This year, progressive heavy metal band Voivod celebrate their 30th anniversary. Over the last three decades the “specialized” Canadian outfit has been through just about everything a band going this long can: many line-up changes, serious car crashes, and the death of the band’s musical figurehead.
In a fitting tribute to the band’s extraordinary career, this week they will release their thirteenth studio album, the superb Target Earth. Drummer and ever-present Voivod member Michel ‘Away’ Langevin stopped to talk with Geeks of Doom about the band’s fascinating career, the new album, touring, and dealing with Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour’s death, as well as working on a documentary on the band with filmmaker Sam Dunn (Iron Maiden: Flight 666, Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage).
Geeks of Doom: Target Earth: Are you happy with how the album sounds?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Oh yeah, definitely, we worked very hard on it for the past two years or more. I’m also very happy with what Sanford Parker did in terms of mixing the album, it really brought the psychedelic metal side of us to the forefront. I’m very happy. Actually, finally, for the first time in many years circumstances were right and we were able to make it epic like we really wanted to do it.
Geeks of Doom: Yeah, it does have that epic feel, which is certainly different to the first Voivod album.
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Yeah, of course. It’s only I think starting around Dimension Hatröss, our fourth album, that we became very versed in progressive metal and complex music. The first three were more thrash.
Geeks of Doom: Was the change because you became better musicians or just because you had the confidence to do it?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: It’s because we really learned how to play within a few years. Because between ’83 and around ’89 we were rehearsing every night and starting around ’85 we even lived together when we moved to Montreal from up north, so we were living the Voivod trip. Between War and Pain and Nothingface there is a huge difference, but we always meant to be prog metal in a way, with a lot of hardcore in it, but like I said, I think it’s only around Dimension Hatröss that I was personally satisfied with my playing. Before that, on the first three albums, I can hear a lot of mistakes, but Piggy was always good though, he started earlier than we did, when he was very young.
Geeks of Doom: In terms of playing and learning his instrument?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Yeah, I think he started at [age] 9 or something like that so when we formed Voivod in ’83 he was already very good. Snake [lead vocalist Denis Bélanger], Blacky [bassist Jean-Yves Thériault], and I were a step behind I find and we ended up catching up I would say around ’88. But this is all technical I guess [laughs], it’s in my mind. The other guys might disagree, they might think I still suck! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: No [laughs], I’m absolutely certain that’s not true! Target Earth is sadly the first album to be created with no input whatsoever from Piggy [Voivod used arrangements found posthumously on Piggy’s laptop for the band’s previous album, Infini]. Was that a daunting thing to start?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: When we reformed in 2008 we would have never thought about writing an album. It’s only after a couple of years of touring the thrash material from the ’80s, the Blacky years, that we eventually felt confident to give it a go. So early in 2010 we decided to write an album and we were not too sure. Then Blacky and Dan [current guitarist Daniel ‘Chewy’ Mongrain] did a demo of two songs, I think it was “Kaleidos” and “Artefact,” and they played only bass and guitar, and Snake and I were blown away because it brought us back to Dimension Hatröss and we thought it would be very interesting to work on these songs. It was a trigger for us to do a lot of improvisation sessions that we recorded and many parts from the new album are pulled from these sessions. Blacky and Dan were the ones really involved in reorganizing everything into songs.
Geeks of Doom: And were you happy to let them go with that?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Yeah, yeah, I was really happy. I was very confident because everything I was hearing really impressed me and after like four or five songs I started to realize that there were a lot of weird time signatures so I had some special requests: one was I wanted one song with the Motörhead beat and it became “Kluskap O’Kom” … and I wanted also another song to be reminiscent of “Ripping Headaches” [from the album Rrröööaaarrr] and it became our very first French song called “Corps Étranger.” These were my two requests! [laughs] Except for that I was really happy that it was progressive music, but my roots are anchored in hardcore and so I like to keep the thrash in our music, you know?
Geeks of Doom: How has the new material gone down with live audiences?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: It’s blending in really well so far, we’ve played four different tracks. We try to switch the setlist every night and we tried four songs last October while touring Europe and all of the songs were a success for sure.
Geeks of Doom: Cool. Do you find there’s a different reaction to Voivod in different places in the world, or a different reaction to certain eras?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: No, it’s pretty much the same actually because we sort of meet the same family and there is the people who saw us before, they know what to expect. There are a bunch of new kids into thrash metal with Destruction and Kreator and Celtic Frost patches and they’re all excited. Sometimes we’ll play somewhere for the first time and then the energy will be very, very high. Like in October in Moscow we played there for the first time and people were chanting Voivod 20 minutes before we went on stage! It was really cool. But most places is the same Voivod family, it’s like a family atmosphere, definitely not serious at all. It’s very happy. It’s a very happy vibe, although we talk about the end of the world! [laughs] Might as well have a party before!
Geeks of Doom: [Laughs] Exactly! And we’re all family, you can discuss anything!
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Yeah! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: With Piggy’s passing was it important for you to get Blacky and Snake, the other two founding members, back in the band with you?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Well actually part of what brought us together of course was Piggy’s passing in 2005. We visited Piggy at the hospital and met there a few times, then we met again at the funeral and at the memorial and all that so it really brought everybody closer together. So it’s definitely part of the reason why we reformed in 2008 with Blacky because before that we didn’t cross paths that often. Blacky was away from the band for 17 years and he spent a lot of these years on the west coast in Vancouver, so we only met when we played in Vancouver so it was really rare.
