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OTEP Interview
Written by Robin Stryker   
Monday, 02 May 2016

OTEP Interview
March 2016 (via Skype)

Early 2013 looked like it was going to be the end of the line for the California artcore band, Otep. Disillusioned by the music industry, Otep Shamaya announced that Hydra would be the band’s final album. But after a three-year hiatus, Otep are back with a new album, Generation Doom, which is their first release through Napalm Records.

OTEP Interview


Sonic Cathedral’s Robin Stryker sat down with Otep Shamaya for an uncensored, freewheeling chat about all things Otep. Dive in for the deeper meaning behind Generation Doom, giant orange bullies with small hands, paradise run amok, and much more!

Sonic Cathedral:  Hello, Otep, and welcome to Sonic Cathedral!

Otep:  Hi, Robin! How are you?

Sonic Cathedral:  I am fantastic this morning … and loving the whole Fury Road aesthetic from your Generation Doom photo shoot. What is it about the character, Furiosa, that resonated so strongly with you?

Otep:  Well, I think that it was surprising first, when I went to go see it. It is called Mad Max: Fury Road, so I guess I went in under the assumption that it was going to be a movie about Mad Max. But it’s not. It is really focused on this hero, Furiosa, who decided at some point that she could no longer live or function under the despotic, tyrannical rule of Immortan Joe. She wanted to liberate these women who he was using to spawn the perfect child, and take them to a place where water wasn’t the controlling commodity, where there wasn’t someone basically destroying individuality.

She wanted to take them to the “Green Place”, where nature was still intact, freedom still existed, and equality was possible. And she was willing to do anything to reach that place. She is a strong figure, and there is no back story -- she is just a strong woman and a strong character. It just impressed me. I related to it quite a bit, actually, because I feel like that is in some ways what motivates me when I create my art.

Sonic Cathedral:  In your mind, is there a commodity to which we are held hostage, whether politically, ideologically, or an actual physical resource?

Otep:  Sure. Yeah, there is. For one, there is intelligence. We are denied true intelligence, which is stolen from us and kept from us by fear. Donald Trump is a prime example of that. He hides facts. He hides behind truth and being authentic by generating fear, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and sexism; and is able to detonate a lot of these people, who share these same kinds of beliefs, into these rolling rages of support.

To deny the fact that climate change is real -- that man has any impact on the environment -- is a LIE, and it’s intellectually fraudulent. Anybody who doesn’t believe that is welcome to drive on out to Los Angeles, look at how beautiful this city is, and then stare at our sky and wonder: “What natural phenomenon makes that yellow haze that’s hanging over the city?” Oh, it’s not at all natural. It’s actually car pollutants, corporate pollutants, and animal agriculture.

If you’re speaking about a physical commodity, water is definitely becoming a desperate commodity on this planet. We are running out of water. In fact, the same people who saw the housing market collapse during the Bush administration -- the ones who forecast it before anyone else saw it, started betting against the housing market, and eventually made billions and billions of dollars -- you know what they’re investing in now? WATER. They see it; they see that it’s coming; they know that it’s coming. We’ve had the worst drought in California in recorded history. Brazil is having water riots at the moment, and it’s all because we refuse to hold our political leaders to account to make sure there is stronger regulation on corporations, so we can have a planet to live on.

As far as cultural commodities, sexism still exists in this world. Racism still exists in this world. Being an individual, being able to live your life as who you are, being able to live authentic, and to live your true self: those are still very rare commodities that are kept from us by people who want for everyone to be the same, because it’s easier for them to control you if you are just like them.

OTEP Interview 

Sonic Cathedral:  You have been protesting and battling through your music for nigh on 15 years. With the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage and some of the laws relaxing, did anything actually change or did the problems just go further under the surface?

Otep:  I think it’s definitely changed for the better. When Donald Trump says he wants to “make America great again”, great again for WHO? Gays? Minorities? Women? This is probably the best it’s been for all of us. That’s a sad state, considering that we’re America, a bastion of democracy. “All men” … and I think we interpret that now as “all humans” … are created equal. There is no asterisk there; there is no footnote; it doesn’t say “if you’re white, if you’re Christian, if you’re straight.” No. “All men are created equal” and “[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident[.]” Self-evident means that there is no denial, there is no argument to be made -- it is self-evident … it’s proof, it’s fact … that all are created equal. So yes, we have.

I’ve had my own issues with President Obama. That’s fine, and everybody does. But his administration has made some great strides … at least culturally they have … and he signed the Lilly Ledbetter [Fair Pay] Act. <scoffs> For some reason, in the 21st Century, in this era, we still need to make a law that it’s illegal to pay women less than men for the same job. We had to create a LAW to make that illegal. That is INSANE to me.

