If you're into progressive thrash or prog metal in general, you've surely already heard Voivod's latest, highly-acclaimed album "The Wake". I thoroughly covered that excellent release in my previous interview with the band's current main song-writer Chewy, but when Voivod play your town, you don't waste the chance to see them, or in this metalhead's case, to interview them. So, before the show I sat down with one of the band's original members, Snake, and with "The Wake" already out of the way, I decided to ask him a few questions about some interesting facts from the band's rich history.
You did a headlining UK tour not so long ago, so how come that you're back as a support act now?
Well, I think it's a matter of circumstances. We did a tour in America with Yob and then Revocation and in between, we had this tour in Europe as a headliner, and we got this offer to tour with Gwar. And it was bizarre because both managers didn't know if either us or they wanted to tour with each other, but they were like, "Voivod? Yeah, go for it!" and we were like, "Gwar? Wow! Yeah, go for it!", ha-ha! And so here we are with Gwar.
And how's the tour going? Do you think some of the fans may be attending the shows just to see Voivod?
Some do, but I mean, it's a good mix. I think we and Gwar, we are kind of connected together in a sense because we create let's say sci-fi music or more technical music. I think they were quite influenced by us at a certain point. When I saw them first time in the '80s, they played in Montreal once and I was like blown away. I was like, "Oh my god, this is so cool, this is so unique!" you know? And I think it's a good combination of weird music and weird costumes, ha-ha!
I already spoke to Chewy about the last album, but I still have a couple of questions about it. Chewy is the main songwriter now, so how much input did the rest of the band have in the process?
I think it's a teamwork thing. Well, Chewy brings most of the main ideas but obviously, we all have to compose our parts and we're all trying to let's say work for the song. It's the song that is going to tell if it's okay to do something or not. We don't force things. We just kind of go with the flow and if something feels right, then it feels right, but if something doesn't feel like part of the Voivod world we notice right away, it's a natural thing I guess. So I think it's a team effort in a sense.
You guys have always experimented a lot, but when Chewy came up with the string section idea, were you immediately on-board?
I think we wanted to try at least, ha-ha! But I was pretty much convinced that it would bring something new to the sound and something maybe a little bit surprising for the listener and I was convinced that it would give sort of an epic nature to the song itself. And I was really pleased with what Chewy came up with. All these people came to the studio to do their parts and it was a lot of work because he wrote and arranged everything.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the lyrical concept of the album? How did you come up with all that crazy sci-fi stuff?
When we got into the writing process, we wanted to create sort of a concept album. Some of it, like "Obsolete Beings" is more like a follow-up to the "Post Society" EP but we wanted to create like science-fiction kind of episodes, you know? So it starts with "The End of Dormancy", and the story goes from one song to another and sometimes it's not really precise, you know? I like to leave a lot of room for the people to imagine what they want to, it's open for interpretation.
The album did very well, in fact, you won the Juno award. Were you surprised?
Yeah, we were quite surprised because we never really win anything, ha-ha! But I think, you know, after 35 years we were kind of due to get some sort of recognition, especially in Canada. We've been working so hard during all these years and we got a lot of respect from fans and the press as well. We had really good reviews on the new albums, especially "The Wake" from all around the world, even Rolling Stone gave us something like 9.5. And so obviously at some point, they had to do something about it, ha-ha! It was a great year for us.
OK, I've got some questions about the band's past now. Whose idea was it to use nicknames as opposed to your real names?
I think back in the day we were looking at bands like Venom, you know, Kronos, I think it was like sort of a trend back in the day. And we ended up having these characters like Piggy and Blacky. I don't know how exactly it happened, why am I Snake, ha-ha? I mean, I know a little bit about why I'm Snake, but I don't recall exactly why Blacky is Blacky and Piggy was Piggy, maybe he was like a little bit chubby, with a kid's face. And Away, back in the day, he was always away, because he was doing university at the time and it was like we were practicing and he was not there most of the time. So, it became kind of like natural. But it was a big trend at the time.
When you were recording your debut album "War and Pain" you were like 20-21 years old. Do you remember anything about that recording session? Did you have a record deal in place?
Yeah, we did have a record contract with Metal Blade prior to the first album. We were on Metal Massacre 6, we had one song there, "Condemned to the Gallows" and then we got an offer to do a full album for Metal Blade. In our hometown, there was a little studio outside of the town that was basically a studio for radio advertising and I think they didn't ever really record an album there. So it was kind of like the first time for them and it was kind of shaky, you know? But we didn't have a lot of budget, so we were trying to get money from here and there and we started up at a very, very low budget. But it gave the album that special sound I guess, ha-ha!
You played your first US show in New York in 1986, with Venom and Cro-Mags and you often refer to that gig as the craziest show ever. What happened there?
