What follows is my first attempt at authoring a history of Skinny Puppy. It is by no means the official document and it is not above the possibility of error, especially in cases where little documentation exists. Please email any comments, sources which confirm or deny, or errors you may find to firstname.lastname@example.orgA Brief History of Skinny Puppy
Achieving an accurate
account of the genesis of Skinny Puppy is a daunting task. Occurring almost
twenty years ago, little documentation (or even clear memory) exists of
the conception of what would become one of the most innovative, expressive,
and unique musical entities ever. Furthermore, the band did not burst
into formation in the typical tradition; but rather developed gradually
as the essential elements came into place. This makes a retrospective history
all the more difficult.
A few things are clear, however. Kevin Crompton, having played in bands since the age of 13, was the drummer for the Canadian synth-pop band Images In Vogue in the early ‘80s. Eventually, he found the format all too restrictive and yearned to create something without such limitations. He began to experiment with raw, caustic sounds on his own, inspired by the potentials of pushing the electronic music technology he had become familiar with in Images In Vogue to new levels. Kevin explored the concept of found sounds as the basis for music and discovered the limitless potential of treating instruments with effects such as delay. He was lashing out at the pop music he had become sick of playing in order to satisfy his edgy aesthetic by perverting the very tools which it used. As far back as ’81, Kevin had the idea for an experimental band named Skinny Puppy and even created membership cards for a few of his friends, the presumed future band members. To A Baser Nature, featured on the Back and Forth series 2 CD, was recorded by Kevin and IIV band-mate Joe Vizvary in May of ’83 as the first ‘official’ Skinny Puppy recording. Another early, pre-Ogre track was Meat Flavor. It is highly possible that other tracks from Back and Forth series 1 /2 and vol. 3 are also from this period. The name was in place, but soon the next vital component would be added, that being a vocalist.
Sometime in ’82 or ‘83 Kevin Crompton encountered Kevin Ogilvie (reportedly at a party although Ogilvie was roommates with Gary Blair Smith of IIV beginning in May of ’83). Ogilvie had not been in a band before but was an amateur author of sorts. Their recollections of their meeting differ, but both seem to agree that they ended up jamming on some music together. This eventually spilled over into improvisations at their respective apartments. Legend has it that at one point during one of these ‘brap’ sessions Crompton had to leave for an Images In Vogue practice. While he was gone, Ogilvie is said to have written the lyrics to K-9. A picture of life through the eyes of a dog, it quickly became the perfect concept for a band called Skinny Puppy, both of the members of which just happened to be animal lovers. Ogilvie now found himself permanently in the role of lead vocalist. Separating himself from both his drumming duties in Images In Vogue and his identically surnamed band-mate, Kevin Crompton donned the pseudonym cEvin Key. Ogilvie adopted the moniker Nivek Ogre, a reverse spelling of his first name and a rather menacing corruption of his last. In February of ‘84 the band made their live debut. Confusion about this event is also rampant, but it seems that the band performed at a Vancouver art gallery called Unovis. A friend named Wilhelm Schroeder was in the audience, though he would not remain there for long. While aside from Ogre’s face paint this first show was a ‘normal’ concert, on subsequent occasions Puppy quickly developed the theatric sensibility that would be their live trademark. Skinny Puppy had a need to distort the perceptions of an audience tranquilized by the all too common performances of electronic bands which were distinctly premeditated. Ogre’s sense of theatre, combined with their mutual love of horror films, made for a blood soaked performance leaving the audience questioning just what was real and what was not. Skinny Puppy would continue to create this horror theatre through every live performance in the band’s existence.
The duo had soon finished their first collection of music, Back and Forth series 1, the legendary demo tape self-produced in a run of only 35 copies in early ‘84. The tape was compiled almost entirely from their home recordings, save one track which was recorded at Mushroom studios. This session was due to the help of Dave ‘the Rave’ Ogilvie. Rave had worked on some of the Images In Vogue records and allowed for Skinny Puppy to have free studio time at Mushroom. Rave would soon become a vital part of the band’s work, co-producing their every recording after this initial session and earning the status of unofficial band member.
