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Home And Away: Voivod Interviewed
John Doran , July 22nd, 2020 06:41

A locked down Michel ‘Away’ Langevin talks to John Doran about why Voivod, one of the original avant garde metal bands, continue to push their sound forward 38 years on from their conception and his regret over not working with Steve Albini

In less than two years’ time Voivod will be celebrating their 40th birthday - and if their current output is anything to go by they will pass this milestone, continuing to challenge fixed notions of what it actually means to be a heavy metal band.

The Canadian band were co-founded in 1982 by guitarist Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour and bassist Jean-Yves ‘Blacky’ Thériault alongside currently serving members, Denis ‘Snake’ Bélanger on vocals and Michel ‘Away’ Langevin on drums.

Initially misunderstood by the mainstream rock press - Kerrang! branded their 1984 debut album War And Pain “crap” - they traded in a volatile, noisy and unkempt mash of speed metal, NWOBHM stridency and UK street punk bludgeon. But almost from the start there was an audibly progressive, game-changing element to their racket, especially in the unusual guitar chords favoured by Piggy and a penchant for unusual time signatures.

They were clearly a band who thrived on pushing themselves way outside of their comfort zone and this tactic paid off in terms of a rapidly evolving sound. People who initially wrote them off had to eat their words by the release of Killing Technology in 1987, the first in a trio of genuinely trailblazing albums which also included Dimension Hatröss in 1988 and Nothingface in 1989.

Their path since has not always been well-planned, easy or fortunate. The band lost momentum and focus after the release of a divisive and relatively commercial album Angel Rat in 1991 and then even temporarily ground to a halt because of the after effects of a serious tour bus crash in Germany in 1998, in which Eric ‘E-Force’ Forrest was seriously injured. Though they reformed in 2001, the death of Piggy in 2005 cast an existential shadow over Voivod.

The band in 2020 (now also featuring Daniel ‘Chewy’ Mongrain on guitars and Dominic ‘Rocky’ Laroche on bass) is in vigorously good health however. This stable line-up seems to have found a sweet spot somewhere between a ‘classic’ Voivod sound and a freshly reinvigorated desire to innovate.

Their latest EP, The End Of Dormancy, is a case in question. Its eponymous lead track was an epic culled from their 14th album, 2018’s The Wake. Here, it is pushed out even further by the inclusion of a brass and wood quintet (trumpets, saxophones, trombone), proving that Voivod still stride fearlessly where most other metal acts wouldn’t even consider walking.

Away spoke to me via Skype from his Montreal home while still under lockdown late last week.

‘The End Of Dormancy’ is such a great track to begin with but I guess the most surprising thing of it is just how much the aspect of a song changes when you add this whole brass section to it.

Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: The original track was already meant to be like music from an epic film soundtrack, and when we were invited to play the Montreal Jazz Festival last year, we thought it'd be a great surprise to play with a quintet. It was our guitar player Chewy's idea, and he's very good at writing scores, so he wrote a part for every member of the quintet. When we performed it at the festival the reaction was really really amazing. So when time came to do this new EP Chewy thought it'd be a great idea to get the quintet in the studio to overdub over the studio track from The Wake and, again, give it a type of soundtrack atmosphere.

I guess in a way you landed on your feet recruiting Chewy to be a member of the band, because not only does he respectfully retain a feel of that original Voivod guitar sound, but then he's got all of these other skills. I think it’s fair enough to say you don't get that many people in rock or metal bands who can score a brass band for example.

ML: With both Rocky and Chewy now we have jumped into this huge fusion metal thing that I really love. It's challenging for me to build drum tracks around it, so I'm enjoying the experience. Chewy teaches jazz music at college so he's very good at figuring out micro-parts to the songs. So yeah it's a step forward for Voivod, which is really amazing because it's been 37 years. I have been there all the way through, and every time there's a line-up change I have to adapt my playing a bit, which is always great, because then I get more versatile, but this time around we jumped back into the prog rock mode which is a bit more challenging. I love it!

If you get brass and wood and it's played really really fortissimo, it can have a Mariachi sort of vibe or be reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s Sergio Leone soundtrack work but here it also reminds me of Brass Unbound. I don’t know if you know them or not but they worked with the anarchist Dutch punk band The Ex, on the Enormous Door album. But when you sat down and talked about what it was going to sound like, were there any kind of reference points you had?

ML: Well I remember that when we wrote the song we tried to aim for the music you’d get on an old movie like Ben-Hur and various sci-fi films but to me what it ended up sounding like in the end was more reminiscent of Magma. They are one of my favourite bands. You know, I copied the drumming of Christian Vander and I copied his logo and I copied his concept! [LAUGHS] So when I realised that it sounded a bit like Magma I was really pleased, and also it reminded me a bit of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. They’re all good reference points to me so I wouldn't have any problem doing another experiment like this in the future with another quintet. Chewy had already used a string quartet in the studio for the recording of The Wake, giving us this soundtrack atmosphere, so if we can experiment a little more with those textures, it's going to be very interesting.

