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OTEP: Confrontational. An Exclusive Interview with Otep Shamaya

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Tuesday, April 17, 2007 @ 9:41 AM

"I can support the troops and

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L.A. quartet Otep — and their firebrand frontwoman and namesake Otep Shamaya — are going to have to wait a bit longer to find out if the third time really is the charm. Just as the band’s thunderous third album, The_ Ascension, was set to drop March 20 on Capitol Records, the rug got pulled out from under them — literally at the last minute — when the much-rumored merger of Capitol and Virgin Records into the Capitol Music Group by parent group EMI finally became reality.

The video for the album’s first single, “Ghostflowers,” already was being played on Headbangers Ball — and was available through the usual Internet outlets. Reviews — many of them quite favorable — were turning up in the metal press from the advance copies of The_ Ascension that had already gone out, and features, including this one, were readying to roll. But with the merger, The_ Ascension has effectively been left in limbo until the suits iron out all the business details, get things reorganized and decide what bands to keep, and what bands to drop. And in the middle of it all, Otep — rounded out by bassist and longtime partner in crime, Evil J (aka Jason McGuire) and drummer Brian Wolff — underwent a change of guitar players as ex-American Head Charge axeman Karma Cheema, who played on The_ Ascension, was let go and a new guy known only as Aaron hastily recruited for a tour with Static-X that already was under way.

Yet despite the horrendous timing of the turn of events with the album situation, Shamaya seems relatively unfazed, looking at it as more as an inconvenience than a potential career-ending setback.

“Maybe there’s a little karma going on here,” she noted, philosophically — and without irony, given the band’s now former guitarist — in an early April follow-up to an interview we did in February, before the shit hit the fan. “We were asked to play Ozzfest [in 2001] after we’d only played seven shows, and got signed without ever having done a demo, so maybe this is someone’s way of saying that things came a little too easy to us as the beginning.”

Prior to the recent business upheaval, Otep were one of the rare modern metal bands that seemingly was being given a chance to build and mature on a major label, instead of merely being thrown out there with a one-shot chance to sink or swim. Otep’s 2002 debut Sevas Tra and 2004 follow-up House of Secrets earned them a loyal and growing audience — thanks to Shamaya’s jarring, disturbingly personal portrayals of childhood trauma and domestic horrors set to a surging, nu metal-tinged soundtrack and the band’s regular Ozzfest stints — but hardly the kind of numbers big labels typically demand.

That Otep were even given a third shot by Capitol with The_ Ascension definitely said something.

Much of The_ Ascension, too, is rooted in Shamaya’s “home is where the hell is” confessionals and diatribes, delivered with even more muscle and brutal authority, something that may have come almost unconsciously as a result of recording in post-Katrina New Orleans where plenty of scars from the hurricane still remain.

In separate phone interviews, one from her home in Los Angeles prior to the label turmoil and another from Texas during the band’s spring tour supporting Static-X, the always outspoken Shamaya offered the following about the minefield that is the music business, the Big Easy after the big blow, the folly of the Bush administration and provocation as inspiration

KNAC.COM: What is your label status, so to speak, at the moment. Has that been ironed out yet?

OTEP: Not yet, no, we really don’t know where things stand, at this moment. We are waiting for the suits and the lawyers and the managers to negotiate everything, but we do expect things to get done sooner than later. We’d like to have it all settled before this tour is over so we can keep the ball rolling.

KNAC.COM: How long is the tour?

OTEP: We’ll be out for three months, it doesn’t end until June, so there’s still time for things to work themselves out. And for now, we really can’t worry too much about that. We’ve got a show to do play every night, and we need to put everything we have into it, which is what we’ve been doing.

KNAC.COM: At least you have the shows to focus on, it might be another story if you were sitting in limbo at home?

OTEP: No doubt. The tour has been magnificent. The bands are great, the crowds are insane. We’re playing four new songs every night — “Confrontation” and our cover of [Nirvana’s] “Breed” which really have a lot of energy and power, and “Ghostflowers” and “Crooked Spoons” which are more dynamic and weird — and the people have been really responding. So we’re getting them excited about the new album and it’s making us feel really confident. It’s an exciting time to be in this band.

KNAC.COM: Are you looking this whole situation as a major setback, or just another one of the bumps in the road that happen when you’re in the music business?

