Interview with guitarist Jean-François (JF) Dagenais
By Peter Atkinson
All photos from https://www.facebook.com/kataklysm
Veteran Canadian death metallers Kataklysm enter their third decade with a bruising, brand new 11th studio album, Waiting For The End To Come, and a pretty good head of steam that has been gathering slowly over the last few years. The band’s last album, 2010’s Heaven’s Venom, managed to crack the Billboard 200 for the first time, sneaking on at #196, and Kataklysm marked the first two decades of their career in 2012 with the aptly titled live/documentary CD/DVD Iron Will: 20 Years Determined. 2009 also saw the emergence of Ex Deo, a Gladiator-meets-death metal side project of Maurizio Iacono’s that blossomed into a full-blown band incorporating the rest of Kataklysm – guitarist Jean-François (JF) Dagenais, bassist Stephane Barbe and drummer Max Duhamel – and garnered a surprising amount of attention with their debut Romulus, which carried over to the follow-up Caligula in 2012.
Despite a recent bump in the road when Duhamel took leave of both bands to battle his alcoholism, Kataklysm barely missed a beat – so to speak – by hiring on Oli Beaudoin, who had performed a few shows in Duhamel’s stead in the past. Beaudoin was behind the kit for Waiting For The End To Come and most likely will stay there as the band tours on its behalf into the new year. During a recent phone interview, Dagenais offered his thoughts on the past, present and future of both Kataklysm and Ex Deo, the situation with Duhamel (who had left the band on two other occasions, for several-year periods), and what happens when “Northern Hyperblast” meets Southern hospitality.
While I was looking through the band’s Facebook page, it mentioned several times about you flying to Montreal to meet them to start tours and whatnot. I take it you don’t live there anymore?
JF Dagenais: No. I live in Dallas, Texas, I’ve been living here for a couple years now.
Aha. How do you like it there, that must be a big change?
JF: I really like it. The climate change is awesome for me because I come from cold and snow, and here the weather is always warm and the people are really nice. When I moved in, my neighbors called me to see if I wanted to watch the football game and brought pies over, stuff like that. I never had such a warm welcome in Canada. It was pretty neat. I guess that’s the Southern hospitality.
I grew up in Burlington, Vermont, so I can relate to the cold and snow. I’m sure you don’t miss that living in Dallas. I know I don’t living in D.C.
JF: (Laughs) No, I really don’t. I feel also the cost of living is cheaper here, I’m getting a pretty cheap place to live that is also really nice, which is great for a musician. And in a lot of big cities, that’s just not possible. Here it is, so it’s really the best of everything.
What brought you to Dallas?
JF: I got married (laughs). Pretty typical reason.
It doesn’t seem to have created any logistical difficulties with the band, or I should say bands since you’re all also doing Ex Deo?
JF: Nowadays it’s really easy to work and communicate long distance, with Skype and file sharing over the Internet. I have my own little studio here in Dallas and Stephane has his own ProTools set up at home, as does Maurizio and Oli, the new drummer. So it was really easy to record files and exchange them and talk almost face to face on Skype.
I was showing Steph the riffs and we were exchanging sessions back and forth. I would record a song and send it to Steph and he would add to it and change parts and send it back to me and that’s how we wrote this whole record for the most part. To finalize everything we all flew to Montreal together to rehearse and go over everything we’d done and piece it together and it was a really easy way to work. We did the same with Ex Deo in the past.
The harder part is the rehearsals for the tours. For example, we’re going on tour now with Sepultura in November [Note: The tour ended up being canceled because of visa issues with Sepultura]. I’m living here now, Maurizio is in Chicago and the other guys are living near Montreal, but like two hours out of town, so we’re all pretty spread out. So we rented a rehearsal room in California before the first date where the tour is going to start, so we’re going to stay there for a day or two and rehearse together before starting to tour.
We’ve been playing together for so long that it’s not a problem. It’s a little harder now because we have a bunch of songs from the new album that we have to practice, but all the older stuff we’re pretty much used to it and we know how it’s gonna be. At the moment, we’re practicing by ourselves at home, each of us with the new CD. So it’s a little bit of a challenge, but it’s nothing to worry about.
Plus, you’ve toured somewhat recently with Ex Deo and you did some festival shows with both bands, so it’s not like you’re really that out of practice.