While only a minute number of copies were made, Back and Forth series 1 had a massive impact for the band. The tape, in part, led to the band’s signing to Nettwerk Records, a new independent label started by cEvin’s friend and fellow electronic music buff, Terry McBride. Their first EP was recorded at Mushroom and released in ’84. Their true debut, Remission features Skinny Puppy with a more refined vision than on their previous tape, yet a wider scope conceptually. The idea of life through a dog’s eyes was quickly being expanded as Ogre improved at his new skill of lyric writing. For the listeners, this EP established the sound that would become Skinny Puppy’s trademark and the foundation for all that would follow. Harsh vocals, dark synths, jumping rhythms, and dialogue samples, all processed and distorted. Skinny Puppy’s sound was in some respects a bridge between the old school industrial sound, such as that of Throbbing Gristle, with the more traditionally musical techniques of early electronic bands such as Kraftwerk. Along with a uniquely dark tone, this made for a truly innovative combination.
For a time, Skinny Puppy acted as cEvin’s expressive outlet while he continued to play in Images In Vogue. During this period, cEvin and Ogre performed as the opening act for Chris and Cosey, however they were billed as Hell ‘O’ Death Day rather than Skinny Puppy. This intended one-time project focused on the more experimental soundscape side of the duo’s music rather than the more danceable side shown by the Remission EP. It shortly became clear that this music was too good to not release. Much of it was included in the various versions of their next work, the full length Bites LP. Bites saw Skinny Puppy developing their sound further and utilizing the LP format for a greater diversity of styles. On the date of its release in ’85, cEvin quit Images In Vogue, making Skinny Puppy his full time project. It would remain so for the next ten years. Bites also featured guest appearances by Wilhelm Schroeder on bass synth. Wilhelm, better known as Bill Leeb, was a friend of the band who was enthusiastic about making music. Needing another performer to fill out their live lineup, cEvin showed him how to play bass synth and brought him onboard. Never listed as an actual member of the band on any release, Wilhelm’s input on the records was minimal, but his presence was necessary for the North American tour Skinny Puppy was about to undertake. The Bites tour saw Ogre develop his conceptual theatrics to a new level. Featuring a massive stage set, the Bites show was a carefully developed and choreographed combination of performance art and music. Audiences expecting to see a normal concert were shocked to see the lead vocalist slice his own throat and fall backwards into smoke, grinning as stage blood seemingly poured from his wound. Ogre would continue to develop these uniquely orchestrated and ever more conceptual shows for each tour the band would undertake.
Following the tour, Skinny Puppy found themselves in a state of transition as they recorded their third release, Mind: the Perpetual Intercourse. Wilhelm decided to leave the band during the making of this record, facing the prospect of a world tour which he was not interested in doing. cEvin did not need to look far for his replacement. Dwayne Goettel had performed as the keyboardist of a band which once opened for Skinny Puppy. After their initial meeting, cEvin and Dwayne jammed together, resulting in the track Antagonism. As the two formed a musical alliance, the final component of Skinny Puppy was put into place. Dwayne was a classically trained musician and brought a new level technical skill to the band. This, coupled with the introduction of new technology to the bands' arsenal, made Mind:TPI a vast musical advancement. A more lush, carefully produced record than previous, it showed Skinny Puppy developing the unparalleled sonic depth that was their trademark. The album also contained their first single, Dig It, which became an instant underground classic. With Dwayne, the band had completed the lineup that would remain for the rest of their career and their ’86 worldwide tour in support of the Mind:TPI album established Skinny Puppy’s reputation among electronic and underground music fans across the globe.
Later in the year the Chainsaw EP was released as a stopgap record between Mind:TPI and their next full-length Puppy album. In addition, another important EP was recorded, though not under the name Skinny Puppy. Edward Ka-Spel, the lead singer of the Legendary Pink Dots and longtime correspondent of cEvin, performed his solo show as the opener for Skinny Puppy. cEvin handled his sound and before long the two were collaborating in the studio together. The pair recorded an EP as The Tear Garden, including a version of The Center Bullet with newly written lyrics by Edward. This began a long and fruitful project which would eventually include all members of the Legendary Pink Dots and Skinny Puppy (although Ogre’s appearance was limited to one song). The Tear Garden still continue their infrequent but always glorious collaborations today.
