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VOIVOD - Interview with Chewy
By Wojtek Gabriel,
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Canadian thrash metal band Voivod
When the Canadian prog metallers from Voivod recovered after the passing of their main songwriter Piggy and put out "Target Earth", the album was immediately hailed as one of the best works in their rich discography. Long-time fan of the band, Daniel "Chewy" Mongrain, who took over the duties of the guitarist and main writer did a splendid job there and I doubt anyone expected the band to top that excellent release. But then came "The Wake"... The band hit Glasgow on their current UK trek and Chewy was kind enough to answer a couple of my questions about the new album, which I can only describe as a "pure fuckin' masterpiece".
"The Wake" has been out there for a few weeks, have you had any negative reviews?
So far, there was only one. It was a 13-year-old kid who proclaims himself a critic and he was doing the review of the album in his room in his parents' house and he didn't get it at all. So, he gave us four on ten. We thought it was kind of funny to see this young kid doing reviews and he didn't know what he was talking about at all, ha-ha! But we all wish him well. But so far so good, the rest, it's mind-blowing man! Yeah, nine on ten, ten on ten. We're really happy, because we worked so hard on that. I can't tell you how hard it was at some point. I thought I was going into a nervous breakdown, ha-ha! But we did it!
You've been the main songwriter for the last two albums, and the material on them is pure classic Voivod. Did you study Piggy's song-writing style?
Well, I've listened to Voivod since I was 11 years old so, my main influence as a composer all comes from Voivod music. When I saw the video for "Ravenous Medicine" when I was 11, I thought, "I want to do that in my life!" I wanted to play the guitar and have my own band. So, I just went to the store and I was a paperboy, so I only got enough money to buy a very cheap shitty guitar, but then from that point it never stopped really. So, Voivod vocabulary is part of my DNA, so to speak, it's part of my musical DNA. Everything I wrote in the past has some Voivod influence, in Martyr and Gorguts and any kind of creative project I was in. Also, we played for five years together before even writing any new music. So, for me it was not super difficult to get into those kind of riffs and sound like this. And of course, it's a teamwork as well, so it becomes Voivod-sounding very quickly.
You must have been under a lot of stress while working on "Target Earth" and stepping into Piggy's shoes for the first time. Was it easier this time around with "The Wake"?
Yeah, the big difference was that when I tried to write the first riffs for "Target Earth" I put too much pressure on myself. But then when I stopped doing that and let go and just started to rely on the confidence I had from being a Voivod fan in the first place and tried to just do my own thing, it started to flow more naturally. But of course there was a bunch of song written by the bass player at the time, who came up with only bass lines, and bass lines are most of the time very simple. I don't mean it in a bad way, but you have one note and some rhythm, it's not a chord, it's not harmony. So, I had to build a whole landscape and textures. This time, on "Post Society" EP and the new album "The Wake" we started from scratch and most of the time I came up with the first initial ideas, which would transform in the jam space and become its own entity, you know? And then we sculpted the music all together.
OK, so you're the main songwriter now, but do you guys still work on the songs the old school way, like in rehearsal room, or are your ideas finished and ready to be recorded?
The ideas are sometimes finished in my head, sometimes I also write the bass line, but then when we jam it together, that's where the truth is, because we can bring in a different grove that I didn't even think of, "Oh, maybe I can adjust my idea to his idea." So, the idea doesn't belong to anybody, once it's played it's out there and it exists on its own. Everybody is welcome to put their own input into it and we work together and if the idea survives it's because it's good and it can grow until it shines and it's ready. We can feel it. When there's a doubt in creativity, there's something wrong. Sometimes you want to ignore it but if you ignore it, it's going to stay there and it's going to be on the album, you know? So, we try to go into the details until it's satisfying. Lots of ideas come from guitar riffs and stuff like that, but it's all a matter of chemistry between all four of us.
Snake is the lyricist, but maybe you can tell me, what's the story behind the lyrics? It's a concept album, right?
Yeah. Snake is very inspired by the music. So, every lyric was written after the song was done. So Snake, the way he works is that I come up with an idea most of the time, we jam around and then when it's solid Snake takes his mike and sings sounds, it's not lyrics or anything, just to find a melody and out of this melody and out of the vibe of the song he's going to find the subject of this. It's pretty impressive to see him work and sometimes the first improvisation is the one we keep. Sometimes it's like, "Keep this! This is the perfect melody for the verse. It's great!" So, he's inspired by the music a lot and the concept is clear in his mind, but he always leaves it to people's own imagination, to imagine their own landscape and their own stories out of it. So "Obsolete Beings" is like an appetiser really, an intro and then there's big news that's going to change the world, you know, that we're not alone in the universe. It's proven a hundred percent and there's a spaceship in the depth of the ocean that receives a signal from space and that wakes up and then there's a battle, that's "The End of Dormancy" and you can hear the battle in the music and so on. So, the concept is not 100 percent clear, but there's point A and point B and the songs are creating this journey, and it's open for interpretation. And that's what I like about his lyrics, it's like a puzzle.
You guys have done three video clips for the new album, but the one for "Iconspiracy" is a masterpiece! Away is doing all the cover arts and stuff so, was he involved in creating the art for this video clip as well?
This video was made by Costin Chioreanu, he's a super artist in Romania, he's a big fan of Away's art and a big fan of Voivod and he did many video clips in his career. He's a great artist and when we sent the song he was like, "Whoaaah! I wanna do it!" you know, and he actually proposed us to do something and he received the album and he really liked it. So he put many, many, many hours in this video clip because he loves the band and he asked us, "What's the story?" and nobody answered, ha-ha! So, this is his version of the song. And when I look at it, I understand totally and it fits with the lyrics, but that's not what I had in mind or Snake had in mind. It's different and that's the beauty of it. It's art and it's his own vision of that song and I think it's great. So, he was very inspired by Away's art, as you can see it in the drawings. The other videos, we had studio footage and we had to go very, very fast because it was like, "In two weeks we have to release a video. What can we do?", you know? So it was just footage and some ideas and you know, it was like a race against the clock. But we are really happy about the "Iconspiracy" video.
