Voivod Guitarist Daniel Mongrain on Replacing the Late ‘Piggy’
At the start of last summer's sci-fi extravaganza, Prometheus, an extremely buff alien called an "Engineer" kills himself by guzzling some tar-black ghoulash. His decomposing body plops into a river and kicks off life on Planet Earth in the process. Clearly, the stuff had a kick. Similarly, metal's High Evolutionaries Voivod have arrived once more to advance metal-as-art. And they have found their catalyst in guitarist Daniel Mongrain.
"My first Voivod experience was seeing the "Ravenous Medicine" video-clip (from 87's Killing Technology) when I was like 11 or 12!" the 36-year-old Montreal native tells Noisecreep. "I had heard about Voivod before but that was the first time I had ever heard the music or seen the guys and it was this crazy psychedelic experience – not just another metal video. I was in shock and speechless. I didn't know what was going on.
"I didn't even know how to play guitar at that the time," he marvels. "But they were the band that convinced me to buy a guitar, learn to play and start a band! I still can't believe I play with those guys now. It's unreal, surreal. It's not explainable."
Cut to Anno 2013. Voivod's Dan Mongrain now sounds like shell-shocked veteran of several psychic wars. He's spent the past five years as the spark that the three-decade-running progressive-thrash-genre-destroyers (rounded out by drummer Michel "Away" Langevin, vocalist Denis "Snake" Belanger and recently rejoined bassist Jean-Yves "Blacky" Theriault) have so sorely needed since the losing founding guitarist Denis D'Amour – aka Piggy – to cancer in 2005. The proof: Target Earth, the first album of all-new Voivod material penned since Piggy's passing. Don't call it a comeback: call it a full-on Gasmask Revival!
So how did a lifelong fan, end up as a full-fledged member of Voivod?
"I was writing an album with my other (sadly, now defunct) band Martyr," recalls Daniel, "and we recorded the Voivod song 'Brain Scan.' Around the same time, Piggy got sick and passed away. We decided to do that song live as a tribute to Piggy. In fact, we played with [former bassist] Blacky at another festival and we did a medley of Voivod songs. Snake and Away were in the crowd as well as some of Piggy's family. After that, I wrote an email to Away saying if he ever needed me to perform a song for them for a special event I would be honored to do so. A couple of months later, he called me back and asked me to play a show with Voivod. He told me Blacky was coming back as well so I immediately agreed to do it. How could I refuse?"
Watch Target Earth EPK
Target Earth is Voivod album of skronk-tastic, world-gobbling proportions. It is, in fact, the Quebecois' finest since 1990's classic Nothingface. So forget those records Langevin and D'Amour made as a trio with bassist/frontman Eric "E-Force" Forrest. File away the Jason "Jasonic" Newsted era LP's. For that matter, close the laptop on the last couple records Frankenstein-ed from material on Piggy's old hard-drives. Tracks like "Mechanical Mind" or "Kluskap O' Korn" sound like they could have been snatched from Voivod's late '80s Noise Records era of metal mind-fuckery. Voivod are back to the very sound the likes of Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt, Dave Grohl and all of Mastodon have been bowing down to for years now.
So what have been those missing ingredients? The random bits of DNA missing from the gene strand behind Voivod classics like 1988's Dimension Hatross? Ask Mongrain, and like any true Voivod fan, they'll look you dead in the eye and tell you: bassist Blacky's notorious "Blower Bass" sound. Target Earth marks the recorded return of Voivod's founding bass-man. From the album's title-track opener, it's pretty apparent.
"It's really his hands," the guitarist points out. 'It's not his bass. It's not his amp. It's not his pedals. It's the way he plays. I can assure you that the secret of the "Blower Bass" is Blacky himself. He could play with a Fender Jazz bass through a mini amplifier and it would still sound the same! He plays really hard on the strings. It's in the way he grooves. It reminds me of Chris Squire, the bass player from Yes with the sound and attack of Lemmy. The other bass players like Eric and Jason were following the riffs. Blacky plays bass like a second guitar!"
Part of what makes the Voivod-produced/Sanford Parker (Nachtmystium) mixed Target Earth such a vaunted return to form is the guitarist's understanding of just what makes Voivod's atomic clock tick. Listening to the way riffs and solos skitter around on tracks like "Resistance," you can't help but wonder if there's a special sort of tuning or a chord, perhaps that is key to the oft-imitated, never-duplicated "Voivod Sound."
"There are certain chords – Amended 4th, Diminished 5th." Daniel says slyly. "That color comes from King Crimson, I think. Piggy was a big progressive music fan. These chords are the most dissonant you can get and in Voivod, Piggy would throw them everywhere. It has that crazy, chaotic, end-of-the-world, post-nuclear vibe that's really associated with Voivod now."
Listen to 'Mechanical Mind'
Mongrain (who has since earned his Voivod nickname: "Chewy") admits it has taken four years of cementing himself into the Voivod mainframe. "Voivod is a unique band in every way," he admits. "Not only in their music but also in their music and philosophes." Even for a die-hard fan, the prospect of writing the band's first songs penned entirely without Piggy was daunting to put it mildly.
"I started off thinking 'What would Piggy do with this part?' or 'What would Piggy write?' and I ultimately let go of that and let the essence of Voivod take over," says Daniel. "At the beginning I was pretty stressed but after a while, it came very naturally for me. Voivod's been my favorite band since I was 11 years old. I've listened to them more than any other band in my life! I realized I don't want to copy Piggy. Piggy's unique. He's a unique musician. A unique human being. Piggy was a genius. I cannot be Piggy, I can only be the Voivod fan I am doing my best to write Voivod music I that can. This is what Voivod sounds like from my perspective of what I think a new Voivod album could and should sound like."
Part of the fun of talking to a life-long Voivod fan, who now sits at the controls like on of those Langevin-drawn alien critters on the cover of Killing Technology, is getting Mongrain's perspective on the different line-ups and eras of the band before he joined up.
When asked about the Eric Forrest fronted three-piece Voivod of the mid and late '90s : "I love that era," says Dan. "I just loved the voice of Eric Forrest. His aggressive vocals and the whole, psychedelic approach to the music. I saw them live many times as a trio and it was a really good show." As far as former bass-man and Metallican Jason Newsted's contribution: "The music was more straightforward and more rock n roll. Jason helped a lot to keep Voivod alive all those years, which were very tough for the band."
The guitarist admits that the band's last two albums: Katorz (2006) and Infini (2009) are: "The two albums I listen to the least. I prefer the more intricate side of Voivod like Dimension Hatross and Killing Technology." The two albums, which were, built around guitar riffs and song ideas saved to the departed axeman's hard drive, are admittedly a challenging affair. "It's pretty hard for me to listen to those records," D'Amour's successor says respectfully. "I get very emotional, even though I didn't know Piggy a lot. You can hear it when you're listening to those records that he knew what was coming when he wrote those last songs. He knew it was going to be the final songs from his heritage."
For Daniel Mongrain, life in Voivod 2013 is no longer about living in the specter of his predecessor's digital ghost. "After a few years, I can say that that the vibe is good, we're having fun and the fans have accepted me – not as a replacement for Piggy – but as a another person who has been part of Voivod's long, strange journey. It's an honor to be part of the Voivod family. It still blows my mind."
Target Earth will hit stores on Jan. 22 via Century Media and can be pre-ordered here.