Voivod’s Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: “The fear I had in the ’90s of being completely forgotten hasn’t happened. I have achieved what I was hoping to do”
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin has been weathering the pandemic by doing what he does best: making new music and concentrating on his art. As the drummer and founder member of Voivod, those two creative elements have defined his life for close to four decades. In that time, his band have become one of the most respected acts to emerge from the early ’80s thrash metal melee, their sound expanding from its punkier roots to absorb elements of psychedelia and progressive rock.
In a career that has contained several moments of musical innovation and triumph, the Canadian outfit have also faced moments of near collapse and tragedy. The original four-piece of Away, frontman Denis ‘Snake’ Bélanger, Jean-Yves ‘Blacky’ Thériault and guitarist Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour found themselves burnt out by the early ’90s, causing a line-up reshuffle. Then, as the next decade dawned, they split following a road accident while on tour in 1998 where their singer Eric Forrest was hospitalised for several months.
In 2002, the three-piece of Away, Snake and Piggy regrouped under the Voivod banner with Jason Newsted – freshly departed from Metallica – in their ranks. A hugely acclaimed self-titled album followed, only for tragedy to strike when Piggy was diagnosed with colon cancer, passing away in the summer of 2005.
Despite the obvious trauma, Away and Snake eventually recruited guitar player Daniel ‘Chewy’ Mongrain and bass player Dominic ‘Rocky’ Laroche, arriving at a new incarnation of the band whose musical invective has developed even further. The Wake – the band’s last studio LP – emerged in 2018, delivering 14 tracks of progressive metal and a conceptual narrative created by Snake.
Since the release of their debut, 1984’s War And Pain, concepts have driven Voivod’s lyricism; the band serving up thinly veiled dystopian allegories with each album. The Wake’s storyline revolves around the discovery of “foreign intelligence” and the ensuing pandemonium that engulfs humanity, as the combination of social media propaganda and self-serving political leaders force the world to descend into chaos and paranoia.
“It’s getting harder now for us to come up with new stories that aren’t real!” says Away. “We’re like the neighbours peering over the fence and, in the light of the Capitol riots, saying, ‘What are they doing now?’ I did ask Snake if he was going to use the pandemic as source material for the next album but he really doesn’t want to do that.”
The band have begun work on the follow-up to The Wake, having released two live projects from 2019 during lockdown – the Lost Machine album (recorded at SummerFest in Quebec City) and The End Of Dormancy EP (two tracks from which were recorded at the Montreal Jazz Fest and feature a brass section).
“We’ve been lucky because we had that material recorded so we were able to release it,” nods Away. “And now we’re focused on writing some new material while socially distancing because we’re still in lockdown in Montreal.”
Like all musicians, Away admits he is missing playing and life on the road. “It’s all I’ve ever known, really. But you have to stay positive,” he shrugs. Indeed, the drummer is looking forward to celebrating the band’s 40th anniversary with some shows next year. A film documenting their story is also in the works, directed by Felipe Belalcazar, the man responsible for the three videos Voivod have made during lockdown.
While the 57-year-old Away is already looking to the future, we take the opportunity to ask him to take a backward glance, starting off at the very beginning…
What was the first music that really affected you?
“The Beatles were my very first favourite band. Where I grew up, in northern Quebec, there was a kid whose family had a Partridge Family type band called The Teddy Boys. It was the whole family and he knew the chords to Beatles songs. I was nine or 10, and there was a drum set-up at their house so I started to jam with him. Then I saw The Beatles movies on TV like Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, and I couldn’t believe the energy of Ringo, so that’s really where things started.
“Shortly after, maybe in the mid-’70s, I discovered KISS. I asked to get KISS’ Alive! for Christmas and I got it. My family were like, ‘Put it on! Put it on!’ so I did and they were like, ‘Take it off! Take it off!’ So they became my favourite band and it lent a more hard rock approach to my playing.”
When did you discover music you could call your own?
