VoiVod – Interview with Michel “Away” Langevin
By Peter Atkinson
2013 is shaping up to be a landmark year for Canadian stalwarts Voivod. Not only will the band mark their 30th anniversary early in the new year, they will release their latest album, Target Earth, not long after that on Jan. 22. It will be their first studio album to feature “new” guitarist Dan “Chewy” Mongrain – also of Montreal tech metallers Martyr – and cement the return of prodigal “blower” bassist Jean-Yves “Blacky” Thériault, who left Voivod after 1991’s Angel Rat.
Both have been performing with the band since 2008, when Voivod were asked to play their first shows after the death of guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour, who passed away following a brief battle with colon cancer in 2005. At the time, frontman Denis “Snake” Belanger and drummer Michel “Away” Langevin were unsure if the band would indeed carry on, but one thing led to another and five years later here they are. Along the way, Voivod issued Infini in 2009, with ex-Metallica bassist Jason “Jasonic” Newsted who helped relaunch the band in 2002, utilizing the last of the guitar parts Piggy had recorded prior to his death.
The last year or so has seen the pace pick up for Voivod, with the band curating the Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands – at which they played two sets, one of which featured a performance of the Dimension Hatross album in its entirety – a headline tour of Europe last fall and a series of dates opening for Neurosis in the states, all while working on material for Target Earth. With the new album imminent, and a wish-list that includes a lot more touring as well as writing for another album in the year ahead, Voivod are looking to make the most of the opportunities that are still coming their way.
On the phone from Montreal, Langevin spoke about Voivod’s long, somewhat checkered, career, their ability to bounce back from incredible adversity and the road ahead for one of metal’s weirdest, but most inventive bands.
Has winter begun setting in on Montreal yet?
Funny you should mention that. We had a snowstorm yesterday, and it’s pretty cold, so winter is starting, yes. It had been pretty mild before that and it hasn’t been that bad the last five or six years. We don’t get the minus 40 that we had before, so if you can say anything good about global warming, that is it (laughs).
Other than the battery of press, do you have anything special planned to launch the new album, or will you wait for the holidays to pass and the album to come out before doing anything like that?
We didn’t plan any special show for the album. But we will also be celebrating when the album comes out the 30th anniversary of Voivod, so we want to keep very busy next year in terms of touring. We want to hit South and North America, all throughout Europe and hopefully go to India and China, and in between tours we want to write new material as well.
Right now, we are enjoying a bit of a break from touring, but we are playing one festival in a few weeks up north where we grew up. It’s to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Saguenay [Quebec] and it will give us the occasion to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the band because we formed in January of ’83. It’s actually a very short set, because it’s among a lot of other artists from the area all celebrating the anniversary. It’s a big event for all of the artists from up north there.
When you do actually tour, will you have a special 30th anniversary set or play one of the old albums in full or anything like that, or will you focus more on the new album?
We’ll probably have special merch or something like that for the anniversary. But in terms of the set list, we have a best-of type of set list but we will of course play a bunch of tracks from the new album, Target Earth. Nowadays we have been playing “Jack Luminous” [from The Outer Limits] a lot, which is very rare. That’s something we want to keep doing, even though it takes the space of three songs because it is so long, but it’s something special for the fans.
It seems now like things have come full-circle for the band and you’re doing things like you used to do in the old days?
Yeah, now that everything seems to have fallen into place we want to take advantage of it while we can. It’s an exciting time and we’d like to keep that going. Since we reformed with this lineup in 2008 we’ve been doing a lot of touring and playing festivals and that sort of thing. It was only around 2010 that we decided to write an album and our activities have really picked up since then.
I’m pretty sure that next year is going to be even busier than this year, which was crazy enough, but it’s great. We enjoy it and the last few years there has been a resurgence of thrash metal in general, so it’s cool because we can actually tour on own again. The people who like Voivod are really loyal. We did a tour in October across Europe and it went really well. We were not promoting an album or anything, just the single “Mechanical Mind” from Target Earth, so it was pretty cool that we were able to do that. But next year we have the opportunity to play more festivals and because we signed with Century Media we will have the new album under our belts and we want to promote that as much as we can.
How did the process of writing new material evolve, and how did Dan and Blacky figure into it?
We toured the thrash material, the Blacky years from the ’80s, for a couple of years, 2008-2009 and during 2009 Snake, Jason and I finished Infini, which we had started in 2004 before the unfortunate departure of Piggy in 2005. So at this point, we decided to incorporate Infini songs into the setlist. And soon after we started playing “Forlorn” from Phobos from the Eric Forrest era.
