Otep Shamaya: ‘There Is No Left or Right Anymore: It’s Traitors and Patriots’
Otep Shamaya's announcement that her band's next record would be an "activist" album, hoping to inspire social change surprised exactly no one who is familiar with her. She's always been upfront about her politics (which could be described as "left-leaning"), and the current era has certainly provided her with a lot to write about.
She also promised that the album would be more Otep-centric, with each member having a voice and stamp on the disc. In early February, fairly fresh into the recording process, Loudwire was invited down to The Lair, a favorite L.A. studio for Shamaya, where she and her guitarist Aristotle Mihalopoulos were working on Kult 45 disc. We spoke to both of them about the album, which is due out on July 27.
Talk about co-producing the album yourselves, instead of handing it off to another producer.
Aristotle: The stresses are greater, because [if it's bad] it's all our fault. But the satisfaction is deeper because it's all our fault and we really don't have to worry about somebody else kinda getting in the way of the vision. She and I have known each other a long time now, and we have a really good shorthand, I don't have to think very long to figure out what she's trying to get. I speak fluent "Otep." I could probably teach a class. I kinda do.
You tried to capture your live sound on this record.
Otep: One of my favorite bands that sort of started me on my journey was The Doors. One of the most remarkable things about what they were able to do, whether you like them or not, was their improvisational skills. Even though they were this trippy, psychedelic Los Angeles band they were also based in jazz. Each musician kind of had their own voice. So whenever we're doing soundcheck and these guys are in there, they're pulling off these improvisations where it's just... I call it "spiritual intercourse." They're just all trading their artistic energies and from that sometimes comes something beautiful. I'll sit there and go, "Remember that! Don't forget it! Record! Replay it!" Even though they're just jamming or just having fun and blowing off steam.
And you've been keeping up with the news while you're working on the album.
Otep: I try to keep up on what's happening in the world because when we get in here we're kind of shut off. There are times I'll turn that [TV] off so that I won't get distracted.
I keep the news on just because, whether I agree with them or not, or whether I think that the news is covering it correctly or not. It helps me maintain my focus on the message behind this album and why this is so important that we stand up, unite and fight back. There is no left and right anymore. It's traitors and patriots, that's it.
You're trying to inspire activism. What things, in particular, are grabbing your attention right now?
Otep: For sure, the date rape culture is important and needed to be addressed. Also, the Russian influence into our elections. The Alt-Right. The rise of the Alt-Right... they don't think that they have to hide behind white shrouds anymore. They're basically wearing white golf shirts and tan pants. It's like a Donald Trump cosplay or something like that, you know? There walking around with tiki-torches. Oh, that's terrifying. I think that those things especially are extremely important. And we can't forget our soldiers. We can't forget those who are still fighting a war that has been going on now since 2001. Can anyone remember why we're fighting? Does anyone remember why we're still there? These are the men and women who are putting everything on the line and you have traitor Trump attacking transgender and gay and lesbian soldiers on a daily basis when one of the members of Seal Team Six came out as transgender and actually challenged Trump, "Would you like to meet me? Would you like to talk to me and see if you know more then me if you can handle me?" Little soft-handed, trust funded "Dapper Don," he ain't gonna do nothing with that.
All those things are important. The Black Lives Matter movement. Women's reproductive rights. Our democracy is seriously under attack and they're making sure they preserve the rights of the wealthy and the one percent or the two percent and then putting all the burden on the working class. I come from the working class. We used to be considered heroes of this nation, the backbone of this country. We built this country.
Slaves built this country. One of the most profound things that I ever heard Michelle Obama say as she watched her daughters play on the White House lawn is she cannot forget the fact that the house that she lived in was built by slaves.
This country suffers from historical amnesia. It's not new. It's been happening forever. That's what I think ol' 45 and what his administration is trying to do is just throw so much information at us that we tend to forget. Oh, we kind of had this happen before. They had less on Nixon and he resigned. We're trying to focus on all of these things because I think it's important... I think it's also important to celebrate those who are already out there, those who are just regular folks who worry about paying their rent or going to the doctor but are out in the streets, up against the barricades who are standing up against the riot police who are out there - standing in front of their representative’s houses and demanding that they do their job because when they were doing the government shutdown everybody in the government stopped getting paid except for Congress. So, you know it's important as a writer, for me and as a citizen of this country that I am able to express myself and for those who say that artist shouldn't combine politics and music I say, "Well, did you vote for Trump? If you did then you elected a reality TV star."
How difficult is it to narrow down what you want to say and what you want to put into music? There are so many different things to address right now.
