It’s not everyday that you have the opportunity to talk about one of your favourite bands with one of its members. And how often can we say that any band’s fourteenth album is one of the best of their career? Canadian visionaries VOIVOD have just released The wake, and last week they passed through Spain as part of their European tour, so I couldn’t miss the chance to talk to Daniel Chewy Mongrain when they visited Madrid on the 25th of september. One of the main reasons for VOIVOD’s current state of creative grace, Chewy speaks about music with detail, intelligence and above all with true and genuine passion. Ladies and gentlemen, we are connected…
Subterráneo Webzine: First of all, you’ve just released The wake and it’s been five years since Target Earth came out. This years you’ve been active making EPs and splits, which are sometimes considered “minor” works. Do you feel like they helped to develop the direction of The wake?
Chewy: Well, the EP at first was supposed to be an album when we started. It ended up being an EP because we realized we hadn’t put out any new music for a while, and we had a line-up change, so it didn’t help. We had to redefine de chemistry among all of us, you know? Only one change, only one person changes the chemistry. The EP was kind of… well, not really an exercise, because I really like the songs and we put everything we had into it and we wanted to start the album with those songs. But then the idea of an EP seemed to be the best thing to do at the time, with the cover of “Silver machine”. And throughout the process of composing the EP we found our roles in the composition with the new line-up. We developed a good work method together.
Subterráneo Webzine: You all take part in the composition, I get?
Chewy: Oh, yeah, totally. So we defined our roles, and we worked with Francis [Perron] who made The wake as well, at his studio… So everything was falling into place for The wake.
Subterráneo Webzine: I’ve read some reviews about The wake stating that it takes back VOIVOD’s progressive roots, but as I see it those roots never went anywhere. In fact I think this album, despite being so complex, sounds really straight forward, accessible and catchy. Do you agree?
Chewy: That’s right. I think that what we achieved on this album is making very complex music sound catchy. Because it’s very complex music. But the maturity of writing complex music without making it sound complex… it’s kind of another level of musicianship and composition. You don’t have to make music sound difficult. It can be complex without sounding complex. I think that we reached that level of composition. And I’m very proud of that, because if you listen in a more analytic way you find all that “oh, there’s a lot of odd time signatures, there’s rich harmony, a lot of notes in the chords, not just the power chord but the whole chord, and dissonances and stuff…”. The bass parts and the guitar parts are dialoguing together, they are talking together and there are lots of counterparts, complementary parts. Even the drums imitate the guitar, and the vocals can make a melody that the guitar plays afterwards… There’s a lot of games like that, a lot of conversations between instruments which I’m really proud of.
Subterráneo Webzine: Taking the previous question into account, it’s worth noting that Post society and The wake have also seen the return of longer compositions. For example, “Sonic mycelium”, which is one of the standout tracks I think. And I think you’ve never made something like this before, including parts of other songs in the last track… How did this come out?
Chewy: Actually we had six or seven songs, I don’t remember, and there was one song left for the album. I started writing new riffs, new ideas, and I had two minutes done… We were in the studio and I had this idea to connect every song in chronological order, to take the main riffs, the main musical parts, the most recognizable from the songs, the strongest riffs… and make a song with that. But the riffs are coming back with a different “costume”, so to speak. They’re in disguise, they’re not exactly like they were in the songs before, and “Sonic mycelium” has riffs of its own as well. It has its own ideas but incorporates parts from every song in chronological order.
And I had two days to finish it! (laughs). Away was in the studio recording tracks and he said “OK, we’re ready for the song, so we’re waiting for the tracks so we can finish the album” and I was like “oh, man!”. I was doing a TV show in Montreal, and teaching, and at the same time it was exam time at school… I had only two days. So I grabbed the guitar and the bass and started demoing and composing the arrangements for the song and I sent it to them two days later so they could finish the album. I didn’t know what Away would come up with for the beats and stuff. Snake hadn’t even listened to it, and we had this idea as well to take vocal lines from different songs and put them over different parts of different songs at the same time, so you have a great puzzle where everything comes from the rest of the songs. It’s a song that you can discover with time, after many listens you can understand the lyrics and the melodies that are mixed over different riffs from other songs in a different way… “Sonic mycelium” is a soil under the soil, like a spider web of organic matter that communicates with trees and grows mushrooms. That’s the mycelium. Every sound, every song is connected through this way, so I think it describes the song well.