Around 2010, I think we felt comfortable and confident and the chemistry was good and Dan was really well accepted by everybody. Everyone who listens to Voivod really thought it was a natural transition. So in early 2010, Dan and Blacky did a demo, only bass and guitar, of “Kaleidos” and “Artefact.” It was material they had written together and Snake and I were really blown away because it got us back to thrash era with that distinctive bass sound, that fluid structure and it was so aggressive.
Soon after, we started to do sessions of improvisation and we recorded everything. There were some great parts that Blacky and Dan rearranged into Voivod songs. So Dan and Blacky were really involved with the whole thing.
Given Dan’s background and the stuff Blacky was involved with while he was out from the band, I can imagine those were some pretty wild jam sessions?
Oh yeah (laughs).Dan, his band Martyr is really intricate, almost like Meshuggah, and Blacky has always been into avant garde contemporary music and after awhile I noticed that a lot of the time signatures were strange, which is great, it brings me back to the progressive thrash metal we did in the past, it was pretty exciting for Snake and I.
But I had a couple of requests, myself. I requested one song with a Motorhead beat. It’s my roots. Every album I want at least one song with the d-beat, or the Motorhead beat, which is “Kluskap O’Kom,” which is based on Mi’kmaq mythology. And I also wanted one song reminiscent of “Ripping Headaches” but sung in French. So that is “Corps Etranger,” our very first French song. So these were my special requests.
We had the luxury of living in the same place, Montreal, and we could go to the jam space and arrange and rearrange and demo and rearrange and it became very epic. But I like to have a couple of punk songs in there.
I got into you guys back around the time of Killing Technology, so I’m pretty psyched by the older-school vibe of the stuff I’ve heard so far from Target Earth.
The album is definitely, for me, reminiscent of Dimension Hatross, but also Phobos because we put some interludes, intros and outros so it would seem like a long journey. There’s a lot of new twists in there as well, a fresh perspective, we definitely didn’t want this to seem like nostalgia.
How was it that Blacky ended up being fully incorporated back into the band.
It’s a bit complicated, but it all came gradually. After we did Katorz, Snake, Jason and I, we were pretty exhausted and drained from the experience of recording without Piggy, so we decided to take a couple of years off and at this point Snake and I weren’t to sure whether we wanted to do anything connected to Voivod anymore. We took some time off, but we all had in mind that we should one day finish Infini, which we started in 2004.
In 2007, Snake and I went to a show where Dan and Blacky were doing a medley of Voivod with members, if I remember, of Cryptopsy and some other people and we were blown away. We thought they had a very good chemistry and it was very energetic. In 2008, we were offered a chance to play a festival in Montreal called Heavy MTL, it was with Motley Crue and Iron Maiden and tons of bands. At this point, I knew that Jason, who had such a great music relationship with Piggy, his main concern was to eventually wrap up Infini, which we did, so it was mission accomplished after that. So we decided to phone Blacky and Dan, Snake and I, but just for that one show.
We were really nervous actually, we thought it would be sacrilege and all that, but it was very well received, the crowd was great and word spread so the same year we were invited to play another festival in 2008 with Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest and then were were invited to go to Tokyo for two nights with our friends Testament and we filmed the concert and released it on DVD [Tatsumaki: Voivod Japan 2008] and it just kept rolling like that. We ended up playing other great festivals in Europe, Sweden Rock and Wacken and all that, we did that crazy metal cruise, 70,000 Tons of Metal, and gradually we became a full-on band.
In 2009, when Snake and I were recharged enough to wrap up Infini with Jason we were touring with Blacky and Dan, but we had an album with Jason and Piggy, so it was a bit confusing. But it was very natural and gradual with both Blacky and Dan. It was the same way when Jason came into the band.
It’s probably better in the long run to just let things fall into place rather than force it. It seems like things never work out when that happens.
In some ways the same thing happened in the early 2000s when we had split the band, Piggy and I. After a year and a half or two years I get antsy, and we want to get back on the road and record and play music again. So in the early 2000s, when Piggy and I decided to reform with Snake, we phoned Jason but it was meant to be for like one album and he was meant to be the guest bass player, but it was such a great time that we ended up being a full-on band on tour in 2003 and with a new album. And who knows where that might have gone and for how long. Unfortunately, Piggy became ill in 2005 and that’s as far as it went, but we really enjoyed the time we were together.
