VOIVOD Honours Their Past
Originally hailing from Jonquière, Quebec, Voivod came together in early 1983. With inspiration from Venom and Motörhead, they became part of the burgeoning thrash metal scene, setting themselves apart from the rest of their peers by gradually incorporating influences from progressive rock bands. Combined with Denis “Piggy” D’Amour’s singular guitar style, Voivod sounded like no other band. Drummer Michel “Away” Langevin, vocalist Denis “Snake” Bélanger, and bassist Jean-Yves “Blacky” Thériault each also brought essential contributions to the sound and visual aesthetic. They would go through band member changes and further shifts in sound before Piggy would tragically pass away in 2005. Guitarist Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain and bassist Dominique “Rocky” Laroche make up the current band with Snake and Away. Voivod are about to release their 15th studio album, Synchro Anarchy. It contains the essence of what so many fans love about the band. Jahmeel Russell had a chance to speak to Away ahead of its release.
NT: Congrats on the new album. I think it’s one of the best ones you’ve made.
Away: Wow, thank you very much. It’s quite a relief. The reaction for the first two singles is really great. We worked extra hard on this one, so we can’t wait to share it.
NT: I know you guys had to work more remotely to compose the songs this time. Did you find that it affected the outcome of the material?
A: Yes, I would say so, because when we came back from touring with Gwar at the end of 2019 in Europe, we took a bit of a break for the holidays. Then in early 2020, we started improvising. Chewy and Rocky had some riffs and Snake got some melodies in his head. So we jammed around that and in mid-March, everything stopped. So we were all of a sudden, in a lockdown. We kept working, sharing files online, I was programming drums, but they were just snippets of songs we were trying to build and Chewy was trying to rearrange everything into an album. We were mainly focused in 2020 on releasing live material that we had recorded during the tour for The Wake. So we ended up releasing The End of Dormancy EP and the Lost Machine live album while trying to build something. Eventually, while Chewy was arranging stuff, I started to program drums without music and sending that to Chewy and Rocky to see what they could come up with. All of this building up of the puzzle, I think, gave the vibe of maybe Nothingface or Dimension Hatröss to the album where we were turning on a dime and changing speed or time signature from one part to the other. So that probably helped to get that feeling I think. Also of course, since we couldn’t meet at the studio, Snake said “I’m going to build a studio in my house”. So as soon as he finished isolating one room the restrictions became more severe where we couldn’t meet in the house. I can feel the sense of isolation in his lyrics so I think the pandemic had a very strong impact on this album. It’s only in June of last year that we finally got into a studio with templates for songs and recorded and wrote at the same time so it was really intense. Since we couldn’t tour we were doing online shows where we would revisit Nothingface and Dimension Hatröss so I think that probably helped us to develop a sound for the new album and probably rubbed off a bit on the writing on the album.
NT: Synchro Anarchy musically reminds me a lot of your late 80s work. A song like “Planet Eaters” sounds like it would be right at home on Dimension Hatröss.
A: Also, there are a lot of backing vocals on this album that give it a psychedelic vibe. So I think there is a bit of Angel Rat and The Outer Limits on the album. I know that Chewy wanted it to be a bit more thrash metal so I get some Phobos vibes there as well. So basically, maybe ingredients of all the eras with the new fusion metal futuristic twist to our music, which is a great challenge. It’s a great challenge for me.
NT: This is your third time working with Francis Perron. Beyond capturing your performances in the studio does he get involved in any of the arrangements of the songs?
A: Well, he’ll give his opinions and advice along the way for sure. Like, this could be repeated or not, or stuff like that. Of course, Chewy is the main arranger and composer but Francis, being a fan of Voivod, really gets what we are, and also is then fine-tuning his sound as well. I think we’re finally reaching what we had in mind. Between Post Society and Synchro Anarchy, there’s quite a big difference in terms of improvement. It’s a pretty good team. We’ll definitely use it for the next releases as well, this way of working. The fact that we were forced to do demos with the computer and all that, it sort of gave us a formula for the next releases as well. So they might be less apart, I think.
