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Exclusive! Voivod Carries On: Interviews With 'Snake' Belanger & 'Jasonic' Newsted
By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Monday, March 10, 2003 @ 0:11 AM
Two years ago, the band was dead. A combination of bassist/frontman Eric Forrest’s long injury rehabilitation, legal entanglements and dwindling interest prompted founders Michel [Away] Langevin and Denis [Piggy] D’Amour to pull the plug on Voivod after a nearly 20-year run. It was the sad climax of a string of bad luck and disappointment that dogged the band since it teetered on the brink of a mainstream breakthrough with 1989’s big-label debut Nothingface – when Voivod had a minor hit with Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine” and headlined a tour with Soundgarden and Faith No More as openers! The subsequent departure of bassist Jean-Yves [Blacky] Theriault began the decade-long slide. Then grunge came along and pushed what metal it didn’t kill to the fringes. For a band that already was an acquired taste, any chance Voivod had at maintaining its tenuous grip on the mainstream was gone. After two more major-label releases, Angel Rat and The Outer Limits, only saw the band lose ground, disillusioned frontman Denis “Snake” Belanger left. The band struggled along for several years with Forrest at the helm before a tour van crash put him on the disabled list and effectively sealed Voivod’s fate. Or so it seemed. In 2001, Away and Piggy reconnected with the prodigal Snake, who’d gotten himself together again in the backwoods of Quebec and rediscovered his love of music in a stint with a bar band. Snake rejoined the fold and Voivod was born again. After playing some shows in Canada, the trio began working on new material. The question of what to do about a bass player essentially answered itself in the form of old friend Jason Newsted, who’d recently split with Metallica. Having already worked with Piggy and Away in the past, on a fledgling side project dubbed TARRAT, he offered to lend a hand as musician, producer and, as it turned out, label head. He ended up effectively joining the band. Since then it’s been all-ahead full for Voivod. The combination of Snake rejoining and Newsted’s involvement has generated more interest in the band than it’s had in years, which bodes well for the self-titled comeback album, due March 4 on Newsted’s Chophouse Records. And the buzz is certainly warranted. Voivod is an instant classic that deftly melds the strong melodic sense and direct songwriting of the Nothingface-era work with Killing Technology-vintage raw intensity and progressive eccentricity. Voivod will be hitting the road – tentatively with Sepultura – in April and it was just chosen to play the second stage on this summer’s Ozzfest [Newsted may also be playing bass with Ozzy Osbourne’s band during the tour], as well as open for Ozzy on a small Canadian tour just beforehand. For a band that couldn’t buy a break a decade ago, things seem to all be going its way these days. In separate phone interviews from Montreal and San Francisco, “Snake” Belanger and “Jasonic” Newsted offered the following on Voivod’s remarkable turn of events.
* * *
SNAKE: Incredibly cold. In Celsius, we’ve had minus 40, which is exactly minus 40 in Farenheit. We had a few of those days. And between those it’s like minus 25. Really, really cold, compared to the last couple years, when we were talking about global warming. You have four or five years of like no winter, if feels like it’s like spring all the time. KNAC.COM: And now we’re paying for it.
SNAKE: Exactly. It’s combined all in a short amount of time. All the cold will be sent up here. (laughs) KNAC.COM: Have you been up there all winter, or did you split time in San Francisco with Jason?
SNAKE: Since October we’ve been a couple of weeks here and a couple of weeks there. We’re pretty busy. KNAC.COM: Are you enjoying the work again?
SNAKE: Definitely. It’s fun, it’s great. What can I say. It’s funny. There’s a vibe, there’s demand for it. You can feel it. There’s a fucking need for metal, good metal. It’s unbelievable what’s happening now because we have a wonderful team. The line up now, it was meant to be, somehow. We’ve known Jason for quite a long time, before he was even in Metallica. It was always there in the picture, always there somehow, somewhere down the line. And now it’s happening. It’s now. KNAC.COM: Especially with you having been away for all these years?
SNAKE: Yeah, like I said on the record in one line, “A cosmic coincidence.” That’s exactly what’s happening right now. We’re flying, totally. And everything that was so hard back then, so hard to endure or picture in your mind, so hard to figure it out, it’s so easy right now, it just comes naturally.
