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Interview: Otep

Defying definition, Otep Shamaya is a multi-faceted creature known as much for her lyrical tongue and fierce growls, as for her outspoken personality and willingness to defend her beliefs on today’s politics, LGBTQ+ rights, moral veganism, and more.

Music Existence was able to connect with Shamaya via Skype before she embarks on a North American tour this Friday, April 8th, (tour dates here) to promote her upcoming album Generation Doom.

Please note: The heavy nature of some of the subjects discussed could trigger survivors of sexual trauma.

For more information, check Otep out at: iTunes | Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube

ME: I have two groups of questions for you—one about touring and one about the album. Let’s start with touring. You’re about to launch a tour for your upcoming album, Generation Doom. I was wondering if you had any pre-tour or pre-show rituals you’d mind sharing.

Shamaya: After sound check, Ari Mihalopoulos (guitarist), Justin Kier (drummer) and I normally pull out about 500 pounds of free weights and work out. Then right before we go on stage, the guys and I share a quiet moment in the bus or green room. We’re pretty pumped by that time, and we use that moment to focus, remember why we’re there [and] why we’re [performing]. I’ll recite Shakespeare’s “Once more unto the breach dear friends,” or “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” Then we race off the bus, hit the stage, and all mutiny is unleashed.

ME: Your live performances have an almost ritualistic aspect to them. How did that come about?

Shamaya: I always saw live music as this religion of the soul. For me, it felt at some parts a political rally, some parts a religious sermon, and some parts a mystery cult. I don’t know. I guess it organically happened that way.

I was and still am a big fan of The Doors and Jim Morrison. I felt that his approach to being a singer and leader of the band was [to be] a shaman of the tribe. Like shamans did in the old days and still do, his job was to go into the spirit world, find visions, find guidance for the tribe; and then come back and speak those words, those spells, those visions, and those prophecies. That’s how I saw art and being a poet.

ME: Other than The Doors, who were or are your artistic influences?

Shamaya: I was a literary kid so I read a lot of books. I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson; and the Beat poets Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsburg; and Harlan Ellison, who’s a science fiction writer. Musically, I was raised on Biggie, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, and Nine Inch Nails, so those are the musical influences that had the biggest impact on me.

ME: You offer a free meet and greet at the end of each of your shows, so you get to meet a lot of fans, and it seems like people relate to your music in a variety of ways. I was wondering, and this is a potentially heavy question—but what is the most impactful story you’ve been told?

Shamaya: There are different things that have happened and fans that have showed up. For example, I met a woman in the Marine Corps. She’d served in Afghanistan. She thanked me for speaking out for them and against the war, because [she and her comrades] didn’t feel like they were being utilized properly. They felt like George W. Bush was holding them back. She gave me the hat that she wore in combat.

Active duty [members] have given me infantrymen medals they earned in combat. In fact, [there was] one particular soldier that came to our shows. One of the things he said the first time we met was, “I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. Your music motivated me to find purpose, so I joined the Marine Corps.”

Then he came back [at a later show], and he was fit and really just a good-looking, very polite dude. He reenlisted, because he felt like it was his duty. His friends were still there; he wanted to make sure he went back and fought next to them. [When] I saw him again, he’d been injured permanently and could barely stand anymore. He said, “This is the tallest I could stand in a long time now that I’m meeting you.” That just hit me—the power of music, what it can do for people, how it can inspire and motivate. It truly is an electric and living entity. Art is alive.

I’ve had people tell me they came out to their parents, and they came out to the world because of me. They’re living their life. They found their true self, and they’re the happiest they’ve ever been. People have told me that they met their husband and wife at our shows and found the love of their life. [There have also been] people on the verge of suicide who found courage and strength through our music, and are now helping others. Those are all amazing to me.

One of the saddest things—and I hate to bring it up because I don’t want it to be too dark of a conversation—but I remember this one lady came to me once at a meet and greet. She wanted to thank me for the shows, the music, and for always speaking out. She was very gracious and kind. She handed me a little baby blue blanket. I said, “Oh, what’s this?” I thought it was an odd gift, because it was dirty and old.

