The Mean Synths and Fast Drums of Industrial Pioneers Skinny Puppy

Skinny Puppy is infamous for its macabre theatrics, replete with staged mutilations, uncanny masks, and scenarios involving people in hazmat suits, bondage wear, and business attire. The band has been doing this since 1982, minus a hiatus that started in 1995.

But the Vancouver, Canada–based band’s true legacy is as one of the most influential acts in industrial music.

The group’s signature sound combines heavy dance rhythms produced mainly by synthesist cEvin Key (born Kevin William Crompton) with primal, distorted vocals by Nivek Ogre (Kevin Ogilvie), who is responsible for the group’s transgressive lyrics and performance.

And indeed that influence runs deep. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, for example, has cited the band and its early single “Dig It” as majorly affecting his own approach to music. Reznor’s own music is frequently built around the type of overwhelming industrial beats that Skinny Puppy pioneered.

Skinny Puppy - "Dig It"

cEvin Key attributes that pounding rhythm to, of all things, his childhood. Over our email correspondence, Key described growing up in a musical household, one that boasted both a piano and an electric organ with a rhythm machine.

Though he began crafting songs at a young age, it was receiving his first drum kit that made him fall in love with creating. Key’s fascination with rhythm and percussion has been a constant companion, and it clearly defines his music.

And in a way, it was that fascination that largely informed his collision with synthesis.

Building An Arsenal

Key had his first big run–in with synths haphazardly at a drum store. “When I was about 13 — this was about 1974 — I recall seeing a modular system, though I’m not sure which one. It looked Martian. I turned a knob and thought it did a lot. Each one was magic, even though I didn’t really know what it did," he remembers.

In 1980, Key would join the new wave band Images in Vogue as a drummer, gaining access to a Sequential Circuits Pro One and Prophet 5, an ARP Pro Soloist, a Moog Source, the Syncussion, and all sorts of drum machines.

And then in the summer of 1983, he would form Skinny Puppy with Ogre, marrying his affection for rhythm with his synth experience.

In Skinny Puppy, Key would combine the Pearl Syncussion SY–1 Percussion Synthesizer with acoustic drums, becoming one of the first drummers in North America to use that drum machine, and would become the second drummer in North America to use a Simmons kit.

To that end, Key was inspired by Yukihiro Takahasi, drummer and lead vocalist of Japan’s electronic pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra. But Key had much darker music in mind than anything that sounded like the Japanese avant–garde pop act.

Key didn’t actually own a synthesizer until be bought a Multimoog, “a two–oscillator synth with an impressive modulation section,” he muses. “I bought this with a case for two hundred dollars. I think the first song I wrote on it was ‘Glass Houses.’ [The Multimoog is] all over Remission.”

A New Industrial Sound

In its earliest iteration, Skinny Puppy favored analog gear. The group used Roland’s TR–808 and TR–909 to push experimentation and the decibel count in industrial music. Drum machines were always high in Skinny Puppy’s mix, their pulse mechanical and relentless.

Key listened to early industrial music like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire and enjoyed those bands both conceptually and musically. But he remembers being struck by the fact that, “Most industrial music up to that point had minimalist rhythms.”

He chose to work with rhythms that were heavier, faster, and meaner. For this, he drew from the programming methods of fellow Images in Vogue member Joe Vizvary. “The way [Images in Vogue] used the Pro One, triggering sequenced notes from the TR–808, was essentially the recipe for many Skinny Puppy songs to come.”

As time went on, the band developed an adventurous approach to technology, adopting digital samplers, MIDI interfacing, and digital synthesis. In the late ‘80s, Skinny Puppy entered the world of computer production with the Steinberg Pro 24 program. In 1995, Key adopted the first version of Logic, long before it was owned and serviced by Apple.

With that said, the band had a habit of remaining loyal to same gear over the years. The Atari computer that the group used on 1988’s VIVIsect VI was in commission through 1995’s The Procress — Skinny Puppy’s final album before its hiatus and the death of keyboardist Dwayne Goettel.

Skinny Puppy - "Glass Houses"

A Dangerous Gift

Although Key has used modular equipment for some time, he downplays its impact on his composition. He’ll note, however, that the modular synthesizer taught him to become a better sound programmer, thanks to its easy patching.

His Eurorack modular synth was a chimera. “Harvestman gave me a gift, a dangerous gift. Then Malekko followed, and then Analogue Heaven, and before I knew it, I had a modular synthesizer.”

For Key, his modular gear is great to play with and use for making audio snippets, but is not where he feels most compelled. He prefers to use a classic keyboard synth, though he’s always looking for new gear and ideas.

“I can't say there is a perfect synth out there. That’s why you try another one. But some are pretty close to heaven for expressing a feeling. I don't have a favorite synth. But if I did, it would be the Pro One or a darn nice Minimoog with delay.”

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