I think we’ve matured a lot. On my side and Away and Piggy and Jason, we all matured in different ways, but at this point right now we have to be on the same page because of this project. We have to really deliver what we kept inside of us for a long, long time and how we’re about to say “Hey, this project is meant to be, now is now.” Hopefully we’re gonna carry on with it for a long time. KNAC.COM: So this is a revival, not a last hurrah?
SNAKE: I think we’re going for a journey. I hope. Soon we will hit the road, soon you will hear the record and I’m sure you’re going to discover something with the full record. The stuff is so interesting. It’s really happening. KNAC.COM: How has it been working with Jason?
SNAKE: I think we deserve him and he deserves us. That’s how I figure it. We deserve a good bass player, a good musician, someone who’s got it together. And he deserves good buddies and respectful musicians.
He joined in first as a producer and an invited musician for our next record, but it turned out to be he joined the band and it changed the picture totally. We kind of let ourselves go through a journey with Jason at his house and at his studio and after we did the preproduction we went home for a couple of weeks, resetting, trying to be prepared for the real shit, so we went back doing the basic tracks then they flew me over there to sing the songs and it was great. (laughs)
We worked with Brian Dobbs, and he did a fantastic job on the board. And Jason, he was involved on every side of everything. But he did it perfectly. He did it like a king. We had such a good time and we had such a good team, the people that work for him, his entourage is really happening, they all have a smile on their face, they know we have something in our hands now and they know what’s going on. It’s really good vibes around us. I couldn’t picture a better scenario. KNAC.COM: Plus, as “the Metallica’s former bassist” he brings attention to the band that you might not have had otherwise.
SNAKE: Yeah, he has a successful story behind him, that’s for sure. But that doesn’t change him, he’s the same dude, he’s never changed and I like him a lot. I miss him and we’re gonna be there soon for practicing together to build up a good show and hit the road soon.
We have so much fun when we rehearse and jam together. One night, we went to a barbecue at one of his friends up the hill where he lives and we had a drum session and this and that, four or five people just goofing around hitting things. It was great. You don’t know what to expect with Jason. He’s great, that’s all I can say. He’s exciting and he’s excited, you know. He just like, “Yeah, wooarrgghh!” He’s like road rage. Always something is going to happen with Jason around, that’s for sure. KNAC.COM: Why did you leave Voivod in the first place?
SNAKE: There were many reasons. One side of it was, back then, metal was in poor shape overall. The scene for metal was really bad. I had also some personal problems; I had some addictions so I had to clean up. I was kinda tired of being involved in this circus and everything was disappointing me so much.
I enjoy every side of music. Grunge was blowing up and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t enjoy the disrespect of metal during those years. It was like “Ok, I’ve been made if for how many years for now and people are gonna spit on us right now.” It was a pointless situation.
The lineup back then, too, was trying to get a good replacement for Blacky, which was quite difficult. He had a big place in the band and he was a big character, it was a big hole to fill there. But on the other hand we had to move on. Finally, we took the one good guy who was like “fuck yeah, this is the guy,” then it turned out he had problems with U.S. customs and couldn’t tour there. So it turned out to be really fucked up with the lineup.
And my personal problems were getting worse and worse and worse. When it rains it pours and it got to the point where it was like “Ok, I just want to get out of here. I need to go somewhere where I can get forgotten for a while.” I didn’t want to create a problem for the band. They knew there was something fucked up with me and I respect them because they didn’t say any bullshit about it and I didn’t say any bullshit about them. It was like “We achieved a lot of things together, but right now we gotta split.” KNAC.COM: Did you do anything musically during your time away?
SNAKE: I took a year off from every fucking musical note. And it came back to me (laughs). I bought a guitar, I had never played guitar, but I said “Ok, I’m lost in the woods, I’m gonna buy myself a guitar and try to do something just for fun.” And then it came out to be “Ok, I’m back in Montreal with this guy and this guy and this guy, I’m gonna do this band called Union Made and we’re gonna rock!”