She said, “This is what I survived, and this is why I’m still here. I’ve lived with this my whole life and if not for your music, I don’t think I’d still be here. This is the blanket that my stepfather used to put over my face when he molested me.”

That was one of those moments when I was like, “OK, where is the guy? Let’s go get him right now. I’ll round up the whole crowd, and let’s go.” I wasn’t kidding.

But she put him in prison and said, “It was because of you that I was actually strong enough to face him, make the call, get him arrested, and face him in court.” Part of being a victim is the shaming that comes after. It’s a bigger betrayal than the actual assault, because you’re looking for people to rally behind and support you, and to be by your side, because you have been injured. Yet some people tend to attack victims for no reason other than they’re just evil people.

So those were some of the things that have made me feel really good. I remember one particular mother thanked me for saving her son’s life, because he was bound to a wheelchair and had been going through some really dark times. She said, “Your interactions with him on social media, the time you take to make sure he’s OK, and how you VIP and give him a great spot to watch the show just changes his whole life.” She said it lasts for months, and it’s not something she could ever repay. It moves me to even talk about it. I feel like that’s the least I can do. The least I can do is to be kind to someone, but that’s becoming a rare commodity these days.

ME: Thank you for sharing that. In listening to Generation Doom then, I noticed some threads tying to racial tensions, LGBTQ+ themes, and even the current political environment. Were these issues in your mind when putting the album together, or am I reading into it?

Shamaya: No, those are all areas that are evident on the album. I have family that was in law enforcement for decades. When all of these news stories started breaking about how bad cops were gunning down unarmed children in the streets, I asked them, “Is this a new thing?”

And all of them said, “No, people just now have cameras on their phones.” The whole idea is that there is more media coverage, because people are speaking out and no longer afraid. I’ve been a victim of unwarranted police violence. I can absolutely relate, so I wanted to make sure that was part of the album.

As far as LGBTQ+, I’m openly gay. I’ve been openly gay for a long time. We are in the 21st century, and we’re still fighting for equal rights in this world. Just the other day, North Carolina, Georgia, and [Mississippi] were/are considering signing anti-gay legislation into law. Luckily, corporations like Disney and I think even the NFL or the NBA said they would boycott and no longer do business with the states if they sign these discriminatory laws. That’s wonderful, but there are still people in governance in this country discriminating against a certain type of people. We are American citizens, and we are under constant attack.

As someone who is a very loud proponent for equality, even I still endure gay bashing. “Equal Rights Equal Lefts” is a song I had to write. Part of the song is about an actual event that happened while I was on holiday in Hawaii with my ex-girlfriend. We were in an area that had a lot of couples and this one very ignorant, evil man decided he was going to pick on us out of everybody that was present. He made sure we knew he was disgusted by our relationship. He asked if I believe in equal rights, and I said, “Sure, I even believe in equal lefts.” And I put my fist up. I can’t talk too much more about it, but the next part of the song goes, “he called me a dyke / i called him an ambulance.”

This song is written as a call for gays and lesbians to unite; to be proud of who they are; to do what Harvey Milk did with the Castro District; to make the gay and lesbian areas where there are bars and clubs a safer area to be out and proud; but also a place where we can rally and organize politically to have a real voice in this country. Any place where the hideous head of bigotry shows itself, we’re there to lop it off quickly with righteous indignation and justice.

ME: The album art, too, had a dystopian feel. How does that tie in?

Shamaya: I knew what I was going to write about. I had this feeling. I was going to jot down all of my personal observations and experiences from the past few years, and then I saw the movie, Mad Max: Fury Road. The villain, Immortan Joe—excuse me, I almost said Immortan Don, because he reminds me so much of Donald Trump—but Immortan Joe is this tyrant who controls his people by one commodity, water. What I love about this film is, yes, it’s one of the best action movies ever made. Yes, it’s a movie about a strong female lead, a strong character. Charlize Theron is a hero taking these women to the green place far away from this horrible wasteland where we’ve destroyed the world, sucked all of the natural resources out and allowed one person to control the only commodity that keeps us alive.