Subterráneo Webzine: We’ve been talking about your progressive roots, but the band had as well, especially in its early stages, strong punk influences. As someone who’s been a fan of VOIVOD for years and is now part of the band how do you feel those influences are still present in your sound?
Chewy: Snake and Away have of course been influenced by the punk era. They were kind of a crossover band at the time, you know? There were a lot of punk and metal fans in their shows and there was even some tension between them at first. I think Snake still has this punk “color” when he sings, he has this attitude on stage and you can see it’s a part of him, you know?
Subterráneo Webzine: Yeah, and Away is always wearing punk band t-shirts…
Chewy: Yeah, all the time. And sometimes just a simple straight beat over a complex riff sounds perfect! That’s why it sounds like VOIVOD. When the four of us are creating, you know, with Rocky and me with our influences from the band… It’s been ten years since I began playing with the band. I kind of learned the vocabulary being already a fan of the band since a long time ago, and same for Rocky. Now as soon as we come with new ideas and riffs I don’t question myself anymore. “Does it sound like VOIVOD?”. It’s gonna sound like VOIVOD. If the idea survives and Snake and Away put what it needs, it’s gonna sound like a VOIVOD riff or a VOIVOD song for sure. There wasn’t much music put aside, pretty much every riff survived for the album.
Subterráneo Webzine: I was going to ask about something you’ve already talked about. Back when Target Earth was released there was a very positive reaction from the audience, and I think part of the reason was your work for the album. Maybe people weren’t expecting it to sound like the old days, sound like VOIVOD as you said. But I think in the new album you’ve shown more of your own personality. Do you agree?
Chewy: Thank you, and yes, totally! With Target Earth we were two main songwriters and sometimes I had only bass, like a bass track, you know? The bass tracks I received were quite simple but I had to invent the landscape over a few notes. Sometimes the bass is just a few notes and only one note at a time, it’s very melodic… It’s good! But then you have to create a landscape out of this. So I was kind of “imprisoned” so to speak. Sometimes a prison is the best way to challenge yourself to make the best you can. Inside the limitations you find your best. I also wrote a few songs from scratch, like “Mechanical mind” and… I don’t really remember the titles (laughs) but a few songs I wrote from a starting riffs or a main part. Those songs were easier for me.
For the new album we started from scratch. We talked a lot and exchanged files, we improvised together… The communication in the band was so easy. Once an idea is out there it’s not my idea or Away‘s idea or Rocky‘s idea or Snake‘s… it’s just the idea. It’s its own entity! It exists and it asks us to respect it and to feed it with the right food, with the right tools, sculpting it until it’s done, until the sculpting is over and the piece of art is created and we don’t touch it anymore. It’s the way I see it.
Subterráneo Webzine: How did you find Rocky and how is it been working with him?
Chewy: Oh, Rocky is an old friend! We met when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. We come from the same city and we have the same musician friends. We played together in a few bands back in the day. I knew he was a big VOIVOD fan, but he was working more in the pop or blues rock scene in Montreal. But he’s a great bass player, he’s super solid, very virtuosic, he can pay pretty much anything. And a very cretive person. A very strong, creative, solid musician. And we speak the same language: he knows what a G or an A# or a major seventh or an augmented chord is, you know? It’s really easy for us to communicate musicwise. He’s also a super cool guy to be on tour with. I knew he was the best candidate. I went to him and asked him if he was available and he was like “of course!”. He was very surprised and overwhelmed.
Subterráneo Webzine: How come Snake’s voice never get old?
Chewy: (Laughs) That’s a good question!
Subterráneo Webzine: I mean he sounds the same as thirty years ago…
Chewy: Yeah, I agree! He worked a lot on this album. He wrote all the lyrics and all the melodies. Sometimes the melodies had a little note here and there to be modified to go with the harmony of the song, and I was kind of directing him to hit those important notes and to go with the harmony and stuff like that. The more we advanced with the album during the vocal sessions the more comfortable he would feel and the more confident about his capacity to do that kind of complex stuff. He really managed to deliver the lyrics in a very emotional way I think. Depending on the song or the part, sometimes he screams like a punk guy, sometimes is thrash metal and sometimes is very mellow, very fluid, very… peaceful almost, you know? Melancholia… He has a lot of different emotions depending on the part. I don’t know why his voice is still so young. Maybe it’s because Snake is young at heart. He is a tough guy, you know? He’s had a rough life I think, but he’s still young at heart. I think we can feel it in his voice.
