Voivod Reminisce About Montreal Cockroaches, Dave Grohl Shoutouts and 40 Years of Trailblazing Metal

To mark the release of 'Morgöth Tales,' we take a deep dive into the band's history with drummer and visual artist Michel "Away" Langevin

Photo: Francis Perron

BY Chris AyersPublished Jul 21, 2023

In the early '80s, when the Canadian metal scene was still nascent, four teenagers from Quebec dreamed of playing heavy metal on stage like their idols in Iron Maiden and Motörhead. Jonquière — a small city now part of Saguenay, a couple hours' drive north of Quebec City — seemed millions of kilometres away from stardom. When Voivod founding drummer and graphic artist Michel "Away" Langevin finally told his parents that he was choosing his band over university in 1983, he believed that success was within his grasp.

That decision led the band — Langevin, singer Denis "Snake" Bélanger, guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour and bassist Jean-Yves "Blacky" Thériault — to sign with fledgling L.A. metal label Metal Blade Records and contribute a song to 1984's Metal Massacre V compilation, sharing album space with Overkill, Fates Warning, Metal Church and black metal progenitors Hellhammer. That same year, the group's debut album, War and Pain, with Langevin's ghoulish cover art, put Voivod on the international metal map.

To date, Voivod has won four JUNO Awards and has released 15 studio albums and over 50 singles, EPs, demos and live albums, with Langevin designing the cover art for each of them. This year, the band celebrate their 40th anniversary with a new record, Morgöth Tales (out today on Century Media Records). They've re-recorded nine not-often-played songs from their back catalog and written a new song with their current lineup of Langevin, Bélanger, Mongrain and bassist Dominic "Rocky" Laroche. 

The album also includes specials guests: former Metallica bassist Jason "Jasonic" Newsted, who a Voivod member for several years, returns to re-record "Rebel Robot" from 2003's Voivod, on which he originally played. Temporarily replacing the erstwhile Snake and Blacky on two late '90s albums, bassist-vocalist Eric "E-Force" Forrest rejoins the fold on "Rise" from 1997's Phobos.

Langevin spoke with Exclaim! about all aspects of Voivod's career, Montréal cockroaches, late '80s Berlin, studying Neil Peart's drumming and aging gracefully.

Morgöth Tales is a fantastic way to commemorate your 40 years of being a band. You could've easily put out a greatest hits album with rare tracks. Whose idea was it to re-record classic tracks that you don't frequently play live?

My first idea was to have some type of compilation with hopefully a song from every studio album. But I realized quickly that we had dealt with so many different labels over our career that it would take years to license everything. Then our record label said, "Why don't you re-record songs?" I didn't know what to think about it at first. I mentioned that to the other guys in the band, and they were immediately excited. To me, it still represented quite a challenge to learn those songs again and perform them.

I don't think the tracklist will surprise fans, because Voivod has always pushed the envelope. It's more about your longevity, your band chemistry, and it just sounds like you're still having fun playing together.

It was a blast! We decided to focus on more of the obscure material from the catalog, because we've been releasing a lot of live albums lately, and we didn't want to re-record any of those tracks. And it was a great opportunity for us to refresh our setlist as well. We've been doing a lot of touring already this year, and people really enjoy hearing those songs.

Bookending the album with the re-recorded "Condemned to the Gallows" and the brand-new "Morgöth Tales" is so perfect, and having Jasonic and E-Force guest on the album is icing on the cake.

We really wanted to do "Condemned to the Gallows," the first song we wrote and recorded, and since we wrote the song in '83, we also really wanted the album to span from 1983 to 2023, so we wrote the new song on the bus while touring with Opeth last year. We also started discussing inviting Jason and Eric, so I reached out to them. They were super excited! 

After your debut on Metal Blade, what led to your signing with Germany's Noise Records for 1986's Rrröööaaarrr

We moved to Montreal and were really poor, and each of us got $150 of welfare per month. The four of us lived in a small apartment, and there were roaches all over the place. We even wrote a song about them ["Cockroaches" on Killing Technology]. After we had some gear stolen, our manager [Maurice Richard] decided to organize the World War III Festival in November 1985 to fund the Rrröööaaarrr album and to buy some new equipment. We invited Celtic Frost, Destruction and Nasty Savage, and a lot of people came to the show. We were able to pay for mixing the album and buy some gear, and I gave a cassette of the rough mix of Rrröööaaarrr to Martin Ain from Celtic Frost. He brought it to Noise, and they signed us for three albums.