We had to dismiss DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), so that gay people can get civil unions. This means they can just walk to the courthouse, and get a marriage license, so that they can share taxes and have rights to each other and their lives. We also have “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. What is really frustrating is that it doesn’t matter if there was gay marriage in certain states, and gay marriage was illegal in other states, which is how it was for a while. You could get married in New York, but you weren’t married in Texas. But still, there were gay churches in Texas. There are. We call them “gay churches” because that’s where gay people go to church because they don’t feel welcome in straight churches. So, there were gay churches, and there were gay weddings. They weren’t recognized by the state or by the government, but they still happened.

All that they did was make it legal, so that same-sex couples could share tax benefits and have healthcare benefits, which includes being by the side of their loved one -- their partner, whom they’ve been with for decades -- on their deathbed. It is just absurd that anyone who pretends that they’re a religious person would deny that. I mean, this is about love. This is about finding love in a very ugly world sometimes. If you’re lucky enough to find it … no matter whether it’s same-sex or not … then, you know, may the gods BLESS you. Because how rare is that?!? So, I feel like we’ve made some progress.

Unfortunately, the reason why I named the record Generation Doom is because I saw this coming. We have made all of this progress, and we have all of this technology at our fingertips to get us off of fossil fuels and to divert investment money into alternative sources of energy. In the desert states -- where there are huge open tracts of land in California, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico -- why aren’t there just fields and fields and fields of solar panels? Here, off the coast of the Pacific Ocean, why don’t we have turbines that generate energy from the ocean currents underwater? Why don’t we have wind turbines in the windiest places in the city?

Why aren’t we collecting water in places where it rains 300 days of the year (like in Washington), and bringing that water to places that are having severe droughts like California, where we are in the most severe drought in recorded history … I think we haven’t had rain in a year-and-a-half. We are running out of water in Brazil, where they are having water riots. These large hedge fund managers and corporations are buying water sources in South America and parts of Africa. This is happening RIGHT NOW.

I feel like we are on the precipice of either pushing forward towards a world in which I think we all want to live, where the air is clean and the water is clean. I’m a moral vegan, so I want to end animal agriculture someday. But at least in the meantime, we can increase animal welfare while they’re waiting to be made into food for some people. Four of the largest animal processing plants (which means slaughter houses), four of them contribute to one-fifth of the water pollution in America. Only four!

Sonic Cathedral:  Really?!

Otep:  Yeah, only four. We were talking about water, and the reason why we talk about it so much is because we can’t live without it. We just can’t; it’s impossible because our bodies need water. It takes 1,000 gallons of water to create one steak -- a THOUSAND gallons of water. It takes 13 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, yet 13 pounds of grain could feed an entire village. We could literally end world hunger in a year’s time, if we moved from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet. But will we do it? Will we take that step because we love each other, love our planet, have empathy for all living things? I don’t know, but I hope so.

Again, revolution sometimes doesn’t happen all at once. And when it does, it rarely lasts. It is just like a diet. You know, when you go on an extreme diet, lose all that weight, and are like “yeah!!!!” And then two months later, you’re like: “I could probably have that cookie … uhm, I could maybe have ooooone more cookie.” Then suddenly, your diet is broken. But if you stick to a regimen of good health and good living, you’re more likely to keep the weight off.

I feel like that’s what happens with cultural movements too. It is what Martin Luther King called the “long arc” of justice. Just because it’s not happening overnight, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I think that we will see it, and we just have to remain diligent. When we see a loud-mouth orange anus (with a ridiculous comb-over) blathering on and on -- and insulting his way to the Republican nomination without having any real policy specifics, and bullying women, and bullying Muslims, and bullying people of color, and bullying gays and lesbians -- we have to stand up together, and say: “You have no place in this country … let alone, in this world … but especially not in this country. And you WILL be held accountable.”

I assume that if Trump wins the Republican nomination to go into the general election, you’ll start to see large boycotts of his enterprises. Or whatever there is left of his enterprises. I mean, the man is basically on his last legs, and I think this is why he did this. There is this old adage … it’s horrible, and I’m a moral vegan because I love animals (which is why I don’t eat them), so I cringe a little when I speak about this … but there is this old adage that, if you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly heat it up, the frog just stays in the water. It doesn’t jump out, and will eventually die once the water comes to a boil. But if you drop a frog into boiling water, the frog immediately jumps out.

