Otep Shamaya, OTEP

Otep Shamaya

While currently on their European tour supporting their last year release ‘Kult 45’, Otep Shamaya of OTEP join us backstage in Manchester to discuss, American politics, their latest album and influences.

Great to meet you, how did last night in Coventry go?

“It was a great venue, the staff were fantastic and we really had a great time playing there.”

And tonight here in Manchester, do we know what happened with the late change of venue?

“I was told that the old venue took their stage out to do some renovations and they didn't get it back in time for our show, so we switched to this venue and we are happy that the Bread Shed took us on with such short notice.”

You have a few more dates in the UK and then across Europe, what’s next after that?  Will you be doing festivals over the summer?

“They haven't told me, so I'm not sure! There is talk of us going maybe to South America then we may be coming back in Europe in the fall and also probably another headlining run in the States. But right now we're just happy to be here as it's been a long time since we have been able to perform our art in front of really wonderful and lovely passionate crowds.”

Your album Kult 45 was released last year, how well was that received?

“Well, it was quite controversial because part of it was against our own, erm well you know. It’s no secret that I'm not a big fan of a particular president in the White House, not a fan of him at all. I have various names for him that I like to use, I call him, Cheeto Shidler, I call him resident chump because he lost the popular vote by 3 million votes and he won the electoral College by 77000, the electoral College was invented originally to help slave owners  so that tells you a lot about him.

I think a lot of people thought it was a very powerful record, I think they liked it for how organic it sounded, how warm and powerful it sounded and the grooves in all of them. Then some people didn't like it, because they are Trump supporters but I don't care about them so don't buy my record and f*** off. The majority of people love it and have been supporting it and that is what's remarkable. You travel to other countries and play new songs of the new record, some of which are against Trump and some of which are against this new rise of Neo-Nazis and white supremacy that we have in America and to have those people in other countries where English isn't their native language know our songs and understand what we are protesting against and supporting has been very gratifying.”

Your music is incredibly charged against several issues that the American people are facing, do you feel that artists should have a moral obligation to raise important issues via their creative platforms?

“Absolutely! The great Nina Simone said it best, “the artist should reflect the era that they are living in, the times that they are in”. Some artists are worried about talking about big issues because they don't want to divide their audience but that is why you are an artist, to find a way of communicating something. If you don't want to divide your audience you need to find a way of communicating something that you care about in a way that makes people feel included even if they don't know that they are against it.  

Personally I don't care about dividing my audience. For me my role is to reflect what I feel, what I see as injustices, it is very important. If you go back through history and you see what we know about political turmoil and what we know about different things that happened in different Empires is all through art, all through poetry, sculptures or painting. I think it is very important and I hope more artists do that. If you think about Vietnam we had artists standing up against that, speaking out and writing songs about it. They were involved with the students protesting, standing up against segregation and all the civil rights issues we were having in the States at the time. Art enables and allows people to be informed enlightened and educated without actually knowing that it is what's happening sometimes. I think it is very important that more artist should take those risks, not just care about how much money they make, not care how many records they sell. They should care about something bigger than themselves.”

Do you have a personal favourite song from Kult 45 and why?

 "“That is hard, it is like picking your favourite child. I think they are all great. ‘Molotov’ is one of my favourite, ‘To the Gallows’ I love and ‘Boss’ is another. ‘Be Brave’ is also one of my favourite as it is the closest to a ballad that we have written since ‘Perfectly Flawed’. I really like that song because it encourages people to step out of their comfort zone, to not be defined by what someone else says you are supposed to be and what goals and aspirations you supposed to have in your own life. It encourages people to be their own person, if you go after your own dreams and not listen to anybody else, it takes a lot of courage to do that. That is what that song is about.

Said the Snake’ is a fun song that is directly about Trump. He actually tried to use this old story about an old woman who found a frozen rattlesnake in the snow. She takes it inside, she helps it, mends it, feeds it, she keeps it by the fire, warms it up,  and then when spring comes as she's about to set it free the snake bites her and she says “but I helped you” and it replies “but you knew I was a fucking snake”. It is an old tale but Trump tried to use it, but he used it wrong, like most things he says. He is as dumb as a bag of hammers.“

At least, he is good at being bad?