Voivod prog thrash band
Talking about the artwork, there are four characters on the cover. So, is that you guys?
I guess so, it makes sense, ha-ha! I don't know which one is who. I think it's the four of us looking at the dying planet, like witnessing what we have done, as well as the climate change, and that's pretty much what it represents. Because the wake has two meanings, one is like a vision, like vigil, it's close to awakening, like someone awakes to change the world. And also, it has to do with water wave pattern created when a boat goes on the water, it creates a wave pattern behind it. That's the wake as well. We can relate it to the sound of music and the interaction between the sound and the drawing, the wave exists in the air, but you can't see, you can hear it.
And who brought the idea to use the orchestral elements on the album?
Me. It's not orchestra, it's a string quartet actually, just four musicians. But the thing is, when I was writing the last song, all the other songs were done, written and practiced. I did all the demo tracks and everything, respecting the fluctuations of the tempo, the natural organic feel and everything and they went to the studio and I didn't remember, but I should have, that Away is a one-taker. You know, we play the song once, twice, three times and it's over, next song. So, after three days everything was done and I got an email, "Hey Dan, you have to send us the last song because we're done" and I was in a rush, you know, university, college teaching, TV shows, exams and I had two days to finish the song. I had only two minutes of music for the last song "Sonic Mycelium". So, I took my bass, my guitar, I recorded some things and my goal was to include every song in this one song. When I finished it and Away recorded his part and I could listen to the whole thing I was like, "Oh, I can hear some strings here, it would be great to have a string part." And then I realised I was doomed in a way, ha-ha, because it was like, "Oh no, more work!" you know? And I decided to start working on the string quartet and write for real musicians because I don't like keyboards when it comes to strings, I think it's not the same as the human feel, it's something a little bit synthetic. So, once we did that and I was satisfied with that, we thought maybe it would be cool to make their presence felt throughout the record, so at the end of the record it doesn't seem like an alien thing. So, just a little spark here and there and then the grand finale at the end.
Right, can you tell me more about "Sonic Mycelium" and the idea behind it?
Yeah, it was my ambition to do that, it was my personal challenge. I had a few ideas, some from Rocky as well and I started to write the song and I wanted a chronological way, to include song one to song seven inside the song. So, I had to choose which part of each song I would place, the strongest part probably, the most recognisable part, and to arrange it so it's not exactly the same as in the song, not necessarily the same key or the same tempo or tonality or arrangement. And I did it very fast, in two days, I didn't have any choice. So, I started the riffs and the intro, I think the intro is actually the last riff of the first song and then it goes on and on. And Snake didn't know anything about it, you could hear it when we finished it in the studio and Away went to the studio, I was back working, he did the drums, I didn't know at all what he was going to do. So, it was a great surprise for me. Dominique went and recorded the bass but pretty much the same thing that I recorded previously that I wrote and Snake had the idea to use some lyrics and melodies from different songs over different riffs. So, it's a very interactive song for the listener because if you don't know all the other songs on the album, you won't really get what's going on in that one. It's kind of a puzzle and I think it's fun. We had a great time constructing this piece. That's very satisfying one, artistically.
OK, enough about "The Wake". Is that true that the first album you bought for your own money was "Killing Technology"?
Yeah, I was 11 years old, same year I saw the video. The video was actually on TV, but we didn't have money to pay for the channel, so it was all distorted, I could only see and hear a little bit. But yeah, the same year I went to the store and bought this album. I bought this and I think I bought Testament "The New Order" at the same time.
Has your nickname anything to do with a certain character from Star Wars, ha-ha?
Yeah, ha-ha! I played drums in a band, like just for fun, and I was kind of pretty hyper when I was a kid, I screamed all the time and I had long hair and when I came to Voivod we were looking for a nickname and nothing really worked and I said, "There was a band I was in, they called me Chewy" and it stuck, ha-ha!
Your music is quite complex with all those weird time signatures and stuff. Do you ever run into trouble in the live setting, especially playing new songs which are not well rehearsed yet?
Now the new songs we play are really integrated. Of course, the first few shows, like maybe one or two times when we play the new songs, we're nervous, you know, but it doesn't take that long. It is a vocabulary that we're used to. And I think I can say that of the new album, it's a very complex album but it doesn't sound that much complex in a way, because there's a lot of easy melody to remember. But under the melody, it's very intricate and very complex. I think it's a good quality to create music that is rich but doesn't seem to be so much complex. You can feel the richness of the harmony and counterparts, but then you can listen to it and it's cool. So it's not like a roller coaster ride.
OK, what's next for the band after this tour?
Yeah, we're going to be busy. I think we have maybe some shows in Quebec around Montreal in the next few months and then I think we're going to continue the tour, 35th Anniversary and the new album and there will be other opportunities for us to do, festivals in the summer, hopefully every festival in Europe, ha-ha! We want to tour everywhere.
Interview by Wojtek Gabriel

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Tags: Voivod, progressive metal, thrash metal, Chewy
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© 1997-2019 Wojtek Gabriel. All rights reserved. Unauthorised use of any works published on this website is prohibited.
Materials may not be reproduced in whole or in part by persons, organisations or corporations without the prior written permission.
© 1997-2019 Wojtek Gabriel. All rights reserved.
Unauthorised use of any works published on this website is prohibited.
Materials may not be reproduced in whole or in part by persons, organisations
or corporations without the prior written permission.