What does a Christ-oriented gothic band do during a global pandemic? I had a lengthy conversation with Skot Shaw to find out. We talked about tours in Mexico, how he came to be part of Jesus People USA, and the goodness of God.
IVM: Why don’t you start by giving IVM readers an introduction to the band. How did you get into doing goth music or death rock? Why does Leper exist as a band?
Skot: Can open. Worms everywhere! I’ll tell ya . . . well, I got into it partly because my wife was into it. And I’ve just kinda been trying to score ever since I met her.
I’ve always been into Christian music, ever since I was a kid. When I first got introduced to old school stuff like Rez Band, Stryper, and all that stuff . . . Something about that was like, ‘yeah, I want this!’ It just grabbed hold of me and didn’t let go. Over time I became a Christian out of all of that. I just wanted to make Christian music. Well, not “Christian music.” I thought that at first, but I’ve come to realize that I’m just making music. And it just happens to have Christianity in there because that’s who I am, not because I have an agenda to fill.
The thing with what I grew up listening to was that there were a lot of bands who would have these really slow, eerie intros that were really cool. And right around the time that I decided ‘this feels good,’ they would throw it into warp speed, and completely ruin the slow, eerie groove.
IVM: Right, so when I hear you say that, I don’t know if this is where you’re coming from, but my mind immediately jumps to the thrash bands of the late 80s and early 90s, who would have these long, drawn out atmospheric intros. Are you coming from a metal perspective there or not necessarily?
Skot: Kinda everything. A lot of people were doing it. It wasn’t just exclusive to metal, but they were probably the biggest culprits. But when they would change, I wasn’t . . . done. (laughter). I met my wife, and she was really into The Cure and Nine Inch Nails and that kind of thing, which I didn’t really know a lot about because the kids I grew up with weren’t into that. So I was not exposed to it, and when I met her she didn’t know anything about Christian music. So that put me on this quest to find Christian bands that sounded like the kind of stuff that she liked. And in the process, I discovered that all the bands I was finding were doing exactly what I wished these metal bands would do. And it felt like I found the home I’d been looking for.
So, if you fast forward to how Leper started . . . that’s a long story. But if I can cut it down, I was this kid all my life growing up that you see in the back of the room at school, that nobody wants to play with. Unless they’re looking for somebody to pick on. I even got picked on by teachers—go figure! And I know that I’m not the only kid like that . . . that feels like socially I have leprosy or something. So that really became the mission for Leper, to reach out to those kinds of kids. And in the goth scene, that’s what it’s mostly made up of—those kids that nobody wants.
IVM: Right. The misfits and whatever. I’m glad you went into that, because I’ve always kind of assumed that that’s where you were coming from with the Leper name. So back in biblical times, quite literally the untouchables, whom Jesus is still going to, and spending time with, and touching them and in some cases healing them. So that is a pretty cool carryover into those of us (probably all of us at some point) who have felt left out. I know I have. Maybe not to the degree that you’re describing where even the teacher is picking on you, but I can certainly relate to that with certain teachers and experiences growing up.
How do you think that sort of experience drives . . . you know we’ve talked about those long moody intros and atmospheric dirge-like songs, but how does that idea of being the leper inform the songwriting itself and the way you create music?
Skot: It doesn’t necessarily connect specifically with that. The way I write a song is, I never know what I’m gonna do until it’s too late. My ideas come from all kinds of every possible direction you can think of. I’ll just play with a beat, and then the next thing you know I’ve got a whole song, and I don’t know where it came from. Sometimes it starts with a lyrical idea. But as far as the slow dirgy-ness of the music itself, that’s kinda become nothing more than my taste in music. It’s what I like to hear, so it’s what I want to write.
I’ve done some stuff . . . take Pink Floyd for example. I’ve always wanted to find a Christian version of Pink Floyd, but there’s no one doing it that I’ve been able to find. But then I also wanna do this goth thing. You know, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus and that kind of stuff—that early 80s UK punk. But I then also wanna do this industrial metal stuff. In the past I’ve tried to mix all that together. But recently I’ve divided that into three different personalities. I have Leper, which is my main focus. But if I start having this Pink Floyd feeling, I work on a project I call EVP, which is meant to sound like a blatant Pink Floyd rip-off. How can I hide it? And if I’m feeling like I wanna do a kind of psychotic industrial thing, I move over to a project I call Ball Peen Hammer. So, I can keep those three personalities distinct.
IVM: Ah, yes Ball Peen Hammer! I downloaded an album from Ball Peen Hammer probably 8-10 years ago.
Skot: So, you don’t even know about the newer stuff.
IVM: No, this was probably 10 years ago. Did you do a self-titled album around that time?