Look at the world right now. California’s experiencing the worst drought ever. We haven’t had real rain in almost two years now. It’s the worst drought in recorded history in the state. There are riots in Brazil, because they’re literally running out of water. The hedge fund managers and these giant investors who foresaw the collapse of the housing market and invested in it so that they could make millions—I’m sorry, billions—of dollars on the collapse of the middle class and the working poor are now investing in water. They’re buying up large tracts of water sources in South America and Africa, because they know water will soon be more of a valuable commodity than gas or oil.

That’s where we’re headed right now, because of climate change, man’s impact on the environment, corporations, and animal agriculture. I’m a moral vegan, so I have no problem talking about this. Four of the largest animal slaughterhouses in the country contribute to one-fifth of all water pollution in America. That’s just four, and there are thousands of slaughterhouses in this country. Not only that, but it takes a thousand gallons of water to produce one steak. It takes 13 pounds of grain to yield one pound of meat, yet 13 pounds of grain can feed an entire village.

We can move off of fossil fuel simply by investing in solar, wind, and alternative energy sources. I live next to the Pacific Ocean. Why don’t we have underwater turbines that generate electricity? That’s what dams do. Why aren’t we building those out into the ocean? Why isn’t every field in the desert states covered in solar panels to produce clean energy for our country? Why don’t the windiest places have wind turbines? Why aren’t we collecting water in places where it rains 300 days of the year and bringing it to places where we’re having droughts instead of making farmers use old oil drilling machinery to crack open the earth/drain underwater resources?

We have technology. We have smart people that know how to do these things, yet we fall into this trap that idiots and reality TV stars like Donald Trump know how to do. They push these buttons of xenophobia, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Throw some religious dogma on top, and suddenly you’ve got people completely ignoring what’s happening to this planet. Anybody that wants to deny that man has an impact on climate change, just drive your ass to Los Angeles. Look how beautiful this wonderful city is, then look up at the sky and wonder why it’s yellow. It’s not a natural phenomenon. That’s from car pollutants, corporate pollutants, and animal agriculture. If it were up to me, we’d turn every slaughterhouse into a greenhouse. We’d put those animals into sanctuaries where they can live out the rest of their days happy, with compassion and kindness, the sun on their backs and wind on their face.

ME: Those who are adamantly against climate change might still not believe it’s causing all of this.

Shamaya: Some people still believe the earth is flat. Ignorance is nothing we can cure. The rest of us who are alive, awake, and aware need to be louder than those who are eternally, eagerly, and willingly dumb. We need to shut them down. We’ve been quiet too long, and we’re seeing the repercussions now.

ME: You mentioned all these meanings behind Generation Doom, and there was some online buzz about taking a hiatus after you released Hydra. Did these events bring you back?

Shamaya: Indeed, that was part of it. When I said Hydra was my last record, I meant it 100%. I was not coming back to music in a professional sense. I was still going to do it whenever I felt like it—maybe self release some stuff—and still tour (because I enjoy that part). But I wasn’t getting back into bed with a corporation that was going to try to fit me into a genre where I don’t belong or tell me that “Perfectly Flawed” isn’t an Otep song because it’s not heavy, or that “Equal Rights Equal Lefts” isn’t an Otep song because it’s not rock enough. It’s absurd to say, because to me it’s the message that guides the music. It’s not the other way around.

I took some time off. I focused on some other aspects of my creative life. I did voiceover work. I did some film work. Of the ones I can speak about, I did The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies. I did a PlayStation game, The Last of Us. I also wrote a book of short stories called MOVIES IN MY HEAD, and then we went out and toured whenever we wanted to. It was fun.

From that experience and also with the rise of all this nonsense that was coming, I was able to start to feel the spirit of music inhabiting me again. I just felt like I couldn’t be silent. I just couldn’t. It was impossible. It was coming from a very personal place this time, whereas in the last few records—Hydra aside, which is a concept album—I was trying to motivate people to be politically and culturally active. This record came more as my diary transcribed into music.