It was more of a party band, to keep me in shape. Not something really serious, we were serious doing it, but it was more of a bar kinda thing. We’d do these tours without any financial support and nowhere to stay after the shows. But it was fun, like the old days, when we used to tour and we didn’t know where we were gonna sleep that night. It was great. It lasted for about a year, but it was an intense year.
That kept me in shape and then the door opened for me to get back in Voivod and I said why not. I cannot say no. If Voivod wants you (laughs) it’s like Uncle Sam right now. KNAC.COM: Did Eric’s injuries and his long recuperation have anything to do with the other guys asking you back?
SNAKE: Not really. I think Eric had other problems than the accident. I don’t want to say anything about it, but you’ve gotta put this thing together. It’s like me, I couldn’t put it together, I didn’t ask the band to wait for a fucking year for me to get my shit together. I just split. I said “Guys, I can’t fucking figure out what’s going on with me anymore, that’s it. I split.”
We’re not rich motherfucking rock stars, we can’t sit here for six, seven, eight, 10, 12 months for me to come back and say “Ok, I’m fine now.” I’m not gonna ask them that. They hoped he could get over whatever was his problem, but he couldn’t make it and they had to make a decision somehow. And the phone rang one night, we talked about it and that was it. KNAC.COM: Did you have any trepidation about going back?
SNAKE: Not really. We’ve always been in a good relationship. At first when I split it was a big divorce for a while, I was kinda frustrated for a while, I had my problems, they had theirs and whatever. But it came naturally back together. When we joined back together everything was back like nothing had happened, even if there was like eight years of difference. They are still the same dudes, it’s still the same music and my place was open. KNAC.COM: Does this album feel like you’re picking things up where you left off in 1993 with The Outer Limits?
SNAKE: Sort of. That was a real sci-fi album. The way I take it, it [the new album] is more personal than a sci-fi thing. The world right now is pretty much sci-fi and my personal life is pretty much psycho (laughs) so it’s a combination of old world and new. I feel like it’s personal, but it’s also the way everybody feels in the band. Sometimes Piggy tells me he can relate himself in the lyrics and Jason and Michel say the same thing. KNAC.COM: How autobiographical is “We Carry On,” or is that just one of those coincidental titles?
SNAKE: It is biographical, but it’s both. I was in a band, when I joined in I was 18, when I split I was 30 something. Then I went to being a normal worker guy from 1994 to 2001, then I joined back in. And being in and out of Voivod you can see what it is the difference in lifestyles, what is the difference in relations with society.
I really think that being in a band, there is that time-warp thing. When we’re getting ready to go on tour, I will forget the time, I will forget the month, I will forget the payments, I will forget everything because I’m on tour. It is that thing that happens that is so motivating that everything else is gone. It becomes a part of yourself, this is your work, this is your place, this is where you’re supposed to be.
I know now from having been in and out, when you don’t have that place that you’re supposed to be, you have no place. You’re you and this is the world and nobody’s behind you now. I’m sure Jason knows what I’m talking about now. We’re all different stories in different times, but we all know where we’re talking about here. I wanted to get my personal thing, but also the feeling from the other fellas here. And we carry on. It’s like yeah, my heart, my soul, my blood, my bones, it’s part of me. KNAC.COM: Living in D.C., we seem to be just waiting for a chemical, biological or nuclear terrorist attack. Everyone’s buying duct tape and plastic wrap to seal themselves in their homes, so “Gasmask Revival” hits home.
SNAKE: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s crazy. What’s gonna happen, can you tell me what’s gonna happen? You’re in Washington. C’mon. You have must have forces we don’t have here? KNAC.COM: I wish.
SNAKE: Tomorrow’s the 14th, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre? I don’t follow everything. But it’s scary enough. They just caught a guy here in Montreal. They arrested him for a ticket or something and they looked in his van and he had all the papers for being a pilot and fraudulent documents for welfare and employment sign up sheet for being part of Montreal Dorval Airport. They think this was something that was planned for tomorrow. He had some explosive devices in his house, you know. Crazy shit. KNAC.COM: Now that you’re gonna be on tour, does the traveling make you nervous?
