Voivod Looks Back on 40 Years of Sci-Fi Metal and Staying Relevant (Or Not)

Vovoid
LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Voivod celebrate their Metal/Hard Rock Album win, the Wake, during the Juno Awards Gala on March 16, 2019 in London, Canada.

French-Canadian progressive sci-fi metal act Voivod -- which counts Dave Grohl as a fan, has toured with Rush, and once included ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted in its lineup -- formed almost 40 years ago in a small town in northern Quebec called Jonquière. They gave themselves nicknames, like Piggy, Snake, Away and Blacky, and drew inspiration from science fiction and politics. Their biggest album was 30 years ago, Nothingface, but they are still at it. With 14 albums under their belts, they're touring the world to a dedicated fan base and just won their first Juno Award -- metal/hard music album of the year for The Wake.

They have weathered significant storms, the worst being the death of original guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour from cancer in 2005, and the comings and goings of various members. Today, the lineup is original members Denis "Snake" Bélanger and Michel "Away" Langevin along with Daniel "Chewy" Mongrain and Dominic "Rocky" Laroche. They just wrapped up a U.S. tour and have dates lined up for the rest of the year mostly in Europe, as well as a quite unexpected slot at the esteemed Montreal International Jazz Festival in their home province.

Away spoke with Billboard during their stop in Toronto about their long history, winning the Juno, their small-town beginnings and how to stay relevant… or not.

Last month Voivod won its first Juno Award in the band's history — more than three and a half decades. How was the whole experience, getting dressed up and being around the industry all weekend?

We did have a blast. Everybody treated us really well. A lot of respect. We did have nominations before, but we were running against Rush, and lost two times. This time we had no expectation at all and it was a big surprise when we won the Juno.

What does it mean to you, being recognized by Canada's biggest music awards, voted on by the industry?

It's a huge tap on the back. Any kind of recognition is great because there is a lot of work put into the album and then the touring. And the feedback from winning the Juno is already amazing. I'm sure we're going to benefit a lot from it. The people from ADISQ in Quebec — sort of the equivalent [association and awards show]— they're now thinking about adding a metal category because they were there and super impressed that we won.

For a significant period of time, there was no metal/hard rock category at the Junos. There was early on, then none from 1996 to 2011 — likely because there were not enough submissions from Canadian heavy acts — and then CARAS added one again in 2012. But Voivod never stopped, as trends came and went.

We've been working, touring, recording all this time. Not only that, we cross paths with Canadian bands that play heavy metal everywhere on earth. There are actually quite a lot of metal bands in Canada — and Quebec [alone] — that are doing very well and are very well respected. It's been a ignored a bit, but there is a cool family and metal community in Canada.

Take me back to the early '80s. What was going on musically and personally?

Early '80s, we were in college. We come from way north, like 500 kilometers from Montreal. We had to hitchhike [to Montreal] to go see Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Girlschool, Judas Priest. These trips really encouraged me to try to do that in life. But being French-Canadian from northern Quebec, it seemed like it was going to be a too difficult. Actually waited for the first album, War & Pain [1984] to come out before dropping out of university. We didn't think we were gonna last or even going to have a contract, and the next thing we know we have a contract with Metal Blade and we're still living at our parents' place up north. It's just amazing that the album has had a sufficient impact to explode in the thrash metal scene. We went from trying really hard to write music and record to touring the world with Possessed, Celtic Frost and Destruction. So it exploded fairly quickly.

What drew you to the idea of the concept album and artwork? Iron Maiden had Eddie but it wasn't common.

In the '70s, I discovered a comic book magazine called Heavy Metal and all the artists really influenced me; Philippe Druillet, (Enzo) Bilal, Moebius, they were all in there. I decided to create a concept because I wanted it to draw for Heavy Metal magazine one day. Also, I was influenced by progressive rock front covers as well. I was copying them. When I saw the first Iron Maiden album [self-titled, 1980], I really understood that it's super important to have something very striking because that's what you will spot going into the music store. The first cover I did for Voivod was based on Iron Maiden. But it's only when we formed the band, I explained that I had created a concept for comic books with the Voivod character, the Morgoth planet and the Korgull character and we decided to use the name and transpose it into music heavy metal music. I was lucky that the guys agreed to do that.

It's 37 year later. You had a band member pass away and a singer leave, and another come back. What has kept you going?

First of all, Piggy who passed away, the guitar player, he's the one who really developed the Voivod sound. He was a mentor, a bit older than we were, and was aware of more music than we knew about, like Krautrock. And so he forged the Voivod sound. That's something that we tried to keep a constant, even though Piggy passed in 2005, and then Chewy joined in 2008. It's a new Voivod style, but we tried to keep the Voivod spirit intact. But personally, what really keeps me going year after year, is the travels. I love playing music around the globe and meeting friends decade after decade, and the new generations, the kids of the old fans. It's very addictive. I just can't stop doing it.

Did you ever think about not continuing after Piggy died?

Yeah. In 2004, we wrote what was meant to be a double album, then in 2005 Piggy passed, and we were left with recordings. We didn't want to play shows. In our mind, Snake and I, Voivod was over, but with Jason Newsted [on bass], we were on a mission to finish these recordings. A double album turned into two albums [2006's Katorz and 2009's Infini]. It took Heavy Montreal in 2008 to get us back together. It was meant to be one show. And the word spread. And all of a sudden, we were playing with Testament in Japan and opening for Judas Priest and Ozzy at Monsters of Rock in Calgary. This was in 2008. So 2009 was more and more.