NT: Was the approach to the recording of Synchro Anarchy similar to The Wake? Did you experiment with any new gear while tracking the album?
A: Well, I know that Chewy and Rocky had some new gear. Francis has a lot of new gear. I personally decided to use my Gretsch, which was a gift from Jason (Newsted) from the tour with Ozzy back in 2003 and it’s a massive tank. It sounds really explosive. So I think we all sound better individually. The bass sound is amazing as well. So yeah, I think we are improving our formula as we move on.
NT: Chewy and Rocky have both done a phenomenal job since they joined the band. Chewy especially is such an incredible guitar player, honouring Piggy while still managing to add some new elements to the band with some of his lead work. Do you or Snake provide any guidance as far as their parts are concerned or have they naturally just tapped into the essence of Voivod?
A: It’s really what everybody brings individually. It’s really what makes the material Voivod. For The Wake we had more rehearsals, and now we couldn’t for the new album so it was a bit different. When we got into the studio June of last year, we were writing and recording in the same time, it was pretty crazy. I think that Snake and I, we come from the old school punk thrash days, and we bring that side to the music for sure. If anything, Rocky and Chewy are more jazzy so I think it’s just a great combination, but it’s very natural. We don’t sit down and decide what kind of direction we’re going to take. We knew that The Wake was really well received. So it was a good indication we were following the right path. The only pressure we give to ourselves was that we wanted to make it as good as The Wake if not better. The difficulty was when we started recording last June it was also when the festivals started in the province of Quebec. So we were playing in the weekend and recording during the week. So it was a lot of work. So that was a difference as well, something we’re not used to. We ended up pretty tired after four months because we had to deliver the masters by the end of September and the artwork and everything. So a lot of work. I think for the next album we’ll be more proactive where I might start programming drums very soon for the demos so we don’t get stuck with such crazy work in such a short time, but the whole thing gave us a good formula. We can work with that formula for the next releases. It’s going to be easier.
NT: The bass guitar has always been a key part of the Voivod sound. Do you think Rocky’s bass playing has impacted the direction of the new material he’s appeared on? His playing reminds me more of Blacky than Eric Forrest (vocals/bass 1994-2001) or Jason Newsted (bass 2001-2008).
A: Rocky is a fan of all the eras like Chewy so I can hear every lineup on his playing with the new fusion metal twist. I think it’s natural for him, he’s a metal dude, he grew up with Voivod. It’s really fun for me because I was playing thrash metal in the 80s and some kind of industrial metal in the 90s with Eric Forrest and with Jason, it was more stoner metal. Now it’s like jazz metal (laughs). So it’s always a great challenge for me to adapt my style, but I’m at ease with all these styles because as a teen I learn to play with punk, but also progressive rock, and my jazzy feel comes from Soft Machine, Van der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, Magma. So it all comes naturally but it’s still always a bit of a challenge. The main challenge for the new album was actually while I was programming drum tracks for the demos, to make sure that I could play it when time would come to go into the studio. So that was the main challenge, but I really took the opportunity to program strange beats, and punk beats with a lot of toms like Killing Joke or PIL.
NT: That’s awesome and you just touched on my next question too, which was the different eras of the band. One thing I’ve always found interesting about your discography is how the different bassists that followed Blacky seemed to correlate with a bit of change in direction. The Eric Forrest era had a cold and industrial sound like you said. With the Jason Newsted era, I always thought those albums almost had a bit of a hard rock feel. Do you think that was just a coincidence at the time or did they have an impact on the material you were writing to push it in those directions?
A: Definitely, and now there is a lot of question/answer parts between guitar and bass and the parts are intertwined a lot. There’s a lot of noodling. So it makes me play differently, which is great. I love it. I was there all the way through for the five lineups and every time I had to adapt my style a bit. If anything, I’m more versatile now because of that but of course, I’m also very involved in the avant-garde scene ever since I was doing projects with Feotus at the end of the 80s. I’ve been involved in the avant-garde scene, and that helps me to develop my style a lot because there is a lot of improvisation involved as well with these different projects I’m doing with other people.