ME: That leads me to another question, which is about your songwriting process in general, especially for this album. Do you start with diary entries or completed poems?

Shamaya: I don’t write what I’d guess you’d call a traditional diary. I write poetry. That’s how I communicate to my soul and how my soul communicates to me, because sometimes it’s not a conscious thing. It’s not contrived. It just happens.

I’d gone through a pretty devastating breakup with someone I thought at the time was the love of my life. I’d never been loved like that nor had I loved anyone like that before. My confidante, companion, best friend, and lover [were] all the same person, and suddenly [she was] gone. It was devastating and extremely difficult for both of us. Fortunately, I was able to utilize art to help abate the pain, which is how I created the first record. By rediscovering poetry in this way, I was able to guide myself out of that misery.

So from that poem where I wrote, “something’s wrong with me / for thinking something’s right with you / now my thots float like moths / over a fading flame,” came the song “In Cold Blood.”

The same thing [happened] with “Lords of War.” That came from a poem after I saw what was starting to happen in Syria and the Middle East, and the cry for the republic to put our boots on the ground like we didn’t learn our lesson under George W. Bush – of course, right?

“On the Shore” was written a bit about my breakup, but was also sadly inspired by the refugee crisis and that little three-year-old boy who drowned in his father’s arms. They were trying to find sanctuary and trying to escape war. They were trying to get away from the bombs falling, and they were trying to find someplace peaceful. And their boat capsized. In the dark water in the middle of the night, somehow his boy slipped out of his arms.

When you’re a child, you see your parents—mostly if you have a good relationship with them—as the strongest people in the world. They’re your protectors. They’re your gods. They’re the ones that will save you from the monsters in the dark. And as a father or mother, you feel like that person. You make the promise that, “No matter what happens, nothing’s ever going to happen to you. I’m never going to let anything bad happen to you.” You say that, and you mean that. Here’s this father taking the chance to get away from war to save his son and family. For their boat to capsize, for him to lose his son in that water, for his son to die terrified—not knowing what’s happening and reaching for his dad—and for his dad to survive only for his son to be found by strangers washed up on the shore…

And then to hear Donald Trump in his idiocy and his stupidity and his hate, and all of the conservatives and Ted Cruz and all of their stupidity and their hate. Ted Cruz’s father was an immigrant who escaped Cuba, who escaped tyranny, and moved to Canada. For him to talk badly about immigrants is hypocrisy at a level I never knew existed. It’s infuriating. It’s insulting, and it has no place in American politics. We have a very ugly history in this country that we have fought so hard to get past, to live up to the true capacity of America’s promised dream, the long arc of justice that’s what Marin Luther King used to speak about.

America is not a monarchy, and it is not an empire; we are an idea that all are created equal. Our job is to keep making this idea accessible to everyone so that equality is not just a figment—it’s an actuality. It is our job to make this idea of reality available, and for these idiots to get on these stages and talk about refugees?

We are a nation of immigrants. There were indigenous people who lived here for thousands and thousands of years. They had empires here. Native Americans opened their arms to the European invaders. Native Americans didn’t ask for green cards or tell them to get in line. They invited them in. They helped them [avoid] starving to death in the winters. They gave them food only to be given poisoned blankets covered in small pox—which is biological warfare—pushed off their land, their children and wives murdered, their religions stolen, and pushed onto reservations out in the deserts where they can’t grow food or raise livestock, to be minimized to a goddamn mascot on a football team when they are a proud race who allowed Europeans to live here. For Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and all those jackasses to demean the whole plight of refugees when this country is based on refugees is insulting to our very existence. I felt insulted to the very core of my artistic soul, so I had to write a song that celebrated that young boy and father’s legacy.

I don’t know them. I don’t know if they’d like me or if they’d like someone like me to write a song about them. That’s not even the point. This song is my feelings about it, and I felt that I needed to write something that celebrated their plight, celebrated their hopes and their dreams, and how they were taken away from them simply because their country was at war, and no one else willing to help them.