Otep: Yeah, it's like trying to write a thesis statement and that's why it's helped to have Aristotle with me because I am an openly gay woman and so the policies that the Trump administration are implementing are trying to basically not make me a citizen. Mike Pence wants my extermination. He wanted gay conversion camps for children where they electrocute children. He tried to pass that when he was governor [of Indiana]. I'm sitting here with Aristotle whose father was an immigrant. If Trump was in office when his father came here there is a possibility that he could have been sent back and never been able to see his son grow up and that is really, really important.
Talk about some of the songs on the album.
Otep: We have a ballad on this record that is probably one of the most beautiful things that we've ever written. He and I wrote it together and it's really something special. It's one of the most important songs I think I've ever written and I'm so proud to have written it with Aristotle. We wanted it to be very vulnerable. It's about living your authentic self. It's about being brave, that's the name of the song. "Be Brave" -- it's about being brave enough to take that first step, to take that first breath, because it's the toughest.
But then we have other songs that just blow our brains back. It's just ... again, we listen to other bands, we're trying to find something that sounds similar to it, and it's not. We've got some really angry songs, and we've got some really, I think, powerful songs.
You mentioned before one of the things that informed your writing is the date rape culture, and the Me Too movement, which has made a big impact on the movie industry and in the music industry.
Otep: Fox News got hit first. Yeah, Roger Ailes and those guys all got hit first. For me, I was laughing ... I was angry that it happened to the women. But at the same time, I had to giggle a little at their hypocrisy. So, it started there and then it just slowly began to leak out, and as it began to leak out, I think more and more women become empowered. Because the biggest fear you can have, as someone who's been attacked or been assaulted, is being assaulted again by people who don't believe you, people who think that it was your fault because of what you wore or that you drank too much or you went back to their hotel room, or whatever. A woman's body never stops being her body. I don't care if it's in the middle of the sex act. If she says, "stop," you stop, otherwise, it's rape.
And so, I think for a long time, and for whatever reason, we've had this in our culture where very powerful people... I guess it's not even just powerful people. The gentlemen in the room excluded, there is something within the zeitgeist of the male mind that thinks that taking a woman is his duty and if he takes her out for a nice dinner, she owes him. And so, we really wanted to focus in on that. Especially with this one song. And it was inspired by that jackass rich kid Brock ... Whatever his fuckin' name is.
Oh, the Stanford kid?
Otep: Yeah, who got a girl drunk and then dragged her behind a dumpster and raped her. And, luckily, two other students, I think they were two male students, saw him and stopped him. And then he got a slap on the hand. Meanwhile, kids down in Compton are getting fifteen years for a bag of weed, you know? So, what's more important in our judicial system? A woman's body? A woman's right to her sovereignty as a human being? Or some kid who gets caught with weed? You know? I mean, it seems that women get blamed for the rape. It's like if a man drives into a bad neighborhood and he's got a nice car, well, he deserves to have his car stolen. Or if his stupidity is provoking me, then I should be able to bash his face in with a garden shovel.
These kinds of hypocrisies have lived on for a long time, and it's really remarkable to see, finally, women standing up and fighting back, and standing for each other. And, I will give credit to the men who are standing up also and saying, "This is not okay. This is not right." I think back to the men who do these things, and I think about have you forgotten your mother? She gave you life. You lived inside her body, and now you are trying to destroy and take away someone else's self-respect just because you wanna feel powerful? Because rape isn't about sex. Rape is about violence. Rape is about power.
And so what's wonderful is to see women and good men standing together and saying, "No more. This is not okay. You're gonna become a fossil."
Absolutely. You've been fighting the good fight for years on a number of fronts. What does it mean to you to see what we've seen from women's rights to reproductive rights, equality in pay and so on become brought to the forefront over the last year-plus ...
Otep: It's great. I mean, it was a bit of, I guess ... It wasn't a shock, but it was just, it just seemed like, wow, this is really unnecessary when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act which was equal pay for equal work. Okay? And we're still fighting for that. We still aren't getting it. We still aren't getting it. And that goes beyond Hollywood. That goes to nurses and doctors and executives, and even people in the workplace. But now, to see women rising up and reclaiming their power; realizing that they have the power to do it is inspiring and doesn't feel so isolated. And it doesn't feel lonely anymore; for a long time, it did.
