From Lacuna Coil's Cristina Scabbia to Theatre of Tragedy's Liv Kristine, female frontwomen traditionally leave the guttural rumblings to one of their male bandmates. But rest assured that OTEP frontwoman Otep Shamaya can always be counted on to do her own growling. With her octave-defying vocal range, Shamaya can ratchet her way up from a whisper to a scream, then plummet to sonic depths that would make the most testerone-soaked grindcore vocalist pout and go home.
"We were opening for Suicidal Tendencies once and I hit a rather large roar that blew out the PA," says Shamaya with understandable pride. "But I do have to be very careful with my voice and take good care of it. I actually went to a vocal coach who taught me this 300-year-old set of operatic exercises, because my range is very similar to that."
But what really sets the singer and her band apart from their legion of metal brethren is Shamaya's lyrical bent, which is light years away from good old mythology, misogyny and unrequited hate. Signed to a major-label deal after just four gigs, and without so much as a demo, the group set a decidedly confrontational tone from the outset.
"They wouldn't let us use the name overseas," says Shamaya of Jihad, the band's first Capitol Records EP, which was released three months before 9/11. "But here in the States, there were very few people who connected the dots at that time about what the name meant. It just sounded exotic. So I made sure that other people knew that the actual term jihad means a war inside yourself to remove the darkness that keeps you from entering the light. But then people perverted the word and turned it into something else."
Still, Shamaya says it took another three years, and a single called "Warhead," to get her name on the no-fly list. Maybe it was the lyrical references to death squads and infidels — delivered in a roar so extreme that the video includes subtitles — or the images of tanks, missiles, oil derricks and a Terry Gilliam-style Bush puppet with gas-nozzle arms. OTEP's "Warhead" is way more punk rock than most of the bands who call themselves that.
The voice, she says, has been this way since she was in kindergarten and was asked by fourth-graders to be the Big Bad Wolf in their school play. But it does have its downside.
"Although I cherish the fact that I have these vocal talents, I don't want to go down as either the scream queen or the girl that goes grrr," says Shamaya. "My words mean more to me than anything."
Shamaya's lyrics decimate the line between the personal and the polemical. "If you touch us again, I will fucking kill you," she sings on "Home Grown," while the new album's title track, "Smash the Control Machine," is no less cheery: "So waterboard the kids for fun / It's all the rage / Let's play born-again American / Resistance is the game."
Over the past decade, Shamaya's continued to collaborate with bassist J. McGuire — a Berklee College of Music graduate she refers to as a "riff machine" — but the new album also marks the return of original members Rob Patterson and Mark "Moke" Bistany.
"It was a lot of fun and it was also very odd," she says of the reunion, "because once we got back in the room, it was like we had never been apart all these years. We wrote and recorded at the same time, and we did it in two months."
Still, the two prodigal bandmates won't be joining the group on the road.
"These guys have their own lives by now," says Shamaya. "Moke has his own thing, and Rob is engaged to Carmen Electra."
Love and depth
Hollywood connections notwithstanding, Shamaya is through with the mainstream entertainment industry. (The band signed to Victory Records last April.) She's also not shy about criticizing the celebrity antics of, say, Courtney Love, even though the first Hole album was a major inspiration for her.
"It's an amazing record, and when I listened to it as a kid, it made me feel strong about being a woman artist," Shamaya says. "So she's important, and she's sort of devolved into this joke."
Shamaya is especially critical of Love's parenting skills, which were again called into question when she lost custody of her daughter in December.
"Everyone's damaged," says Shamaya, "but once you have a child, those damages have to be burned and the ashes have to be scattered to the wind. Now you have a human being you're responsible for."
OTEP's frontwoman doesn't have a kid, but she does have her causes. There's the environmental initiative Carbonrally as well as an online self-esteem support group she started, called All Shapes and Sizes, which takes on cultural paradigms regarding gender and appearance.
But for Shamaya, it was the prospect of creating music and art that saw her through the tough times.
"I was sort of a lost soul trying to find my way, and I thought art would be the way," she recalls. "Art or violence. And I chose art."