OTEP: Well it is a unique situation, because when everything finally happened the album was so close to coming out. We were doing press, the video was out, all this other stuff was happening. But the merger had been hanging over everyone’s heads for a while, and we can’t help if Capitol fell apart and everyone we were working with is gone.

I guess if it had to happen, better it be right before the album comes out then right after, because now we at least have the chance to find another outlet for it and give it a proper release and support. We’re really proud of this album, and we want it to be given a chance to be heard.

What sucks the most about this is the waiting. Things could work themselves out tomorrow, or a month from now, or six months from now or whenever. And until they do, the album that we have put so much into is just sitting there. But sometimes tragedy leads to triumph, and I’d like to think that’s what will happen with us.

KNAC.COM: What are you looking for in your next label venture, and are you afraid that given how the industry continues to consolidate you’ll be doing this all over again next time?

OTEP: There’s really nothing we can do about the business part of it. But what we’re looking for in a label is someone who understands the type of band that we are, the gets our intensity, our integrity, our mission and message. It’s sad that Capitol, which has had such great artists and Pink Floyd and The Beatles and Radiohead, really only understood “genre” instead of the artistic side of music at the end. They wanted something that was easy to define, and that’s just not us. Wherever we end up, as long as they understand the artistic side of this band and that there’s much more to us than will fit into a convenient category, I think we’ll be all right.

KNAC.COM: You recorded the new album in New Orleans, what were your impressions of city post-Hurricane Katrina?

OTEP: I know it’s kind of redundant but the only news you get is from the news, but they’re not covering what’s going on in Louisiana. And I guess it’s a natural assumption that if they’re not covering what’s going on, if it’s no longer making news, then it’s no longer a human-interest story, there’s no more tragedies, they’re being healed. But that’s just not the case.

I couldn’t imagine that if something like that happened here (Los Angeles) nothing would be done, that that there would be no repairs and things would be left pretty much as they were right after the disaster. But as we were flying in, you could see the fields full of empty FEMA trailers (because so many people have not returned to the city).

New Orleans is an old city and it’s always been kind of dingy, that was part of its character too, and after we got in and set up, we started going around and didn’t really notice anything out of sorts where we were. It looked pretty much the same. But once you got outside of the downtown area, it was like another world.

KNAC.COM: How much did you actually get to see?

OTEP: We actually went down to the 9th Ward (the area hardest hit by the flooding after the levees were breached) and drove around through there. There were neighborhoods that literally have been obliterated, I mean there’s nothing, you can see the foundation, but the rest of the house is gone. There’s nothing left. And there are entire neighborhoods like that. There’s nothing by ripped up insulation and drywall and shingles. It’s insane, other places there’s boats crammed under peoples’ houses. It’s the most amazing sight to see. And you can see where people spray-painted signs on their roofs or walls about missing pets, or missing friends or relatives. And signs where the National Guard found bodies.

It really hit hard and it really makes you think, well, where are the people in charge? Why hasn’t this are been cleaned up? Why isn’t anyone looking out for these people who were working class and just wanted a home near the water? Where is the government? Aren’t they supposed to help these people, too?

But it’s par for the course with this administration. It’s just like that in New York the World Trade Center, there’s still a big hole in the ground there because our leaders can’t get their shit together.

People say it’s about the city, it’s about the contracts and the corruption and everything else. But there’s no reason why people can’t put their heads together and see that these things get healed. But there’s holes all over America right now because of this government, and what a president like George Bush has done and allowed to be done. The system might be fucked up, but it’s a leadership thing and it all falls on the guy who says he’s the decider.

KNAC.COM: What prompted you to do the album in New Orleans?

OTEP: There were a number of reasons. It was important to get out of L.A., to get away from our home and not be encumbered by the day-to-day stuff that goes with that so we could be more creative. And the other thing was to bring some money to the economy there.

I know in the greater scheme of things it might not seem like much, but every little bit counts, people need jobs there. Dave Fortman, the producer, is from there, and I know it meant a lot to him and the people at the studio. So I think it was important to go to Louisiana to work.

And for me as an artist, a place like New Orleans is really inspiring. When I’m writing and being creative, it’s important to me make some connection with things that are mysterious and dark, and you have that element everywhere in Louisiana and then you have the tragedy of what’s happened and what continues to go on. It helped us stay aware of how important it is to stay confrontational.