“Prog rock, hard rock and punk rock were my things, but it was really in 1980 when the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal happened that I discovered what I thought was my music for my generation. The first Iron Maiden album was a real game-changer for me. It had all the elements of what I loved: prog, punk, metal and a fantastic front cover that really impressed me. That’s when I felt I was part of something and I started to think about forming a band. 1980 was the year that I first jammed with Piggy and from there things happened really quickly. All of sudden Venom showed up, and suddenly everyone was going full-speed ahead with thrash metal. Even though I was impressed by post-punk and hardcore, the real route for me was heavy metal, and then thrash metal.”
Growing up in Canada, was Neil Peart a huge influence on you? You played shows with Rush in 1990, too…
“Of course, I first started to hear Rush in the ’70s. I didn’t know who they were, but that voice and style was so distinctive, and I would hear them on the radio. When I started drumming I studied the drumming very carefully and I was impressed that their drummer had a concept going and this whole lyrical world that he had created. There were two drummers that impressed me that way – Christian Vander from [French avant-garde prog group] Magma and Neil Peart. I was trying to figure out his drum rolls and I couldn’t.
“When we finally toured with Rush in 1990 on the Nothingface album, I was at the side of the stage watching him and I still couldn’t figure them out! Rush were really, really great to us and real gentlemen. After the first show we played with them, we went back into the dressing room and there was a bottle of champagne from them for us with a note that we gave to Piggy immediately because he was the world’s Number One Rush fan. They were just so nice, but we were really quiet because what was I meant to say to The Professor?”
Voivod in 1988. Photo: Ron McGregor
As well as your musicianship, your art has helped defined Voivod’s visual aesthetic. But it stems from a very personal place, doesn’t it?
“Yes. When I was about five I was hit by a car and I developed a fear of mechanical things. I was always trying to stand away from any kind of machinery. Also, we lived by a paper mill and I was trying to imagine what kind of creature would make that type of a sound. I would fall asleep and have nightmares about these creatures and I would wake up in the morning and draw them. I started to take it seriously when I discovered a magazine called Métal Hurlant. Through that I discovered the artwork of [Enki] Bilal, Moebius and especially Philippe Druillet. He was my favourite and I copied him a lot. I really wanted to be a graphic artist for Métal Hurlant and that’s when I started thinking of this voivod world.”
Where did the idea of the voivod come from?
“I’d seen the word ‘voivod’ in a couple of places but mainly in Bram Stoker’s book, Dracula. So I started to create my own nuclear vampire, influenced by the factory nearby, the nightmares I had, and the fear of machinery. At first the art was industrial but more Dungeons & Dragons-looking, but when the anarchist-punk bands like Crass and Conflict turned up – and I also saw a fantastic [anti-nuclear] documentary from the National Film Board called If You Love This Planet – I started to be aware of the stockpiles of nuclear weapons around the planet, and the concepts took on more of a post-apocalyptic turn. All of this came in very handy when Voivod happened because I was able to adapt my art to that.”
You formed Voivod in 1982 and released your first album, War And Pain, two years later with Venom as a key influence. It was completely slated by Kerrang! at the time…
“Yes! The early reviews of War And Pain were really against us. They all said, ‘These guys are worse than Venom!’ and we thought, ‘Yeah! They’ve mentioned Venom! We’re badass!’ (Laughs) It was quite funny.
“It seemed to us – and everyone in the metal scene – that there was a revolution going on. We were really into the fast stuff, and on War And Pain, that was really a mix of heavy metal and punk. It was only on Rrröööaaarrr [in 1986] that we went full-on thrash metal. Everybody was trying to go faster than D.R.I. and Slayer, and we were just really happy to be part of that scene that was exploding everywhere.”
Rrröööaaarrr was a step on, but Killing Technology in ’87 and then Dimension Hätross the following year really defined the band’s more progressive sound. What shaped that shift?
“Well, bands like Killing Joke had a huge impact on us. But also in ’83 we were rehearsing pretty every night and living downtown in Montreal, so we evolved very rapidly and we became very tight in a short time.