NT: I know you’re a fan of David Lynch. Have his movies inspired any of the artwork you’ve created for Voivod?
A: Yes. Eraserhead was a revelation and my art changed when I saw that movie, definitely. I really like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway and a few of his movies had an impression, but Eraserhead is the one that really gave me a new direction for my visuals.
NT: The Wake won a Juno in 2019 for best Metal album. Were you surprised by the win and what did it mean to you?
A: Really surprised. We were so surprised because nobody told us we were gonna win and we had never won anything before. Every time we were nominated at the Junos we were against Rush. So it was such a surprise that when the name Voivod came up in the PA, it sounded like “and the winner is, (slows down voice) V-o-i-v-o-d”. We all stood up in slow motion and high-fived each other and everything. It was a great moment, man. Recognition is always great because it hasn’t been such an easy road. It’s been quite a roller coaster and to get recognition from the industry and everybody in the room, all the bands, they all seemed to root for us and they were really happy that we were happy. It was a super great moment and gave us a lot of headlines and a good momentum. Also, The Wake was so well received that it really gave us a lot of confidence for the new material.
NT: Is there any plan to reissue the albums you did with Jason Newsted on CD/LP? The self-titled album in particular is hard to find these days.
A: Infini and Katorz are available on vinyl and CD. The self-titled from 2003 hasn’t been reissued, but it belongs to us. So next year for the 20th anniversary, we’re going to do a release on vinyl and CD.
NT: Were you happy with BMG’s reissues of the Noise Records catalogue? How involved were you in the reissues?
A: I was involved and I worked countless hours on these reissues. I was really, really happy with the layout and the packaging and everything that was compiled in there. I mean, I supplied material like VHS tapes that were sent to the PO box in the 80s. So they’re usually from the mosh pit and very raw. Demos and photos, so it was a lot of work. Last year since we were not really able to tour a lot, aside from the Quebec festivals, I worked a lot on reissues for this year. So Nothingface, Angel Rat, will be released on vinyl this year. The Noise catalogue is being reissued again on some sort of crazy vinyl box set as well that looks really sci-fi. We’ve also been working nonstop on releasing the documentary by Felipe Belalcázar (Voivod: We Are Connected) who did Death By Metal. We want to release it this year, and next year is a big year because it’s the fourth anniversary. So we have a book in the works. Also, we want to release some sort of best of, we’ll see. We’ll just keep going and if we can’t tour for a while still, we’re going to go back to revisiting albums online like Angel Rat or The Outer Limits. We just keep going and try to keep the name out there as much as we can.
NT: Over 15 studio albums you guys have managed to progress and try new things while still sounding unique. What is your favourite Voivod album and is there one you feel best represents the band?
A: Well, my favourite except for the new one, would be Killing Technology, which was a turning point for me in terms of learning how to play what I had in mind. I could only achieve what I wanted to achieve around the Nothingface era, but Killing Technology was definitely a big step forward for the band, and also for me personally.
NT: What are the band’s plans for the rest of the year?
A: We had a word tour plan starting in February but the Euro leg has already been postponed from the spring to the fall. The North American leg we hope still hope to do this summer. Then we also wanted to go to Japan, Australia, South America. So all we can do is keep our fingers crossed, you know, it’s a bit of a logistic nightmare because of the visas. So we’ll see what happens, but we really miss it. Personally, playing drums has always been a release of stress, because I grew up during the Cold War. So I’ve always been afraid of a nuclear confrontation. Now I’m still afraid of a nuclear confrontation. So that’s what I miss the most is to play drums live around the world.
Voivod will release their new album Synchro Anarchy, February 11th on Century Media Records.
Pre-order Synchro Anarchy HERE
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