When Jason Newsted declared he was joining Voivod, it brought a lot of attention.

It's true. Jason, at this point, was also playing with Ozzy. We became a bit more-high profile when he was with us. It was quite an inspiration to see Jason; we were opening for Ozzy or doing US Fest so he had to play two shows a day for the whole summer of 2003 and more. That was something,

Then Dave Grohl was putting together his Probot, a metal album featuring singers that inspired him in his youth, and was raving in the press about Voivod.

Yes, I met Dave actually when he was with Scream at Foufounes Électrique in Montreal. He was very young and he was already the best drummer I had ever seen. So I went and shook his hand, and then he explained to me that he was a huge Voivod fan and he knew all the parts from the first couple of albums. We kept in touch. We met many, many, many times after that.

A couple of years ago, Voivod was honored with the visionary award at the Progressive Music Awards in the U.K

It was organized by a prog magazine in London at the Shakespeare Theater. I was super impressed because I got to meet Carl Palmer, Steve Hackett, and also my ultimate hero, Peter Hammill from Van der Graaf Generator, I had a chat with him. To me, that was the most impressive thing. The owner and the editor of the magazine [Jerry Ewing] did a speech about Voivod, then a presentation and he did a beautiful history of Voivod type of speech. It was super intimidating for me to speak in front of heroes of mine [but] wonderful, just wonderful.

Voivod really is in a league all your own, especially in Canada. You could be put in a prog category with Rush and Dream Theater (whose singer is Canadian) but you're all unique. What would you say to young artists that have a vision for a sound that isn't trendy?

It's a tough one. The first thing you need to do is to find an original sound because trends are going so fast, especially these days, that if you want to follow a trend, by the time you write the songs and record them, then it comes out, you're already a step behind and it's too late. The key is to be original and find your own thing, but then you have to be prepared to evolve in a parallel dimension for a while, like Voivod did.

We do have our own thing and, now it's paying off big time. We have respect from everybody, but many times, in our career, it played against us -- let's say when the grunge years were happening. If you stick to your sound and try to be original, in the end, people will really appreciate you for that, like, let's say, Killing Joke. So that's my advice.

Your latest album, The Wake, took a while. Your last one, Target Earth, was 2013. Why?

We didn't really know how to approach it. We started in 2015 releasing 7-inch vinyl and split 7-inch with Napalm Death, At The Gates, Entombed A.D., and then we compiled singles on an EP [Post Society]. And then the EP became really popular. It was a good indication that we're going down the right path, which was more of a fusion proggy style of trash metal. For The Wake, we went all-out and worked on every single detail so the album would be very intricate. We were afraid it would go over the heads of everybody, but it's been so well received it's sort of a surprise. And while doing that, we were touring a lot, so we found a way of working in the bus or backstage on a laptop and we really developed a way of working on the road that will allow us now to do more releases.

How much new material have you written?

We just actually started writing material in the bus, a new mentality also. Still working on re-releasing the MCA material. Nothingface [1989] and Angel Rat [1991] are only available in Japan right now, so we're trying to get Universal to re-release that. That's the last part of the catalog that's only available digitally.

This year you toured Australia then the U.S. You're going over to Europe this summer. But one cool show you have is the Montreal Jazz Festival [June 30], which has opened up over the years to different styles but, still, Voivod pretty extreme for a jazz festival, even if your musicianship is on par. Aren't jazz artists just prog artists anyway?

It's really amazing. It's true that the last few years they had Van der Graaff Generator. They even had Steve Miller, not really jazz oriented, but they're trying to expand. The guy who books bands, and one of the organizers and co-founders [Andre Menard], I think he's going to retire and on his wish list he had Voivod. It's wonderful. It's amazing, actually. It's probably the biggest jazz fest on earth right now.

More dates are being added to your tour. What's on your wish list?

A couple of years ago, we went to Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and now we're looking at going to Southeast Asia because it's opening to metal a lot. In the summer, we have a bunch of shows in Europe with the festivals and I think we're going to end in Istanbul, Turkey. That's a first for us.

Voivod Tour dates 2019:

23.05. Baltimore (US) - Ram's Head Live / Maryland Deathfest 

26.05. Vancouver (Canada) - Rickshaw Theatre / Modified Ghost Festival 

30.06. Montreal (Canada) - Club Soda / Montreal Jazz Festival 

06.08. Frankfurt (Germany) - Zoom 

07.08. Josefov (Czech Republic) - Brutal Assault Festival

09.08. Berlin (Germany) - BiNuu 

10.08. Hamburg (Germany) - Bahnhof Pauli 

11.08. Kortrijk (Belgium) - Alcatraz Hard Rock & Metal Festival

13.08. Saarbrucken (Germany) - Garage 

14.08. Stuttgart (Germany) - Universum 

16.08. Pescara (Italy) - Frantic Fest 

17.08. Aaarburg (Switzerland) - Musigburg 

18.08. Saint-Nolff (France) - Motocultor Open Air 

20.08. Thessaloniki (Greece) - Eightball Club 

21.08. Athens (Greece) - Temple 

More shows to be announced soon.

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