ME: Another song I wanted to bring up is “Royals.” I wasn’t expecting you to cover Lorde. How did you go about selecting that?

Shamaya: Well the label wanted a cover, as labels are wont to do. They usually want a cover. We’ve done covers in the past. We’ve covered Nirvana’s “Breed” and “Not to Touch the Earth” by The Doors. They threw out some ideas that probably would have been OK. We could have done them, and people would have been happy. But I wanted to do something that was exciting, almost shocking in a way and [something that was] also a challenge for us. As a vocalist and an artist, I wanted to take something and make it my own.

[We knew] it would be difficult, so we listened to a lot of bands and artists that have taken songs. I decided I didn’t want to do an old standard. I didn’t want to take something old and make it new. I wanted to do what Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan used to do. They would cover each other’s songs. They were contemporaries, so I wanted to try something that was contemporary and something that really spoke to me. We were listening to a lot of artists/bands that had done something similar, and I heard Johnny Cash’s version of NIN’s “Hurt.” I was like, “That’s it. That’s how we do it. We just make it an Otep song.”

I’m a huge fan of Lorde. I think that she is lyrical genius. Her artistic intention is brilliant. When she wrote “Royals,” she was only 15. To be a 15-year old and not write about what other 15-year olds write about, bragging about how much money you have, your Prada and your Gucci, your “this” and your “that,” how many boyfriends or girlfriends you have, and how many people are envious of you. She wrote about her truth. She was authentic about it and that was so impressive.

I grew up very poor. It was dangerous in the house, and it was dangerous outside the house. Our neighborhoods were not safe. I had a lot of great friends, and I remember listening to music and those songs. Man, there weren’t any rock stars driving around in our neighborhoods in fancy cars with chicks in bikinis. There weren’t any rappers walking around with whatever they’re walking around with. None of that was happening in our neighborhoods. I never related, and although I write poetry, I never wrote it down in a song and she did.

I just thought of how brave she was to do that, and I wanted to celebrate [this bravery] in my own way. I mean, she’s obviously a much more successful artist than I am, but this is my homage to her and my thank you to her for keeping it real in a world that does not respect real. Obviously, it does with her, but it was a gamble. It was a big thing, and she did it because she wanted to. That song spoke to me, and I feel like it’ll speak to our fans because a lot of our fans are working class. They’re working poor. We’ll never be royals. That kind of luxury just ain’t for us, as she says. We don’t come from money. We’re not trust fund kids like Donald Trump. Whatever we have, we’ve earned.

I think this song speaks to that. It speaks to our fans, and it spoke to me because of my childhood. I remember playing it, and we didn’t tell the producer Howard Benson, who by the way is just phenomenal. He’s an amazing producer. He’s sold 50-60 million records, something like that, worked with all types of bands, and is just really remarkable. I remember the first time I met him at his studio and he goes, “OK, so you see all the platinum records on my wall. You see my studio. You see what we do. Are you willing to change anything that you do to work with me?”

My heart kind of stopped and I just said, “No, I’m not.”

And he goes, “Great, Let’s do the record!”

From then on, I knew Howard and I were going to get along. But I remember playing him “Royals.” The song came on with the opening guitar bit with the drums. It’s really heavy. He smiles and shakes his head like “Yep, that’s good.” Suddenly the verse comes in, now he knows what it is, and he looks at me, a big smile cut across his face, and he pointed at me like, “You did it, kid.” In that moment, I felt like we’d done something special. I’m really excited it made the record. I fought the label to make sure it made the album. We’re going to be playing it live, so that’s going to be a lot of fun.

ME: Then my last question is if you had any last words or anything you’d like to say to fans that might be reading the piece.

Shamaya: I’m just truly lucky. I’m very grateful to have so many passionate fans that have been with us since the beginning, and every day we get new fans discovering us. It’s a blessing to be surrounded by so many passionate people who are willing to share this journey with us. For me to be able to come out and write this record that’s very personal and private, and be able to feel safe among my fans, my core people who I know have my back, is truly a blessing that I never thought I’d have. I’m absolutely grateful for it, and I appreciate every single one of them.

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