A few weeks ago, Otep Shamaya logged into her Facebook account and sent a message to a fan’s sister, a stranger, wishing her a happy birthday.
For the driving force behind one of metal’s most accessible acts, it was all in a day’s work.
“They couldn’t believe it, and I’m just honored that they feel like it’s a big deal,” says Shamaya, who sings for the band that bears her name. “I try to use everything that I have to show my appreciation to the people, to take a little bit of time out of my day to answer an email or reply to somebody on Facebook. … I was brought up to value your self-worth by how hard you work, no matter if you’re the president or you clean streets. Now that I write songs for a living, I apply the same philosophy to that.”
Musically, Shamaya and Co. have consistently waged war against the very notion of genre, opting for vague catchalls like “heavy” and “fusion” when pressed to describe the distinctively indistinct sound of their aggression.
But to their “All Things to All Men” approach there are certain constants: the guitars can cut through bone; the drums can drive nails.
“We tend to have a bit of signature style,” Shamaya says. “There are powerful make-your-body-move parts and there are emotional moments. There are seductively soft parts and there are loud, eruptive, volcanic parts.”
Vocally, she growls, she raps, she screams, she coos.
And like the winning presidential candidate she supported not only with a performance at last year’s Democratic National Convention but with constant blogging and a raucously anti-Republican repertoire, the overtly but poetically political singer has worked hard, both through her lyrics and rising celebrity, to make “power to the people” into an art form.
“When I first started the band, I wanted to really learn the community of people that were following us, who they were,” says Shamaya, who formed Otep in Los Angeles in 2000. “I spent a lot of time on message boards and forums. That was really the only way to jump in and be a part of that then.”
These days Otep is taking its head-banging populism to places barely conceivable nine years ago; the band regularly broadcasts live video of its rehearsals via ustream.tv, a site that is quickly doing for webcams what YouTube did for camcorders.
“We started doing the webcam broadcast when we started recording the record, broadcasting in the studio all day long,” Shamaya says. “People were waiting in the chat rooms before we even started and they’d stick around all day, just watching.”
At first, to keep the songs from their appropriately titled new album (Smash the Control Machine — their first on renowned hardcore label Victory Records) under wraps, they muted the audio.
That didn’t last long.
“When we started to get ready to go on tour, we said, why don’t we give people a private show,” Shamaya says. “Not everybody is going to be able to see us play, or we might not be playing in their area.”
The results have been downright democratic.
“We did that for three or four nights,” she says. “Over 300 people were watching us perform.”
In just more than a year, fans have collectively watched more than 13,000 hours of live and archived footage of member Evil J silently tracking bass for a song, and of Shamaya chugging energy drinks, reciting lines from Alice in Wonderland and ranting against America’s preference for celebrity over substance.
But the experience, she says, transcends mere voyeurism; during practice she gets up in the camera and tells viewers “to raise their hands, to stand up and jump around with us.”
The replies flash across the screen.
“I just woke up my mom!”
“My girlfriend is screaming at me to shut up.”
Shamaya marvels and smiles.
“I love it,” she says. “Social-networking sites have just exploded and made `artist-fan interaction` so much easier. It has brought us closer.”
A few weeks ago, on the last night of recording, she sat in the studio and logged into the band’s ustream account.
“We have a lot of work to do, it’s the last night, but it’s been an amazing experience and I want to thank you guys for sharing it with us,” she said. “You guys could help us spread the word. The title track of the new record is going to be available on iTunes … so hit up your Facebook, hit up your MySpace, your Twitter and let the world know … I’ll see you guys soon.”
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