JF: Exactly. We’ve been talking about how we’re going to do things and the set list and things like that for the next few months. And while we’re together we’re going to try to rehearse even more songs for the upcoming European tour in January and February, we’re doing 38 shows. And we’re going to Japan and Australia, also, in December and that will be the real test, because that will be a full headliner set, and hour and 20 minutes of music.
And after the European tour we’re going to South America to do three weeks there, so that’s March. So we’re going to be pretty busy. We’ve been talking to each other and saying April and May we’re not doing squat, we’re staying home (laughs) and enjoy life for a little bit, and then after that are all the European festivals, so it will be pretty busy again.
Is it hard to switch gears between the two bands? Or is it just a matter of taking off the Ex Deo armor and getting into Kataklysm mode?
JF: If we do it separate, like different tours, it’s pretty easy to switch around them both. I find it very hard when we play with both bands at festivals or do shows back to back. We tried it a little this summer, like at the Bloodstock Open Air in England, one day Ex Deo and the next day Kataklysm, and then in the Czech Republic we did the Metal Fest where we played both bands on the same day. That was really hard.
I hope we don’t have to do that too often because that is a lot of music you have to memorize and also you’re playing different characters, because with Kataklysm we’re ourselves and Ex Deo is more historical, Roman themed, so you have to get that vibe.
How is Oli fitting into everything. It’s tough enough filling someone’s shoes in one band, but he’s doing it with two.
JF: Oli likes it. He feels like with Kataklysm he’s really pushing himself to the edge drumming wise as far as his capabilities, whereas with Ex Deo it’s more relaxed from him because from a drum standpoint it’s easier to play since it’s not as complex, it’s a bit more anthemic. It’s more about enjoying playing live and having a good time. Kataklysm is more about performing and pushing yourself to your limits.
He fits really well with both bands and I think for him, he’s done session drumming for many bands, like Belphegor and Keep of Kalessin, and he’s used to jumping from one band to another and learning a bunch of songs and playing them live. He was telling me because we are all originally French Canadian he’s bonded better with us because of the culture and we speak the same dirty slang French between us (laughs) and he feels more part of the family and we like him very much as a person.
The tour we did with Ex Deo was the first time we spent a month together on a bus and it went really well, so I’m excited to start the Kataklysm shows.
Is the plan to have Max come back at some point, or has he removed himself from the picture completely now?
JF: We hope he does. To be honest, I was expecting to hear from him and he doesn’t call anyone, he just kind of disappeared from the face of the earth. I hope he is doing fine, I hope he’s OK. He had started some of the recovery process for his problem and we all encouraged him, we were hoping he would be back for these upcoming tours, but we haven’t heard from him. So, hopefully, we’ll hear from him and see what happens, but for now, no news.
[Note: Kataklysm's Facebook page posted a photo Nov. 7 of Duhamel with Barbe and Ex Deo bassist Dano Apekian in Montreal, so he's alive and well.]
Part of his recovery may be just keep him away from any sort of temptation, so he’s shut himself off from anything that might have contributed to his problem. On your Facebook page, there are a lot of pictures of you all out hoisting beers and whatnot at various tour stops.
JF: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. Also, it’s got to be probably hard for him because he likes to do this very much and he sees us coming out with a new record and tours. So out of sight, out of mind, maybe.
It is a lot of temptation. We get so much free alcohol every night, and Kataklysm, we are a party band. We don’t drink it all ourselves, we have it for our friends and the guests we have every night. But there’s always some backstage party, so it would be really hard for him to be in that setting. If we kept him on the road for as many shows as we have coming up, that would not be good for him.
What sort of difference did it make having Oli on the drums on the new Kataklysm album. Did it affect the writing at all, knowing his style was probably a bit different than Max’s?
JF: I don’t think it affected the writing at all, because we do what we do and with every record I guess we try to push it a little further. But as far as drumming ideas and patterns, he did bring some certain elements that Max might not necessarily do, different tempo changes and beat patterns, and it does change the sound of the band a little bit.
He really tried to keep it Kataklysm style because he’s a fan of the band and he’s played with us before, he replaced Max on a few shows in the past, and he really likes our sound and songs. So he tried to keep it as authentic as he could, but bring some of his side as well. And we encouraged that because it adds something to the album to let him bring his style into it, versus saying “no, no, no, just play it like we did before.” That wouldn’t do anyone any good.
