1999.10.04 FKOTLD #3 VOIVOD interview
Here is a great October 1999 interview with Michel done by Ireland’s Living Damned webzine
Although arch-experimentalists Voivod have been around for eighteen years now, it’s fair to say that they’re still very much a ‘cult’ act. Today, these Canadians are hailed as innovators and songwriters of the utmost significance, a far cry from the mid-eighties when their first tentative efforts met with nothing but howls of derision from the mainstream Metal press. In fact, Kerrang famously went so far as to condemn ‘War and Pain’ as perhaps THE worst Heavy Metal album ever produced…
Fitted Kitchens talked with drummer Away (aka Michel Langevin) in Belfast during their European tour with Neurosis…
“At the beginning we didn’t have enough money to record properly, so that why I guess the reaction was a little weird.” Blacky explains, laughing when I remind him of that infamous Kerrang Kommendation. “We were trying to play intricate futuristic thrash Metal but we were still learning how to play and also learning how to record that music… I think I was only satisfied starting with ‘Killing Technology’. And I think that that album influenced quite a few bands, including Neurosis… from what they’ve told me, it gave them a kind of direction to go themselves, you know, so I think that there are quite a few psychedelic Metal bands influenced by Voivod”
The past few years haven’t been the kindest to Voivod. You’ve been unlucky with labels, with the MCA and Angel Rat episode being a classic instance of the malign nature of external interference that ultimately split the core line-up. MCA didn’t seem to understand you. They wanted a hit-single album, not the usual Voivod concept where the entire piece melds together…
“Yeah. It was a critical point in our career, where we really needed to break through because we were on a major label and though we had sold a quarter of a million copies of ‘Nothing Face’ it still wasn’t enough to stay on a major… we tried hard to stay true to our sound but to have more airplay and unfortunately it didn’t work out. We still had a second chance with ‘Outer Limits’, but the same story… even though we tried to play, ah I don’t know how to call it, ‘pop-thrash’ Metal or whatever, the radio still thought it was a little too weird for regular airplay…”
I’d have thought that something like ‘Fix My Heart’ would have been an excellent single for airplay, it’s accessible yet still showcases Piggy’s amazing guitar work
“I know! We tried, we wrote ‘The Prow’, ‘Panorama’, ‘Wrong Way Street’, all types of ‘rock songs’ that had a ‘radio formula’ but with Piggy’s chords, a little out-of-time signature here and there; in other words, we tried to make Voivod a little more accessible. They (the two MCA albums, ‘Angel Rat’ and ‘The Outer Limits’ – Ed) still sold pretty well, but not enough for a major label, so we went back to the indie labels, to our roots.”
Over ‘Negatron’ and ‘Phobos’, the Voivod sound has become harsher, colder, angrier. Has this simply been due to line-up change, as brought about by Eric’s vocal style, or more due to frustrations lying beyond the band’s control?
“For the Negatron album, that was the case. There were a lot of years of anger and frustration and it came out around ’94/ ’95 when grunge was really big, you know, and it had become really hard for Voivod to get a deal and we couldn’t really understand coz we already had a really loyal following around the planet, we couldn’t understand why no label would sign us since it was established that we would sell a hundred thousand copies from the start, y’know? We were really very angry at the business side of things… and also we did, like, four Thrash Metal albums and then four psychedelic albums, and then we sort of missed the hardcore twist to our music, so we were writing heavier music but Snake didn’t wanna yell anymore and he decided to quit the band. He wanted to be more like Iggy Pop and the Sex Pistols coz he was always more into punk. Eric joined the band, and he had more of a Sepultura/ Cro-mags approach on bass and vocals and so what happened was that the music became even more, I mean we had already written ‘Nanoman’ and stuff, but he came in and he was so energetic, so we had to adapt to him as much as he had to adapt to us. So the result was ‘Negatron’. Eric’s from Toronto where Progressive rock music is not known except for Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, the big names, so he had to learn how to play psychedelic music, so the mixture of both is ‘Phobos’. But ‘Negatron’ is the input Eric had I guess”
It’s a little unusual these days for a band to tour without having an album to promote. The last offering from Voivod, ‘Kronik’, isn’t really a true album… what’s status of this release?
“Stuff we had in the vaults, sort of for the fans. It’s hard to find, we know, we’re selling it on tour… four songs recorded live in Berlin, four unreleased tracks, including ‘Ion’ which was intended for Japanese release but never came out, also three remixes by friends, DJ Acucrack from Chicago, Foetus from New York and Hank from Bran Vandt 3000, a band from Montreal, sort of like Beck… one of the guys, a really good sound engineer, did a remix of Nanoman for us. So that was Kronik. And we will put out a live album, I think in November (it finally surfaced in May the following year!- Ed), from Dynamo and CBGBs, both shows recorded in ’96. It took a long time to mix everything, to do the selection of songs and everything, coz it’s produced by Voivod. Whenever we’d get a bit of money we’d go into the studio, so it took three years to put together! But it’s coming out finally, and as soon as we get back to Montreal, we record the final chapter of the Voivod story.”