That adage applies to two things -- one, being global warming. As we are starting to see this slow shift, we just adjust ourselves as humans to our surroundings. But it also applies to the cultural changes (for the better or the worse), we just need to stay the course and stand up to giant orange bullies with small hands. <all laugh>

Sonic Cathedral:  I suppose Napalm Records is gonna kill me, if we don’t start talking about Generation Doom, eh?

Otep:  Oh right, that part, yes. <laughs> All of this pertains to the record, so you’re safe! All of these emotions, my perspectives, and all of those observations are all on the album. And that’s why I called it Generation Doom.

 OTEP Interview

Sonic Cathedral:  On balance, the album is rather furious. But honestly, the two tracks that hurt me most are also the quietest -- “In Cold Blood” and “On The Shore”.

Otep:  Thank you.

Sonic Cathedral:  They feel like lemon juice is being squeezed into a deep cut. They ache and burn … ouch! What is behind those?

Otep:  To understand that particular thing, prior to that, I had been in particular place when I said that Hydra was going to be my last album, and I really meant it at the time. I had gotten to a place in my life where I felt like music had been robbed from me by the suits, by the executives, by these corporate guys who wanted to shove me into a genre and to ignore the message. For me, it was never about the genre, and it still isn’t. It’s always about the message. I started out as a poet, and words matter. That is all that matters -- the emotional medium that I use is just a way of communicating it.

I kind of lost the spirit of music for a while, so I went off and did voice-over work in film and TV and video games. I did the last Hobbit movie (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies); the PlayStation game, The Last of Us; and I wrote a book of short stories called, Movies In My Head. I also toured, and we just did it as an unsigned band. It felt like things were before the first record, where there was this magical thing that was just starting to happen. In time, I was starting to feel carbonated again and effervescent. The spirit of music was returning to me again, and I was starting to write poetry. It felt like a return to my natural self, my authentic self.

I went through a really devastating break-up. I had never been loved by someone like that before, and I had never loved someone like that before. <softly> She was my best friend, my confidant, my lover, my companion … and suddenly, it’s over. She was gone, and I was gone, and it was very painful for both of us. I was devastated, and I didn’t know what to do with that pain.

In the beginning, it was just overwhelming. And then, I guess it was just fortunate for my soul that I’d rediscovered the spirit of music. Because I wrote a poem, and part of that poem was the chorus for “In Cold Blood”: “Something’s wrong with me for thinking something’s right with you. Now my thoughts float like moths over a fading flame.” When I went back and reread it sometime later, I felt a melody in there, and that’s when that song was birthed. It was really difficult to expose something so private.

After being guarded for so long, to go back to a very vulnerable place on an album, it was really, really difficult for me to do that. But I felt like I needed to get it out of me so that the pain didn’t inhabit me. That’s what art is for … art SAVES. But also, I was hoping that somehow, in that darkness, there would be beacons that would find me and that would tell me: “I’ve been through it too. You’re gonna be okay.” Sure enough, fans heard it, and that’s what they told me. So, that was very rewarding.

“On The Shore” came from a similar place of loss. Right around the time I was revisiting those lyrics for “In Cold Blood”, I saw the newscast about that little Syrian refugee boy who drowned and was found on the shore. It hit me really hard because, here was a father desperately trying to escape war. It was a war that he had no business in, that he didn’t want, and that he wanted to get away from, so he was taking his son to safety. He was taking his son across the water to get away from all that evil, to hopefully give him a better life … but the boat capsizes. It is pitch-black, it’s cold, it’s freezing. As a father … well, you know, I don’t have children … but I do have dogs, and they’re my children. And I have godchildren.

Sonic Cathedral:  Amen to that!

Otep:  I’ve lost a dog. She was my baby, and I lost her to cancer. She died the day of her surgery, and I just remember feeling so devastated by that. She was in so much PAIN, and I tried so hard to comfort her and to make her feel safe, like: “I am here; I’m going to make you okay. No matter what, hon, I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

I’ve done that with my godchildren too, like: “You know what? You don’t have to worry about anything. Auntie Otep is here, and I’ve got you.” And I’m thinking about this father, who’s got his son in his arms, and he’s telling him: “I’ve got you. Don’t worry, I’ve got you.” But in the middle of all that turmoil, he loses his son, and he doesn’t know what happens to him. The father lives. Not only does he lose his son, but he lost his wife and I think he lost another child.

