Greg Sweetapple with Snake of Voivod
Voivod is a name that metalheads the world over associate with the frostbitten winters of Canada as well as the weirder side of progressive metal. Founded in 1982 with the original lineup of guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour, bassist Jean-Yves “Blacky” Theriault, drummer Michel “Away” Langevin and vocalist Denis “Snake” Belanger. The group instantly made waves in the metal underground with a heavily influential series of albums from 1984’s War and Pain to the 1987 classic Killing Technology to 1989’s Nothingface. While the band has experienced several lineup changes throughout their career they soldiered on until 2005 when Piggy tragically passed away due to cancer. It wasn’t until 2008 that the group found someone who could fill Piggy’s shoes, Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain. Since then the group has released Infini, featuring riffs written by Piggy, 2013’s Target Earth, the critically acclaimed Post Society EP and 2018’s The Wake, a concept album responsible for netting the band a Juno Award in early 2019 for Metal / Hard Music Album of the Year. There are countless bands and musicians across the world who point to Voivod as an influence, from the Foo Fighters to Darkthrone, and for good reason. They’re one of those bands who sound wholly and unapologetically unique. When you hear a Voivod song, you know it’s them. Nobody else has ever managed to sound quite like them. Since the release of The Wake the group has been touring heavily in support of the album, but we managed to catch up to frontman Snake at the end of their North American tour to talk about the Juno Award, the new album and the out-of-this-world themes that he likes to write so much about.
First things first, you guys are hot off the heels of winning a Juno Award for ‘Metal / Hard Music Album of the Year’ with your fourteenth studio album, The Wake. An award which I think a lot of metal fans out there believe is very much deserved, myself included. How do you guys feel about being recognized by the academy and what was your reaction upon finding out?
To tell you the truth I’m kind of still surfing on it because we didn’t really have time to take it in. Like, after the award, it was a pretty busy week. After that just to get set for the tour and we had a smile on our faces of course, but we didn’t have time to get it out of our system. I was pretty nervous. We put in so much effort on this record, at least three years of work. We talked over every little detail in the studio. And when it comes to the studio it’s a matter of time, a matter of money, and sometimes you do things one way and sometimes you have to compromise certain things. But this time around we kind of managed with Francis Perron the producer who did a fantastic job as well. With this record we definitely put in the hours, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night and stuff like that. We got such good reviews after the release, we weren’t expecting it, and we thought we had a chance [at winning the award] but you never know. And of course, this was the 35th anniversary of the band. I mean you never know what to expect with this kind of thing. Even when it comes to the other bands, even if they didn’t win, we still had a good time at the ceremony.
Of course when it comes to the album in question, The Wake, this is your first studio album in five years, but is also your fourteenth record since the band’s inception in 1982. What did you guys want to do differently on this release from your past albums?
It wasn’t long before we started working on the project after the release of Post Society, the EP, and Post Society was the first time with the new lineup, it was the first recording experience we did with the new lineup, with Rocky and Chewy. We had a good experience, and it was kind of like a rehearsal to get into something stronger, something more appealing, something more relevant. I remember that Dimension Hatross, Rolling Stone Magazine released their Top 100 metal albums of all time, and Dimension Hatross was number 36 on it, and it was a conceptual album. So, we looked at it and said “we definitely have to do a really strong album, something that’s just a little above the edge”. So we put the bar at that sort of level from the beginning. We started up the process of taking recordings everywhere, sometimes it was on the road, in the background of the tour bus. And soon we had a lot of ideas, here and there, recording everything and making sure we keep it.
Voivod wins Metal Hard Music Album of the Year | Live at the 2019 JUNO Gala Dinner & Awards:
You’ve always been known as a band that tackles lyrical themes like science fiction, nuclear war, paranoia, that sort of thing, and you’ve always had such a unique and influential sound that is unlike any other band out there. Piggy’s way of writing riffs, which Chewy does an excellent job of building off of, is so uniquely [Voivod], but going into The Wake, what was the writing process like?
For most of the writing, musically, it was Chewy that spent many, many, many hours trying to get a structure of songs. For my part, it was kind of weird, because I knew it was a conceptual album from the start. I was putting ideas together but I couldn’t really make sense of anything. We didn’t know what the story was back then. We didn’t know what would be song number one that goes into song number two, goes into song number three, etc. Before I had this plan it was really hard for me to put a story together. Finally, at one point of the process we managed to say, “okay this will be number one, number two, three, four.” Then I really started putting the ideas and the structures of the songs in a way that made sense. It was quite a big task, it was like a million-particle puzzle, and I kind of managed to create a story out of this. To tell you the truth sometimes the musical aspect of it was so out there that it was like “oh my god, what am I gonna do with this?” It was inspiring in a sense. Almost too inspiring, haha. I was kind of blown away by the work of Chewy and Rocky and the drums and everything. It was like, “oh my god, this is epic, oh my god, this is so trippy, and oh my god, this is way too out there, oh my god!” But it was fun to do, I was so motivated by it. But it was complex, and finally, we managed. It was hard work, but I think hard work pays at the end. We’re proud of what we created.
One thing I’ve always wondered from bands who grew up or formed in the Cold War era is, lyrically speaking, when it comes to that ever present threat of nuclear annihilation that existed up until the end of the 80’s, what was it like growing up in that era? A lot of your lyrics use nuclear war and the apocalypse either as the consistent theme or at least the jumping off point, so how much of that fear of the ‘end of the world’ was present when you guys were growing up and throughout the band’s career?