Skot: Yeah. I think there’s 5 albums on the Bandcamp page now.
IVM: And the EVP stuff—is that available on the Bandcamp page too?
Skot: Yes, it is!
IVM: So, our readers can check all of your stuff out there on the one location?
Skot: Yeah, kind of. For Ball Peen Hammer, there’s a few things posted on Bandcamp. But it’ll tell you that it’s only available at this address, so if you click on that link it takes you to Ball Peen Hammer’s Bandcamp page. Because all of that money goes directly to our shelter, so I don’t see any money from that. Leper and EVP goes directly to Grrr Records.
IVM: One of the reasons we’re talking now is because the last couple of years have kind of thrown a wrench into the works of the music scene, and particularly for Leper. Do you want to tell how covid-19 has impacted the music scene, or at least Leper’s corner of the music scene?
Skot: Well, we just didn’t do anything. We were kind of grounded. We couldn’t go anywhere. We couldn’t . . . We did a DR performance for Exodo Festival in Mexico. Well, let me back up. Right before the pandemic took off, we were scheduled to go to the Exodo Fest in Mexico. And it would have been 2 weeks before we left that they started closing the airports, and closing the borders, and nobody was allowed to travel. So, we obviously didn’t get to go. I think it was maybe that following winter that they got a hold of me wanting me to do it online through Facebook. So, with the isolation the way it was, I just did it by myself, which was a real drag. When there’s nobody there, it’s really awkward. But the guys at Grrr Records—my friend Ed Bialach and Juan Carlos . . . Juan Carlos took care of all the video. He also plays in the band Exegesis, for anyone who wants to know. Ed Bialach, he runs Grrr Records and he made sure to set everything up so that it felt like a live performance for me—as much as we could get. But it’s not the same as when there’s people there to react to. I don’t have anyone to feed off of. Then the following Easter, we’re still stuck.
Exodo asked me to do another one. So, we videoed me playing the whole set, and we recorded the whole set. Then we had my flute player come in and had her overdub herself through the whole set and videoed her. Then we had the synth player do the same thing. Then we had another vocalist, Jennifer, who lives in Michigan. We didn’t have a way to record her vocal stylings. So, she just had this interpretive dance stuff, and Juan Carlos put it all together, so you were able to watch the whole performance of all of us together. It was still super awkward, but it looked good. And it was funny—all of our backgrounds were red, but we didn’t get a chance to tell Jennifer that we were doing all red background, and somehow, she just did all red background on her own, by accident.
IVM: That’s awesome!
Skot: But that’s all we’ve done!
IVM: I think what covid has done, or what it’s meant for a lot of people is, it’s forced people from all different walks of life, to try to do things in a new way. And some of those experiments have worked really well. Some of them have failed miserably, but it didn’t matter because at least they were trying. I’m a full-time youth worker. I’m back in the United States now, but when covid hit I was still in England. We had to, all of a sudden, shift from doing these awesome youth clubs where kids were coming and hanging out and that kind of stuff, to shifting to creating Bible studies by YouTube video. No idea if anyone was watching it! But I was creating them every week. And then doing Zoom sessions with groups and playing games, just to try to get some social interaction. Although it was really difficult, I’m pleased that we were able to pivot so quickly, and at least try. You know what I mean? Instead of just giving up. So, I think what you guys were doing with the Exodo Fest, even though it wasn’t what you had hoped, or ever imagined, you were still finding a way to be creative, which I think has been crucial throughout the pandemic.
Skot: I believe we did get a lot of views when it first aired. You can find all that on YouTube. If you look at our YouTube, it doesn’t look like we got a lot of views there, but when it first aired, there were several hundred people that tuned in, which was cool. And, of course, they’re all in Mexico. But if we want to play to that big crowd, we have to go there.
IVM: Yeah, there’s a huge scene, isn’t there, in Mexico? For metal and goth and styles that aren’t as mainstream in the U.S. seem to have bigger crowds outside the borders. I don’t know if you’ve found that to be true.
Skot: Oh, I absolutely have! Somehow—and I don’t know how this works entirely, I may be completely off base—but people have told me that we’re fairly well-known in Scandinavia, particularly in the Christian black metal scene. People know all about us. I went through a phase where I was really into that stuff, but we don’t sound like that, so it’s just odd to me.
IVM: I’ve always felt like . . . I mean goth is wide spectrum. You’ve got everything from stuff like the Cure, which at times is very gothy and at times is very poppy. I mean, they’re one of my favorite bands, so I can talk about them extensively if you want to, but . . . you’ve got like that all the way to really dark and harsh stuff like Christian Death and even more extreme. So, goth is sort of this stepchild of various musics because it has the darkness and misanthropic view of the world, similar to metal, but it doesn’t sound like metal. And it’s definitely alternative music, but it’s not hipster stuff. It’s very much a fringe thing. When I worked in a record store 20 years ago, I always struggled with what section do I put these bands in? It comes out of the punk scene, but it doesn’t sound like punk anymore. It’s its own thing!