Geeks of Doom: What was the process of them coming back?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Well in 2005 Blacky introduced me to Dan at a memorial for Piggy and then in 2007 Snake and I went to a show where Dan and Blacky were performing a medley of Voivod [songs] with members of other bands of Montreal and Snake and I were really impressed. Right before that in 2006 we had finished Katorz, which is an album we had started in 2004, but it was a very grueling experience. At this point we were taking a hiatus, Snake and I, and I know Jason [Newsted, ex-bassist] had in mind we should finish the album Infini which we also had started in 2004. But in terms of keeping on, Jason had a very strong musical relationship with Piggy and he wanted to make sure the music would be available. But as for touring, I don’t think he saw himself keeping up without Piggy and anyhow in 2008 we were offered this show in Montreal and that’s how it started. The first thought for Snake and I was to phone Dan and Blacky for that one show, a big festival in Montreal but it just kept going and going. [In 2013] we are celebrating the 30th anniversary. It’s the fourth line up and it’s going very strong.
Geeks of Doom: You said there was a lack of spirit within the band that caused one of the breakups in 2001. What’s the spirit like in the band now?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Oh absolutely great. We kind of lost the momentum at the end of the ’90s because of the crash in Germany [bassist and vocalist singer Eric “E-Force” Forrest was seriously injured in a car crash in 1998] and that put us to a stop for a year. We did come back from it but we were very demoralized and after a while there were lawsuits flying around because of the accident and Piggy and I decided to split the band. It was not the first time, there were many times in Voivod’s career where the band didn’t exist at all or the band was just Piggy and I. But right now we’re enjoying a resurgence in popularity, especially the last ten years … we’ll be very, very busy [in 2013] in terms of touring. We don’t play that often so whenever we do people show up because they know it might be the last time! So right now we’re going to really enjoy touring everywhere. Hopefully China and India.
Geeks of Doom: Cool! You said there was a resurgence in popularity; is there anything you would put that down to, maybe a change in musical tastes? Heavy music has come to the fore again because in the ’90s it was very much grunge and things…
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Oh yeah, of course metal did take a low profile in the early ’90s, but it was very short and even then we were able to play great festivals all over Europe and soon enough by the mid ’90s Pantera were huge. Machine Head and Fear Factory were showing up and doing good and so metal was back in full force. For us, we’ve always been underground, but in early 2000 Jason brought a lot of attention to the band and of course again we lost a lot of momentum in 2005. But right now we have a lot of notoriety, I guess we are a bit legendary or something so there are many people who know the name Voivod but still not that many people are aware of the music. It’s still very specialized, but at least the name is out there and people come out of curiosity.
Geeks of Doom: Like you said, Jason Newsted brought some attention to the band when he joined… and now Jason is back on the scene with a new project. Do you still talk to him?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Yes. Last month we played with Neurosis in San Francisco and Jason was there backstage with us, it was really cool to see him again. We also keep in touch with Eric Forrest, he lives in Toulouse and whenever we play around he comes on stage to sing “Tribal Convictions.”
Geeks of Doom: Obviously we’ve mentioned Piggy a lot because he was such a key part of the band. What are your personal memories of him?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Personal memories, well, it’s hard to say. I mean I really got to learn from him because he was very, very humble and kept his head grounded and he just wanted to write music and he did that all the time with his headphones in his apartment and never really cared about everybody calling him a genius and all that. He was a couple of years older than me so I always saw him as someone to look up to and we shared some crazy experiences because he was there when we crashed, twice! [laughs] Once in Germany and once in the USA, so we went through some crazy stuff together. We also, in ’96, saw some orbs in the sky of Buffalo which was one of the craziest things that happened to both of us! The famous orbs, half transparent glowing type. So that was a crazy experience. We never saw the silver discs though! [laughs] That’s the next step! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: [Laughs] Like you said earlier it’s 30 years of Voivod. How does it feel to have kept the band going this long?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: It feels like quite an achievement and yes we formed in January ’83 so the album [Target Earth] comes out for the 30th anniversary. We were very productive all these years, but we had so many obstacles that we could have been even more productive, and the do-it-yourself approach slowed us down a bit at times. But very, very happy with all the albums, all the touring, all the travels, all the efforts. If anything at least we can be an example of perseverance for younger bands.
Geeks of Doom: Do you have an idea of how long you can keep it going?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: We really want to, well I do anyway, I would love to celebrate the 35th anniversary. I know that in between tours [in 2013] we will be writing new material and so I will try to keep on keeping on. We’re lucky that we have what we call the Iron Gang [Voivod fans] for us so like I said earlier when we show up, they show up and that’s really cool. They definitely deserve new albums and new tours. We’ve been working with Sam Dunn [documentary filmmaker for Iron Maiden: Flight 666, Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage, and more] as well; for the past 5 years we’ve been working on a movie. Now we’re trying to find some funding to edit the whole thing, we have a lot of footage so that’s one of the goals for the 30th anniversary.
Geeks of Doom: Wow, I definitely look forward to seeing that. Is that a bit scary or is it exciting?
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Oh it’s very exciting actually, and of course there’ll be some drama [laughs] in the movie! It’s going to be quite an accomplishment as well if it ever comes out. That’s a lot of money and everything is sort of self-produced.
Geeks of Doom: Well it’s going to be a very busy year for you!
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: Oh yeah! South America, North America, all over Europe, China, India; we want to go everywhere!
Target Earth is released January 22, 2013 in the U.S. [CD | MP3], and 22 January, 2013 in the UK [CD | MP3].