Well of course, growing up in that time it was strange because I remember these things. I’m sure somehow we do have stigma from that period of time, we’re a little bit traumatized. There were documentaries during the Cold War and they were talking about nuclear extinction. They were saying that one time there was a mistake from a computer or whatever and we were close, six minutes from total destruction before they realized that “okay, this is a mistake” and they finally shut it down. But we were really close, we were at six minutes to nuclear war and that is quite frightening. There was a big movement against it too back in the day and that movement created a lot of, I mean, it was the basis of, many bands. Many punk bands, like Discharge. I guess they were as traumatized as well as we were. So that’s why the lyrics are about nuclear devastation, destruction of the human race and how silly it is.
But growing up in that time was kind of weird because in the 60’s, the 70’s, when I was young, like in ‘69 I was 5 years old and I remember the man landing on the moon on a black and white TV. It was kind of a fantastical story and everybody was amazed at the house and I remember looking at the moon after that trying to spot the little flag, haha. But it was so fantastic. The Cold War and everything and the Vietnam War, it was pure Hell, Hell on Earth. But in a fantastic way, because there were also a lot of science fiction movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Cosmos 1999. There was a lot of science fiction on TV as well and everything was exploding. It was a great time because it was really inspiring but also hard to believe. It was a weird time.
Also, related to that, when it comes to the shifting nature of the world and our ever present reliance on technology, how much of that influences your music and lyrics? For example, on the track “Obsolete Beings” you’re talking a lot about the obsession that we have with social media, which has undeniably had a huge impact on society. The world is incredibly tense right now, politically and environmentally speaking, like you mention on the song “Event Horizon”. Do you see a parallel between the tension of the Cold War versus the tension of the modern world? Do you think we’ll get beyond it or are we doomed as a species?
Voivod has always been in the two parallel worlds, reality and the Voivod sci-fi world, it’s interconnected. There are many aspects or many factors that we can focus on, sometimes the political side of it will stay the same unless we have major change. Like, what are we voting for? That’s the true question for me. Because there’s no way we’re gonna make it with the politics we have now because we have so much to do in terms of environmental issues, so much to do to fix the economy with the ecology in mind, so much to do to preserve the planet and there’s the fact that the population is still growing really fast. We have to change the politics that we have right now.
There was a conference about that that I saw recently with a French politician and he was saying that every political party should have the environmental issue as priority, otherwise, we’re not gonna make it. It would take all of the population of the world that votes for ecological politics, so a party or the structure of an economy or a government has to be focused on the priority of the environment because he said, otherwise, we’re fucked. Because it’s not economic politics that’s going to change anything. When politics are big on economy it’s just a matter of who is gonna make more money than others, and with all the rip-offs there are, and corruption, whatever. It’s gonna lead to nowhere. So that’s a good point, I mean, that could save us, change to having the environmental problem as the priority with the way we consume, the way we transport ourselves and all the lobbying.
Two things really stick out to me about your live shows. The first being that you make sure to remember Piggy with a chant. The second was that you guys always look like you’re having so much fun together on stage. A lot of the time you see metal bands performing who just try to look as serious and menacing as possible so it’s refreshing to see a band like you that’s all smiles on stage. You’ve been together for 35 years, so how do you keep the energy going after so long? How do you bounce back from something that is so permanent like the death of a band member and come back stronger than ever?
Well, Piggy of course, he was the starting point of the whole band, and everything we do is somehow a tribute to him. If we’re still touring, if we’re still making albums, if we’re still together, first of all it’s because of the love and passion of the music. But that love of music, that passion for music, somehow was taught by Piggy. We grew up so much with the guy, in our relationship, with our abilities to compose, he was a good mentor, a good teacher and he was more experienced than the rest of us. And so, when he passed away we had two options.
But at first we didn’t have any because we didn’t know who could replace him. He was so unique, so it was hard for us to imagine that someone could replace him. But after a few years of mourning Piggy, we found someone that could do the job, and then Blacky returned of course. We were on our way to get out there, but we were doing it for a reason. We were doing it for Piggy. At the very first show it was basically just one show. We didn’t want to expect to do more than one show at Heavy Montreal. It was the first time that we had to play in front of an audience without Piggy, and it was weird. I was nervous because I didn’t know what people would think about replacing Piggy. But the response was amazing and we were so relieved and we could see from that point on the light at the end of the tunnel. To honour Piggy, the best way is to keep [Voivod] alive. If we don’t play, memories will be lost. The best way to keep the legacy of Piggy alive is to go out there and play. So, that’s what we managed to do. And we’re still together, and like you said, we don’t take this too seriously. We don’t pretend to be somebody that we’re not. It’s always been a natural feeling when we play on stage and we love what we do. We show the people that we love what we do and it’s much more fun than trying to be serious about things.
You guys just finished touring heavily in North America in support of the release of The Wake, then you have some tour dates in Europe as well later in the year. So how was the American leg of the tour and what’s next on the horizon for Voivod?
It’s been a great tour. We were out for three weeks and it was awesome. The guys from YOB and the guys from Amenra, we really got along together and it was a really, really great time. After the tour, well, we’re gonna be pretty busy for the rest of the year. And to tell you the truth, I think right now we’re starting to think about writing more stuff, even if we’re busy with The Wake. It’s the same thing. We’re gonna start the process of composing new songs, then get in there, and we’ll see what’s gonna come out of it, and while we’re doing this, we’re gonna keep touring. We do have a plan for another video for The Wake, it’s just a matter of getting the right schedule for everybody which is a complicated issue, haha. We’ll be touring August and September in Europe, September and October in the States, and November and December in Europe again. So, from August it’s gonna be really busy. Before August we’re gonna do festivals. One is Maryland Deathfest, one in Vancouver, we’re gonna do the Jazz Festival here in Montreal and we’re gonna do Festivale du Quebec in Quebec City, so it’s gonna be quite busy!
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us at Metalheads Forever!
MHF Magazine/Greg Sweetapple