Skot: Yeah, I was gonna throw that out there! A lot of people don’t realize that goth originated as punk first. And it just sort of mutated. I kind of feel like a lot of metal bands hijacked it in the 90s, but that’s neither here nor there.
IVM: Well, the same thing happened with industrial. Industrial became, for better or for worse . . . it was cool at first the experimentation that was taking place with the metallic industrial. Because that had never been done before, so it was really cool. But then all of a sudden it was like that was the only thing that was happening in industrial, and it kind of became a subgenre of metal, instead of its own thing, which was unfortunate.
Skot: Yeah, I agree. I liked the older stuff. I liked Under Midnight. Mortal! I really freaked out over them. Deitiphobia.
IVM: Yeah, I loved that danceable style of industrial! November Commandment’s another great one.
Skot: Yeah. I didn’t get them at first. That was one that had to grow on me. They eventually became Sanctum, and that I just went nuts over! I played their records to death. I’ve seen them at Cornerstone both times they came. It was fantastic! The first set was just great. The second time it was odd because they had just the one vocalist, and a screen. Then they had a table with about four people, maybe eight people. And they all had a laptop in front of them, as though they were the ones generating the music. You don’t know if that’s true, or if they were just playing a track, but either way it still looked awesome! All I could think to explain it was, imagine there’s this big soylent green machine, slowly working its way down the street towards you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Skot: It’s grinding everyone up, and that’s all there is to it.
IVM: That’s quite a powerful visual!
Skot: It was a good show.
IVM: Yeah, unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to see them, but that sounds pretty powerful. So, you guys are on Grrr Records, which has a very strong tie (that’s probably an understatement) to Jesus People USA and the community in Chicago. Is it safe to assume that Leper has a connection to JPUSA as well?
Skot: That is where I live.
IVM: How long has that been the case?
Skot: I’m not even sure. Somewhere around 20 years.
IVM: Oh wow. I didn’t realize it had been that long.
Skot: Yeah, I haven’t really been counting, so I could be way off.
IVM: How did that connection come about?
Skot: Well, I grew up in Ohio. Shortly after I got married, a band I was in wasn’t working out. My wife was on her way to visit me for lunch at work one day and got in a car accident. Her car was totaled, which put us down to one car. She worked nights, and I worked days. We both had an hour commute, so that was really difficult. Who’s gonna get the car? She had to borrow her mom’s car a lot. I found another job that was closer to home, that made things a bit easier, but then one day they announced that they were getting ready to start this mandatory 15-hour shift Monday through Saturday—maybe Sundays, they weren’t sure. And they weren’t sure how long this was going to go on. It might go on for a year, or it might go on for just a couple months. They just didn’t know. So here, I’m a newlywed, and I’ve been presented with a situation where I’m not gonna see my wife. With her working nights, and me working days, and I was pretty involved with church . . . I could kiss that goodbye. I’m not gonna be able to do music. I’m not gonna be able to do anything! My life literally will be building bricks for Pharaoh. And I was terrified!
IVM: (Laughter.) Interesting analogy!
Skot: So, all I could do was sneak off to the bathroom and agonize to the Lord—I don’t know what I’m gonna do! I can’t live like this, but I can’t just quit my job either. The first thing we did when we got married was, we bought an old, 100-year-old Victorian house. And it needed a lot of work. We got it cheap, but still, that’s not something you can just stop doing. I was just in a bad spot. Agonizing before the Lord, trying to get through the day. All of a sudden, I had this thought—go to JPUSA, live like they live. And I was like, oh my gosh—I can’t believe I never thought of that before! What’s strange about that is, for as long as I’ve been a Christian, I’ve known about Jesus People, Cornerstone Festival . . . but I’ve always felt like, when I would pray as a kid—what do You want me to do with my life? Somewhere in there I would be reminded of this place. But it would hit me with this horrible anxiety: what if I’m not really a Christian? Because I don’t do that kind of work. I’m not as committed as they are. And maybe I’m supposed to be there. Then I would tell myself, ‘That’s really far away. You’d have to be rich to make a move like that. Chicago might not even be a real city, it’s just something in a movie somewhere. They wouldn’t want me there.’