To know that your poor son died in a panic, looking for his father whom the son thinks is the strongest man in the world, is the strongest person, is a god on earth when you’re that young. Then the father -- having made those promises to his own boy that “I’ve got you son” -- to lose him in that black water, and then to have a stranger find him. The boy is sleeping like babies sleep. They find him with his face down and his butt up, like babies sleep sometimes. That picture just destroyed me, it really did.

With all this ridiculous xenophobic rhetoric that comes from Donald Trump and the conservatives and the Republicans and all these idiots who are talking about keeping refugees out, I just looked at that little boy, and I thought about his father. I thought: “This can’t be your legacy. Not for me. I can’t let this be your legacy, to let someone else destroy who you are as a human being and as a father.” So, that song “On The Shore” just came out of me. It is a very hard song to write about, but at the same time, I think it was necessary. It is very difficult to talk about “On The Shore” without getting emotional, but I’m glad I did it.

Sonic Cathedral:  If you could see me now, I’ve got goosebumps up and down my arms, and my eyes are welling up.

Otep:  It’s the human thing, right? Because we can all relate to that. It doesn’t matter where they come from; it doesn’t matter where we come from. Let’s chip away all of that. If you take away all the branches off the tree, and just look at the trunk, it’s all the same. Mothers and fathers love their children everywhere. It’s that universal, Unitarian, humanitarian thing that we need to remember in this world, especially now.

OTEP Interview 

Sonic Cathedral:  True, indeed. I will say that I was surprised at how taken aback I was with the sexual swagger of “Equal Rights, Equal Lefts”. The surprise was, if you were a dude, the boasting wouldn’t have fazed me a bit. That’s messed up of me.

Otep:  And that’s why I wrote it. Like I said, Generation Doom is a very personal record, so the opening bit of the song actually happened to me. I was on vacation with one of my exes, and we went to Hawaii. If you look into the gay holiday website, it’s listed as one of the safest places. Unfortunately, gay people have to look for safe places to go as a couple in this world. You HAVE to because you can be arrested, you can be beaten up, or you can be attacked. So, Hawaii is actually listed as one of the safest places on the planet to live and to visit. In fact, it’s one of the most progressive places in America. They had civil unions before people even knew what the term “civil union” was for same-sex couples, which is basically a marriage (without calling it a marriage).

I was on my anniversary holiday with one of my ex-girlfriends, and we were in a very romantic spot on the island of Oahu. And this was a big deal for me to go to Hawaii. It was a big trip, and it was a real big deal that we worked really hard to plan, and prepare, and save for. We got over there, and out of all the couples who were sitting around over there … there were other people with open public displays of affection -- and I hate again to have to make that announcement that we weren’t doing that, and we’re GAY -- but straight people don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff, apparently. Out of all the people that he could have messed with, this guy came over to us. We had just finished surfing, and I was taking off my gear. I had just kissed by ex, and she had gone off to take her surf suit off as well. This guy came over, slapped me on the back, and said: “Happy Father’s Day.”

Sonic Cathedral:  Asshole.

Otep:  I was like: “Hey, thanks a lot, man. I appreciate that.” Then he said: “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were a man.” He was an older guy, and he looked like he probably did old-man workouts in the gym, but he forgot leg day because he had these little bird legs. But he had these man boobs, so I said: “No problem. With those man boobs, I thought you were a woman. I was going to tell you that this isn’t a topless beach, and you should probably put a top on.”

So, he said: “Oh, you got some mouth on you, huh?” I said: “Brother, you have no idea.” Then he was like: “Oh, you’re one of THOSE. You believe in equal rights, huh?” And he put his fist up. And I said: “Yeah, and I believe in equal lefts”, and I put my fist up. So, we stood there for a moment, and he started backing up like he was going to fight me. I can’t really talk about what happened next, but the next line in “Equal Rights, Equal Lefts” is: “He called me a dyke; I called him an ambulance”.

When I started to write this song, I wanted to go back to my roots where I’m most comfortable and where I can really attack this song. I wanted to do it with a hip-hop beat because I come from that world. Before I did rock and metal, I did. I wrote poetry, I wrote hip-hop, I used to go into underground clubs here in Los Angeles and do cyphers (where people speak their lyrics), and all that. I also thought about it because, in hip-hop, they brag quite a bit about their sexual escapades, and so do rock musicians.

There is also a lot of homophobia in hip-hop. One of Lil Wayne’s lyrics is something about “some faggot bullshit”. I can’t remember the whole line, but I know that’s in there. When he’s talking about his boys and how much he loves his home boys, he’ll say “no homo”. Or Kanye West will say something about a “blonde dyke”, and that’s perfectly acceptable in their world. So, I really wanted for gays and lesbians, who don’t listen to rock or metal, maybe they’ll hear this song. Or maybe somebody else in the hip-hop world will hear this song, and listen to the lyrics. It’s relatable, and it’s also very true.

