Voivod’s impulse, from day one, has been to flabbergast fans and pundits with their uncompromising and relentlessly modulating dispatches. The sheer recklessness of their stultifying debut immediately begot a serial of equally reckless, mind-twisting innovations. Album by album they veered in, out and above the lanes they were expected to mind, illuminating hitherto uncharted switchbacks and byways for thousands of other inquisitive travelers. Nonetheless, they remained a singularity, exclusively occupying their peculiar, lonesome orbit. As the honorable reverend Jeff Wagner would say, “They’re better than good, they’re god!”
That same quality of radical single-mindedness extended to the farewell the band would extend to founding member/mad-futurist Denis D’Amour (a.k.a. Piggy,) who passed away in August of 2005. For many of us back on earth, Piggy’s loss is still quite fresh. However, reeling as the band certainly was, Voivod stolidly pieced together two albums from their late comrade’s home-recorded guitar tracks, tastefully shuttering a loop that had begun in 1982.
By rights, this introduction should merely serve as an epilogue or some wayward annotation to the Voivod narrative. After all, Piggy’s death cost the band not only a dear friend and an obdurately innovative guitarist but also their composer. Never mind his or her level of skill, you simply don’t plug another guitarist into that station. Arguably, the snarl of extenuating qualifiers associated with manning D’Amour’s old post make it a statistical impossibility to ever satisfactorily fulfill. …And yet, for a decade now, former Martyr guitarist Daniel ‘Chewy’ Mongrain has defied that fierce improbability with balletic nonchalance. His turn within the band has already yielded some of their greatest output since the early nineties. Despite that, there’s been little canvassing of Chewy himself, even as he routes the band ever beyond our field of vision.
What follows is essentially a conversation between two fans of the Voivod dynasty with a smattering of input from drummer/philosophical core Away. Chewy steadfastly refuses to delve deeply into matters regarding his own, uncanny salience, and who can blame him? When navigating a ridge-line, deep meditations on everything that could go wrong is likely ill-advised. Nevertheless, to scores of devotees -terrestrial and otherwise- he’s a hero; a fucking lion. In the simple words of Youtube commenter Doug Lewis, “R.I.P. Denis D’Amour….thank you Daniel Mongrain.” Ladies and gentlemen, Voivod lives.
VOD WORKS IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS
One thing that you and I have in common is a deep-seated connection to Voivod’s music. I’ve heard you say that they’ve been your favorite band since you were roughly twelve years old. Essentially the same’s true for me. I was fourteen years old when the owner of a used cassette and record store suggested I check out Killing Technology. “Ravenous Medicine,” “Order of the Blackguards,” “Forgotten in Space.” That was it for me! How were you introduced to Voivod and what was the album that really hooked you?
So, I started to be more interested in rock and heavy music around the age of eleven when we started to hear about Maiden and Metallica. Of course, we knew the name Voivod in Quebec because they already had a reputation for being the most dangerous and badass band. When I was eleven or twelve, I didn’t have access to concerts or music stores that much, so [Voivod] was only a word that older teenagers would scream.
Voivod was well known to play crazy shows with amateur pyrotechnics and crazy mosh pits at some schools and punk/metal venues; they were the heaviest band ever! The revelation happened when I saw them in a clip: it was “Ravenous Medicine” from Killing Technology. I thought, “What the heck is that?” It didn’t sound like Celtic Frost or Slayer or Metallica or Megadeth at all…The riffs were in the upper part of the register of the guitar and it was no power chords (I couldn’t explain that at the time but I knew there was a big difference in the sound and aesthetic of the music compared to the other bands.) I was blown away by the uniqueness of their sound and the crazy universe the video was putting me into. Away’s drawing and Piggy’s weird shaped guitars, the attitude of Snake…it was totally out of the box! So the first album I bought with my own money was Killing Technology. I took my bike and ran into the store…They had only that album so I went for it…put in the cassette tape and once I heard “Bip…Bip….Bip… Bip…Bip…” (album intro) man, I was conquered for the whole journey!
Absolutely! Do you recall where you were and/or what you were doing when you received word of Piggy’s passing? On a personal level, his loss was arguably comparable to that of Cliff Burton for Metallica fans in the ’80’s. Man, I was stunned…
I will never forget it because it is [still] a bit surreal. August 26, 2005, I was on tour with my band Martyr. It was understood that Piggy was sick but it was very private…nobody had much info about it. I think it was toward the end of the set when I went to the crowd and asked them to scream very loud for Piggy since he was struggling for his life! Everybody screamed, ‘Piggy!’ so loud in that venue! Then we finished the set and a friend told me the news… I didn’t believe it at first, I was in shock…My hero was not here anymore and Voivod was over, or so I thought, like everybody. It was a very sad day for his family, friends and fans, and for music as well.
And how did you feel about the band’s decision to mine Piggy’s demo tracks for the material that would become the Katorz and Infini albums? I was incredibly moved by it and was a bit surprised by how stoic the band seemed when discussing the decision and the process of those recordings in interviews.