Any excuse not to go—I had it. I tried to talk myself out of coming. But now, presented with this new situation, for some reason . . . it’s like nothing else in the entire world could have made more sense. And I could not wait to get home! I was out of my mind, full of excitement, and happy! I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my agoraphobic wife this new idea. To which she said . . . “What?” That was her exact words! She didn’t know about this place. She didn’t grow up in church. She had gone to church once in a while, growing up as a kid. And that was kind of like me. I only went to church once in a while until I got born again, and then I was there all the time. But the more I found out about this community, the more excited she got. And since we’ve been here, it’s definitely been a good place for us. We’ve both had to grow up a lot. The funny thing about community life is it forces you to learn how to communicate with others. It forces you to accept the faults of others and own up to your own faults.
IVM: It sounds like the beauty, and the messiness of Christian community. You could compare it even to a local church, but it’s just really up close and personal. On steroids, we might say.
Skot: My original thought about living here was, ‘it’s like church every day.’ It’s not. It’s like life—everyday life. You’re just closer. You’re interacting more than you might otherwise.
IVM: You still have to work. You still have to do the household chores and all those things, but you just do it with other people.
Skot: What’s interesting too though is, when I first came here, the idea of doing dishes was like, ‘No way, Jose!’ Or for example, working at McDonald’s—that’s just misery. Like why would anyone want that job? (Which, I’ve done that job and I wasn’t cut out for it!) But coming here and doing similar jobs, it felt different. Because you’re not working to make a buck. You’re doing it because you know it’s helping the other people that you live with.
IVM: What is next for Leper? Any new recordings or anything that you’re working on or looking forward to in the next year?
Skot: We have a couple of shows coming. Finally . . . We are opening for Wednesday 13 in April. That’s at a place called the Forge in Joliet. I had never heard of them before, but I guess they’re a pretty big deal, because everybody I talk to is pretty excited about the fact that we got that show. We’re playing at the Kingdom Come Festival in June, and we’re playing Audiofeed in July. That’s all we have lined up for shows.
Skot: I have been working on a new record. What I’ve done is, I’ve found 10 old hymns, like from 1800s, tent revival hymns, that all have the word “blood” in the title. Like “Oh the Blood,” “Nothing but the Blood,” “Power in the Blood,” “Under the Blood,” “There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood” . . . when you start listing them, its sounds really funny. But I’ve taken those and done them, spun them in my own personal rock and roll way. I think we’re done recording it. We’re just waiting now for a chance to start mixing. One of the small downsides of living here is, Grrr Records only has one Ed. When he’s working on a Glenn Kaiser record, or The Crossing, or Exegesis, and all these other bands, he’s gotta put them in line and then you’ve gotta wait your turn.
IVM: Any idea when that might be out?
Skot: No idea!
IVM: Sometime this year, hopefully?
Skot: I’m hoping, I’m pushing. I’m always on some new EVP. I just released something on that recently. I kinda want to do some new Ball Peen, but I’m kinda stuck. There was some talk of working on that with KL, from a band called Bridgeshadows. He also played keyboards for The Wedding Party years and years ago. He’s a great friend of mine. We’ve been talking for years about doing something. It’s just never worked out. But we were talking about re-creating a couple of Ball Peen Hammer songs, between the two of us. But it’s still not happening. There’s also . . . Sherry Bjorn and Simon Bjorn from Dark Valentine—Sherry was also the vocalist for Wedding Party—and they’ve also become good friends of mine. She’s got it in her head that she wants to see Wedding Party reform, and to be on tour with Saviour Machine and Leper.
IVM: That would be awesome!
Skot: So, we’re hoping we could work that out, but I don’t think any of us have any idea of how that’s even remotely possible. But we do serve a God who does things that don’t seem like they can be possible. I don’t know how in the world I ended up in Mexico! I’ve been there 3 times now, and it was just amazing. Our experience there, and the people we met . . . the language barrier was difficult to get around, but we’ve seen so much of that country, and its people, and it’s just wonderful. We definitely made some legitimate friends with people. We were there with a band called Deborah.
IVM: Ah yes, I know Deborah.
Skot: We were on tour with them twice. It was just a good experience!
IVM: I think that’s a good place to end on, with you talking about the goodness of God and the way He’s brought to places you wouldn’t have expected.
Skot: I’d like to add something about things I’m hoping for in the future.
Skot: The UK! I wanna tour in the UK or Scandinavia, or somewhere over there. I’ve been told we’d do really well in Germany.
IVM: Yeah, I could see that!
Skot: In fact, the first tour we did in Mexico . . . the first show we played was a little outdoor downtown area. As we were playing, some guy came across the street to investigate. He was clearly not Mexican, and he approached my wife. I think she was the only person he thought might understand him, and his language. It turns out he was from Germany. He heard us playing and thought, ‘Oh wow, it sounds like home!’
IVM: Right (laughter).
Skot: It was first time he heard live music in Mexico that sounded like something he would hear at home.
IVM: Let’s hope and pray that something like that can happen.
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