By ’87, Skinny Puppy were leaders in the electronic-industrial music scene. With Dwayne now a full member, they recorded their fourth record for Nettwerk, Cleanse Fold and Manipulate. Expanding upon the innovations in the mixing, production, and use of digital technology on Mind:TPI, the record saw Skinny Puppy fully hitting their stride. Whereas on previous albums the band seemed to develop their trademark sound alongside separate experimental tracks (as with the Hell O Death Day material), CFM fully integrated their various techniques into a coherent and solid work. As a result, CFM was their most focused record yet and is, to some extent, the definitive example of the ‘raw puppy’ sound. The record explored dark ambient and noise/sound collage, the latter style being used to close almost every album after. Ogre underwent a major evolution as well. While not their first instance, CFM marked the shift to social issues and external concerns as the central theme in his lyrics. Following the album, the band undertook a North American tour which would be captured on the live album and video Ain’t It Dead Yet?. The tour was their most lavish yet. Their fans now knew to expect blood from a Puppy performance, so the focus shifted from shocking the audience to more complex onstage imagery. While only one of the many themes of the show, introduced for the first time was Ogre’s battle with drug addiction, graphically portrayed for the audience.
As ’88 began the band took the tour to Europe. However, in the interim, they had been exposed to the issues of animal experimentation. In an attempt to show people what was going on behind the closed doors of laboratories, Ogre orchestrated a new performance which would be the bands most effective show yet. Ogre played the role of experimenter, vivisecting a very lifelike stuffed dog (nicknamed C.H.U.D. after the horror movie) before the audiences eyes. As the show progressed, the tables were turned and Ogre became the subject of the experiment. Continuing the theme of drug addiction, Ogre was subdued with needles and eventually strapped into a chair. The apparatus then threw him upside down, simulating the sudden head trauma experiments subjected upon laboratory apes.
Their following album, VIVIsectVI, further attempted to expose the horrors of animal testing. Testure was protest against such experimentation and by confronting listeners with the cold, hard facts, Skinny Puppy attempted to raise awareness of what was usually kept quiet. The album touched upon issues of chemical warfare, political reaction to AIDS, and industrial pollution. Surrounding these lyrics was a much harsher and noisier soundscape. Having built the model ‘puppy sound’ on the previous record, the band was now experimenting with it and taking it in new directions. They constructed songs out of found sounds such as radio samples, used an increasing amount of live drumming, and included even more detail in the treatments of voice and instruments and the mix itself. VIVIsectVI was the most sonically dense Puppy record yet and was absolutely unrelenting. The single B-sides and CD bonus tracks also hinted at the variety of styles cEvin and Dwayne were experimenting with as a team on their own. In time, those styles which did not fit Skinny Puppy would find their own outlets in various side projects in which the duo would participate. The band toured North America, utilizing the same stage show as the previous European tour with a new set-list. Audiences everywhere were shocked by the previously hidden horrors of animal experimentation. The band would be forever synonymous with animal rights.
Another important event in the life of Skinny Puppy occurred around this period when Ogre and Al Jourgensen of Ministry became friends. Ogre toured with Ministry, even playing a version of Smothered Hope with the band, and became part of Al’s ever rotating line-up of collaborators. In a surprising move, Al was brought on to co-produce Puppy’s next album, Rabies. Whether friendly competition or serious battle for control over the sound of the record, the conflicts brought into the open long-brewing interpersonal problems in the band. The record was completed, and to the shock of many fans featured a stripped down, skeletal sound more akin to Puppy’s early records than the dense textures of VIVIsectVI. Indeed, Bites begot Rabies. Much has been made of Al’s influence on the project, some saying he ruined it by injecting it with his trademark sound, but the fact is that the Puppy’s themselves were interested in pulling the music back to the basics. With the exception of their final album, Rabies is the most controversial of their career. Paradoxically, it contains one of the most universally loved tracks, the eerily beautiful Worlock.