Then came 1987's Killing Technology and your first major transition into progressive rock mixed with thrash. Why wasn't that album recorded in Quebec?

The difficulty for us at that time was that the label told us, "After this European tour, you're going take the train to Music Lab Studios in Berlin to record your new album." So to promote Rrröööaaarrr worldwide before going on a full tour, my gosh, we had to write all of Killing Technology ahead of time. But it was a good occasion to test those songs, though, on the road.

Dimension Hatröss in 1988 brought you back to Berlin to record, and the album was more advanced musically than the last. 

In '87 we did a world tour with Celtic Frost, which ended somewhere in Germany, then we went to Berlin to record Dimension Hatröss. Again, we had to write this album before going on tour, and it was so hectic. But we improved a lot musically. From '83 to '89, we rehearsed pretty much every night. Years later, when I heard the Build Your Weapons: The Very Best of the Noise Years 1986-1988 compilation, I was amazed how we switched many different sounds between the first song of Rrröööaaarrr and the last song of Dimension Hatröss. I could really appreciate how we evolved over the years.

What was it like recording in Berlin with the Wall at that time?

At first it was an amazing experience with [producer] Harris Johns at the Music Lab. There was a lot of gear in the studio that allowed us to experiment even more. Then there was the Wall. We tried to go to the other side many times, but they said we looked too funny. The atmosphere in the city was very interesting, because you could feel the operation of the Iron Curtain. But it was a city where everybody, all the artists, went to escape the mandatory military service because it was a neutral zone. So there was a really amazing artistic vibe to the city, and we fit right in, I thought.

You returned to Quebéc to record 1989's Nothingface for MCA, which was more streamlined and crisper, and that Pink Floyd cover is still incredible.

The video for "Tribal Convictions" from Dimension Hatröss got a lot of airplay, and it attracted the attention of major labels. That's when we decided to make the big jump to MCA, and all of a sudden, we had a recording and touring budget and publicity. We recorded in downtown Montréal at Victor Studio with their amazing wooden walls. Recording with Glenn Robinson, there was no pressure at all from the label to do a Pink Floyd song. We were all fans of Syd Barrett, but Piggy was a huge fan of David Gilmour, so we covered the live version of "Astronomy Domine" from Ummagumma and everybody loved it. There were two conditions, however: we had to get the okay from David Gilmour, and we had to make sure that the royalties went to Syd Barrett. But tons of people checked out Voivod because we covered Pink Floyd, and it was very exciting because people from the thrash metal scene got into the Barrett era because of that. 

Angel Rat in 1991 added Rush's Terry Brown in the production booth, which must've been exciting at the time. It was difficult for Blacky, who left the band after the album was finished. 

For Nothingface, we got to do some amazing tours: first, a crazy tour across North America with Faith No More and Soundgarden, then a tour with Rush, which really was a dream come true. We were obviously huge fans, and when I was a kid, I was trying to figure the drum rolls of Neil Peart with my headphones. So on tour, I decided to watch Neil from the side of the stage to study him, and I still could not figure out his rolls. We thought it was a natural choice for Terry Brown to produce Angel Rat. But at this point, I think because we had been rehearsing every night from when we started the band to the Nothingface album, the band was sort of imploding. Jumping on a major label allowed us to move into separate apartments, and we'd grown more distant. And then Blacky was not in agreement with the sound that Terry was getting for us, and so he ended up actually leaving us.

Angel Rat was a different sound for the band, but the music climate was changing, too.

There was a mention by the label and management that there could be less double kick drum on the songs to get more mainstream airplay, and I consciously did that. At first, I thought I might have to rework those songs to make them more current, or maybe add double kick drums. But they were not written for double kick drums, so it didn't make any sense for me to add anything to them in terms of thrash metal. But there was this new alternative music movement growing really rapidly, and it also had an influence on us. Maybe we focused more on the groove and less on the intricate guitars, time signatures, and all that. We didn't overthink it, but we definitely wanted Angel Rat to have an appeal, but it sort of went under the radar because all eyes were turned on Seattle at that time.

The Outer Limits from 1993 was recorded with session bassist Pierre St-Jean. Why did Snake leave after this album? 

We had gone into psychedelia on The Outer Limits and Angel Rat. With the song "Jack Luminous," which is about 18 minutes long, we thought we had explored the metal genre as much as we could. But when we came back from touring with Rob Halford's Fight across North America, I could feel that Snake was not into it anymore. He wanted to do something else with his life, and so in the spring of '94, he told us that he was going to open a restaurant and forget about music for a while. We tried to convince him to stay, but his mind was set, and so I explained to Snake, "Piggy and I are not in a financial position to wait for you," and he told us not to worry. Eric Forrest was suggested by the management to replace both Blacky and Snake, and when we auditioned Eric, it clicked right away. It was a very short audition. We liked the guy, and we could tell he was very disciplined and dedicated: a great musician and a great singer.