Subterráneo Webzine: One of the most remarkable aspects of the band has always been Away’s artwork. How do you think his style has evolved through the years? Do you have a favourite VOIVOD album cover?
Chewy: Yeah, I really like the new one! The colours and those four characters looking at that kind of vortex… It’s really, really cool.
My favourite I think would be Killing technology. When I see it I always think of “Forgotten in space” and “Killing technology” at the same time, with this cyborg character in the spaceship… There are lots of details. When you zoom in the drawin it’s incredible to see how much detail there is…
I think Away is always renewing his art. He was one of the first people doing computer art and stuff like that in the eighties, when not many people could do that with computers, and he was able to do something interesting with it. He’s always evolving and getting better and better.
Subterráneo Webzine: VOIVOD has re-released some of the classic albums, remastering them and including some additional content. That was great news, because some of the older VOIVOD albums had got pretty hard to find and sometimes quite expensive. Will we see reissues of later albums like from the nineties onward?
Chewy: Yes, it’s been in the process for many, many years, but what I’ve heard is that it’s very complicated with the labels, because they were not the same back then, the rights of the albums were then sold to another label… And VOIVOD is not the priority for the labels, so they don’t know when they’re gonna spend time and effort into it, so it’s a long process. Hopefully it will see the light of day. We are really happy about those three albums, it’s great to have remastered versions with live footage. But yeah, hopefully in a few years we will see reissues of Nothingface and Angel rat and The outer limits… That would be great, for sure.
Subterráneo Webzine: By the way, how did you feel about Angel rat or The outer limits when they came out?
Chewy: Well… Angel rat was probably the album I listened to the least… When it came out I was waiting for Nothingface part 2, you know. It was much more mellow than the other albums and I was disappointed at first. But there’s some genius in there! There are lots of chords and melodies and lots of research. It’s proggy, it’s psychodelic… I like all the albums, though I listen to some of them more than others. Maybe the ones I listen to the least are Rrröööaaarrr and Angel rat.
Subterráneo Webzine: I’d say the one I like the least is the first one…
Chewy: But the first one sounds better than Rrröööaaarrr. Production wise, I mean. And you know, it’s cool to see a young band in their twenties in the north of Quebec, the only band that sounded like that in Canada in the early eighties, evolving so greatly… If you take a kid and make him listen to Angel rat and then Rrröööaaarrr and you say it’s the same band, they’re never gonna believe you. That’s what’s great about VOIVOD, you never know what to expect. That’s what I wanted with the new album as well. I wanted to achieve that kind of expectation, that excitement.
I really liked The outer limits. “The lost machine”, “Jack Luminous”, “Fix my heart”, songs like those… The guitar sound is so good in that album, the drum sound is crystal clear, Snake‘s singing is great… It’s different, it’s a great prog album.
Subterráneo Webzine: In fact I think there’s some Angel rat and some The outer limits in The wake. It has those melodies, those textures, and there’s also what you said before, it sounds much simpler than it is…
Chewy: Yes! I think there are some colours from that era mixed with newer stuff that Rocky and I brought to the band, and of course there are still those metal and punk roots as well. The songs in The wake are not unidimensional, there can be a section that is very melodic and then the next section is like “where are we going?”. So after one listen of the whole album maybe you remember a part but don’t remember what song it is from (laughs). That’s part of the journey.
Subterráneo Webzine: I remember that happened to me the first time I saw you live. You can’t even remember what songs you have heard because you’re like in another world, disoriented, and I think that’s a big part of the experience.
Chewy: Yeah, totally… I really like that word, “disoriented”, as you said. That’s how I felt when I was a kid and I first listened to “Ravenous medicine” or “Psychic vacuum”. “What the hell is going on? It’s not metal!”. The guitar player plays in the upper register of the guitar, and those chords…
Subterráneo Webzine: Yeah, and it sounds like it’s out of tune…
Chewy: Yeah, like it’s out of tune… And the singer doesn’t sound like Chuck Billy or Hetfield or Mustaine… It’s totally something else. And that’s what disoriented me, destabilized me, and that’s what I like when I listen to music. That’s why I like FRANK ZAPPA or CARDIACS or VIRUS from Norway or TENEBRIS from Poland…
Subterráneo Webzine: Music that challenges you.