There is nothing in that song that is not based in fact. <laughs> When I am not in a relationship, I do enjoy the company of ladies. So, all of that’s there. I think the first verse is really about me setting that foundation with that guy on the beach: “You brought a butterknife to a tank fight.” Then the second verse is really about being gay. You know? <breaks into trap beat>

“I am a pariah to every religion it isn’t a choice but it is a decision come out of the closet break out of the prison love who you are let no one inhibit or get in your way or make the mistake of living in fear for the rest of your days so tighten your fists & firmly say ... the following phrase: he called me a dyke i called him an ambulance”

It’s a call for gays and lesbians to be proud of themselves, and come out of the closet. We can put our peace signs up, we can put our fists in the air, we can be proud of who we are, and we can be strong. It’s a call to organize and unite, like Harvey Milk did in the Castro to make gay and lesbian areas safe for gays and lesbians. Yeah, there can be bars. Yes, there can be clubs. It can be fun, but let’s also make it a place where we rally, where we come together, and where we’re politically informed.

With “Equal Rights, Equal Lefts”, I fought the label on it because they didn’t think it was an Otep song. I was like: “I don’t how it’s not an Otep song. I’m Otep, and I wrote it.” <all laugh> They also thought it was a little lewd. But Nicki Minaj talks about having her asshole eaten out like a cupcake. Drake talks about how many girls he’s fucked. There is one song that was extremely popular, talking about “superman that ho”, which means ejaculating on her back, then putting the sheet on it, so it sticks to her like a cape. So, I think me saying, “she seemed so sweet, I had to taste her”, is relatively innocuous. It’s clever, but it’s not too vulgar.

Then the last line of the song is actually directed to politicians and other religious leaders, who are still desperately trying to make gays and lesbians illegal in this country. We just saw that in Georgia. We saw it in North Carolina just yesterday, where they are trying to sign anti-gay laws to minimize our rights in this country. You had five Republican presidential nominees attend an Evangelical church, where the pastor was on stage holding Bible in one hand, and spitting out the most vile, venomous, heinous, homophonic rhetoric you’ve probably ever heard by a so-called “holy man”. Jesus would not approve, my friend.

“Don’t carve smiley faces into pus-filled sores on gay people,” and just mad ramblings of a lunatic. The pastor said that if his son ever decided to get gay married, he’d sit out in front of the church, and cover himself in feces. I think we’re seeing a little too much of this man’s sexual psyche. Methinks, thou doth protest too much! But he had FIVE presidential nominees -- including Mike Huckabee, who is a minister -- come to this place, and talk to this congregation, trying to get their votes. Meanwhile, the pastor is on stage, saying that he’s trying to build a lobbyist group that will fund campaigns for politicians, who will try to legislate the death of gay people … to make it illegal to be gay in this country, punishable by biblical death.

So, this is where we live. We are still living in this kind of environment. Gays and lesbians are under attack every single day, and we KNOW it. When was the last time you saw a romantic comedy about two gay people that wasn’t an art house film, or that wasn’t Brokeback Mountain? When was the last time you saw a superhero that was gay? There has never been one! Outside of The Birdcage that Robin Williams did so long ago, that was the only one, and that was two men -- it wasn’t two women. So, we’re still under this cultural attack. Yes, things have gotten better. But if we don’t stay diligent, we could lose all of that. Again, Generation Doom.

Sonic Cathedral:  My very favorite track on the album has got to be “Lords Of War” because it is so hooky and awesome. I can’t wait to hear it live during the big Generation Doom Tour! Oh wait, are you going to play it during the tour?

Otep:  <laughs> Yes, we are going to play “Lords Of War”! That (again) is based on culturally all the things that were happening in this country with unwarranted police violence to two wars we’ve still been in for … what, 16 years almost (and we’re breaking into other wars now) … but also how in debt we are to the military-industrial complex. What are we going to do as citizens, to stand up against this kind of tyranny? And that’s what that song is about.

Thank you very much. I really had a lot of fun on this interview! I do a lot, and don’t normally get to have this much fun, and get to answer these kinds of questions. So, thank you very much. I appreciated it.

Sonic Cathedral:  I enjoyed talking with you a ton, Otep! Thank you for the interview.

Much metal love to Jon at Freeman Promotions for hooking us up with Otep!

 OTEP

Photo credit: Paul Brown

Otep official site
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