Throughout the bulk of your recording output, the Voivod has been a central theme… this being the concept of a ‘post-nuclear-holocaust’ vampire dwelling on planet Morgoth, an idea born from your childhood daydreams. The Voivod’s adventures have been documented over successive releases, each with their own distinct scenarios and soundscapes…
“The Voivod story has seven chapters, and we put the first five chapters into music in the 80’s, from ‘War and Pain’ to ‘Nothing Face’, and then there was lots and lots of tension within the band, coz obviously if you decide to write music based on a concept, there are restrictions and some people in the band were less and less happy about having to deal with this lyrical content and having to write music based on those stories. We took a break from it for ‘Angel Rat’, ‘Outer Limits’ and ‘Negatron’ and then we decided to put the sixth chapter into music on ‘Phobos’ and then we wrote the music for the seventh chapter last year, but we went on tour and had a bad accident (Eric breaking his back in a serious van accident – Ed), so we never got to record this last chapter. The music is all written and we’re going to record it in the Fall”
In terms of lyrics and themes, Voivod have consistently displayed a very out-of-this-world approach and concepts, almost like a space opera at times. The concepts and observation have been astute, indeed often far ahead of their time… Yet there also seems to be a lot of anger about contemporary society as a whole in your music. You’re from Joncquiere, a town north of Montreal, which has the dubious honour of hosting the largest aluminium smelting plant in Canada…
Pollution from these plants has been linked with Alzheimer’s disease. When it’s the poorest communities that are saddled with the worst pollution, it’s hard to stand back and view it dispassionately. Would you write about that so directly?
“Well… yeah, the factory stuff had a very strong influence on our lyrics, but firstly on my drawings when I was younger and then in our lyrics, but I think what had the most influence was bands like Conflict and Discharge, bands that made me realise that nuclear weapons, biological weapons and stuff like that… I mean society, y’know, humanity isn’t that advanced yet, so it’s really like giving a gun to a baby. Really, when you look at the news and you realise how stupid we are, we have a lot to learn and still rulers have such powerful weapons…”
Look at the whole genetically-engineered food uproar… where something as simple as the food we eat has become a prime example of ‘elected/ accountable’ Government working solely for the interest of big-business, and feeding the whole crazy idea of ‘pollution for profit’.
“Of course! I’ve heard about tomatoes crossed with fish… I mean, what is that? It’s like, it’s pretty sci-fi, but that’s the way science is going. It has become sci-fi. And that’s what is scaring me the most. When we were younger, we pictured the future world in much distant future like we saw in the movies, but that future has arrived so fast. I guess I’ll always be a little tense, looking at the news and stuff. I think it was yesterday or the day before, seeing something about the nuclear problems in Tokyo…” (he’s referring to an incident which took place in September 1999 when workers fired seven bucketloads of uranium into nitric acid, er, for no good reason – Ed) “So every time I try to forget about the nuclear stuff, it jumps at me!” (laughs) “I remember when we were writing the Killing Technology album, every day I’d look at the TV and it was like the Challenger explosion, the Chernobyl accident, and Reagan’s Star Wars project and stuff like that”.
What do you make of the Cassini project? (The United States launched the a satellite mission to Saturn, wot carryies72.3 pounds of Plutonium 238, one of the most lethal substances known. The planned fly-by of the earth, at 46,000 miles-an-hour, brought Cassini within 500 miles of the Earth’s surface where a navigational error or accident could have caused re-entry into the atmosphere where the plutonium could burn up or crash. With somewhat unpleasant results for the world’s population- Egghead Ed)
“The slingshot project… that’s the stupidest idea. I couldn’t believe they had done that without telling the world first and I couldn’t believe that nobody went mad. If it was approved by everyone, then brilliant idea, but I can’t believe they did it, and the whole planet was waiting, eating their fingers, and going ‘oh, shit!’. And what’s pissing me off is they don’t ask the permission of the people, didn’t hold a referendum, nothing, just throw the thing and later they’ll probably say “well, we sorta fucked up”. We’re totally helpless… like that movie, Dr Strangelove, its like that, its really like that, man. It makes me believe they really are stupid. Fuck, it’s crazy!”
Tell us about the independence movement in French Canada. It’s a story that’s been ongoing in the news of late.