“The craziest part I find these days is that we’d release an album a year, and do a world tour every year, which was a lot of work. Rrröööaaarrr came out, we were going to tour the U.S. with Celtic Frost, and then we were due to go on tour in Europe with Possessed before ending up in Berlin to record, so we had to write Killing Technology before we went to Europe so we would have everything ready. The same thing happened with Dimension Hätross, so we rehearsed a lot and I could feel we were getting better and better. On Killing Technology I can still hear mistakes on my part, but on Dimension Hätross I really can’t. I’m not boasting or anything, but I finally reached the level I was aiming for.”
That period led to the release of Nothingface in 1989, at which point your blend of prog, punk and metal seemed in sync with bands like Faith No More and Soundgarden – both of whom opened for you on your 1990 U.S. tour – and even Swans and Big Black…
“The fact that we were listening to alternative music in the ’80s helped us jump into the alternative scene in the ’90s because it’s what we liked naturally. We were all listening to Steve Albini’s stuff and bands like Scratch Acid and Big Black. When we toured with Soundgarden in 1990, the wheel hadn’t quite turned when we started the tour. But around halfway through the tour it really exploded for them, and for Faith No More as well. By the time we hit the West Coast, there were too many people at shows and it had a real impact on us. The groove of the crowd had changed as well. That influenced us into writing the Angel Rat album.
“The labels were looking for their alternative metal band. MCA signed us, A&M had signed Soundgarden, Faith No More had got signed by part of Warner, so alternative bands were all on majors. It was a great experience for us to be able to sell out clubs and sell a few albums, too.”
You sold half a million records, in fact. Did you feel a sense of commercial pressure as a result?
“Yes, we did. On Dimension Hätross we’d made a video for Tribal Convictions and it had got a lot of airplay on MTV, which led to that deal with MCA. They spent a lot of money on Voivod, and there were expectations of course. We had a seven-album deal with them, but the problems happened after The Outer Limits when Snake left the band and we got Eric [Forrest] in on vocals. The label said the demos were too heavy and that we were free to shop around, but for the MCA period – which was Nothingface, Angel Rat, The Best Of Voivod and The Outer Limits – there was a lot of support for touring, recording and publicity, and we had to keep that in mind. It was a good opportunity for us to explore the psychedelic aspects of the band and we went all-out on that on The Outer Limits, to the point where maybe we missed the hardcore side of our music – which is why we returned to the heavier side of our music in the mid-’90s.”
Voivod in 1997. Photo: Daniel Cohen
The band had its share of personal turmoil in the mid-’90s, leading to Snake and Blacky’s initial departures. Then, there was the crash in 1998 in which Eric was very badly injured.
“The crash was terrible. We were heading to the Wacken fest when it happened. It really, really cut our wings and destroyed our momentum. We didn’t know if Eric was going to walk again, either. We were able to start again at the end of 1999 when Eric got out of the hospital.
“We had an offer to play with Iron Maiden and we just couldn’t resist that. Then we did a couple of tours with Therion and Neurosis and released the Voivod Lives album. But we got to the end of the year 2000, and were really disillusioned and we decided to split the band.
“It wasn’t long before Piggy and I got antsy and got in touch with Snake at the end of 2001, and we reformed. But there was a period where the band didn’t exist at all, and we had to rebuild the whole thing.”
Snake returned, and in 2002 Jason Newsted – or ‘Jasonic’ as he became known – became your bass player for the Voivod album in 2003.
“Jason is great and I really miss him. I’m in touch with him, but we don’t see him enough – especially not now with the pandemic. But whenever we cross paths, he jumps onstage with us and he’s right there every time. It’s always great. We did that at Hellfest [in 2013] and in San Francisco [in 2016], and it’s always amazing with him.”
Voivod in 2003. Photo: Danny Clinch
What impact did he have? He’d been in one of the biggest bands of all-time, but he was a Voivod fan before he joined…
“Oh, yeah, he was. We met Jason in the ’80s at The Stone in San Francisco, and Piggy and I did a lot of recording with him in the ’90s at his studio in California under the name Tarrat, but we never really released anything. So it was natural for us to call him. At first, we got back together with Snake and we asked Jason to be a guest bassist. He was really excited when I called him and he enjoyed the experience so much that he ended up joining the band. At the same time, he joined Ozzy so we were asked to open for him. We played Ozzfest and Jason ended up playing two shows a night for a big part of the year in 2003. That’s how dedicated he is.”
