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Exclusive Interview: cEvin Key on modern horror, collaboration, and why his fifth solo album is connected to his first

Thursday, February 18, 2021 | Interviews

By EVAN MILLAR

Having had an impressive career that’s seen him spearheading the formation of countless radically different side projects, Skinny Puppy co-founder cEvin Key is no stranger to the concept of constant artistic rebirth.

Central in groups such as The Tear Garden (with The Legendary Pink Dots’ Edward Ka-Spel), Doubting Thomas (with fellow Puppy instrumentalist Dwayne R. Goettel), Download (with fellow Vancouver musician Phil Western and Dead Voices on Air’s Mark Spybey) along with several others, it’s safe to say Key’s prolific musical stylings are hardly contained to just one sound. Still, it’s easy to identify his work as a producer and writer across all of these groups: busy psychedelic melody that effortlessly melds with volatile percussion and an abundance of playful, spine-chilling electronic wizardry.

With Key’s fifth solo album RESONANCE about to release on February 19th, Rue Morgue reached out to discuss how it’s poignant collection of tracks came to fruition, his success with Patreon, and even ruminate on the state of modern horror films.

Check out our review of RESONANCE and read the full interview below.

What was the first song you began working on for RESONANCE? Did you already have this album in mind, or did it come from a jam session or another project?

I began a writing period that started in 2015 or so. I organized the ideas in numbered folders, and just continued making jams on my own or with Dre Robinson and friends. After some time, I went back to review and dig into the ideas that were speaking out to me. The first concept was to make a new Tear Garden album with Edward, so the BROWN ACID CAVEAT was made in late 2016/2017. Continued to jam after that and by September 2018, Phil Western had come down and we began working on UNKNOWN ROOM out of the same collection of folders. This was released in March 2019, just after Phil passed away from an overdose. That was kind of overwhelming, and various things were going that pointed towards a fifth solo album. I started on the album midway through 2019 after trying to shake off my pain from losing Phil, so I knew this was going to be a special album for me. It had all the same markings as when I made MUSIC FOR CATS shortly after the death of Dwayne Goettel. Everything almost seemed like a repeat, so in some ways it was musical therapy.

You’ve said in the promo materials for this record that it’s the closest you’ve felt to making an “old-school” album. Does this extend to any of the gear you chose to use or the recording technique itself, beyond the overall thought-processes while composing the music?

I think most of all it was using the opportunity to lose myself a bit in the idea of making an album that would mean something to me. Spiritual and inspirational, because I really needed to pull myself out of the potential depression I could see coming from losing Phil. My ordeal with Dwayne 25 years earlier was so tough for me to get over. It has taken years to feel somewhat OK, and not have the daily challenge of just being able to get over my own thoughts. So connecting with sound, the instruments – though not so particularly inspiring – was the outlet. I also found that for me the best method is to jam out an idea regardless of anything, and then have an exercise where you move on before the idea gets played 100 times or micro-edited. It was more inspiring to come back to an idea and treat it like you are your own partner. Aaron Funk (of Venetian Snares) once said to me that with this method, you end up jamming with yourself as a partner. It’s an interesting approach and one that I had to try.

The album is your fifth solo record, but it’s the first to also have the Subconscious Electric Orchestra subtitle since 1998’s MUSIC FOR CATS. Was there any significance to this making an appearance again, apart from bringing attention to your collaborators on this project?

I’ve always enjoyed collaboration. The collective has been coming into itself over the past years and I think the idea of us being a orchestra is a concept that keeps everybody excited for the mutual sharing concepts. It’s great to have a connection to others that are forming. With Dre, we have jammed for years, and the framework of our ideas is something I love to come back to and begin carving a full idea from. Sometimes we’ll make three jams in a day, a few times a week, and then I’ll go back after and see how it strikes me later on. With some other people like Omar Torres and Traz Damji and now meeting Guilherme and Eric through Patreon, we have formed a little collective where the possibilities are exciting to us. The collaborators I love to work with are positive people and we pump each other up I think, mutual excitement and respect. There isn’t any negative stimulus to deal with or challenges that I am tired of dealing with. Making music should be a fun opportunity and as soon as it isn’t, then that is a problem.