“Yeah, at least he is great at it, he only loves being great and the only thing he is great at is being terrible.”

The album was self-produced, what were the advantages and disadvantages of this?

“I don't see any disadvantages at all actually. The advantages were that my guitar player Ari and I were able to focus on the music first and not having a producer saying “Hey, don't say that or you are going to divide your audience like I was mentioning earlier on. We tour a lot, so Ari and I know what we sound like live and I feel that we hadn’t really captured that on record since our first album. I love all my albums but there’s an energy on the first one that has been missing for a little bit and I don’t blame the producers because they are not touring all the time like we are so they don’t know what that energy feels like or sounds like so we really wanted to focus on that.

It felt liberating, I am not saying I don’t ever want to work with another producer again but this was the first time we have done anything like it. It was my 8th album so I kind of know what I am doing a little bit. I should by now. It was a lot of fun. Also, we had to focus a lot more and step outside to be our own critic. Everybody in the band had to trust each other and that what we are doing is right. If they give you suggestions you don’t get offended. You have to take it like “Ok, maybe, I’ll try it”. And that was also a lovely experience to have with the band as well.”"

You have a large back catalogue of work. Is there any one song that you could single out as being your favourite composition and why?

“That’s really tough, because each song has its own energy and its own life. I know that we have a lot of really aggressive songs, a lot of powerful songs that we play live and then we play that song that is a little more melodic and ritualistic, which is called ‘My Confession’ from our first record. That is really exciting to play live because of the dynamics, it is really soft in the beginning, very seductive in some ways, then it just erupts and then comes back down again, it takes you a little bit on a journey.

We have also another song ‘Ghost Flower’ which does something similar. ‘Equal Rights, Equal Lefts’ may be also be another favourite song if I have to pick one, because it is based on something that actually happened to me. Someone tried to pick a fight because I am a lesbian and they didn’t like the fact that my girlfriend of the time was hot. He tried to pick a fight with me, so that song came from there. It is a great song to play, because you will see people who aren’t from the LGBT community still sing along, still supporting it and that’s really important when you have heterosexual allies supporting you because the things we are facing don’t affect straight people, so if they stand up for us it means that there is true injustice and that means a lot.”

Can you tell me a little about starting the band and who your main influences were at that time?

“At the time The Doors, Nirvana, Radiohead, Rage Against The Machine, Slipknot, System Of The Down and Mazzy Star. I listen to everything from Edith Piaf to Billy Holiday, via East Coast underground Hip-Hop, Kendrick Lamar, Tupac, Eminem. Lyrics matter to me, that’s why I am usually attracted to good lyricists, not people that just scream, sing or rap about nothing. Messages matter to me. Hip-Hop was a big influence early on, before I discovered rock music. I thought I would be some kind of poet and then music just kind of happened.”

What bands are you listening to at the moment?

“My playlist right now while we have been touring Europe has been Ravi Shankar, a sitar player, I listen to a lot of his music. I also listen to ‘Killshot’ by Eminem, which is that great battle rhyme that he has gone against Machine Gun Kelly, and ‘Arrest the President’ by Ice Cube. I also love the new record from Prophets of Rage.”

You have one of the most distinctive female voices in the genre, how do you keep your voice in shape?

“As you can tell, I am quite loquacious!!! I talk a lot which is good for interviews but is terrible for my voice, so I try not to talk a lot on tour which makes it kind of lonely as I don’t get to communicate very much. But yes, you have to rest your vocal chords and I also do a lot of warm ups.”

What will you be working on next as a band?  

“We are supposed to start working on our 9th album, possibly later this year. If we do, that I am not sure. I don’t know what it will be about. I know what it will sound like, it will sound like an OTEP record but we will do what we always do, we’ll stand up for injustice and try encouraging people to realise their authentic selves and live their truth.”

Great, many thanks and good luck with the rest of the tour and the new record.


Interview by Sarah Cummings