You know, metal was just exploding everywhere. It was a period of time where thrash and black metal and speed metal and whatever metal they called it were kind of exploding and merging into one big thing. Like the Cro-Mags, they were more from the hardcore scene, and Venom was like really black metal and we were like in the middle of that, we had the punk side and the metal side and we were kind of thrashy and all. So it was the best time ever because you know, when you start a band and you start surfing on that wave, it takes you. There was no internet and people were still buying records so the business was healthy compared to today. And it happened to be a really killer show, for every band, I mean us, Cro-Mags and Venom and it was something special I think because that show kind of set up the new trend or the new kind of wave of metal that was about to come.
In '87 you released the single "Cockroaches". Why would anyone write a song about cockroaches?
Ha-ha! Yeah, we were really poor at the time. We just moved from our hometown to Montreal and we were sharing an apartment, all together and it was nasty in there. When we were coming back from the practice place and we were switching on the lights and they were everywhere. We had like rolled newspapers in our hands and we were like smashing the roaches on the wall. So it was kind of like apocalyptic too because I think roaches are one of the species that would survive the nuclear war, ha-ha!
After the first few albums, the band's sound underwent a transition from more thrashy to more progressive. Was it a natural evolution or were you just not satisfied with playing fast anymore?
Well, I think it was because of Piggy. He really had better knowledge of musicianship than anybody else in the band and we learned a lot from Piggy. As we were getting better as musicians we were more able to explore things and so for us, it was like kind of our destination. We'd done thrash for a bit and for Voivod, I think we never wanted to do something twice, we were looking for something new and Piggy kind of lead us in that direction.
Were you at all inspired by the big '70s prog bands like Rush or Yes or Jethro Tull?
I mean, most of it was Piggy. He had like a really good knowledge of everything and I think that's why we took that kind of direction, but always keeping the metal edge to it and the punk side as well. So it was like a combination of metal, punk, progressive rock and that's how we built up the Voivod sound.
I remember reading somewhere that you used to listen to records and tapes backwards to come up with weird riffs and drum patterns?
That was mainly Piggy. He was constantly searching for new avenues, for new tricks. When we were starting up we had all these records and he was like spinning them backwards and mixing tapes, cutting tapes. It was just about being creative. When you listen to stuff in reverse, sometimes you have different patterns, it's not natural, you know, and sometimes it gives like really strange mood you know, because it's backwards. It's hard to explain, but it gave us a different vision of the music and we could sort of interpret it in a different way and put it together in a different way as well. So it was about creativity.
Some of the "Killing Technology" lyrics were inspired by your visit to Berlin...
Yeah, when we signed with Noise Records, we were recording in Berlin. We did two albums there, "Killing Technology" and "Dimension Hatross" and it had a huge impact on us I think, recording in Berlin while the wall was still there. We had this kind of feeling of oppression around. We were walking along the wall and looking at it and it was like, "Wow, this is crazy!" There were like helicopters over our heads and the surveillance and all the checkpoints and it was kind of like entering another world for us, you know? And it really inspired the "Killing Technology" concept.
You were stopped at the UK border during the "Killing Technology" tour and you had to cancel some gigs. What was the problem?
Yeah, we were refused entry at the border, we didn't have the right work permit. We were in a studio in Berlin and the person responsible for travel arrangements thought we were a German band. But we were Canadian and we needed a work permit. And so when we got to Dover we got refused and we missed the Leeds Festival. Everybody was there, you know, all the bands that we wanted to see and all the people that wanted to see Voivod. Our merch got there, ha-ha, we sold everything but we couldn't play.
I know that some of the lyrics on the early albums were also inspired by the industrial region you lived in. What's weird about that area?
Our hometown is in a place where there's an industry of aluminium and paper. There's not so much population where we come from, but there's a lot of industry. So where we grew up was nearby to a paper factory and it was like kind of impressive to be that close to a fucking monster, you know, pollution and everything and it inspired us in a sense that it was quite apocalyptic to live there. It's such a beautiful region, with lots of lakes and rivers and mountains, but you got this fucking monster blowing up shit in the air and it's like that inspired us as sort of futuristic, apocalyptic world, you know? And it was fitting with the music back in the day.
On the "Nothingface" tour your support acts were Soundgarden and Faith No More. You don't have much in common with them, musically, so how did it come about?
Well, I guess they were emerging bands and we were like quite established at the time, but we were in the metal zone and grunge was like taking over on metal. So we ended up on that tour, it was a wonderful tour but the wind kind of turned around after that. Metal went down and grunge exploded and so they became fucking huge and we were like stuck there, ha-ha! But yeah, that's the fashion thing, trends, you cannot stop it. If it goes that way, it goes that way.