2004 saw the release of Dave Grohl’s Probot album, which you and Snake appeared on and for which you did the artwork. How did that come about?
“Dave has always been a big Voivod fan. We first met in the ’80s; he used to come to see Voivod and I saw him with Scream in Montreal. He was really young but he was already the best drummer I’d ever seen. At one point he explained to me how much he liked my style, which was kind of him, but Dave was really responsible for Snake coming back into the band.
“The album came out in 2004, but Snake recorded stuff for it in 2001. When we asked Snake to come over to Piggy’s for a meeting, he showed up with recordings that he’d just done for the Probot album. That’s when we realised that Snake still had it, and we could really think about writing material with him, so we spent a lot of time writing in 2002.
“I also think the fact that Jason had joined the band and brought the spotlight back on us convinced Dave that I should be the guy to do the artwork. He just said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ When we split the band in 2000, during Eric’s convalescence in the hospital, I had started working for a company here in Montreal doing colouration for educational CD-ROMs. I had access to pretty good digital gear and I was able to do something that was super-detailed, and that cover became one of my favourite representations of the music.”
Just as things seemed to be moving in the right direction, the worst thing imaginable happened and Piggy passed away.
“I’d first jammed with Piggy when we were at high school. He was diagnosed in March 2005 and by August he was gone, so it happened super-quickly. I spent the summer visiting him in hospital and we had very profound discussions. It was a period of high strangeness because we had started demoing what we thought was going to be a double-album with Jason.
“At the hospital Piggy explained to me that he re-recorded all of his guitars with all of the solos and everything, and that it was all on his laptop. He gave me his password for that. Emotionally, it was difficult. Was it sacrilege to use the music? It’s a big blur.
“We were all really traumatised, Jason included, of course. In early 2006 we decided to sort of finish half of the double album – which turned out to be Kartoz. We were in the studio in Montreal and it was the first time I didn’t have visual contact with Piggy while playing, because for every album he’d been there, across the window. Having him in the headphones but not there was really, really hard. The Katorz album was so hard to finish; it took another three years until we released the other half, which was the Infini album. Those were really dark times.”
You made the decision to carry on and you recruited Daniel Mongrain – aka Chewy. How did that come about?
“In 2007 there was a celebration of Piggy’s life in Montreal, where we saw Blacky jamming with Chewy through a medley of Voivod songs with other thrash musicians. We thought they had a great chemistry, so Snake and I thought we should join with… but we were really scared. We knew Chewy was the right guy for sure, but we thought people might find it odd, but we realised that many of the kids were just happy to see Voivod because they thought they’d never get to see us again.”
2022 will mark the 40th anniversary of the band. Personally, what have you been looking for over the last four decades?
“That’s a tough question. I’ve been looking to be an independent artist like my hero Peter Hammill from Van Der Graf Generator. I’ve always been a bit of an outsider, so I knew what I was going to do was outside of the mainstream, but I wanted to make sure that I could make art for the rest of my life and I have been able to do that.
“I get rid of the stress of the world we live in by playing drums, but I don’t have them set up at home so I can’t do that right now and I miss that. But I think I’ve achieved my goal, which was always to have my own thing and make ends meet. I’ve done that. It’s been a rollercoaster ride where we’ve had to rebuild a few times, and I had moments where I would wake up at night and think, ‘I don’t have a retirement plan or money in the bank.’ I didn’t think anyone would ever remember Voivod, but we’ve been lucky because Voivod has a lot of respect out there in very different scenes, and people know who we are.
“I also get a lot of people asking me to do artwork for them. This, again, I owe to the Probot album; so the fear I had in the ’90s of being completely forgotten hasn’t happened. I have achieved what I was hoping to do, and I am really grateful for that.”
Voivod’s Lost Machine is out now on Century Media, and Michel Langevin’s art can be viewed at awayartpress.com
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