KNAC.COM: How much of that ultimately rubbed off on the finished product?

OTEP: Not much in the actual songs, because they were pretty much done. Maybe more in the overall mood, or how the stuff ultimately was played. It was like the 400-pound gorilla in the room, it was that itch that wouldn’t go away, it was always there, you couldn’t ignore it. So it definitely had an effect, but in a more subtle way then you might think.

New Orleans is a small city, but it’s a microcosm of what’s going on across the country, a reflection of how this government works and how it treats the people its supposed to protect. It’s a disaster.

We talked to a lot of the musicians and the arartists some of the other cats who are in the alternative culture and the way they look at is that the French Quarter was gonna flood. If they didn’t break the levees and force the water down into the 9th Ward and the impoverished areas there would be no French Quarter left, so there was this whole conspiracy theory thing going on.

I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but that mentality is there and I could see where people would get the idea that this government will put commerce and capitalism first over its people.

KNAC.COM: Were you actually able to enjoy the city, or was it a constant bummer being there?

OTEP: We went in hung out and heard some jazz musicians play, it was just amazing, people were getting up out of the audience and grabbing instruments and playing. It was really cool. My guys, the musicians in the band, were really into that, of course, it was almost like going to the holy land.

But then we’re finishing up and mixing the record and six people get killed over a weekend in some kind of drug war, so they called in the National Guard and they have MPs driving around in armored vehicles all over the city. That was pretty crazy to see, it was a little unnerving because you’re seeing military vehicles pulling cars over, fully armed soldiers dressed in uniform. So that definitely took a lot of the fun out of it.

KNAC.COM: To turn to the album, would you consider this a more political album than your previous ones?

OTEP: I don’t think I’d necessarily call it more political, I just think I’ve gotten better at articulating my thoughts, I feel like I’m a better messenger now. I can tell a better story, I can get these ideas and abstract thoughts and feelings in my head and communicate them a little clearer. I believe the firm foundation of art is to provoke, inspire and motivate. And if you’re doing that, then that’s the definition of art.

But there’s songs on the last album, House of Secrets, like “Warhead,” that was meant as a blistering and scathing attack on the Bush administration and all their bullshit and their lies and getting us into a war that was totally unnecessary. I wrote that when he had like an 80 percent approval rating and he could vomit a pile full of bullshit onto a plate and people would eat it up. And I got attacked for that from a lot of different sources and people from other bands who were saying, “well music shouldn’t be political.” And I’m like, “are you fucking crazy? You know what it is, you’re just afraid to take a chance you’d rather take the safe road.” They can keep writing safe, numb, risk-free music all they want, anesthetizing themselves with this bullshit and allowing people to tell you what to think, how to feel, what’s right, what’s wrong. But as an American, as a woman, as an artist, I’m going to speak out because it’s my right to express myself when I see something that I believe is wrong. And now you’re starting to see some of those bands coming out with political songs and album covers with the Statue of Liberty and flags and all that stuff.

KNAC.COM: Was your motivation the same for “Confrontation” on the new album as it was with “Warhead?

OTEP: There’s a different angle to that song. It was about writing a protest anthem to stand up, speak out and strike back. To celebrate the unique opportunity that we have here in America. You can do anything to have your voice be heard in this country, that’s the beauty of this country. There’s no one stopping anyone in America from getting out on the street and saying something or writing a letter or e-mailing and text messaging now that everything is now, now, now.

And there’s people who are gonna be like, “Well these people are over their fighting for you rights in Iraq.” Well if that’s that case and they really are in Iraq fighting for our rights and to secure democracy then don’t mind me for celebrating those rights. I’m doing exactly what that’s allowing me to do.

KNAC.COM: But then they’ll turn that argument around on you with that, “If you’re protesting the war then you’re just helping the terrorists win.”

OTEP: My point is that I’m smart enough to hold two opposing views in my brain at the same time. I can support the troops and understand that they’re just doing their jobs while at the same time protesting the war and what got us into it in the first place.

A woman actually gave me her fiancee’s dog tags and told me thanks for speaking out because they can’t, they’re not allowed. And we get so many messages from soldiers in Iraq, and people who we’ve seen on tour who were on leave or were being shipped out or who had come back from the war, who tell me that, “we’re not allowed to say anything against the war, against the president, say what we feel. We’re just doing our jobs, we’re doing exactly what they’re telling us to do to the best of our capabilities with what they’ve armed us to do but we can’t speak out against the big guys.”

