When the world found out that Denis “Piggy” D’Amour had way too prematurely passed away from colon cancer in August, 2005, VOIVOD fans were faced with the group’s mortality head-on. The French-Canadian collective that had already survived hardship - brain tumour surgery for Piggy during the ‘90s and a serious van crash in Germany in ’98 - was suddenly silenced despite its newfound, Jason Newsted-inspired momentum, and the Iron Gang (Voivod’s nickname for its fans) wondered if the now sadly ironic ‘We Carry On’, from the 2003 self-titled record, would be the last new Voivod song ever to revel in Piggy’s unearthly guitar dissonance.
As the story played out, Piggy entrusted good friends and band-mates Michel “Away” Langevin and Denis “Snake” Belanger with his laptop in the days before his death, and contained in that computer were 23 unfinished tracks that were to become 2006’s Katorz and new Voivod album Infini. From there, Voivod began the difficult dual task of mourning its prime architect/fallen comrade and recording albums based around the strong riffs that Piggy had recorded in his apartment before his battle with his illness.
After the release of the critically acclaimed Katorz (this scribe’s record of the year in ’06), Voivod did the unimaginable: it played (rrroooaaarrred?) live again. Recruiting MARTYR guitar player Dan Mongrain and reuniting with original bass player Jean-Yves “Blacky” Theriault, Voivod made its live debut in June, 2008 at the Heavy MTL festival and has criss-crossed the globe spreading the gospel of Piggy ever since. With the impressive Infini – still featuring the bass playing and co-production skills of Newsted - now ready for eager Voivod adherents, Voivod has earned its latest shot at renewed existence.
“Infini represents the very last remaining tracks that we wrote with Piggy in 2004,” explains Away. “So it’s definitely the last Voivod album with Denis D’Amour. Piggy is still the maestro and still quite an inspiration. It will always be a bit strange for me to go into the studio or on stage without him, but playing his music makes him present all the time and I can always feel him. We just want to make sure his music lives. At this point, it’s really hard to tell if we’re going to sit down and write new material with Dan Mongrain. I think we’ll see next year. Right now we’re touring with Blacky and Dan, and we have a whole bunch of festivals in Europe, Quebec and Mexico to do this year. We’re pretty busy doing that and also promoting the new album. The year 2009 is pretty booked right now, but maybe next year we’ll write new material. With Voivod, I’ve learned to take it day by day (laughs).”
So Infini, as it turns out, isn’t necessarily the end of Voivod.
“No, it’s not necessarily the end of the band. That’s sort of why we called it Infini, we wanted to put the accent on the immortal or eternal side of Voivod. I really dream of one day having the whole Voivod collective on one album. That would be great. To have Jason, Blacky, Eric Forest, Snake, Dan and I working on something would be great, but it’s really only a dream right now.”
Away also reveals that Piggy had recorded two solo albums (!) before his death, and they will be released at an undetermined point for those eager to listen to Piggy’s individual-based work.
“We’re trying to make sure all of Piggy’s music is immortalized, at least on CD. Unfortunately, aside from two solo albums that he wrote and recorded in 2004 and 2005, there are no remaining tracks from Piggy. What he recorded as a solo artist is really, really good. We want to share it with people; Snake and I really want to finish it one day. Piggy played both the guitar and the bass tracks, so it would be easy for Snake and I to finish it. It’s just a matter of putting some money aside to record it eventually.”
What do the solo records sound like?
“They sound a lot like Voivod but, while listening to them, I can really tell which guitar players Piggy admired. I can tell there’s some TOOL in it, some RUSH, ROBERT FRIPP and DAVID GILMOUR, at times. I can really feel his influences, there’s even some JIMMY PAGE in there. It’s easier for me to spot the influences because I was aware of his favourite guitar players, but it’s also very Voivod-ish.”
For the present time, however, the Voivod faithful can sink their teeth into Infini, a record that showcases some of the best material of the group’s storied career. ‘From The Cave’ is one such highlight, the song full of groove ‘n’ swagger before speeding into trademark Piggy dissonance.
“‘From The Cave’ reflects Snake’s enthusiasm about us getting back into the action,” explains Away. “When we decided to go into the studio to finish Infini last year, we all updated our respective tracks. The one who did it the most was Snake, because he felt his lyrics from 2004 from the demos weren’t relevant anymore: he felt he was somewhere else in his mind. Also, he wanted to share, in his lyrics, his experience of losing Piggy. I believe that ‘From The Cave’ expresses his feeling of going back on the road last year and playing festivals and going back into the studio last year to finish Infini. That’s what I get from his lyrics.”