Chewy: Yeah! It brings me somewhere else, something I’ve never experienced before. I really expect that in music.
Chewy: It’s really hard, because there are so many songs that we’d like to play from Nothingface, from The outer limits, from all the albums really… We try to change the setlist. When we came to Europe the last times we had three different setlist and changed them every day, doing a rotation. On this one we try to come up with a different setlist than the last time, change some songs, keep one or two classics, and of corse there’s the new album and the new songs, and we like to play new songs as well. I think so far people are happy to hear different songs than the last time, and we always think about that, you know? Not to play the same show over and over again. And there are lots of songs to choose from…
Subterráneo Webzine: Is there any song that you haven’t played live yet but you really want to?
Chewy: Ah… I would love to play “Pre-Ignition” out of Nothingface… Anything out of Nothingface that we haven’t played yet I would love to. Some songs from Phobos, but it was a different singer so it would be difficult… We played the whole Dimension Hatröss twice, which is cool. “Jack Luminous” was a dream of mine and we played it in the European tour once… Maybe some song from Killing technology that we haven’t played yet like “This is not an exercise” or something like that.
Subterráneo Webzine: VOIVOD has a thirty-five year legacy. In this time, in musical terms the band has always been doing what the band wanted, always taking the music in unexpected directions and never making the same album twice. Yet, after so many years, you’re a bunch of guys who play metal and talk about science fiction, which are things that some could say are “weird”, something that could be called “childish” or “immature” within our society. How do you feel about this? What does maturity mean to you?
Chewy: Well, I hope it’s weird (laughs). Maturity is, artistically, to reach a level where you always feel challenged but you’re not “overdoing” anything and you respect your limitationn and keep that curiosity going that feeds your inner creative spirit. Where you always want to renew, challenge yourself and accomplish yourself as an artist, but respecting who you are and where you want to go in the most authentical way possible, the most humble possible, the most true to yourself. I think after many, many years (because I haven’t been in the band all this years but I’ve been playing music for twenty-five years) that it is a never ending journey, that you can improve your art until you die. You become more and more mature, you take creative decisions that are better because you are more experienced, you know more about yourself, you know more about how to deliver everything. But… I think I forgot the question (laughs).
Subterráneo Webzine: It’s OK, I like what you’re saying.
Chewy: Oh, yeah, about the sci-fi… Would you call Blade runner immature?
Subterráneo Webzine: Oh well, I’m a big sci-fi fan myself (laughs).
Chewy: I know, I know! I’m not talking about you. But you know… Before using that word, other people who think about what we do, they should dig into it to see what is behind the surface. Sci-fi is a way to analyze and to criticize society as it is today, but not directly. You have a perspective with science fiction that you don’t have with reality, because it is fiction, so you look at it from a distance. You analyze it and you understand things and then you bring it to your reality and say “that’s nonsense!” That’s when sci-fi works the best.
Subterráneo Webzine: Yeah, that kind of social commentary has always been in Snake’s lyrics.
Chewy: Yes! Always. And you know, 1984, Brave new world, 2001: A space odyssey… all that kind of stuff is super avant-gardist, like a glimpse into the future in advance. I think it’s a good way to take a distance from our own world and then realize some stuff. Opening spirits, opening minds, is part of the artistic goal I think. Not really force people’s minds with a hammer (laughs) but it’s there. Please feed yourselves with this food for thoughts. Or not… it depends on your own perception.
Subterráneo Webzine: Sadly we’re running out of time so we’re gonna have to leave it here. It’s been a pleasure. Is there anything you want to say to our readers?
Chewy: Yeah! Keep on supporting the metal scene. Please open your ears and your minds, be curious. Go to the shows, buy some merch, encourage the bands. If you like a band, buy a shirt. It will make the band last longer. Scream loud when you go to shows and keep your phone in your pocket if you’re in the front row (laughs). I hope to see everybody soon all over Europe and come back again as soon as possible.