After completing the album, Ogre and Rave returned with Al to Chicago to finish his next Ministry record. With the band's relations in a precarious state, the concept of a support tour for Rabies was dashed and Ogre chose to tour with Ministry again. It appeared that Skinny Puppy was dead and for a time they were all but officially broken up. The members pursued other projects and styles of musical expression outside of Puppy’s idiom. Ogre was pursuing a project with Al called W.E.L.T. (a name he would later resurrect multiple times). Titled perhaps in response, cEvin and Dwayne got together with some of cEvin’s old band-mates from his pre-Puppy days and formed Hilt. Al Nelson, who also managed the film aspect of Puppy’s live shows, was the lead vocalist for a project that surprised and offended the sensibilities of many electro-philes. An odd combination of hardcore, reggae, rock, and almost any genre you could think of, Hilt displayed a more humorous side of cEvin and Dwayne’s work. The project was continued, ultimately amassing two full-length albums, an EP, and two singles. Sadly, Al Nelson passed away early in 2000, though the possibility of further Hilt material emerging from the vaults exists. In addition to their planned W.E.L.T. collaboration, Al Jourgensen was also apparently grooming Ogre for a spot as lead vocalist on his Revolting Cocks project. Ogre recorded two tracks which eventually appeared on the album Beers, Steers and Queers, but his relationship with Al soured while on the tour and the two never worked professionally again. Nothing came of their W.E.L.T. project, although one track circulates among tape-traders and Al ended up with the non-existent band’s logo tattooed on his arm.
Though many had already delivered the band’s eulogy, Skinny Puppy reconvened in 1990 and recorded what for many years was a fan-favorite album, Too Dark Park. The album’s sound was a quantum leap ahead of Rabies. Anything but skeletal, the lush textures and mind-bogglingly enormous amount of tracks were new territory. They were taking advantage of new technology, and in the process created an audio environment more dense and warped than they had ever achieved before. Despite their creative achievement, tensions within the band still existed, and the members began doing shift-work in the studio. Ogre would work when cEvin and Dwayne weren’t there and vice versa. With Rave as the go-between, they were able to find common ground in the music itself. Lyrically, Ogre expanded upon the environmental issues covered on the previous two records, with ever increasing parallels to the pollution of his own body with chemicals. In addition to the change of sound, and of decade, Puppy went a different route for their artwork on Too Dark Park. Having used Nettwerk favorite Steven Gilmore for all their previous records, Puppy decided to go for a different look, seeking Jim “I, braineater” Cummins, an artist for whom they had a longtime appreciation. Sharply opposed to Gilmore’s photo based texture collages, Cummins full, painterly style and penchant for grotesque, disturbing creatures encapsulated the new album’s sound perfectly.
Following the release of Too Dark Park, Skinny Puppy undertook a tour which would once again up the ante for their live performances. The tour featured Ogre’s live theatrics onstage, with a more lavishly disturbing set and props than ever before, intertwined with a prepared backing film. Utilizing the video editing techniques with which they created the infamous Worlock video, Puppy created a full-length film to accompany their set. A masterful amalgamation of stock footage, horror and art films, television broadcasts and shocking video of animal experimentation, the film blurred the lines between fantasy and reality, entertainment and journalism. Quick cuts and video loops allowed Ogre to codify a video counterpoint for his stage show and indeed, Skinny Puppy’s sound.
While this period allowed Skinny Puppy to reach a new artistic height, the inter-band relations were still strained. The members again took breaks from Skinny Puppy throughout 1990 and 1991, participating in a number of other projects. Ogre toured with Ministry and began his long affiliation with the ‘super-group’, Pigface, contributing vocals to a number of songs and touring with the band many times. cEvin and Dwayne found an instrumental outlet for their material in Doubting Thomas, which released both an album and single. In addition cEvin reunited with Wilhelm Schroeder (now bill Leeb) for the Cyberaktif project and both Hilt and the Tear Garden reconvened resulting in new material. These various projects allowed cEvin and Dwayne to explore different facets of their sound and develop new methods of working which would be put to use on their next record as Skinny Puppy.
In 1992, Skinny Puppy released Last Rights. Regarded by many as their finest work, the album showed Skinny Puppy developing Too Dark Park’s sonic chaos into a multifaceted work of dark beauty. Recorded during a low point in Ogre’s battle with drug addiction, the lyrics illustrated Ogre’s reflection on personal issues rather than outward social commentary. The album journeyed through a number of musical styles and techniques, yet was unified by a coherent sound. Unfortunately the album’s unity was disturbed by the lack of its penultimate piece, Left hand shake, which could not be included due to sample clearance issues.
Text © Corey Goldberg
Text © Corey Goldberg
Special thanks to Scott Graham and Mario at InMove for inspiring me
to get off my ass and start writing this and to Joe Vizvary for his assistance
beyond the call.