“They have this new country up there now. I’m not a separatist, there are many in Quebec who are, it was really strong where Piggy and I come from, in Joncquiere, when we were young coz everybody spoke French, but as soon as we moved to Montreal in 1984 and started touring the world we came to realise that English is very important and I feel bad now for the people who want English people out of Quebec, coz I think they just want to stay ignorant. Luckily in Montreal, the youth hang out in this main street which separates the French and English people and speak both languages and hang out together. And in this band, Eric is from Toronto and we get on so well, we never discuss politics and we don’t think about the separation of Quebec but, at the last referendum, it was 49% – 51% vote, that close, and they’re having a new one next year” (ie 2000 – Ed) “and I’m really afraid that Quebec could separate from Canada. I don’t think I would find that funny”
I just asked, coz you know Northern Ireland’s got its own particular ‘cultural problems’. A friend of mine lived in Montreal district of Notre dame grande in 80’s and he remembers it as being quite a tense and ugly time politically…
“Yeah, in the 80’s the ruler, Renee de Veq, he was a cult figure in Quebec and he was really into separation, but the biggest tension was in October 1970 when the Front of Liberation of Quebec (FLQ) bombed universities and kidnapped a politician and killed him and then the army was in the streets everywhere in Quebec. I was only seven years old but I remember it so clearly because I couldn’t understand why there were soldiers everywhere and my mother told me why and I didn’t understand the English-French thing then, but I don’t want it to happen again, coz if the vote is ‘Yes’ for separation, people will want English people out of Quebec and there’ll be a bit of a civil war, and I’m totally into peace, and I’m kind of scared of that. It’s because the cultural fight is too close to nationalism and at some point there is no line and that’s what’s happening now in Quebec. The French people in the country have become nationalist and I’m totally against that.”
I’m straying here, but tell me… why did Voivod take those ridiculous nicknames at the start?! Anonymity?
“It’s just kids stuff, man, coz we met at High School and I think everybody in Joncquiere had one, and I’m still trying to work out why out nicknames were in English! Piggy and I still call each other by out nicknames, we’ve been doing that since we were young”.
Well, here’s the ideal opportunity to distinguish Metal fact from fiction… is it true that Snake got his from the ‘ample’ contents of his trousers?
“Ha, actually no. When we started, Piggy and I were jamming together in High School, actually its our 20th anniversary of musical collaboration, we started jamming in ’79, and we were looking for 2 other kids to jam with us. We found Blacky when he was spinning (DJ- Ed) in a pub we were hanging in, and we were surprised that someone else knew Motorhead and all that stuff, and so we thought he had a good ear. Piggy showed him how to play bass, but we still couldn’t find any other people to jam so we were looking for a singer. I remembered this kid I’d known a couple of years earlier who had very extreme mannerisms, his way of expressing himself was very theatrical, and so I was trying to trace him down. Somebody told me that has was in the ‘Improvisation league’ at High School and so I went to check it out and see what he was doing. When I turned up, he was onstage doing an impression of a worm caught in a flashlight, he had to imitate that… he did so well he had a standing ovation. After his performance, I went to see him and said like “Man, do you know how to sing?”. He went “Never did it before, but I can try”. We just called him Snake because of that, coz of his impression of a worm”.
I believe he played with you at a recent show, yeah?
“Yeah. The funny thing was, it was coz of Eric. The day before the show, Eric said to Piggy and me “Let’s get Snake on stage”. It’s very cool from Eric. We phoned him and he showed up and sang ‘Voivod’ with us, a great moment, we could feel the excitement in the crowd when he showed up, coz it was a complete surprise for them. A very emotional moment for everybody in the band. Captured on video tape, and I’ll hopefully put some of it on our website. He’s in a band called Union Made right now. It’s quite rocking really. Of course, its in the Iggy Pop/ Sex Pistols vein, it’s exactly what Snake was always into.”
And on a completely different tangent, Blacky has gone into free-form dance production?
“Yeah, coz Blacky was always the one into computers and electronic music. He was into rave/ techno/ computer stuff and decided at some point that he didn’t want to play bass anymore, that’s why he quit the band. He moved to Vancouver and started writing music for alternative dance troupes”
Away, it’s been a pleasure catching up with you. Tell me, looking back over the years, what do you see as the highpoints in the Voivod story?
“The first US tour with Celtic Frost and the first European tour with Possessed (both ’86- Ed), those are really here in my heart, and recording in Berlin. Touring with Rush in 1990 for ‘Nothing Face’ and the first gig after Eric’s accident, with Iron Maiden in Montreal… watching him onstage from behind my drums I felt like I was going to cry, man… looking at that guy, such a heroic recovery. He’ll be walking with a cane for the next 4-5 months, remember his back was broken in 3 places, his hip is broken, but the thing which really keeps him from walking is his broken foot. We though it would take him 2 years to recover, and he was onstage with us with Iron Maiden like within a year… his willpower is amazing, I really admire Eric”.
Just a final question… rumours suggest that the Voivod dies in chapter 7… is this true?
Away simply grins… “Well, it’s the conclusion of the story… but I think I’ll save the details!”
Voivod are Away (drums), Piggy (guitar), Eric (bass/ vocals).
Interview and words by Spandex Oo-er.