In terms of the master tracks themselves, Away reveals that Infini was created in much the same piecemeal process that, by necessity, characterized the construction of Katorz.
“The only difference between recording Katorz and Infini was that for Katorz Jason had recorded bass tracks on Piggy’s laptop and we kept them for the album. For Infini, there weren’t bass tracks on the 13 remaining songs so Jason had to write his bass parts from scratch and he recorded them last year. Also, we didn’t re-amplify the guitar tracks from the laptop. It’s as they were recorded, and those are intact. We wanted to get the feel of Piggy in his apartment recording with his laptop. Those are the major differences, but it was done like Katorz in different studios in different times. Snake and I did the tracking here in Montreal with Glen Robinson and Jason did his in San Francisco with Enrique Gonzalez, the engineer who worked on the 2003 self-titled album.”
Once again the drums tracks were recorded after the guitars (again, by necessity) which is the exact opposite of the usual drums-first recording philosophy. Was recording with riffs that couldn’t be changed a challenge?
“Oh yeah, it was a huge challenge. As a matter of fact, I could feel that I was trying to match Piggy’s riffs on Katorz and Infini and I was waving a little bit because it was so hard to be very tight. Piggy’s demos weren’t made with a click track, so it was a big challenge for sure. The other challenge was to make the album sound like it was done by one band in one room. That’s also pretty difficult.”
Another interesting element to Infini is the CD itself: the Canadian version features artwork that heavily incorporates the maple leaf and the fleur-de-lys, literally reflecting Voivod’s French-Canadian origin.
“The maple leaf and the fleur-de-lys was more of a Sonic Unyon idea and I think it’s great,” Away exclaims. “They’re the only label that did something different. The Japanese, European and American labels have very similar CDs, but Sonic Unyon wanted something original and I think it’s great.”
Now that Infini is complete and will see release on June 23rd, the next step for Voivod is to play live as much as possible. A Voivod tour without Piggy was once thought by some to be heresy, but another school of thought has prevailed and Voivod is spreading the gospel of Piggy live once again. The fact is, playing live for a legion of fans who have never seen Voivod in concert is the best way to keep Piggy’s work alive and flourishing to both old school rivetheads and a new generation of metal listeners.
“I didn’t think I would be playing live again after the release of Katorz,” divulges Away. “But after a couple of years Snake started to get antsy and phoned me saying that if we weren’t playing live or going into the studio to finish Infini, the music would rot and die. I ended up thinking he was right, so after saying no to all the promoters’ offers for a couple of years, I finally said yes to Heavy MTL and from then on it became important to play live. Like Snake explained to me, he thought that a good way to make the music live again was to play it live again. And also, of course, we wanted to release Infini. So now it’s like we’re on a mission. We really want to play live as much as possible in the upcoming years. Last Saturday we played in Sweden at the Sweden Rock festival, and at the signing booth I was asking the kids what they thought of us still playing live. And one kid told me, ‘A great band should never stop.’ I think I’m going to follow his advice (laughs). It’s also really great to play with Blacky again, just like it’s great to have an album coming out with Jason again. These are our very good friends, and we’ll try to keep it going. I wasn’t too sure, I thought that some people might think it was a sacrilege to go on stage without Piggy but it’s really not the case. After going to Japan last year, I realise many kids have never seen Voivod before and they probably thought they would never see Voivod. They’re really happy we’re playing live.”
Ah, the venerable Japan. It turns out playing the land of the rising sun was one of Away’s goals all along.
“Well, one of my goals was to go Japan and we did it last year with the same lineup we had at the Heavy MTL festival (note: the lineup being Away, Snake, Blacky and Dan Mongrain). We played two nights in Tokyo with Testament. Now I have other goals, and they’re to go to South America and to go to Russia. I’m really trying to go to places we’ve never been before, so these people will get to see us. With the Blacky and Dan lineup, we’re concentrating on the first six albums – the ones we wrote with Blacky. But since Infini is coming out at the same time as we’re doing festivals, we’ll be playing a couple of songs from the new album.”