Wicked. I absolutely love Magma, I can hear that totally. So you performed at the Montreal International Jazz Festival and two of those tracks are captured on the new EP. I'm just wondering about the dynamic of essentially a quite underground, extreme and avant garde metal band ending up playing a jazz festival and how that happened. Were you invited because of the prog aspect to the group or is it just a sign of the times that jazz festivals have become much more inclusive and open-minded now?

ML: It was a combination of things that saw us playing there. I mean, I saw Van der Graaff Generator, my favourite band of all time, play at the Montreal Jazz Festival so they have really expanded the realm of musical styles they include. Also the co-founder, who is one of the main programmers, was retiring and it was his last festival in 2019, and Voivod was on his wishlist because he has been a fan for a long time. We worked really hard at it, it was a really great night and so we're happy that we ended up using some of that for the EP. There's also a full-on live LP coming out eventually, but that was recorded at another show at Summerfest in Quebec City.

When you’re talking about prog and jazz, then I guess one of the biggest differences between them would be the relationship each genre has to composition, and the relationship each genre has to improvisation. What is Voivod's relationship to improvisation? I'm guessing most of your tracks come out of jamming or instant composition or that kind of thing.

ML: For Voivod improvisation has always been a huge part of the process. When I got into prog rock as a young teenager you know, I was really impressed with the technicality and the structure of musical works like Close To The Edge by Yes. The longer songs in particular really intrigued me, but then I realised that it was all meticulously planned and so when it came to them playing these songs live they could be performed exactly the same every time. It was only after I met Piggy and I went through his record collection - he had a very important collection of krautrock - that I became very intrigued by bands like Can, Faust and Amon Duul. This was a step forward. It was when I realised that this music contained parts that couldn't be replicated night after night, and these sections would be improvised. The music they were playing was very intuitive, and this was a brand new approach for me. And much later when we formed the band, we were like recording improvisations, but often as a base for songs, and we have been doing that all through Voivod’s career we've been doing that. We record long sessions of improvisations, and then listen to it, and pick the best parts, and Chewy will rearrange those sections into an order and then when we jam this at rehearsal with everybody involved, this morphs into a Voivod song. So improvisation is like fifty percent of what we do.

I believe that the pandemic hasn't stopped you four from working on a new Voivod album.

ML: Before confinement we had done a few sessions at Voivod's studio, so we have a basis to work from. We’re sharing a Dropbox folder [with stems] and syncing them together, trying to build a good demo for a future album. We toured The Wake so extensively that now we are catching up with a lot of projects that were going slowly because of us being on the road all the time. So there is a book in the works, a movie in the works...

What's the movie?

ML: Well yeah. Like when Piggy passed away in 2005, Sam Dunn who made Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey started making a documentary about Voivod and did a bunch of interviews with people like Dave Grohl and Jason Newstead but we were so busy that everything was put to one side. But we’ve been gathering archive material and now we’re trying to edit everything together and hopefully it’ll come out next year. We’re trying to move forwards as fast as we can while everybody’s at home but we really do miss going to the Voivod studio and jamming and improvising.

Do you have a drum kit at home?

ML: No, I only have an Alesis electronic drum kit so I only have electronics here, right now the [main] gear is in storage. All the shows for the US, Europe and Japan we had planned for this year have been postponed until next year. In the meantime, on Snake's birthday on 9 August we're gonna do a live streaming performance online from the RadicArt Studio where we've been recording since 2014. Maybe this is part of the new mutation of Voivod!

You having to compose new drum parts electronically almost feels like a very Voivod thing anyway, because it's a progressive step in some ways. Has it noticeably changed any of your ideas as a musician, have you noticed?

ML: The difficulty in this situation for me is to write something on a drum machine while making sure that I will still be able to play it on a drum kit when the time comes. But this situation is going to make me write different drum parts, so it's definitely gonna give the new Voivod album another twist. We were already sort of aiming on not repeating The Wake. When we did Nothingface everybody wanted Nothingface II, but with Angel Rat we surprised everybody, so who knows.

You must have been into plenty of heavy bands who used drum machines in the past anyway right. I mean I'm guessing you were into Big Black and Godflesh and stuff like that.

ML: Yes. Everything produced by Steve Albini really really impressed me back in the day. We had a serious tour bus crash in Germany in 1998. Eric, the singer and bassist at that time, was thrown out of the van, because we rolled five times and it was a real catastrophe. We were forced to stop of course and recover. It took more than a year before we were able to get back into action. During that time we wrote an album based on Eric's recovery, and we asked Steve Albini to produce it and this was at the end of 1999 going into 2000. We spoke to him on the phone and I was impressed to learn that he loved Voivod. He told me that he had Nothingface on vinyl at his house, and also on cassette in his car. It was great chatting with him, but we ended up disillusioned and eventually split the band, so it never happened. This is our lost album, and it was always my biggest regret that we never got to record with Steve Albini, and have that heavy sound that you associate with all those bands he produced - all those strange bands that were hard to define… bands like Scratch Acid. I love that stuff... I just love that stuff.

The End Of Dormancy is out now on Century Media

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