you had all this b.s. Republican rhetoric going on with “shadow soldiers” and “terrorist cells,” so I thought it was just a nice play on words.
AAM: As a message-driven band, in summing up, do you have a message or word of encouragement for the people who will read this interview?
Otep: I hope that they will continue to define themselves – and don’t ever allow anyone else to tell you who you are.
AAM: Thank you so much. All Access Magazine thanks Otep Shamaya and the band for their time and attention for this interview, and for what’s sure to be a great show. Happy Halloween, and rock on!
Photos by Marco Herrán