How did you go about choosing who you wanted to work with this time around? Did you have certain musicians already in mind, or did they come to you after the groundwork for certain tracks was already laid down?

I had done a few remixes with members of my Patreon crew and a few guys were regular contributors, but I noticed that the contributions were very strong and in line with how I felt. So I sent a couple of the ideas to them and really Guilherme just seems to understand the ideas. Working with Traz as I’ve done in Scaremeister and Skinny Puppy since that reformation has been very fun. I did “I Love to Ride the Shinkansen” with Traz a few years back and it’s one of my favourite tracks that I’ve ever made. We share the vibe for that and there really isn’t anything better than being on the same page. I know we secretly wanted to get out our breakdance fever for “Tomahawk.”

Despite being friends for several years now, this is the first time Chris Corner from IAMX has appeared on one of your songs. How did you meet Chris, and how did “Anger is an Acid” and “Dark Trail” come about?

I met Chris about 6 years ago, and we have been friends ever since conversing one day about Japan’s QUIET LIFE album. Seems it made a dent for both of us at one time, but our musical sensibilities seem very in-sync as do our personalities. We were really just enjoying being friends, hanging out sometimes and had no plan to make music. One day, I wrote the musical structure for “Anger is an Acid” and thought to myself, “Hmm, it’s kind of in Chris’ key.” On a whim, I forwarded the track to him. Nothing happened with the track for over a year, and then one day I decided to send him “Dark Trail” to hear and he remarked that he’d like to do some stuff on it. The approach to “Dark Trail” was quite a bit more minimalist in that he did vocals while walking in the desert and added some modular bits and pieces. In some ways it was kind of an obscured collaboration. Oddly, a short time later (maybe 16 month), Chris sent me the “Anger is an Acid” track and I practically fell out of my chair. I guess it was Chris’ key after all! It was so amazing to have that feeling again of matching up with someone so well… it’s frightening. It’s also cool that he and Edward share the same birthday, so perhaps there is something astrological!

You’ve worked with Edward Ka-Spel for nearly four decades now. What’s your favourite thing about making music together?

His unbridled enthusiasm is so infectious that if I send over a track I feel he would like, my hunches are often returned with an idea in a day or two, and that opens up the doorway so to speak. He can evoke a picture or create an avenue where an idea can travel to, and with each recording I’ve made with Edward, there has been some magical spirit. I think we share such a strong love for creating together that it comes out in the music. Never any issues, just love and mutual respect for each other, I think brings us to our full potential. I’ve never tired of making music with Edward for that reason alone.

“Kallakan” is a hauntingly beautiful track and a cornerstone of the album for me upon my first listen. Can you speak a bit about how the collaboration with Tuvan throat singer Soriah came about?

Strangely, one morning I awoke with its melody running through my head. I knew I had made this song idea, and expected it to be in the folders that I had been gathering since 2015. So I got up and said, “OK, that is a calling for that track.” Went to find it and was shocked it was not contained in the maybe 50 ideas I went through to find it. It was so confusing, so I continued to look as strangely, again, I could still recall the melody even though I’d now listened to so many ideas it should have been erased. I finally found it in a folder from 7 years earlier, this making it one of the oldest songs on the album, I guess first. It was also written in Renoise, so I think the fact I could have dreamt about it was something I just thought was some sort of sign. When I finally found the idea and heard it play, it made me almost cry realizing how weird of a chance that was. I worked on it with Soriah and his abilities with Tuvan voices. Really, I feel like I’ve just begun to collaborate with him as we are still feeling out where to go, but his spirit and inspiration are in line with the others on the album.

You’ve been on Patreon for a while now offering fans previously-unheard material, writing about albums that have inspired your work, and hosting Q&As with other artists. How have you found using this platform?