SNAKE: No more so than being here. Canada is the point of entry of all the fucking terrorists in America. The law is not strong enough here to make sure that these people can’t move through. And even then, they’re gonna pass somewhere else. They’re gonna make their way through. But right now I think the policies of the Canadian government for immigration or anything, it’s too much wide open and too welcoming.
We’re not so many people, we’re 25 million so we need people to work. We need immigration. The province of Quebec is one of the worst at reproducing people; we don’t make babies here (laughs). There is a social problem. It’s too hard to live -- we’re overtaxed. It’s insane, you can’t afford to live -- politics are all fucked up. We got bad problems here, bad problems there. It’ll be nice to get away for a while. KNAC.COM: Are you ready to tour again?
SNAKE: I’m trying to get all together (laughs) and get in shape for the tour and concentrate on what’s gonna happen. I’m doing interviews right now, so I know the band is coming and I can feel it. Comments I heard was that people dig it. This record was cool doing it and I think we will achieve something somehow with that. I have this feeling.
Later, Jason “Jasonic” Newsted, had this to add:
* * *
JASONIC: Yeah, isn’t it cool? And that’s Jasonic, by the way (laughs), everyone’s got have the moniker. I gotta tell you, I like it. “What band are you in?” “Voivod, yeaaaahhh!” It’s cool. KNAC.COM: I just talked to Snake and he sounded really excited about it. It was nice to hear such enthusiasm and optimism.
JASONIC: Yeah, there’s a lot of excitement. He’s definitely back in action, dude, I think he’s really happy about what’s happened. Everything for a reason. KNAC.COM: It certainly doesn’t feel like one of those situations where he’s been pushed back into it.
JASONIC: Not at all, or me either. Or any of us at all. We don’t have to do it, we really want to do it. We really, really wanna do it. KNAC.COM: I know you have a fairly long-standing relationship with Voivod. How did it all get started?
JASONIC: We’ve been friends, or at least acquaintances, for a long time. The first exposure of Voivod to the world was on a Metal Blade Metal Massacre compilation, the earliest exposure of Flotsam & Jetsam was on a Metal Massacre, the earliest exposure of Metallica was the same. That’s where we all started.
We [Flotsam] stayed on Metal Blade and so did they [Voivod], so we had that where we were competing, kind of. Flotsam looked up to Voivod quite a bit. We were quite envious of them, it seemed like they had it together. They were focused and had this concept, they looked like a gang and it was pretty obvious that they fucking meant it.
A lot of what they did they did out of necessity, being up in the cold and way off the beaten path. It wasn’t like they were some California guys who were all casual and shit, it was like ‘we’re doing this because this is what we have.’ And that honesty was what always came across, that was very appealing to me.
As we went through time I kept track of them. Always went to the store to buy their new records when they came out. I was definitely a fan, because they were so different, they were original. They always stuck to their guns, they were always just a little bit weird. It wasn’t pretty.
I think on the Nothingface tour, they came through San Francisco. I had been in Metallica for a couple years and I invited them out to my house and we played football and had a barbecue and we jammed. And we kept in contact. Then in ’96, Piggy and Away made a visit out to the Chophouse and we started this project called Tarrat and we tried to keep that alive.
KNAC.COM: How did you get matched up with them this time around?
JASONIC: We always had talked about getting Snake back and making a record. I had talked about investing, that I would produce it and play bass and we’d just make that album. We knew we loved playing together and we were pretty good about making songs up, so let’s do it serious and see what people think. We didn’t know if we’d call it Voivod or what we’d do with it.
It just so happened last year in Montreal they did a heavy metal 20th anniversary celebration and Voivod was the guest of honor and Snake and Piggy and Away played with a hired bassist. And at that point Snake wanted to get back in the band, he was really feeling it and so they decided they were gonna do it and soon after that Michel and I started talking seriously.
We started scheduling studio time and getting airplane flights and all that sort of shit. We started trading tapes in July of last year. They sent me like six songs, some rough guitar tracks that Michel put drum tracks over in one take and Snake singing in Piggy’s bathroom. I was listening to it on my porch where I usually go to play guitar and I was like “Holy shit, fuck, they’re back.” I was so excited of the potential. And they just developed from there as we kept trading back and forth. We eventually honed like 20 songs down to 13 and there you go. 45 days later you’ve got a fucking album.
