Metal band Otep is back with a crushing new release, “Smash the Control Machine,” an album every bit as confrontational and unfiltered as Otep Shamaya herself, the openly gay singer, artist and poet who fronts the group.
Shamaya’s feelings and political views are pretty much out in the open all day, every day, whether she is holding court during her band’s tour dates or speaking at the Democratic National Convention, which she did in 2008.
“I spoke on behalf of Rock the Vote,” she said of the DNC. “It was incredible. I spoke for disenfranchised voters, first-time voters and also spoke to them. Basically, my speech was about, if they stole the election in 2000, then it was those that stayed home that are to blame. If they got us into an illegal war, it was because those of us stayed home and were silent. It was a great experience. After it was over, some of the heads of the DNC were coming up and asking me if I would consider speaking at Kent State and doing college campuses. I would, but we were going on tour at the time. My job comes first.”
Given the album’s title and song titles like “Rise Rebel Resist” and “Numb & Dumb,” some might find Shamaya speaking on behalf of the Democrats more than just a little incongruous. But she said anyone who feels that way is missing the point of her music and her message.
“I think maybe if people are confused and think that perhaps I’m an anarchist, I don’t believe in America or our system of government, that I want to start over from scratch, then, yes, they’re probably confused and won’t be able to reconcile that,” she said. “Aside from the fact that it is about attacking those that are greedy and those who use the working class for their own benefit, it’s also about the personal control machines we invite into our own lives, whether they be abusive relationships, drugs, alcohol or lack of self-esteem. So it’s not just a capitalist machine or Democratic machine.”
Shamaya is also a little less critical of President Obama than some of her peers, preferring to aim her criticism at both parties instead.
“I’m happy with President Obama,” she said. “It has only been nine months and he’s done some amazing things after eight years of the Bush-Cheney crime family’s slow destruction of our nation. What I am a bit upset with is the mismanagement of the Democratic Party. The ‘conserva-dems,’ conservative Democrats who are just obstructionists, they’re standing in the way of progress. I don’t know why they put a ‘D’ by their names. They should just put an ‘R’ by their name. What I hope is that the Democratic leadership can grow a spine and stand up to them and that the Democratic voters get out and don’t be silent. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. Just because we have a president we fought to get into the White House doesn’t mean that things are suddenly going to change. We have control of Congress and we still can’t get anything done. Elections are next year. If we lose control of Congress, it’s going to be a difficult two-and-a-half years. The Republican Party has no interest in moving this country forward. All they care about is winning and filling their pockets with the money that their lobbyists and corporate friends give them. Democrats aren’t immune to that. There are corrupt politicians in that party as well, but I think it’s up to the voters to get out and make ourselves heard, just as the other side is with the fanatics that are completely misguided and have no idea of what they are protesting other than the fact that perhaps Obama is biracial.”
Shamaya seems to have eight more hours per day than the rest of us, as she has also found time to support organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, as well as create social networking sites like Girls Out Now and All Shapes & Sizes.
Shamaya said she started Girls Night Out to help other lesbians find friends and support beyond the average matchmaking Web site.
“The other social networks tend to be detached from the community,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like it serves people very well. A lot of them tend to be hookup sites. Girls Out Now isn’t intended to be that. It’s intended for people to come and feel safe and network with other Sapphic women who perhaps don’t have any other Sapphic friends. It’s more about that than it’s about the hookup aspect of that. I have no intention of being cupid. For me, this is about making people feel comfortable in a safe environment.”
Shamaya said the same is true for All Shapes & Sizes.
“All Shapes & Sizes is very similar but it addresses all people,” she said. “It’s to restructure our thinking on self-esteem, self-love and self-acceptance, to not buy into the idea that there is one model for beauty or masculinity. There’s no correct race. There’s no correct type. There’s no correct weight. We are who we are. I think that if we can love ourselves first, we won’t keep searching to fill that void in us with another bad relationship or a drug or a drink or something else. We can cut those things that tether us and evolve and grow as a whole person and try to reach our promised capacity.”
Fans who want to keep up with all of Shamaya’s many interests and activities can check out her blog, which for some strange reason is called “I Am Not A Monster.”
“I think there’s the idea that I’m the girl that goes ‘GRRRR’ sometimes,” she explained. “People don’t look past that. The cool little things I can do with my voice are great. But that’s just, for me, icing on the cake. It’s not what matters most whether I can scream or make odd noises that come out of my body. It’s the words that I write or the messages that I’m trying to communicate. It was a little tongue-in-cheek, a little satire. I was trying to be silly. I touch on everything from art and politics to science. I’m a bit of a tech geek.”
Just like the band’s fiery lead singer, Otep’s new album has many layers to it, with brutal and relentless blasts of metal alongside dark and meditative compositions punctuated by Shamaya’s vivid spoken-word interludes.
Shamaya said that unlike the band’s previous efforts, they wrote the songs as they recorded them in the studio.
“For two months we were imbedded in the studio, pushing our creative instincts to the limit but at the same time trying to be as careful with composition and critical of ourselves,” she said. “There was very little preproduction time. But the good thing, fortunately, for everyone is I’m a sadistic scribbler. I write constantly. So whenever I come in the studio, I come in with four or five book bags stuffed with song ideas, poetry, lyrics, drawings and so forth.”
There are also many layers to the album’s artwork, with many subtle and not-so-subtle sinister images and messages scattered throughout the Norman Rockwell-ish picture of supposed domestic tranquility.
“The idea came from my manager, who was an artist himself,” Shamaya said. “He approached me about my ideas for the record cover and we conspired about it and spoke about how we wanted something different. We wanted something that people would look at and take a second look and go, what is this? There are so many secrets hidden. What is considered normal actually is anything but normal. It’s scattered inside the artwork and the booklet. There are secret Web sites that if people are curious enough they can find them. I enjoy doing that kind of thing. It’s fun for me. It’s fun for the fans, too. We know there are people who still buy CDs and still go to the record stores and we want to reward them for doing that.”
Part of the reason the band feels free to get more creative with CD packaging probably has at least a little to do with the fact that they’re on a new label. “Smash” is the first album Otep recorded for indie label Victory Records. Otep’s previous efforts were major label projects for Capitol and, later, Koch Records, but Shamaya said they really didn’t know what to do with the group.
“Capitol was fantastic,” she said. “It was a great label to be on for anything other than putting out records. I don’t think they understood us, our fans or what to do with us. There were some really well-intentioned people there, but they just didn’t know how to do it. There was so much inner turmoil inside that building at the time that it was nearly impossible for them to find someone that could figure it out. We were the only band like that on the whole roster. They have The Beatles. They have Coldplay. They have Radiohead. And they have Otep. It was just a really strange place to be. Coming to Victory Records was like coming home. It’s like being around people that understood and believed the same things that I believe in with regard to music and message in connection with artists and fans. The people there are incredibly passionate about music and it’s just been the best time of my life being with these people.”
Currently Otep is on tour to support “Smash the Control Machine,” and Shamaya said fans can expect some of her poetry intermixed with the band’s ferocious performances.
“We normally don’t do a lot of the longer spoken-word tracks, but in between each song we have these poetry performances to set up the emotional elements that stirred the writing of the song it precedes.”
Otep opens for Five Finger Death Punch at 7 p.m. Oct. 13 at TLA, 334 South St. For more information, visit www.imnotamonster.com or call (215) 922-1011.