Interview with Otep Shamaya

At an old Hell’s Angels bar on the industrial edge of
San Francisco, heavy metal band OTEP takes the stage in front of
a chanting crowd. Leader Otep Shamaya returns the fans’ traditional
heavy metal two-finger salute with a single raised middle finger.
The audience surges toward her, grasping at her hands. Blonde hair
covers her face and the mic as she launches into something between
a growl and a wail. The savage opera begins, with stories mined
from childhood abuse to life during wartime.

influenced by the emotional rawness of Nirvana and the social
messages of early East Coast rap and hip hop, OTEP blends a sharp
spoken word style with blistering metal guitars. Shamaya’s
background in literature shines through with lyrics that are clear
and dramatic. If having one of the few female frontpersons in
metal — and its only out lesbian — seems like a recipe for disaster,
think again: OTEP played Ozzfest 2001, 02, and 04 (they didn’t
perform at Ozzfest 2003 because Shamaya was writing their second
album, House of Secrets).

year OTEP is headlining the Alliance of Defiance tour, with forty
stops scheduled through the spring.
With the kind of diverse musical influences you had, what brought
you to metal?

Otep Shamaya: Aggression, that’s it. I’m
quite an aggressive person. I needed a sonic landscape that was
just as aggressive as I am. Bands like Slayer and Slipknot, hearing
those bands, there was something phenomenal about the way they
communicated their messages. Just so precisely, like barbwire.
I just fell in love with it. It never occurred to me that women
don’t do this kind of music. It never even crossed my mind
that I was a rarity or something unique. It didn’t cross
my mind that I’m a lesbian and there were no other lesbians
around me.

That are out.

OS: That I know of, so it never even crossed my
mind why I should hide it. Why I should hide anything. Why should
I think along those terms? I don’t feel like I’m something
unique. So far I’ve only had a few people who seem to have
a problem with me being here. Mostly because I’m a woman,
and I guess I’m the antithesis of what they embrace as what
a woman is. Like, you know, tits and ass. The sexuality of what
I do is not even a part of it. If there is anything in there that
people can see as erotic, it’s not anything overt. Everyone
needs an enemy, and all too often it’s us. If you’re
not just gay for a day or bisexual…

Or you’re not there for them to watch with their girlfriend!

OS: Exactly, I get that a lot, even from girls.
It’s weird. “Oh I’d be lesbian for Otep. Maybe
she’d let my boyfriend join in.” Ew! No! I think the
lesbian community is just now showing all of itself, all of its
faces. Where as before, people might have a certain idea of what
a lesbian is. The more exposure people get to any community I
think is good. I don’t judge them based on their lives,
and I don’t care if they like mine or not, I’m not
here for that. We are born alone and we die alone, what’s
in between is mine.

AE: Is this your first band ever?
OS: This is my first band. I tooled around with musicians, but I was never formally trained. Equipment, timing, different time signatures, I didn’t know any of that stuff. I sat with musicians, learned a little bit by osmosis. It’s a completely different mental process from writing.
When I started the band I found a manager and I brought my books over, my journals and all my illustrations in this big pile. “This is what I want, I want to turn this into music”. And he looked at me and said “OK, let’s try it, let’s find some musicians.”

What we do is a little different, it’s not just your typical metal show. It’s not hair metal or glam or anything of that nature. It’s sort of a dissident cabaret, its theater and in the highest respect to someone like Antonin Artaud. It’s delivering the experience of the topic of the song versus just singing about it, we actually live every moment of the song onstage. Without fire or any sort of theatrics or anything. It’s all through the act of performance.

AE: How did Capitol [Records] find you guys?
OS: We were doing local shows around LA and the buzz started and all of a sudden we start noticing suits in the corners watching us and on their phones and their little Blackberries. A friend of ours was our manager at the time and he started coming over and saying “Hey they want to showcase you.” It was a bunch of major labels which was really bizarre, because I never thought we’d get that.

AE: That’s exciting.
OS: It was, it was really exciting to have that kind of recognition, especially for what we do. We’d only been a band about eight months by the time we got signed. It happened so quick. And Sharon Osbourne came with her son Jack to one of the shows, at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip. Sure enough, right after the show, she came up and said “Hey, you guys are playing Ozzfest.” And she hugged me.