KNAC.COM: Now that it’s done, what is your impression of the album?
JASONIC: It takes a little time to sink in, just like a lot of Voivod stuff, but it is quite a bit more direct than the other albums, it’s not so psychedelic.
KNAC.COM: It is good to hear Snake back with the band. His character alone adds so much.
JASONIC: He is a frontman. There’s a million singers out there, but very few frontmen. A frontman is a person that presents his band to you. “Here’s my boys, check this shit out and here I am leading them.” I haven’t had a chance to play live with them yet, but when we did the video, it was my first chance to see him start to come out of his shell.
Drama is his thing. That’s his shit and that’s how he got his name -- I’ve been learning this shit over the last couple months. He was in a class and people were pulling what they were supposed to be playing out of a hat –- old lady or man walking across the street, or something like that. He pulled out “the snake” and he’s slithering across the stage with his tongue flickering out, and from then on it stuck, since he was like 17 years old.
KNAC.COM: It’s amazing Voivod’s even getting this chance at a rebirth with everything the band’s been though.
JASONIC: The most credit is due to Piggy and Away. They have kept this thing alive. Piggy and Away have been playing together since 1979, actually, so that’s some shit. And for Snake to go through what he went through and to come back and be as happy and cheerful as he is on a daily basis with us, it’s a beautiful thing.
Michel has argued with me more than once about this being the best lineup that Voivod’s ever had. And I can’t quite accept that. I tell him, “The original lineup is the lineup, come on. You guys were inventing this shit.” And we’ll go back and forth, and he’ll go “No Jason, you are wrong. I was there, I know.” And it’s like, “wow.”
He talks about the positivity and the forward motion and the focus and the team feeling. I don’t know. I have a hard time with that still, but that kind of sentiment that’s brought across from them makes it hard to argue.
KNAC.COM: You guys really went all out on the “We Carry On” video, hopefully it’ll get some airplay.
JASONIC: It won’t be for lack of quality, I can tell you that much. Because it’s fucking bad ass. I’m telling you, the guys that did this are some bad motherfuckers. They’re the guys that worked on Attack of The Clones and Phantom Menace and Terminator 3 and Harry Potter. All that shit.
KNAC.COM: Is there any kind of concept to it, or is it just the Industrial Light & Magic guys going nuts with special effects?
JASONIC: It’s these four guys dressed in black and they’re kicking your ass, basically. It’s very dark, but it’s very spastic and they twirl their all the graphic stuff all over it. Our mascot this time is a spider, and you get to watch the band through the spider’s eyes, kinda like The Terminator.
KNAC.COM: How were you able to get the ILM guys to do it?
JASONIC: These guys came to us. “We are longtime Voivod fans, would you allow us make you a video?” It was a huge blessing. We said, “We don’t have the money to afford something like that from your caliber of people.” And they said, “We’re calling in all the favors, we’ll make it happen, how much money you got?” I told them and they said, “Fuck it, okay we’ll do it.”
It’s really been tight, but they understand where we are. Everything we’re doing is on our own. The money that I earned in Metallica, I saved it, I invested it, now it enables me to do what I want, it allows me to do things like this with Voivod.
Every fucking penny that goes into everything that’s happening right now from the videos to photos to the album to this phone call, everything is coming from me right now because I wanna make sure it happens. I pay my own money to make sure good music gets to people who give a shit.
KNAC.COM: Not many people have given a shit about Voivod for quite a while.
JASONIC: Yeah, they’ve been fighting an uphill battle for a long time. Their music went over people’s heads. Mishandling too, mismanagement. It gets you discouraged, man, it can beat a guy down. It’s amazing all they’ve been through and they still want to be hungry and kick ass and chase it. It shows the determination of the people.
I’m not gonna have any grand expectations about this, we feel successful with making this record, in how short a time we did it on the money that we had. We’re gonna take it out there to the people and whoever shows up shows up, if they want to enjoy the music with, if they want to give a fuck about it and respect it, then that’s cool. Especially for those guys. The purity of the music, they’re not just playing pop music because people want to hear it. It’s going back to the real metal in them.