Are you still in touch with Jason?
We’re still in touch. About a month ago we played with Neurosis in San Francisco and Jason came to the show and he came backstage and it was amazing to see him again. He’s happy to see us continue and he has his own thing going now. As for Eric Forrest [who replaced Snake after he left in 1994], he lives in Europe, so whenever we play around Europe he comes to a couple of shows to sing “Tribal Convictions.” So we keep in touch. There’s no bad blood, if that’s what you’re getting at (laughs). Every time there was a hiatus or a split up of whatever, there was a lot of disappointment and sadness involved, but never bad blood.
In your case, they were prompted more by stuff that was really out of the band’s control, Piggy’s illness and Eric’s van accident, for example?
That’s true. The band relationships have always been quite good. I know it seems like we’ve had a rocky history, but except for the two things that you mentioned, the accident [in 1998] and Piggy’s passing, it’s been a great adventure in terms of traveling and expressing myself visually as well as musically and all that. It’s been a great 30 years for sure. Perhaps couple of significant lows, but the highs have been great like touring with Rush, we were on Ozzfest in 2003 and the metal cruise I was telling you about. I think it’s all good when you look back at things, well, mostly all good, I should say.
You artwork seems to change for each new phase of the band. The new cover is interesting in that you have the warrior-like character that recalls the early covers, but with a color scheme that looks more like the Eric Forrest-era albums. What was the idea behind that?
I definitely try to have a different visual for different lineups, for me it was important to have for a new lineup a new approach for the art. The last three albums, the ones with Jason, the music was more minimal so the art was more minimal, and this time around I thought of going back somewhat to the look of the thrash metal years, although it’s not done with paintings, like I used to in the ’80s.
People often ask me if I will paint again, but I only did four paintings and they were for the covers of the first four albums (laughs). I usually do the drawing in ink, then scan it and do the coloration in Photoshop.
Many people, when they listened to the demos, told me that the music sort of had the ingredients of all the eras combined together, so I thought I’d pick colors from previous album covers of mine to try to see how it looks. It is quite colorful. Some people think it’s too colorful. Somebody asked if it comes with bubblegum (laughs). I think it’s a great comment. I was thinking about the fact that it’s going to come out on vinyl. I wanted it to be very eye-catching.
You mentioned earlier about the fans sticking with you. Voivod was always something of a cult band is it was, are you surprised people have stuck with you for as long as they have?
It is surprising because it’s such strange music in a way, but it’s never really reached the masses. I think music like ours, because it is so different, the people who like it are really into it. They are fans for life. We’re still pretty underground, which is cool, but we can go out on our own and tour anytime we want. Of course 30 years ago, I would have never thought I’d be doing this now (laughs).
Your first album was so harsh, I guess just getting to do a second album was quite an accomplishment?
(Laughs) I know, and it wasn’t easy. The first couple of albums, we were still learning to play. So it was very raunchy, or harsh as you say. But at the time, thrash metal was so new and exciting. It was all about the energy. The fact that you couldn’t play your instruments all that well really didn’t matter (laughs).
Obviously you’ve improved over time?
In ’85, we decided to move to Montreal and we worked so hard at getting better as musicians and songwriters. Really learning our craft. You have to do that if you want to keep moving forward. Between ’83 and ’89 we never stopped rehearsing, like every night. When we moved to Montreal we all lived in the same apartment for a few years, so we really lived the Voivod thing.
Between War And Pain and Nothingface, there is a huge improvement technically. It was all within five years, but we learned a lot because we worked really, really hard. When we signed the deal with MCA for Nothingface, we were able to move to separate apartments, but before that it was a lot of work and a lot of time spent together. And that’s how we were able to tour and write and put out an album every year, complex albums like Dimension Hatross, because we worked on it full-time.
Nowadays, it’s a bit more difficult for us, because we all have our separate businesses and homes, but we did spent a year and half or two years working on Target Earth between tours. So it takes a little longer these days, but we still work just as hard.
I can imagine you’re pretty happy the four of you aren’t in the same apartment anymore?
(Laughs) For sure. That was fine when we were in our early 20s and really living the rock and roll lifestyle and doing it full on. But we’re middle-aged men now and that would be a little weird, all sharing the same place (laughs). We have our own lives now, which is great, and we have the band, which is great, too.