So for this record it was important for me to try to communicate again what motivated me at the time and be authentic and as honest and as vulnerable as I could be as an artist.

KNAC.COM: You certainly deliver it with plenty of authority. I was a little surprised by just how heavy and how, at times, extreme this album sounded.

OTEP: We’ve had those tendencies before, we’re basically a fusion band, that’s the way I like to look at it. We try to take elements from all the different types of music and styles that we like and ultimately let the feel, and what’s emotionally right for a song, dictate what fits. Dynamics are really important to us and to our song composition, and a lot of bands now don’t seem to care about that. They string a bunch of parts they seem to think is interesting together and call it a song, and that becomes muddled and confusing. Song composition and songwriting seems to have become a lost art.

I wanted to write and album and create something in a way that I like my art. I like my art to be dynamic, where I see a message in there but I can also find myself in there. I don’t necessarily have to understand, maybe I’ve never had my heart broken or whatever it is the song’s about, never experienced it. But I can empathize. That’s what I really tried to do with this album. Find that way of presenting songs to people that is not so selfish as “like look at us, look at us, we’re important” but “pay attention to us. This is a shared experience for all of us, welcome to our universe, but find your own place.”

KNAC.COM: Other than J, you’ve had different line-ups for just about everything you’ve released. Has that been by design, new blood = new energy, or would you rather have a stable line-up?

OTEP: It hasn’t been a conscious thing, where I’ve wanted a different band for each record. That’s just the way it’s worked out for any number of reasons. But in the same respect, being responsible for so much of the music has probably helped me explore creativity and almost forced my own evolution, which I’m very happy about.

I’m in constant state of flux, I always want to get better at what I do and I try to be better at what I do try to grow and evolve, more data and more data. And that can be too much for some people, but it comes down to do I slow do or keep peddling and hopefully find someone else who can.

But I am very proud of the line-up we have now, I’m hoping in a perfect world we can keep it together. J has always been my underboss, my Sammy “The Bull” Gravano. I’ve finally found two other musicians who really fit with what I think it our band should be. They have the same mentality about evolving and trying different ideas and wanting to be better and having that hunger to change and they love to play live music and love the whole atmosphere of playing live and playing heavy music. I’m very proud of the record we’ve made and I’d like to see this thing that we have started keep moving forward.

KNAC.COM: What happened with Karma, and how is your new, new guitarist Aaron working out?

OTEP: Aaron’s been doing great, he’s getting better and more comfortable and confident with every show. He knew our drummer, so it’s not like he’s working with three other strangers and he, J and Brian are all Chicago boys, so there’s a common thread.

I don’t really want to get into the situation with Karma other than to say that life on the road with this band is not suited to everyone. There is work involved, for us every show counts, we’ve got to keep riding the crest, and so far Aaron’s been up to the test. We’ll see what he’s like two months from now (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Apologies in advance, but I did want ask a “women in metal” question. Now that there are more women doing really aggressive music, and enjoying considerable success like Lacuna Coil and Arch Enemy, do you still feel like you need to prove yourself or has it finally gotten past that?

OTEP: Well it’s the journalists who can’t seem to get past that (laughs). But when a group of us get together, as musicians, which is rare, we don’t sit around going “well it’s really cool to be a girl in metal now.” We just don’t talk about it. Are there still stereotypes? Sure. Are there still limits that people are surprised we’re able to destroy? Absolutely.

But, again, I suppose the stereotype about women not being able to do everything men can do, it’s like an old tattered flag that’s just kinda flapping out there. You get so used to it you don’t even notice it anymore, but if someone else came along and raised a new flag there’s going to be more pride there and more passion and something else beautiful to salute.

I’ll say this, since we started out as a band, there weren’t that many women even coming to shows, and the ones who were usually hanging on their boyfriend’s arm. Now it’s incredible to see. The bravest people, at our shows especially, are the girls that are lining up on the front row because they’re the ones who are getting crushed by the people behind them and having to deal with the crowd surfers.

But also, as far as being respected by male audiences, I guess there has been a paradigm shift during the time since we’ve come out. And I hope seeing a band like us or Arch Enemy has inspired other women to carry the torch. But I just wish it would get to the point where we weren’t asked these kinds of questions.

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