KNAC.COM: The Voivod album makes, what, five albums you’ve been a part of that were issued in the last year?
JASONIC: It depends on which ones you’re counting. There was the Echobrain album and Echobrain EP, I produced the Speed Dealer album, I had a thing with the Moss Brothers out here, had two Papa Wheelie albums, the IR8/Sexoturica disc. I don’t know how many that is. Since I left Metallica, it’s been about eight.
KNAC.COM: So obviously you didn’t leave Metallica to take it easy?
JASONIC: I had to keep rockin.’ I want to share my music with people that deserves to be shared. A lot of that stuff, like IR8, I’ve been holding onto it since ’94. I was only gonna release like a thousand copies, I couldn’t see why anybody was making such a big fucking deal about things. So that was part of the reason I had to step away, because I had to do these kinds of things. And when I got let loose, here we go.
KNAC.COM: Do you have anything else going on, or is Voivod gonna be it for the foreseeable future?
JASONIC: Voivod is definitely my main focus, every waking moment is spent trying to figure out everything, right now it’s the newest T-shirt design. I’ve got so many designs to choose from, it’s a good problem to have. The guy [Away] is such an incredible artist I can’t figure out which way to go first.
And we have a 22-page booklet inside the album that’s his newest art. I think he’s really outdone himself this time. We’ve got some freaky shit going on, we’re gonna have some of the coolest merchandise of all time.
KNAC.COM: When you play some of the festivals in Europe this summer, will you be crossing paths with Metallica?
JASONIC: I doubt it, not if they have anything to do with it. I try not to be in that world, really. Voivod’s in a different world. If there ever comes a time when we play in that league or we get on a bill with them, so be it. I’m not gonna be concerned with that stuff. I wish them the best, I want them to go kick ass and hopefully be able to lead the next movement of this music.
If they play it right they can be leading like they did 20 years ago, that would be fantastic. It would be great for a lot of other bands, if they could open up the gates again, that would be cool. I hoped that Metallica at least will help the metal thing, but that last decision they made about the tour (the Summer Sanitarium tour with lame asses Limp Bizkit and nu metal boy band Linkin Park), I don’t think that will help metal very much. But whatever happens, happens. They got their own thing and we’ve got our own thing, and that’s really two different planets.
KNAC.COM: You mentioned before feeling odd stepping into Blacky’s shoes. This situation is not unlike what you did when you joined Metallica.
JASONIC: There are a lot of commonalities going on. I’m once again the new guy with three other people who are established within a band, I’ve got a lot of new music to learn, I’m taking the place of someone who is regarded as a cool bassist. There’s a lot of familiar ground there, so it does help me to have been where I’ve been.
KNAC.COM: Now that you’ve had a chance to really work with Voivod and get to know them, what you have you learned about them?
JASONIC: There’s something about each of these three people there are things that are underlying that are so huge, other than their performing abilities. We know about Michel’s artwork, he’s amazing in that way and always wanting to learn more. Piggy could take a Marshall amplifier, take it apart and then blindfold him and he could put it back together. He knows his shit about electronics. He built his first guitar for himself when he was 14 years old. Snake’s poetry and his genius, you talked to him, man, you know where he’s at. He’s got some real depth.
There’s a lot of promise in those people. I’m trying to harness it again, man, the best I can see if we can get out there and mean something.
KNAC.COM: Do you think Voivod will ‘mean something’ again?
JASONIC: We’ve got to do it our way and whatever comes comes. We made a deal with each other, we put in everything that we’ve got and we reap together if it happens. We just have to know that we gave it our best shot. As long as we know that, that’s satisfaction. That’s success. That’s all we can do.
The world is so fucking crazy, and not just the ‘world’ world, the world of our music and the climate of the music business has changed so much since the heyday of Voivod or Metallica. There’s a lot of new challenges and a lot of new discovering to do out there.
I know I learned a lot with Echobrain last year. The last two years I learned more than I probably did in the last 10 years with Metallica, because I was always sheltered with Metallica. In this thing, since I’m handling everything, I know where the money has to go and what decisions have to be made and all the other ugly sides of it.
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