Mongrain has immersed himself well in Voivod, but that doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has seen him in concert with Martyr or during his brief live stint with CRYPTOPSY. Mongrain - native of Trois-Rivieres, Quebec - is a class act both on stage and off, and his technical style in Martyr makes him an ideal fit for Voivod. In fact, when Mongrain was initially announced as the newest member of the Voivod collective, many felt Away and Snake had made the perfect choice.
“Yeah, I think Dan is perfect for Voivod too. In 2007, the 25th anniversary of Quebec metal took place at Club Soda in Montreal and Dan - with Blacky and other members of metal bands from Montreal - played a Voivod medley in honour of Piggy’s induction into the Quebec metal hall of fame. Snake and I were at the event and we watched the medley. We really thought it was great, and it gave an indication that we could count on those guys if need be. When we were approached by Heavy MTL in 2008 it was just a good match. So I’m happy we phoned Blacky and Dan. Also, I received an email from Dan in 2007. He said that if we ever needed to go and promote the album live, he’d be very willing to do so and be honoured. At the end of the email, he signed it ‘humblement,’ which is ‘humbly’ in English. And that really struck me, because we thought that if someone was going to play Piggy’s parts he needed to be somebody humble like Piggy was. Instead of saying he was the best in Montreal or that sort of thing, Dan was the opposite and it was a good indication that he would be a good candidate. Of course, I knew that technically he could do it. Martyr is a very technical and very well-played band. Everybody who comes to the shows really thinks we made a good choice, and we think so too.”
“I was also happy to realize that we could still count on the 75,000 Voivodians around the Earth,” Away says warmly, when asked about the band’s reaction to Katorz’s critically acclaimed reception. “These are not big numbers by certain standards, but for us it’s a privilege to be able to count on these people after 26 years. We really don’t take it for granted and it’s one of the reasons we tried to make the material available. It’s all on an indie level so it takes time to release the projects because it’s all self-produced and all that, but we’re really working hard to make all the material available. We filmed the show in Japan last year and it’s going to come out on DVD this year. Infini is out soon and we’re touring with Blacky and Dan and the Voivod fans keep us going. It’s almost a miracle that Infini sees the light of day. The Iron Gang realize it, and we’re going to try to put more material out there. The reissues of Rrroooaarrr, Killing Technology and Dimension Hatross have been a bit stalled since Universal bought Sanctuary, and it’s in bureaucratic and technocratic limbo right now. But we’re working things out and eventually they’ll come out remastered and with bonus material. We work hard to make everything available, even old demos from the ‘80s.”
In terms of discussing everything Voivod, one can’t have a conversation about the band without analyzing the group’s criminally overlooked ‘90s albums with Eric Forest, Negatron and Phobos. The albums saw Voivod go back underground after the breakthrough success of ‘Astronomy Domine’ (from Nothingface), and both efforts represent creative watersheds for Voivod’s songwriting process.
“Those were obscure years for thrash metal in general. It wasn’t very popular in America, but we were able to do the festivals in Europe all through the ‘90s because metal was always very big in Europe. In America, it was more nu-metal by the mid-‘90s so Negatron and Phobos are kind of unknown. But I’m very proud of those albums nonetheless and these were great years for me. It was a shame that we had the van crash in Germany in ’98 because we weren’t able to recover the momentum we had. It was another very unfortunate tragedy in Voivod’s history.”
To conclude our chat, Away gave an update on his highly anticipated book of artwork, written with BW&BK Editor-In-Chief Martin Popoff.
“I just can’t believe the book actually exists,” Away laughs earnestly. “It’s been years in the making. There are maybe 700 drawings or so and it was a lot of work; it took me years. It’s also quite a miracle that somebody would invest in the book in these economic crisis times. It’s very expensive to get a book printed, even though it’s a limited edition of 3,000 copies. It’s quite an investment, so I’m pretty blessed that it sees the light of day and I’m very proud of it. It covers the years 1976 to 2008, so it starts at the very beginning when I was creating the Voivod mythology and when I wanted to be an artist for Heavy Metal magazine. And then it ends last year in 2008, so there’s a lot of unknown work and sketches for album covers. There’s even doodles I did in the studio or while on tour, and there’s work I did for other people like DAVE GROHL, DANKO JONES and RINGWORM. Everything is in there and more. It’s a glossy, coffee table book that’s very high quality so I’m pretty proud of it. It comes out July 10th, but people can order it at VoivodBook.com.”