I criticized George W. Bush over the Iraq war, and I was one of the only musicians that really spoke out against it strongly. I mean, the Dixie Chicks aside, of course, they have a much bigger platform than I do. But I had so many people coming after me saying, "Oh, you don't support the troops." You're gonna send some poor kid off to fight in a war that we have no business being in? And that's another reason why I can't respect traitor Trump because he had his rich daddy get him, what, five deferments, because he had bone spurs or something in his heels? So some poor kid in some poor neighborhood took his place and went and fought for our country. And here he is talking all this nonsense about how much of a patriot he is and how he knows more than the generals and all this garbage.
This is a sentient human colostomy bag who I'm happy to see is starting to lose the favorability even among those who once voted for him.
Corporations that he said he was gonna keep in the country, they're leaving, and so now people are having voter's remorse and it's a wonderful thing to see, but to know that the largest march in the history of our country was instigated, organized, and activated by women, is extremely empowering. And, again, it wasn't just that march on D.C., there were sister marches. There were 750,000 people in L.A. that marched. When they did the impeachment march, Austin broke the record for the biggest march in Texas history, ever. And that's Austin, Texas. I mean Austin's a little liberal, but that's still Texas.
How excited are you to get the new album out?
Aristotle: We've been sitting on an egg for months in a way. Yeah, it's gonna be a good album. Good album for the gym too, you know?
Otep: Touring people say, "Oh, they're gonna go hit the bar." Our joke is, "We're gonna go hit the barbell." Because we work out every single day on tour. Every single day. Sometimes we work out right up until we have like an hour before the show. It keeps us in shape, it keeps our minds sharp and also our spirit strong
You know what's great, too, is just because people see us, I post a lot of our workouts and stuff online. People that see Aristotle -- Michelangelo-carved as he is -- have been inspired to get up and hit the gym. I've been told by female fans, that I've inspired them to do that as well, and hopefully, that will continue because if they go to the gym and they listen to this album, their gains are gonna skyrocket.
How do you work out when you're on the road?
Otep: Well, we have resistant bands, we bring dumbbells and kettlebells pretty much. We used to bring about 500 pounds worth of free weights, but that became a little cumbersome because we'd have to pull them out every day, put them back every day, and then we got this wacky idea: "Hey, maybe there's a gym nearby!"
You've gotta keep your body in shape, and you gotta keep your mind in shape as well because it's monotonous and also just mental fatigue can hurt performances. So I say eat clean, this is all coming from him as well. Eat clean, work hard, and try to get in what you can when you can, because that's where I got it from, was from him.
I know you also read quite a bit.
Otep: I do.
Are there certain books or anything that are inspiring you at present? Or recommendations that you would give at this point?
Otep: I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin. James Baldwin, had he not been African American, had he not been a gay man, he would probably be considered ... I think he'd be more well-known. I think he'd be considered up there with Mark Twain in the way that he has satire and the way that, culturally, he attacks certain subjects.
One of my favorite lines that he has said ... Well, there's two and I can't paraphrase them, but one is that he says that he is not the n-word. He is a man. America invented the n-word, and America needs to decide why they needed to invent the n-word. What is it about this culture, our society, that needs to have an n-word? And I could say the same thing about being gay and the f-word. Why is it that you need to have that? Why do you need that? I'm not the f-word. I'm a woman. Those questions are profound. And then the other one is, I guess he was about 60 years old at the time, and he says, "I'm 60 years old. Waiting for your progress has taken my mother's life, it's taken my father's life, it's taken my sister's life. How much more time do I need to wait for your progress?"
And I think that that's very important because I think we tend to live in our own bubble sometimes, and we forget that there are other people out there being discriminated against, oppressed and forgotten. And that's what, again, what this record is hoping to do. I want it to be empowering and it is. We wanted it to be fun to listen to and to groove to, it is. We wanted it to get people's blood boiling, we wanted to carbonate them, we wanted to pollinate them with ideas, but at the same time, enlighten them as to what's going on in the world. And also, those that are like-minded with us will have fun screaming along with the songs and singing along with these songs is part of feeling like they're not alone in this world.
I imagine, and I'm hoping that this reaches the outsiders, LGBT kids or anybody that has a dream and they are just a little nervous about taking that step. I hope that this song reaches them and maybe gives them the inspiration or empowers them to take that step and go for it. You get one life, that's all you get. One turn. So many turns around the sun and then it's over, so why not live with a bunch of chances taken than not taken?
Otep's 'Kult 45' album drops July 27 via Napalm Records and can be pre-ordered here. The band will head up "The Fire and Fury" summer tour starting July 5, with dates for the run being found here. Check out the new Otep single and video for "To the Gallows" below.
Otep, "To the Gallows"
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