You decided to leave the band after "Outer Limits"? Why?
Well, for many reasons. I think probably one of the reasons was that the grunge thing was so huge and metal didn't mean anything to anybody anymore. So, that was quite depressing at the time. And I had my personal problems as well, and I didn't want it to have an influence on the band, you know? So I decided to leave on good terms and that's what happened. And a few years later I came back and when I came back, it was like nothing happened.
In 2002 Jason Newsted joined the band. Did having such a high profile name in the line-up help you in any way?
First of all, Jason is a really nice person, he's really devoted to music in general and he wanted to be part of Voivod. He had two dreams, being part of Metallica and being part of Voivod and that thing was missing in his life. And I think after he quit Metallica, I think he maybe got bored at home. And it happened in these weird circumstances. I was just about to join back the band and him and Piggy and Michel were working on something, they had that project going on and it was like in the early stage of recording and they booked a session at a studio in San Francisco, about the same time that I joined back the band. And what actually happened, he was doing an interview and the guy asked him, "So, what are you doing? Are you actually a member of Voivod?" And he goes like, "Yeah!" And we were sitting in the other room and looked at each other, like "Fuck!" It was fun though. It really helped when he joined the band. We ended up on the big stages, you know, doing big tours with Ozzy and Ozzfest, it really helped.
After Piggy passed away did you consider disbanding? He kind of created the Voivod sound...
Yeah, for two years we were like not knowing what would happen. At one point we said, "Well, maybe it's over?", you know? We were not sure about it because the main thing was who was going to replace Piggy, he was such a unique player. And we finally found Chewy and Chewy could pull that off. He grew up with Voivod and Vovoid was his first show and that's why he bought his first guitar when he was like 13 years old. Voivod was his main influence, he learned all the stuff from Voivod at an early age and he was meant to be in the Voivod gang, you know? I'm glad it happened because it's like when we played in his hometown, it's almost like we put a seed in the ground and let it grow and when the big tree of Piggy fell, we had another tree there, ready for us.
When Chewy joined, were you aware of his song-writing abilities or was it after you heard his ideas for "Target Earth"?
Well, the way it happened, he was quite known in a sense, I didn't know anything about him, but I knew he was playing with different artists in different projects. He was playing in a big theatre, sort of like a musical thing, it was called "Dracula" and he was playing guitar. But he has his own band called Martyr and when Piggy died Blacky and other members of the metal community in Montreal put on a tribute show for Piggy and me and Michel, we assisted in the show. And we were blown away because listening to him was like fucking so close to the real thing. And little by little, you know, we thought, "Maybe it's a chance, maybe it's a solution?" We didn't know the guy but Blacky knew him from other projects, and we ended up having a talk with him and doing a session with him. And to tell you the truth, if I closed my eyes it was like Piggy was in the room, it was fantastic. And at that point, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel and thought, "Maybe we could continue this band?"
Why do you keep changing the band logo?
You should ask Michel about it, but I guess it's the same as with the music, we never do something twice. And I think he likes drawing and it's always something about creativity, you know? Sometimes he shows us stuff and we're like, "This one is better, I think it would fit better. I don't know exactly why, but I think it's cool," ha-ha!
You played at a jazz festival in Canada. How?
Ha-ha! Same as with Juno awards, I think we finally got some sort of recognition. And being part of the jazz festival was such a unique event for us and for everybody. Everybody was kind of surprised but we said, "Yeah, we're going to do it. We're gonna do something special about it." And Chewy put together like a brass set up with five musicians and he wrote the whole thing, like parts of five different instruments, trumpets, and the whole thing. He put it together and we practiced. And there's brass in the song called "End of Dormancy", we extended the version and actually I think we're going to release something pretty soon, the video with the extended version with the brass. Yeah, it's something on the plan right now.
Michel claims he came up with the band name when he read about some cannibal barbarians. In fact, the word voivode is still used in Eastern Europe, it used to mean "warrior leader" and now it's just a local government official. So where did the band name actually come from?
Well, it's from that, it's from the sort of like Vlad Dracula sort of thing. But there was a Bob Moore comic book, there was one episode called Voivod Talisman. And I think it stuck with him when he was a youngster because it was something cool, the sound of it was so interesting and the meaning of it as well. And so I guess it stuck in his head until you know, we had a band together and he said, "What do you think about Voivod" and I thought it was something pretty cool. And so we kept it. We wanted to have a good sounding name, like you can chant it or something. So there you go.
Are you working on any new material for the next album?
It's in the process but it's really early to tell you anything about it. We've been touring a lot this year. We didn't really have a chance to sit down around the table and put ideas together. But I think this winter we will be in a good position to do that. It's been a crazy year. I don't think we're going to come back for a while, you know, we have to take the time off to do something else.