Patreon has been way more cool than I could have guessed. The whole essence of connection with people and forming a system of support for the music has been very enriching. Normally, in a good relationship with a record company, you could maybe feel a tinge of this, but wholeheartedly the Patreon crew has been a major source of inspiration. I look forward to making a new video with an odd song or unreleased version each week. I can’t believe I haven’t done 300 of these videos yet, so there is a giant bunch of wealth for any fan if they join. Almost endless amount of creative buzz going around the page. In speaking each week on the chats, I’ve found it’s a fantastic way to stay connected to inspiration and realize that it must also be helpful to others. I’ve received so may letters of thanks for helping to break writer’s block or inspiring people, and that makes me genuinely happy.

Horror films have been an important role in your work, particularly with Skinny Puppy. Does horror still serve as much of a significant role to you in 2021? What was the last piece of horror fiction that made a lasting impression on you?

The last horror film that I was really blown away by was actually the remake of SUSPIRIA. I don’t usually like remakes, but one day Phil Western had said he thought that it was maybe one the best movies he had ever seen. I thought, “Wow, that’s quite a compliment,” and decided to take the plunge. Ended up loving it so much I had to watch it again the next night. Lately, that never happens. So I’m not sure why that one was so good… Tilda Swinton, maybe. Definitely don’t find as much inspiration through horror movies as we did with Skinny Puppy. Honestly, I think it’s because the horror movies have generally gotten worse? Lately, the real world has really become a horror movie of sorts. I think we need the world to simmer down a bit before we are going to need to be scared by movies again. I don’t know, it’s hard to say.

One of my favourite memories as a listener was receiving my BEYOND THE VAULT box set of albums. Do you think you’ll ever do another physical release of material from other artists in this manner?

I’d like to in the sense that I was supporting like-minded friends and ideas. This always excites me. As of late, it’s become much more expensive to do mailouts like we did then, so conceiving new ways to accomplish this is an idea. There really isn’t anything as fun as making a concept like the BTV series and have it turn out as fun as that was. Surprisingly, when we took it on the road, it didn’t get as much support as we needed to be able to continue. I think one night we played in Philly to maybe 50 people, and that lineup was insane. Hopefully in the future we can return to some form of normal and think of ideas as a group again.

Are there any plans to take your solo material out on the road post-COVID, either in the form of DJ sets or as a more traditional live show?

Yes, when the times can get more open to shows, I can see doing one-off gigs and such. It’s been quite fun to do these in Japan over the past 10 years, and it would be great to do more in America. I’m getting offers now from Europe for next year, so we’ll see what happens. It’s definitely much easier to do a solo show than plan for a group, that is for sure.

Lastly, can you speak a bit about the decision to rename the album from XWAYXWAY to RESONANCE?

The original title was dedicated to an ancient village that existed where Vancouver’s Stanley Park is now. It was a 3,000 year-old indigenous village called Xwayxway that no one taught us anything about, even though we spent our entire lives there. The tale is a sad one, the area being wiped out by colonization, their history erased and untold. I read about this a few years back and it answered a lot of my feelings that I had had while growing up and spending a lot of time biking and exploring the forest of the park. I was approached by members of the tribe that asked me to let them tell their story, and I felt the best thing to do was to listen. This is something we were never very good at doing, and is the reason why the awareness of the region has not widely been discussed. I felt as though the lesson of learning about the land was eye-opening enough to create a deep inspiration, or a resonance of feelings. I’m glad to have helped create some form of awareness of the story, and hope that in time it’s something that will be taught in our schools in Canada.

RESONANCE is out on February 19th, 2021. Pre-order the album over on cEvin Key’s Bandcamp page and keep up with him on Patreon. You can listen to a stream of the entire album below.

Evan Millar
Evan Millar is a freelance journalist based out of Toronto, Canada. A graduate of Humber's journalism program, Evan joined Rue Morgue as an intern in 2015 and became a frequent contributor of game, film and event reviews. He took over as games editor in early 2018 and has had a passion for video games since booting up the shareware version of DOOM on a dusty MS-DOS computer. Follow him on Twitter (@evanjmillar).