I think it was the right thing to do. I know Piggy called Away shortly before he passed because he knew he was not gonna pull through, and he gave him all the passwords for his computers. He’d recorded all the tracks at home when he was sick and nobody knew. It was very emotional for the guys to be in the studio with him ‘playing’ on the audio but physically absent. I can’t imagine the sadness and the resilience, the beauty…Those guys are strong I can tell you that. Those [particular] songs are very special to play live.
[Away steps in to clarify a few points regarding the Katorz and Infini releases]
Away: Actually, those two were meant to be a double album, which we wrote in 2004 with Jason (Newstead.) Piggy and I had done some raw templates at the rehearsal space with a couple of mics. Snake recorded the vocals in Piggy’s bathroom and Jason was halfway through the songs when Piggy was taken ill.
I knew that he had re-recorded his guitars at home but it was a surprise to us when we discovered that he had done the whole thing, solos and effects. We had to re-construct from there. The most difficult part was to finish the two albums without him with us in the studio. All we had was his guitar in our headphones.
Wow. So, given that we’d heard the final output from Piggy, it’s unsurprising that most, myself included, presumed the end of Voivod. At what point did the band determine to continue on? Were there any concerns regarding how the band might be perceived post-Denis D’Amour?
Away: In 2008 we were asked to reform for the first edition of Heavy Montreal. Snake and I decided to give a call to Chewy and Blacky, who we’d seen performing together in 2007. We were a bit nervous about what people might think but the reaction was truly amazing. It was actually meant to be one show but the word spread and soon enough we were asked to play the Monsters Of Rock in Calgary with Ozzy, open for Judas Priest in Montreal, two shows in Tokyo with Testament, so we just kept going.
So, I was completely unaware that Chewy and Blacky had jammed together prior to their joining up with Voivod… Chewy, do you mind elaborating on that a bit, regarding how you and Blacky initially came into contact with one another and about the sort of music the two of you were playing together?
Oh, I met Blacky in 2002, I think. A Montreal promoter wanted to celebrate the 20 years of metal in Quebec and organized a meeting to create a “super-band” of local, renowned musicians. At the time, Martyr was one of the biggest acts in Montreal and on the Quebec/Canadian Scene in term of extreme metal. So he gathered Flo Mounier (drums, Cryptopsy), Pierre Remillard (guitar, Obliveon), Blacky, Pat Mirreault (vocals, Ghoulunatic), Marc Vaillancourt (vocals, Barf) and myself.
We liked the idea so we learned classic thrash metal songs… At the time, Blacky hadn’t touched a bass since he left Voivod seventeen years prior, so I had to teach him to play again. It was a lot of work. I went to his place and told him where to put his fingers, even on his own songs, and we became friends and played the show.
After that, since he was back in Montreal with not [many] connections and no work, I hired him to do sound for Martyr and handle gear on some other gigs. I also invited him on the last Martyr album (Feeding the Abscess, 2006) to play on our cover of Voivod’s “Brainscan.”
That same year, I think, we did another show to celebrate 25th year of metal in Montreal by the same promoter. That show included my medley of Voivod songs to pay tribute to Piggy who had passed not so long before. That’s where Away and Snake saw us play some [of] Voivod’s songs with other Montreal musicians. I assume that’s where the idea of playing a show with this lineup started to pop-up in their heads.
LET GO AND LET VOD
Chewy, your playing (I’m speaking of Martyr specifically) has always been informed by Piggy’s but there are glaring distinctions. Were you at all concerned about either being restrained by his legacy or else by playing it too close to his particular mannerisms and phrasings and essentially pantomiming his approach? Moving into the Voivod guitar slot seems like an absolute tightrope in terms of balancing your own identity against the identity of the band and the expectations of its fans.
First of all, Piggy’s musical influence on me was much more on the compositional side. I appreciated his playing but I play totally differently and have a different sound. We approach solos [from] a very different perspective. His influence [on me] was very strong in [regards to] song structures, chordings, counterpoint, dissonance, effects, that eerie, chaotic, post-nuclear vibe; just his uniqueness… At the same time, I knew Voivod; I listened to the band since an early age and started to play the guitar at the same time. It’s part of my musical DNA so to speak. It is very deeply printed as musical vocabulary in my whole being. Since the beginning of my career, I’ve always played in many bands and many music genres, as a freelance [musician] or band member, I come from metal music but I never was closed [off] to learning and acquiring different stylistic and aesthetic approaches on the guitar. I’ve played in blues, rock, reggae, hip-hop, country and pop bands.
I learned early that I had to adapt to the music I would play, and respect the style, sound, phrasing and overall musicality of a genre. And I learned how to work around to get a specific sound and musical attitude, like an actor performing comedy, drama, romance, etcetera… The same applies to music or any form of art. Emotions convey through different mediums.