He’s a big fan of extreme music, and he brings a fresh perspective. I thought it was cool and creative when we thought he might do something a certain way with different parts or riffs and he would do something completely the opposite. It definitely helped with the vibe of the album.
This is your 11th studio album, what other little touches were you looking to add to keep things fresh?
JF: On the songwriting part, we always try to push ourselves and I’m listening to a lot of things. I listen to a lot of classic music and now that I live in Dallas some country as well, you can’t really get away from it (laughs). But sometimes you hear something on the radio or when you’re out and it’s like “this is pretty cool,” and it gives you a fresh perspective on music.
We’re just doing what we do but we pushed it to another level. It’s one of my favorite records because it has a lot of different elements, but they all fit really well together.
Right off the bat, the album opens with almost a little bit of black metal on “Fire.”
JF: I don’t know if you know this old TV show from the ’90s, “Twin Peaks?”
Oh yeah, I watched it when it was on originally and I have the DVD set.
JF: I went through a marathon of “Twin Peaks” with my wife and after I finished watching it, that’s the riff that came to my mind (laughs). The inspiration for that track was from watching that and that weird mode. I picked up my guitar and wrote that song. It’s funny because Maurizio came with the lyrics and he’s like “we’re gonna call the song ‘Fire,’” but he’s never seen the series and he doesn’t know anything about it and the whole “fire, walk with me” thing, but it fit the context perfectly. It was great.
Kataklysm’s been doing pretty well, especially over the last few albums, which is pretty cool since you’ve been at this for 20-some years, and Ex Deo has gained a lot of attention as well, so it’s got to be gratifying to have two bands that are resonating like they are.
JF: Yeah. Kataklysm is our band, it’s our baby. We’ve been working it for so many years. It’s what we do. Ex Deo started as more of a Maurizio thing at first, and then we all got involved and now it’s getting more interest and more push. We want to see where it is going, we love doing it as well, but I still see it as more of a side thing.
Kataklysm is for me my main focus for sure. But we love to do both. I love to write music, I love to play music, record music and play live, so as soon as we have some downtime I’d like to work on the third Ex Deo record for sure because it’s such a fun project. As a musician, it’s great to be in this position.
As far as the songwriting dynamic goes, is it pretty much the same for both bands since the members are essentially the same, or is Ex Deo still more of Maurizio’s thing and Kataklysm more like what you were describing before, you and Stephane working out the material?
JF: It’s more a different mindset than anything else. Everybody is involved in the writing with both bands, and we have the same way of writing. Whatever we like we keep and whatever don’t like we also keep sometimes (laughs) nothing is really wasted, but with Kataklysm we have our own technique, which is all of us exchanging our ideas.
For Ex Deo, since it’s more theme-based we actually have to look at Roman music, the way they wrote the structures and the instruments they used, and the chords and the arrangements. We try to be as authentic as we can, within a metal setting.
With Kataklysm there’s not really any rules. We just do what we’ve always done, we do what we want. It’s basically the combination of all of us that makes Kataklysm. With Ex Deo, we have all this orchestration on top of everything, it’s more in some sort of a framework.
Another thing that I like about Ex Deo is Stephane plays lead guitar in the band, he’s more of the main guy. He plays the solos and does the harmonies and I’m more the James Hetfield playing the chords in the background. What I like about that is it allows him to express himself as a guitar player and it makes it a little less Kataklysm sounding, and when we go out and play shows it’s less pressure, I just play the rhythmic parts in the back, and it’s the same way in the studio. It’s a little less stressful on me than doing Kataklysm.
Since Waiting For The End To Come is just coming out, I’m assuming you’ll be supporting that for a while and Kataklysm will be on the front burner?
JF: Yeah. We’re going to concentrate this next year on Kataklysm. We told our agents who book everything we might be interested in doing a couple of double shows in the summer, if we’re doing a big open air festival that goes for a few days it might make sense to have Kataklysm play one day and Ex Deo the next. We’ll do those type of events, otherwise it will be strictly Kataklysm for the year and then when all is done we’ll sit all together and see what we want to do, and if we’re going to start working on another Ex Deo album it won’t be until 2015.