Negatron from 1995 was the first record with E-Force and the last for MCA. 

We demoed some songs with Eric that were very heavy, and when we sent the demo to the label, they said, "We don't know how to market that, but you're free to shop around the demo," which was amazing. Thank God we had a great relationship with MCA, because I had friends back then like Jeff Walker of Carcass. Columbia shelved their contract and their new album. They couldn't use the name anymore, and it was insane. Jeff was freaking out when I ran into him at festivals in Europe. We were lucky that we were allowed to go back to work, and so we signed with Hypnotic Records in Toronto and had great times recording Negatron at their studio. 

Phobos from 1997 continued your work with E-Force.

It was like Dimension Hatröss but 10 years later, with interludes and a story all the way through the album. Unfortunately, it didn't sell and we were pretty crushed. But it's another album that people enjoy a lot these days. 

It must've been a joy for Snake to return to the band and to be working with Jason Newsted on 2003's Voivod record.

At first, it was very bad timing for Snake. He told me, "As much I want to do it, I'm opening a new restaurant, and I won't be available for another year or so." And so I said, "It's okay, Pig and I will work on music and you can join us then when you're ready." I phoned Jason in early January 2001 and asked him if he wanted to be a guest bassist on this music we were doing. And he said, "How did you know? I just left Metallica." He announced it a couple of days afterward. I had no idea, but it was just great timing, and he ended up joining the band because he was so excited. And at the same time, he joined Ozzy's band and Sharon asked Jason if Voivod would open for Ozzy. By the end of 2003, he was really exhausted from playing two shows a night, but he put a lot of spotlights on Voivod.

When Snake contributed vocals to Dave Grohl's Probot project, you drew the album cover art.

Snake had recorded those vocals for Probot, and he played it for us. We realized that he still had a great voice and a great sense of melody. And it's funny that Dave always comes back in the picture again, because yesterday I went to the Foo Fighters show in Montreal, and all of a sudden Dave is dedicating "My Hero" to me, and I have all the spotlights in the arena on me. Everybody is cheering, and I had to stand up and do the peace sign. Dave Grohl rules. He's one of the most energetic, positive, good-vibration type of people I've met in my life.

Obviously, 2006's Katorz and 2009's Infini were difficult to make, since Piggy passed away. What gave you the impetus to move on without him?

We were traumatized. Snake, Jason and I couldn't see any other mission than to finish Katorz and Infini, which we had started in 2004 and early 2005 with Piggy's recordings that he left behind. And so that was our mission. It really took Heavy MTL, the first edition in 2008, for us to reform. It was supposed to be a one-off show, but the word spread, and we were immediately invited to do the Masters of Rock in Calgary with Judas Priest and Ozzy, and also Testament invited us to do two nights in Tokyo at the end of 2008. So it just kept going, and we just kept touring. We were afraid it would be sacrilege without Piggy, but there were tons of fans, and the reaction was really amazing.

Target Earth from 2013 was an incredible album that showed that Voivod could thrive without Piggy and now with Chewy. Considering its success and the new fanbase, do you feel that Target Earth was now a different Voivod? 

Chewy captures the spirit of Piggy and keeps the soul intact. And he also has another style: it's old-school, almost boogie metal. He is a huge fan of Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Fripp and Alex Lifeson. But Chewy is more new tech-metal, very surgical, and his chords are very similar, maybe with a jazz fusion twist. And we're now going back to prog rock. We're lucky because Chewy can write scores for brass quintet, like at the Montreal Jazz Fest we did in 2019. We had a brass quintet that sounded like the opening track of Atom Heart Mother by Pink Floyd or Magma, but he also can write scores for string quartet like on The Wake

What are your plans for the immediate future?

We have a great momentum and we're really enjoying it, especially this year for the 40th anniversary. We have a crazy busy touring schedule, which is great. I went to see Whitesnake in Montreal, and I saw drummer Tommy Aldridge. He was doing 90 minutes of full double kick drums, and I thought, if I wanted to be that guy, I'd better take care of myself. In May, I celebrated my 60th birthday on tour in Europe, and the guys from Testament brought a cake for me on stage. I've taken good care of myself, and I hope to be able to do this for many more years.

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