My fear was not [in regards to] performing any [particular] Voivod song, that was only a pleasure. [But] I had to change my playing a bit for the sound and for some parts that required it. For example the velocity of picking, the bouncing on the strings, Piggy’s playing was very bouncy. Also, I had to play more “dirty” or less precise, but, at the same time, in a very precise way, if that makes any sense, to respect the songs and the way they were played and composed.
And it depends on the albums as well. Some parts are surgically precise and others allow more liberty…more freedom of interpretation. My real stress began when we started writing new music. At the beginning I was trying way too hard and at some point I said to myself, “You’re not Piggy; stop trying to be Piggy. You’re yourself and you know what Voivod sounds like. It’s part of your DNA; just trust yourself.” Then it started to flow naturally. As long as I do the best I can, I don’t question myself much anymore. I let the music speak. As for the expectations…well mine are probably higher than most of the people out there. So far, so good!
What are your thoughts, Away? Obviously, Chewy made a tremendous amount of sense for Voivod. That said, his previous work suggests more of a nouveau/tech-metal sensibility without the old punk/hardcore roots that have served as a large part of Voivod’s aesthetic foundation. Did the band harbor any private concerns about wrangling Chewy’s style into such a specific lexicon as Voivod’s?
Away: Chewy already had a solid reputation with Martyr so I think it was a given that he would do some stellar music with us. We want to keep the Voivod spirit intact but we try not to overthink it too much.
Chewy, you’ve said in the past that Target Earth was composed around your ideal, next great Voivod album. Personally speaking, you nailed it! That album earns its place within the same canon alongside Dimension Hätross, Killing Technology and The Outer Limits. That said, Target Earth, which was composed with Blacky feels very different than the Post Society recording. How important was it to have someone from the band’s classic era involved with you for the writing of your first album with the band?
Well, of course lineup changes will affect the sound of any band as long as [those new members are] involved in the creative process. I believe in the exchange [of ideas,] unity, team work and I’m served by Voivod on this level.
On Target Earth, I had to work very hard on guitar parts unless they were for songs written entirely by me. Some of the songs were pretty plain bass lines which were very cool but I had to build a landscape over them; add textures and shape to create a context for Snake’s stories. Songs like “Mechanical Minds,” “Corps Étranger,” “Resistance” and “Artefact” were more built around the guitar parts and I had already some bass parts written for the riffs I wrote. But others like “Defiance,” “Kluskap O’Kom,” “Kaleidos” and “Target Earth” are songs [for which] I was handed some miscellaneous bass tracks and nothing else, so it was a big challenge every time to imagine the parts and also to decide when to stop searching, because there were just too many possibilities!! So that’s when jamming the musical ideas with drums and vocals become essential. You know right away when it’s gonna work and that’s where the teamwork starts.
Target Earth almost seems like a band expressing a series of final thoughts in regards to its past as opposed to Post Society, which is total, wild-eyed futurism. Can you contrast for me that writing process with the one for Post Society?
Away: The line-up change gave a new twist to our music. There’s a fusion side to our metal these days. There is also a dreamy vibe that we used to have on Angel Rat and The Outer Limits.
Chewy: Writing with [current bassist] Rocky on the new stuff has been easy in the sense that he’s also a big Voivod fan of every era and he’s educated musically so we can speak the same language. I don’t have to tell him where to put his hand on the neck or what note to play; he already knows if it works or not. We often sit together and find some counterparts that works well by modifying the original riffs, manipulating the harmony, the rhythm, the melodies… It’s in constant evolution until the idea decides [that it’s reached] maturity.
My vision is that an idea, once it’s out of your mind and played or written, becomes an entity of its own. It has needs and if you listen carefully, you’ll know what it needs to survive and flourish. It’s not “your” idea anymore, it lives by itself and anyone else who’s caring for it can help it [to reach] maturity. It’s the beauty of writing as a group! The songs are taking form progressively and morph slowly into their maturity. Sometimes songs evolve even after recording them onto an album because there was still still space to develop them… They’re alive! So we come up with ideas, bring them to the jam-space, improvise around them, modify them, care for and feed them and they become something richer and more organic: a multi-dimensional being in space and time that eventually travels to someone’s ear and makes their mind go nuts!
Of course, contemporary musical history teems with incidents of beloved musicians passing away or retiring from established acts. Their replacements are bound for scrutiny but are generally embraced, following a period of ‘narrow-eyed,’ arms-crossed vetting by fans. The remarkable thing about your establishment into the Voivod camp, Chewy, is that you were moved not only into a vacant role as a musician but also as the principle songwriter for one of the most distinctive bands -I’d argue- of all time. I can’t think of a precedent for that; it’s a tremendous responsibility! Have there been moments in your compositional endeavors where you’ve found yourself brushing up against the margins of “what is” versus “what isn’t” Voivod?
I think that a band, as a collective, is bigger than any individual. Obviously, the original members and the interaction between them -what gave birth to the band’s identity- are the very reason for the existence of their sound.